The Call to Repentance
It will be a long time before our society forgets the events of September 11th, 2001. The date also follows the anniversary of the birth of our first grandchild. Though the date fills our memories of the devastation of life that took place at the hands of evil murderers, the miracle of new life goes on. God, in his grace, continues to bring new life to this world, yet He does so to a world that largely rejects Him. How could God allow something like the attacks of September 11, 2001 occur? If He is a loving God would he have not prevented such misery and death?
As I look on my new grandson, I am reminded of how this young boy's life will be shaped by the choices he makes. Will he, like his father, choose to serve God? Or will he, like so many of this world choose to reject Him? It is by God's amazing grace that He gives every person such a choice, for unless we could choose God entirely based upon our own choice, God would not be God. God is not a Great Gepetto who controlled his marionette, Pinocchio, by the pulling of strings. As a marionette, Pinocchio had no free will, and could never have a relationship with Gepetto. God created mankind for relationship with Him, necessitating our free will. Left to such freedom, like Adam, man always chooses the path of ungodly, sinful, choices. Rather than submit to his creator, man naturally desires to follow his own path, a path that leads away from a relationship with God that would save him from the eternal separation from God that is the only result from such choices. Those who committed the murders of September 11th were men who chose to reject God’s call to love Him and to love others, and willfully murdered thousands of people.
When we observe the hatred, bigotry, and disregard for the value of life, we are reminded that we live in a world where Satan is prince. That is, the evil in this world is pervasive, and no person is immune from its consequences, giving Satan reign over that entire realm of this world that has turned against God. Immersed in this sinful world, many people will never hear, or in hearing will never respond to God's solution to the eternal and devastating consequences of their sinful nature. Our God desires relationship with his creation, a relationship that is possible only by becoming righteous enough to be allowed in His presence. But, how can an unrighteous man be worthy of the righteousness of God. Religions have been established by man as an attempt to obtain righteousness through rituals and sacrifices. However, we have seen through the experience of those in the Old Testament that righteousness cannot be obtained through any act of man, for whatever action he takes, he still holds to his sinful and selfish nature once the ritual is complete. Man cannot keep a perfect law, and left to his own nature, he is doomed to eternal separation from God.
Very nearly 2000 years ago, God revealed to mankind His plan for the salvation of man from the consequences of his own sin.
Luke 1:5-7. There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the LORD blameless. And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years.
The Priesthood was divided into 24 divisions. The division of Abijah was the eighth. As Zechariah was a member of this division of the priesthood he was respected and had the highest of religious credentials. Furthermore, his wife was in the direct line from Aaron, Moses' brother. Despite this, they were childless, and in that society barrenness carried with it a stigma that was based upon the belief that their condition was a direct result of sin in their lives or in the lives of their ancestors. For good people to carry such a burden places them in a position to have a greater dependence upon God when they cannot depend upon those around them. What are some of the other occasions in the scriptures where Godly people were shown to depend upon God by having their childbearing delayed? We find the same pattern in the lives of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This identifies Zechariah with them, and also as with the patriarchs, God used this circumstance to speak to Zechariah as, in doing, God would be placing in motion the chain of events that would provide the basis for the salvation of man from the consequences of his sin.
Luke 1:8-17. And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course, 9According to the custom of the priest’s office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the LORD. ... And there appeared unto him an angel of the LORD standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And ... the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. 14And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. 15For he shall be great in the sight of the LORD, ... and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb. 16And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the LORD their God. 17And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the LORD
Some think that the priesthood numbered about 20,000 at this time. Each of the divisions of the priesthood served in the temple one week, twice per year. One of the many ministries they performed was the burning of the incense in the temple holy place each day in connection with the morning and evening services. Given the number of priests, this privilege likely fell to Zechariah only once during his lifetime. What happened to Zechariah when he was fulfilling this duty? Evidently, Zechariah and Elizabeth had been praying to God concerning their need for a child. What was God's response to their prayers? Though God's grace is not predicated on the righteousness of man, He particularly blessed Zechariah and Elizabeth for their trust and faithfulness in Him. Their son, John, would be unique.
John was described by the messenger of God as a joy and delight; many will rejoice because of him, he will be great in the sight of the LORD, filled with the Holy Spirit from birth. Furthermore, he would be the Elijah that the nation of Israel was waiting for.
Luke 3:1-2. Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, 2Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.
Luke introduces the arrival of John in the same manner that the Old Testament announced the appearance of the prophets. First he dates the appearance based upon the reigns of the governmental leaders in the region. Furthermore, "the word of God came" to John in the same manner as it came to the prophets of the Old Testament. Israel had just experienced 400 years of darkness following the departing of the Shekinah Glory of God from the temple. No prophets had spoken, and the religion of the Jews, left without its power, was reduced to a ritualistic and legalistic fabrication of man. However, the period of darkness was about to end. God's word came back, and was given to John, the son of Zechariah, the one who would be a prophet in the image of Elijah, who like the Old Testament prophet would point people to the one true God.
Luke 3:3-6. And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins; 4As it is written in the book of the words of Esaias the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; 6And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
Like Elijah, John preached in the region around the Jordan. The doctrine of his preaching was consistent with that of Elijah. Elijah called the people to turn from their allegiance to the pagan gods and the secular culture that defined them and turn to the one True God. And like Elijah, John's message was in stark contrast to the doctrine of the Jewish religious leaders who, rejecting faith in God, had reduced God's message a supposed sinlessness that was obtained by following the traditional laws and rituals that they had created. John's message identified repentance and faith as the vehicle by which the remission of sins can be found. Again, though similar to the message of Elijah, it was in direct conflict with the secular message of the religious culture.
John's message was also one of preparation. His message was such a stark contrast to that of the religious leaders, that it would serve to bring people back to the consideration of the true nature and purposes of God. The quotation used by Luke is from Isaiah 40:3 and is used within the same context of its presentation in the Old Testament. The quote was so well known to the early Jews that it has become a cliché. To “make the paths straight” refers to the preparation of a community to prepare the way for a king. Unlike its presentation in the other synoptic gospels, Luke presents more of the quote, further describing the task of John. The preparation of the way meant more than the rolling out of a red carpet, as today's modern culture might do. The description of the preparation in Isaiah includes the filling in of the valleys and the leveling of the mountains, a task that is fully impossible. The task of preparation that would be assigned to this "voice crying in the wilderness" would be an impossible one, and the prophesy proved true. Those who are fully immersed in this secular culture simply choose to reject John's message of repentance, and his prophesy concerning the imminence of the coming of the Messiah, the Christ. To change the minds of the religious leaders was a task as impossible as moving a mountain. However, we may be reminded of the power of faith as Jesus once referred to this mountain:
Matthew 17:20. If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed ye shall say to this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible for you.
One would make the pathway straight for a king by clearing a pathway and securing its borders. How is the pathway to be made straight for the coming of the Messiah? The coming of the Messiah was not through the path of a road, but rather through the path of peoples' hearts. By preaching that the LORD, the Messiah is coming, and by preaching a message of repentance, John was preparing the hearts of a remnant of Israel who will listen to him and choose to return to the God of their Fathers. If John's ministry is successful, there will be a remnant of Israel who will recognize Christ when He comes, and who will respond to Him in faith. There were some who recognized the Messiah: We may be reminded that John had four disciples by the names of Andrew, Peter, James and John.
God has always preserved his word through a remnant of faithful people. In our nation and world today, that remnant is maintained in the few true believers who have "washed their robes" and made them white in the blood of the lamb.
Luke 3:7-8. Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.
John addresses this message to the multitude of people, and particularly to those who had become secularized by their religious culture. These included the religious leaders who came out of Jerusalem to hear John, considering him a threat to their legalistic system of belief. These leaders considered themselves at the zenith of religious perfection, and any man who would dare challenge their position would be received only with hatred and charged with teaching falsehood and blasphemy. Like a viper who strikes from the cover of tall grasses with the power to kill, the leadership of Israel had become a venomous serpent that hid behind their arrogant and self-righteous interpretation of the Holy Scriptures to keep people from hearing the truth of God's grace. Jesus used the same words to describe the Pharisees.
John exposed the false doctrine of traditional legalism by illuminating the lack of repentance that is evident in it. Jewish legalism also carried with it the arrogance of ethnic bias when they believed that their future with God was secure solely because they were descendents of Abraham. John argues that God can raise up his children from the very stones. The Greek word for "stones" is one that also was used to describe the common people, and was used by Jesus to surname Peter. Some have argued that this was a direct prophesy of God's clarification of His plan of grace to all people, particularly to the Gentiles, those who were not blood-descendents of Abraham.
Luke 9-10. And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. 10And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then?
John paints a gloomy picture as he describes the current state of Israel. The doom of ancient Judah and Israel was declared by the Old Testament prophets during the period of the kings when those kings led the nation away from God and into secular apostasy. Those kings did this when God's glory still filled the temple. During the following 400 years of darkness, the kings were replaced by religious leadership that was more successful in leading the people away from the pagan Canaanite gods, but simply replaced them with a system of laws that became the national idol. In the same way that an idol is given inappropriate authority, the written and oral law that was developed by the religious leaders became the authority of the people. Because it was loosely based upon Mosaic law, the people were sincerely convinced of their security.
Little has changed. What response do people today give when asked about their faith? Many say they are Christians, yet few actually are. What false gospel has them just as convinced of their security as that of the religious leaders of John's day? There are many. For example:
· Goodness Gospel. God rewards good people and my good side is better than my bad. Christian response? "All have sinned and come short..." Romans 3:23.
· Agnostic Gospel. No one can really know until they get there. Christian response? “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life,” John 5:13.
· Belief Gospel. Believe in Jesus and you will be saved. Christian response? "The devils believe and they tremble," James 2:19. “Believe in the LORD Jesus Christ... Romans 8:9-10. "He who does the will of my father..."
The gospel professed by John is the true gospel. What does it require?
· Repentance. One must realize first that sin separates one from God and there is nothing one can do to bridge that gap. Before God will be able to save you, your desire for him must be sincere. You must make that choice to turn away from your own way, and turn to him as LORD, as the ultimate and intimate authority in life. You may not be able to actually stop committing individual sins yet: God is looking at the heart, not at the hands.
· Accept Jesus as LORD. God has given Jesus authority which we must acknowledge. He must be the authority in our lives over all other things. True repentance is a decision of the mind and heart to turn from sin and commit one's self to the authority and LORDship of God through Jesus Christ who, as the Messiah, holds all authority and who went to the Cross of Calvary to pay sin’s price for those who trust in Him.
Only the Holy Spirit can prompt you and empower you to make these choices, and once made, He will never leave you. He will then give you the strength to deal with the individual sins that once separated you from God.
According to John, what is the evidence of a true faith in God? Faith is demonstrated by the fruit of repentance. A fruit tree is easily identified by the fruit it bears. Likewise the individual is easily identified by the attitudes and actions that define the person's true nature. What is the true fruit of a Christian? The fruit of a Christian is the set of attitudes and actions that demonstrate God's love towards others and an uncompromised commitment to the LORDship of Jesus Christ. Only in a faith relationship with Christ is God's love the foundation for your life. All of the fruit of the Spirit are based first on God's agape love, lavished upon all without condition. Only fruit based in the love of God are worthy of repentance, for it shows that repentant desire to be Godly and worthy of the calling to which we have been called.
Luke 3:10-14. And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then? 11He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise. 12Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do? 13And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you. 14And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.
What was John saying to these people? If their lives are based on the love of God their attitudes and actions will be characterized differently. Their desire will be to share with those in need. They will not want to cheat people, and they will not want to hurt people. People who are filled with God's Spirit are filled with God's love and will neither seek violence, nor will desire ill-gotten gain.
Be sure to understand one thing: it is not the act of giving, the act of integrity, or the act of kindness that saves. This form of legalistic salvation is exactly what the religious leaders were teaching. John is stating that one who is truly saved can be identified by a consistent nature of love for others that demonstrate giving, integrity, and kindness. This is the opposite of the message of the Pharisees, who teach a righteousness based on keeping the law. For the Christian, the law is not in the law books, but is fully embedded in their heart, and they keep the law not by effort, but by nature. Consequently it is the changed nature of a repentant heart that inspires acts of giving, acts of integrity, and acts of kindness. John is pointing the way to the true Messiah, the One who will separate one of these types from another.
Luke 3:15-18. And as the people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ, or not; 16John answered, saying unto them all, I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire: 17Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable. 18And many other things in his exhortation preached he unto the people.
Over the ages God progressively revealed Himself to the people He created, a people who by nature disregard God's authority in their lives. God offers an eternal relationship with Himself to those who choose to love Him and acknowledge His place as their God. Such a change in one's life requires a conscious decision. How is this decision made? How is that decision characterized?
· The repentance that is the fruit of genuine faith in God is the first, and essential, part of a true saving relationship with God.
· Claiming to belong to God is empty apart from an Holy-Spirit led life style.
· Genuine Christians can minister in practical ways. John showed that when he describes Godly works.
· People who know Christ can call others to Him. As John pointed the way to Jesus, we are all just as empowered to do so. John had a rare talent: he was filled with the Holy Spirit. All true believers are also filled with that same Holy Spirit. We must not let that Spirit be hidden like a lamp under a bushel. We must let our light shine before men.
· God ultimately will judge people who refuse to repent and to receive the free gift of salvation that was offered through the sacrifice of the Christ. There is only one unpardonable sin: the hard heart of the unbeliever that is maintained through life and into death. God can and will not save one who takes rejection of Him to the grave, granting the individual that choice.
· Christians are all called of God in the same way John was called. When we reach the end of our days are we going to look back on a life that was fruitless, or one that touched people with the agape love of God each day?
· The choice is up to each individual. The consequence of that choice is eternal.