Repentance And Resolutions


Repentance And Resolutions


Repentance And Resolutions

Matthew 3:1-17

Main Idea: Entering the kingdom of heaven requires repenting of sin and trusting in the Son whom God has sent for sinners.

  1. The Ministry of John the Baptist: Prepare the Way
    1. The man
      1. Prophesying boldly
      2. Living simply
      3. Baptizing openly
      4. Serving humbly
    2. The message
      1. Repent...
      2. . for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
    3. The method
      1. The baptism of Jews
        1. Renounce your dependence on self.
        2. Rely on the mercy of God.
      2. The baptism of Jesus
        1. The Son obeys.
        2. The Spirit anoints.
        3. The Father speaks.
  2. The Ministry of the Church Today: Tell the World
    1. Repent and be baptized.
    2. Resolve to proclaim this gospel.

New Year's Day is a time for resolutions. We look back at the previous year to see what went well, and we look forward to the coming year and think about what might go differently. Of course, not everyone keeps these resolutions; simply compare the crowd at the gym at the beginning of January with the crowd in mid-February. Nevertheless, the desire for change can be a really good thing, even a necessary one. Matthew 3 talks about a change that needs to take place in the life of every individual, even if it's not on their resolution list.49

John the Baptist came on the scene in Matthew 3 and introduced an entirely new day in redemptive history. As a part of this new day, he called people to start over in their lives. Matthew 3 also gives us a glimpse into the inauguration—the first day, so to speak—of Jesus' ministry on earth. Around 30 years pass between Matthew 2:23 and Matthew 3:1, so we miss almost all of Jesus' early childhood, His teen years, and His twenties. Matthew hones in on that which is critical for us to hear and believe.

The Ministry of John the Baptist: Prepare the Way

Matthew 3:1-17

In order to understand Matthew 3 and the beginning of Jesus' public ministry, we need to remember the context, including how the Old Testament ended. Just a few pages before Matthew's Gospel, in the last two verses of the Old Testament, the prophet Malachi predicted the following:

Remember the instruction of Moses My servant, the statutes and ordinances I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. Look, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome Day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers. Otherwise, I will come and strike the land with a curse. (Mal 4:5-6)

God announced through Malachi that He would send Elijah the prophet to announce the fearsome Day of the Lord. This Elijah would turn people back to one another, but he would also bring a decree of destruction. After this prediction there were four hundred years of silence, and then John the Baptist came on the scene. John is a figure who is in many ways parallel to Elijah—a prophet calling the people back to God after a long drought. Consider Jesus' description of John the Baptist in Matthew 11:7-15:

What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swaying in the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothes? Look, those who wear soft clothes are in kings' palaces. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and far more than a prophet. This is the one it is written about:

Look, I am sending My messenger ahead of You;

he will prepare Your way before You.50

I assure you: Among those born of women no one greater than John the Baptist has appeared, but the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been suffering violence, and the violent have been seizing it by force. For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John; if you're willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who is to come. Anyone who has ears should listen!

The Man

Jesus makes clear in these verses that Malachi was not prophesying a literal reappearance of Elijah, but rather the coming of a prophet just like Elijah who would prepare the way of the Lord. Matthew 3 tells us at least four things about the man John the Baptist. First, he would come prophesying boldly. Matthew quotes from Isaiah 40:3, where Isaiah told of a prophet who would come crying in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness." The imagery here in ancient times is of a herald who would come before a king, announcing the king's coming and making sure the road on which the king would travel was smooth and ready. John's first words in verse 2 speak to this preparation ministry: "Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near!" Clearly, this was no ordinary king.

Second, not only is John prophesying boldly, but he is also living simply. John was in the wilderness with a garment of camel's hair with a leather belt. This is how 2 Kings 1:8 describes Elijah, as a "hairy man with a leather belt around his waist." Matthew also tells us that John ate locusts and wild honey (3:4), so there was nothing elaborate or attractive about him at all.

Third, John was baptizing openly, which is where he gets the name "John the Baptist" or "John the Baptizer." From the beginning of the New Testament, the picture we have of baptism is of immersion in water. John was, after all, in a river that people came down into to be baptized. This word "baptize" literally means "to plunge" or "to dip" (BDAG, 164-65). So the prophet could even be called "John the Dipper."

Fourth, John came serving humbly. The prophet knew his role. Later, in verse 11, he says of Jesus the Messiah, "I am not worthy to remove His sandals." John didn't feel worthy to do one of the lowliest, most servile tasks imaginable in relation to his Lord. We hear John's heart most clearly summarized in John 3:30, where he says, "He must increase, but I must decrease." John the Baptist knew that his place in51 human history was not to point people to himself, but to prepare people for the King.

The Message

After considering the man, now we turn to the message. In order to prepare people for the King, John came preaching, "Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near!" (3:2) But what does it mean biblically to repent? In the Greek, this word "repent" (metanoeo) was sometimes used to describe a change of one's mind, but the biblical idea of repentance, the kind of repentance John was calling for here, involves much more than simply a change of thoughts. Biblically, repentance involves confession (admission of sin). We read in verse 6 that people were coming out to the wilderness to be baptized by John, and they were confessing their sins. Throughout Scripture, God calls His people to take responsibility for their sins by confessing them. Simple recognition or admission of sin is useless.

In several different places in Scripture we read about people who merely acknowledged their sin but went no further. In Exodus 9:27 Pharaoh acknowledged his sin against the Lord before Moses and Aaron; in Joshua 7:20 Achan admitted his sin to Joshua; in 1 Samuel 15:24 an insincere Saul confessed to Samuel his sin of keeping back what the Lord had commanded him to destroy. The examples of Pharaoh, Achan, and Saul teach us that there's more to repentance than confession. Beyond mere confession, repentance involves contrition (sorrow over sin). There must be a deep realization in your heart that you have sinned against God. It's the kind of sorrow we see in Psalm 51 as David, in contrite brokenness, cries out to God, saying, "Against You—You alone—I have sinned" (v. 4). This is not merely sorrow over getting caught, the kind of worldly sorrow Paul speaks about that is nothing more than selfish regret; rather, godly sorrow is deep realization that you have offended God, and this leads to godly repentance (2 Cor 7:10).

Biblical repentance means more than simply feeling bad about sin. Later in Matthew, we'll see the rich young ruler who walked away from Jesus was sorrowful but not repentant (19:16-22), for he didn't want to part with his possessions. And later we read that Judas was sorrowful for betraying Jesus, but he wasn't repentant (27:3-10). These examples lead us to a third aspect of biblical repentance: Repentance involves a conversion (turn from sin). That's what this word "repent" means: to "be converted" (BDAG, 640). So yes, we must recognize our sin and be52 sorrowful for it, but we must also renounce it, or turn from it. We must do what Elijah commanded the people to do in 1 Kings 18 when he was surrounded by the prophets of Baal: "If Yahweh is God, follow Him. But if Baal, follow him" (v. 21). Next we learn why this kind of repentance is so urgent.

We must repent, John the Baptist tells us, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. This is the first of 32 times in the book of Matthew that we will see this phrase "kingdom of heaven." The other Gospel writers typically use the phrase "kingdom of God," which basically has the same meaning. The kingdom of heaven is the rule and reign of God, and it was breaking into the world in a new way in the ministry of Jesus.

With the arrival of this kingdom, two realities are crystal clear, one of which is this: salvation is here. When we put together the truths of the coming of the kingdom in Matthew 3:2 and the naming of Jesus in Matthew 1:21 ("He will save His people from their sins"), it's evident that God's salvation has come in the person of Jesus Christ. This is why God graciously warns us through John the Baptist to confess our sins—because the One who has come to save us from our sins is here. The proclamation that the kingdom of heaven is at hand is a great word of encouragement, but there is also a strong warning in these words, too, a warning that's reiterated throughout chapter 3.

The arrival of the kingdom means salvation is here, but it also means that damnation is near. This sobering reality becomes clear in verse 12, but even at the outset of John's announcement, the good news of God's kingdom was terrible news for all who refused to repent. The day of the coming of the Lord, prophesied throughout the Old Testament, was a day of blessing and judgment (Joel 2:1-2; Amos 5:18-20; Zeph 1:14-16). This is why John's message of repentance comes with such urgency.

The Method

We've seen the man and the message, and now finally we turn to the method of John the Baptist. The picture of baptism that we see in Matthew 3 is particularly instructive here, both the baptism of Jews and of Jesus. Baptism was not common in Old Testament history leading up to the time of John the Baptist. In fact, the only people who were baptized were Gentiles who decided to become followers of Yahweh. Baptism was a way of saying, "I am an outsider, renouncing my former ways, and embracing faith in the one true God, the God of Israel." Therefore, it is astonishing that people from Jerusalem and53 Judea—Jewish people—came to be baptized. They were admitting that their Jewishness did not guarantee them a right standing before God. They realized that they needed to personally confess their sins and profess faith in God. Here, for the first time in Scripture, we begin to see the significance of baptism.

To be baptized is to renounce your dependence on self and to acknowledge that there is nothing inherent in you that can save you before God, including your family heritage. Ethnicity was extremely important to Jews, many of whom believed that simply being an Israelite meant that they were right before God. This kind of belief helps explain why John sternly confronts the Pharisees and Sadducees in verses 7-10. These two groups of Jewish leaders were on different pages in a number of ways, but they were on the same page in one central way: they both believed that their Jewish heritage made them right before God. However, when these groups came out to John's baptism, John referred to them as a "brood of vipers!" (v. 7), literally the offspring of snakes. He warns them in verse 9 not to presume that their status before God was safe simply because they could trace their lineage to Abraham. A refusal to repent will result in judgment, regardless of one's ethnicity. And this judgment is near, for John tells these religious leaders that "the ax is ready to strike the root of the trees!" (v. 10).

We continue to need to be reminded that our family heritage cannot save us. With all due respect to brothers and sisters from traditions where infant baptism is practiced, many of whom are close friends of mine, the New Testament picture of baptism indicates that Jesus is opposed to the idea that one is born into God's family by physical birth. It is dangerous and potentially damning for people to believe that because they were born into a Christian family, and maybe even baptized into a Christian family, their status before God is secure. This kind of thinking is rampant around the world, where "Christian" is a family or social identification. However, in Scripture baptism is not a sign that you have been born into a covenant family; instead, it's a sign indicating that regardless of what family you've been born into, you must personally repent, confess your sins, and put your faith in the Lord.754

In baptism you not only renounce your family heritage; you renounce your personal righteousness. The Pharisees, in particular, were known for their extensive study and attentive keeping of the law. They based their lives on Jewish laws and traditions, working to attain righteousness before God. Yet, as we've already seen, baptism is an admission that you are not righteous and you need to renounce your sinful ways.

Baptism also means renouncing your worldly success. This applies especially to the Sadducees, who were known as rich landowners and beneficiaries of profits at the temple. They lived for present reward in this world, but baptism is a confession that we are living for future reward in the world to come.

Baptism is such a common symbol for many in the church today that if we're not careful, we'll miss some of the imagery here. This is a picture of death. Dipping (immersion) symbolizes a decisive, even violent, turn from yourself and your way of life, including any dependence on your heritage, your righteousness, or your success. Baptism indicates that you are going to rely on the mercy of God. It is a confession, a profession, that there's nothing you can do to save yourself from your sins; you need the Lord to do that. That's the good news John brought in verse 11: "I baptize you with water for repentance, but the One who is coming after me is more powerful than I. I am not worthy to remove His sandals. He Himself will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." Baptism is a foretaste of a greater reality to come.

The good news, John says, is that the Savior King is coming. The One who will save you from your sins is coming, and He will baptize you with "the Holy Spirit and fire" (v. 11). This verse is potentially confusing on a couple of different levels, so a brief explanation may be helpful. First, when John talks about Jesus coming to baptize with the Holy Spirit, he isn't saying that water baptism won't be important once Jesus comes on the scene. We know that because Jesus tells His disciples at the end of Matthew's Gospel to go and baptize people in all nations (28:19), and that's exactly what we see the followers of Jesus doing in Acts (2:41; 8:12). Baptism with water would be an outward symbol of an inward reality, the inward reality of the baptism of the Spirit.

A second clarification may also be helpful here related to this baptism with the Spirit. The baptism of the Spirit is not a special baptism for a few select Christians that some associate with speaking in tongues; rather, baptism with the Spirit is a way of referring to Jesus' transforming work of putting His Spirit in us and changing our hearts from the55 inside out. This baptism with the Spirit happens at the point of our salvation. John says that Jesus will transform your hearts. The Old Testament prophesied about this new work of God, for Jeremiah tells us that God's law would be written on the hearts of His people as a part of a new covenant (31:33). Ezekiel likewise speaks about God giving His people a "new heart" and a "new spirit" (36:26), while Joel speaks of a day when God would pour out His Spirit on all His people (2:28-29). Jesus will transform your heart, John says, and He will purify your lives. That's what it means when it says that Jesus will baptize with "fire" (Matt 3:11). There's a debate about whether fire here refers to purification or the judgment that Christ brings. In Acts 2:3 we see the Spirit coming on the church in tongues of fire, so at least at that point purification is in view. At other times in Scripture, fire is a picture of purification, refining, and cleansing (Num 31:23; Zech 13:9; Mal 3:2-3).8

The coming of the Savior King wasn't all John announced. He also warned people that the Righteous Judge is close. In verse 12 He said of Jesus, "His winnowing shovel is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor and gather His wheat into the barn. But the chaff He will burn up with fire that never goes out." This imagery of winnowing may not be familiar to us, but it refers to the process of separating grain, the seeds, from chaff, the hulls that cover the seeds. A farmer would take a winnowing shovel, toss both the grain and the chaff together into the air, and the grain, which was heavier, would fall to the ground, while the chaff would blow to the side. The farmer would then keep the grain, and he'd sweep all the chaff together and throw it into a fire. This winnowing process is a vivid picture of the judgment of God. Jesus' ministry means not only that God's salvation is near, but also that His wrath is imminent.

When Jesus refers to the "fire that never goes out" (v. 12), He is making clear that His judgment is eternal. This may sound severe, but we must keep in mind that God is righteous, and He is wholly set against sin. Some might think of John as the first "hellfire and damnation" preacher, but don't forget that John was also the first to preach grace, mercy, and rescue in Jesus Christ. He announced to the people that though they were condemned in their sin, destined to receive the imminent wrath of God, there was a way out. The Savior King had come.56

After Matthew describes John and his message in verses 1-12, the scene switches to Jesus' appearance in the wilderness in verses 13-17. We've moved from the baptism of the Jews to the baptism of Jesus, the very Son of God. We can actually see all three members of the Trinity involved in this baptism. First, the Son obeys, which requires some explanation given what we've already seen thus far about the meaning of baptism. Jesus had no need to renounce Himself and no sin to repent of; so why does He need to be baptized? That's exactly what John wondered, but Jesus responds in verse 15, "Allow it for now, because this is the way for us to fulfill all righteousness." There are many different opinions about what Jesus means here, but it seems that Jesus' baptism is the convergence of a variety of factors. We'll consider three of these factors.

First, Jesus' baptism is an identification with sinners. Jesus came, according to Isaiah 53:12, to be "counted among the rebels," and ultimately this has to do with their sin, though Jesus Himself had no sin (Heb 4:15). We identify with Jesus when we are baptized, being united to Him in His life, death, and resurrection, so it makes sense that baptism is in a very real sense His identification with us. He who had no sin took His place among those who had no righteousness. This is the essence of what Jesus came to do (see 2 Cor 5:21).

In addition to identifying with us, Jesus also sets an example for us. His baptism is an example for saints. Jesus models obedience for His followers by being baptized, which is an obedience that He will eventually command His followers to submit to (Matt 28:20). Jesus is validating here the central importance of baptism. He begins His ministry by showing what would be central in our mission. Baptism is not something that man has made up; it's something that God has commanded, something He has called every follower of Christ to do, and something He has told us to do in all nations (28:19). Jesus sets the stage for this at the beginning of His public ministry.

Finally, baptism is not only an identification with sinners and an example for saints, but it is also a picture of salvation. Baptism pictures death and resurrection to new life, such that here at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, we get a picture of the climax of this ministry. That is, His immersion portrays His future death and resurrection. And now, every person who trusts in Christ for salvation is baptized, immersed in water, as a picture of our dying to sin and to ourselves and rising to new life in Christ.57

Having seen, then, that the Son obeys in baptism, we see next that the Spirit anoints: "The heavens suddenly opened for Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down on Him" (v. 16). Keep in mind, this was not the Spirit coming on Jesus for the first time, as if the Spirit had never been on Him before; the Holy Spirit was on Jesus even before He was born (Matt 1:18, 20). The picture in Matthew 3 is a public display of exactly what Isaiah prophesied—that the Spirit of the Lord would anoint the Messiah "to bring good news to the poor... to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to the prisoners" (Isa 61:1). So while the Spirit was present with Jesus prior to Matthew 3, Jesus was set apart in a unique way by the Spirit for His public ministry at His baptism.

The Son obeys, the Spirit anoints, and in verse 17 the Father speaks. In this verse we get an unobstructed glimpse into the perspective of the Father and the Son—what a scene! God says, "This is My beloved Son. I take delight in Him!" This is a clear allusion to at least two passages. In Psalm 2 the Lord says, "You are My Son; today I have become Your Father. Ask of Me, and I will make the nations Your inheritance and the ends of the earth Your possession. You will break them with a rod of iron" (vv. 7-9). Notice the word "Son" in both Psalm 2:7 and Matthew 3:17. Jesus is God's beloved Son, gloriously crowned here as the promised King from God. Similarly, in Isaiah 42:1, the introduction to the Servants Songs in Isaiah, God says through the prophet, "This is My Servant; I strengthen Him, this is My Chosen One; I delight in Him." The word "delight" in that last phrase reflects the same idea in Matthew 3:17, as the Father expresses His delight for the Son. Isaiah prophesies that this Servant would be "pierced because of our transgressions, crushed because of our iniquities" (Isa 53:5). Jesus is our Suffering Servant.

The Ministry of the Church Today: Tell the World

In many ways the ministry of John the Baptist was unique, but there are also many ways in which the church's ministry today is similar to John's. At least two ways in which we should imitate John's ministry are worth highlighting.

First, we must tell people to repent and be baptized. This initial message of John's was repeated verbatim by Jesus in 4:17: "Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near." Clearly, the message of John the Baptist and of Jesus is the message of the Bible to every single person in58 the world today. You must turn from your sin, which means renouncing dependence on yourself, your family heritage, your personal righteousness, and your worldly accomplishments. All of these things will burn up when it matters most, at the day of judgment.

Repentance is not simply turning from your sin; you must also trust in the Son. The beloved Son of God came to save you from your sin. As you trust in Him, you rest in His righteousness. Matthew 3:17 says that Jesus is God's beloved Son in whom He is well pleased, so unite your life to Jesus by faith. Then, when the Father looks on you, He will see His Son and be pleased in you. It is amazing to think that we are right before God, not by trusting in anything we have done, but simply by trusting in Christ, by resting in His righteousness. And as you rest in His righteousness, bear the fruit of faith in Him. This was John the Baptist's message to the Pharisees and Sadducees: "Therefore produce fruit consistent with repentance" (3:8). But what does it mean to bear the fruit of faith?

First, as a Christian, you should be baptized. I am always shocked to see how many followers of Christ have never been baptized. If that's you, don't wait another minute, because you are living in disobedience to Jesus Christ. And you're missing out on the joy of identification with the Christ, the King who died and rose from the grave for you. Though other kinds of public professions of faith have become common—raising hands, walking aisles, taking stands—baptism is the biblical, visible, public picture of saving identification with Christ.

Second, for those followers of Christ who have been baptized, live your lives as the overflow of faith in Him. The essence of following Christ, as initially displayed in baptism, is death to self and to every effort to improve yourself by obeying God in your own strength and resolve. Don't look to yourself; trust in Christ. Then ask Him to work in you so that you might trust Him more with every aspect of your life—your marriage, your family, your schedule, and your possessions. Ask Him to do things in and through you that you could never do on your own. That's what it means to bear "fruit consistent with repentance" (3:8).

After repenting and being baptized, the second overall application we can take from John's example is that we must resolve to proclaim this gospel. John's purpose on the pages of human history was to prepare the way for the coming of Christ. Everything he did was for that purpose. Obviously, we don't prepare the way for Christ's coming; instead, we tell the world that God's Son has come. We don't say, "He's coming," but "He's come!" This is good news: Jesus, the King, has come to save us59 from our sins. But there's bad news too. Just as John the Baptist warned of impending judgment, we must do the same. We must tell people that God's judgment is coming—imminent wrath and eternal punishment. You may think, "I can't tell somebody that," but in reality, there's nothing more unloving than not telling people that. Proclaim the good news to friends, coworkers, and everyone else you meet. Tell them about the Savior who has come.

Reflect and Discuss

  1. Why is it significant that John's first command had to do with repentance?
  2. What is the difference between regretful confession and true repentance?
  3. How are some church attenders similar to the Jews who counted on family heritage for salvation?
  4. How would you counsel someone who professes Christ but shows no marks of repentance?
  5. How did the arrival of the kingdom point to the nearness of both salvation and damnation?
  6. How would you explain to a non-Christian that a "hellfire and damnation" sermon expresses love?
  7. Explain why John's baptism and Christian baptism appear to exclude infants.
  8. How are all three members of the Trinity present in Matthew 3:15-17?
  9. Why was Jesus baptized if He had no sin?
  10. What is the difference between resolving to be good before salvation and resolving to obey God after salvation?

John's baptism looks forward to Christian baptism, though it is not identical with the baptism spoken of in the Great Commission (Matt 28:19) and throughout the rest of the New Testament following Jesus' death, resurrection, ascension, and the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2).


In Matthew 3:12 Jesus speaks of fire in the context of God's judgment.