The kingdom of Heaven is still at hand. The Lord still wants to work more fully in your life. We can still help prepare the way and welcome him in by repentance. The Holy Spirit does the work, all he needs is our willingness.
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Matthew #5 . Chapter 3:1-10
I want to remind you that when I preach, I am really trying to do two things. First, I want to make sure we understand the basic background of passage, and the basic meaning of it. Second, I am always “listening” to see what the Holy Spirit might want to say to us through it. Sometimes I focus more on the first thing, and sometimes more on the latter. I guess my point is, I doubt that any single thirty-minute-teaching can capture everything there is to capture about a bible passage. So, I assume that in some ways I am leaving some things out that might be said about any bible passage. Just keep it mind – there’s always more to learn, even from bible passages you know pretty well.
At this point, Matthew skips from the early childhood of Jesus directly to his adulthood. Luke tells us that John the Baptist was the son of Zechariah the priest and his wife Elizabeth. Elizabeth was related to Jesus’ mother, Mary, and in fact, Mary spent some months with her while they were both pregnant. According to Luke, John responded to Jesus, even when they were both unborn babies.
In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. (Luke 1:39-44, ESV2011)
Because their mothers obviously had a close relationship, it is almost certain that John and Jesus knew each other as children. Certainly, by the time they were adults, before John began to preach, John knew Jesus personally (Matt 3:14), and believed he was the Messiah.
John’s father was a priest, descended from Aaron. This meant that John would have been technically eligible to serve as the high priest. Instead, however, he went into the wilderness of Judea and began to preach. It’s hard to pin down exactly where he was. In the Old Testament, “the wilderness of Judea” referred to an area south and east of Jerusalem, in the vicinity of the Dead Sea. However, it records that John baptized people in the Jordan river, which is north of the Dead sea. Most likely, John wandered around for a little bit.
Not much is said here, but John’s ministry was very remarkable in many ways. The journey from Jerusalem to the Jordan river where John preached was extremely rough. To go from Jerusalem to listen to John would have involved a round trip of several days, and it included very hard travel and the danger of bandits along the way. And yet, his preaching was so compelling that many people made the trip to hear him. Jewish historian Josephus records that John began a significant movement that lasted even into the 100’s AD. Obviously, many of his followers missed his message about Jesus as the Messiah, and started their own sect of Judaism. John the Baptist was a very big deal. Matthew’s concern, however, is not with John himself, but his role in preparing people for the Messiah, Jesus.
A voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
Prepare the way for the Lord;
This is the eighth fulfilled prophecy that Matthew refers to. Besides reinforcing his theme of fulfilled prophecy, Matthew shares this to explain that John’s remarkable ministry was all aimed at preparing people to receive the Messiah when he arrived.
How, exactly, did John prepare people to receive Jesus? Matthew says the basic message was: “Repent, because the Kingdom of Heaven has come near” (3:1). That’s a very brief summary, of course. I think the idea was that John preached that God wanted to do something for people personally, that he was drawing near to His people. The appropriate response to the presence of God is realize how we’ve strayed away from him, and turn back to him, away from our sins and wanderings.
The people responded by confessing their sins, and being baptized to show that they were repenting. By the way, the New Testament makes a distinction between the baptism of John, which was for repentance, and baptism into Jesus (see Matthew 3:11; Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:38; Acts 19:4; Romans 6:3).
When the religious leaders came to see John, and to be baptized by him, he had some harsh words for them. As I mentioned earlier, John was enormously influential and popular with ordinary Jewish people. Most likely, the religious leaders came to be baptized by him in order to gain popularity with the “regular folks.” But John saw through that, and castigated them for it.
His response to them made two basic points. First, he told them to “produce fruit consistent with repentance. (verse 8).” In other words, “if you are truly repentant, act like it.” Second, he warned them not rely on their ancestry as Jews to do them any good with God (verse 9).
Let’s stop here for this time, and try and unpack what the Lord might say to us through this text.
First, is the Kingdom of Heaven near? I believe since the coming of the Holy Spirit in about 30 AD, the Kingdom of Heaven has always been near to anyone willing to receive it. If you are reading this and you have never turned your life over to Jesus, he is coming to you right now. He wants to shower you with his own real presence, with grace, joy and a new start on life. The way to receive that is the same way shown in this text: to repent. To repent means to turn back, to go a completely different way. If you can read these words, it is not too late for you to repent. Jesus can handle whatever horrible thing you’ve done, whatever you’ve left undone, and even whatever terrible thing was done to you. But you need to drop it, to turn away from it, and turn to Him.
Many of you reading this blog have already repented and turned to Jesus, and received him as your Lord and your salvation. That’s wonderful. But for us who have done that, Jesus is still at hand. He still wants to show up in our lives in greater and more profound ways. He wants to give us even more grace, more joy, more peace, a more abundant life in Him. To receive these things from him, our path is the same: repent!
Let me give you an example. Suppose there is a Christian man who wants more of Jesus in his marriage. He is not happy with his marriage. He is unhappy with his wife. Jesus wants to come into this part of his life – the kingdom of heaven is near. Now, the Holy Spirit, working in this man, shows him that he often makes cutting remarks to and about his wife. The Holy Spirit is calling him to repent. Repentance is not saying “Yeah, I know that’s wrong. It’s just hard because she never does what I want. Sorry.” It is isn’t even saying “I admit that I do that, and I admit that it’s wrong.” To repent is to fully own the fact that you have been wrong, with no excuses, and then to turn away from it, for all intents, forever.
Now, our turning away forever almost never happens perfectly. In the case of the man with the unhappy marriage, he commits to turning away from cutting down his wife. Suppose normally he makes an average of six cutting remarks each day. When he first repents, he is so sincere that for a week, he makes none. But after a while, he loses some of his focus, and he goes back to making some cutting remarks, but maybe now only three each day. The Holy Spirit reminds him again, and he renews his repentance and consciously relies on the Holy Spirit to help him, and he gets it down to two cutting remarks each day. He realizes he needs help, and so he asks a Christian friend to pray for him about this, and to hold him accountable by asking him about it regularly. Now, the man usually does not make any cutting remarks to or about his wife at all. As time goes on, prompted by the life of Jesus inside him, he begins to actually compliment and encourage his wife. From time to time, he still slips and makes a nasty comment, but it is no longer a habit, and for the most part, he has become kind and encouraging to his wife. Within a year or two, his attitude is transformed, and he and his wife are closer than they have been for years.
I think that is a realistic picture of what the fruit of repentance looks like. Sometimes Jesus transforms us dramatically in a single moment. But a lot of the time, what is actually happening is that we are “working out our salvation” (Philippians 2:12). What I mean is, the Lord uses gradual transformation like this to strengthen our hearts and minds and to make us more like him. When you repent you are on a new path. You may not walk the path perfectly, but you are no longer going the old direction. Your your progress, however slow, however often you might fall down, is in the new direction, toward Jesus.
I want to make something clear however. A lot of people admit their sins, but do not really repent of them. A lot of people feel, in the heat of a moment, that they want to do better next time, and even resolve to do so, but they do not fundamentally commit to going a different way forever. If you are a Christian, and have struggled with the same thing over and over again, and you don’t seem to make any progress, ask the Lord to show you if you have truly repented in that area of your life. If the bible says you need to repent, or if the Holy Spirit shows that you need to repent, then make a decision to turn back from that (action, habit, attitude) forever. Don’t worry about whether you will fail again at times: make the commitment to turn away from it forever, and invite the Holy Spirit to give you the strength to keep that commitment.
John the Baptist had some very harsh words for religious people who did not really want to repent, but only wanted to pretend to do so to look good to other people. Unfortunately, there are still a number of people who take this approach. Let me say with John the Baptist: Give it up. Pretending to repent without really doing it is pointless, and it will not save you or help you in any way.
I will add that people who pretend are the ones that typically give Christians a bad reputation. So you are hurting not only yourself, but others too.
The good news, it is never too late to truly repent, not as long as you are still alive. Jesus wants to come to us; some of you for the first time, others in new and deeper ways. How do you need to prepare for him? Where can you make the way more straight for him through repentance?
I want to briefly make you aware of our situation. This ministry (Clear Bible) until recently was supported by our local church. However, we have had some changes there, and we are now a house church. Today, we have about 8 families. Our church cannot fully support me financially any longer.
In contrast, about 430 people subscribe to this blog, and an additional 300 or so each week come and visit the site. In other words, by far, most of the people who benefit from this ministry are not part of our little church.
I’m asking you internet readers/listeners to pray for us. Seriously, before you give any financial support, please give us some prayer support. I value that more than anything else. Pray for this ministry to touch lives. Pray also for financial provision for my family and me.
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Some of you may have noticed that I am also a novelist. Often, people have misconceptions about authors. Most of us, including me, make a part-time income through writing, and no more. In other words, we aren’t “raking it in” somewhere else. Now, we trust the Lord to provide, and I don’t want you to give out of guilt or fear. I just don’t want you to get the idea that your donations will only be an “extra” for us somehow.
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