Repentance And Resolutions

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

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.

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.

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