The text for this lesson is Matthew 3:1–12.
- John calls all of us sinners to repent and points us to the true Savior.
- Law: I sinfully see no need for repentance.
- Gospel: When I confess my sins, I acknowledge that I have offended God by failing to fear, love, and trust in Him and am ready to hear that my sins have been removed through Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection.
Christians and unbelievers alike wonder why Jesus’ earthly ministry took place at the time and location that it did. Considering the events that came just before Christ’s work on earth, we recognize that God’s timing was perfect.
The history of the Israelites in the Old Testament is largely a succession of invasions and occupations by neighboring empires: Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and, finally, Rome. God used these nations to rebuke the Israelites for wicked idolatry and lukewarm worship. As a result of exile in Assyria and Babylon, the people of Israel lost a great deal of their written records, and the influence and authority of their political leaders diminished greatly. Broadly speaking, Jewish religious leaders stepped forward to fill the vacuum, taking charge and writing new laws for the people apart from those God had given.
By the time of the Roman occupation, the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and teachers of the law enjoyed great power, exercising influence in Jewish society and pressing the people with strict, unscriptural laws they themselves didn’t and couldn’t keep. Consequently, the ranks of Jewish religious leadership were rife with corruption, abuse, and self-righteousness. Jesus entered first-century Palestine within this context. His relative, John the Baptist, who had been born shortly before Jesus, bridged the gap between the Old and New Testaments. John, the son of the aged Zechariah and Elizabeth, served as the last prophet to herald Jesus’ coming. As an Essene, he lived a rugged life of separation and dedication to the Lord, residing in the wilderness, living off the land, and vesting himself in animal skins. John’s message was simple: Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins. The alternative is God’s eternal wrath.
This harsh edict was anything but sweet music to the ears of the Pharisees and Sadducees, who considered themselves righteous before God as the result of keeping God’s Law and having Abraham as their ancestor. John’s warning and the ministry of Christ, which followed, ran directly counter to the culture of sinful pride and self-righteousness that marked the place and time.
Christian repentance is distinct from mere regret in that Christians turn from sin to forgiveness in Christ. Where regret includes sorrow over poor choices and even an earnest intent and effort to do better, Christian repentance seeks and finds grace and forgiveness in the perfect life and innocent suffering and death of Jesus Christ rather than in one’s own sorrow, intent, and effort.
Arguably, the worst spiritual condition is a self-righteous heart. There exists not only wicked behavior but also a prideful, stubborn heart that refuses to accept responsibility for sin and acknowledge the need for forgiveness. An individual with such a condition is on a path of eternal destruction unless there is intervention by the Holy Spirit.
Only with the work of the Holy Spirit is Christian repentance possible. In the Gospel of Christ, the Holy Spirit creates faith that trusts in Jesus and clings to the forgiveness He earned on the cross. The Holy Spirit breaks the heart of the Christian with the Law and comforts the same with the sure forgiveness of the Gospel.
Restored in the Gospel and strengthened in God’s overwhelming love, Christians react with a life of obedience and charity. Like repentance, Christian obedience and charity are distinct. God’s children obey their Father in reciprocated love and joy. They serve others in the perfect peace of assured forgiveness in Christ.