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Matthew 3 – Repent! – Pastor Joshua Stevens

The Youth Bible Study from 11/18/2020. Download the message notes in PDF here:

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“In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. And the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey. Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan, And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.” Matthew 3:1-6

About twenty-eight years have now passed since Jesus was visited by the wise men in chapter 2. Yet before we see Jesus again, we are introduced first to John the Baptist. Unlike Luke, Matthew doesn’t tell us much about John’s background or his relationship to Jesus. Matthew simply tells us that John is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of one who would come before the Lord to prepare the way before him. John is the last Old Testament prophet who came to prepare Israel for the coming of the Messiah. He even resembles the prophet Elijah by the way he dresses and eats.

Preparing the Way for the King

This picture of one who prepares the way, reflects the ancient custom of kings, who would send forth messengers before them to prepare cities or countries for the king’s arrival. The proper response of those cities or countries would be to go out and make sure the roads were ready for the king’s journey. They would fill every pothole and flatten every rough spot. They would do everything in their power to make sure that the king’s journey toward their city or country would be pleasant and worthy of a king. So, Isaiah foretells of a prophet who would come before the Lord, the true King, and call the people of Israel to prepare the way for his arrival. Of course, they were not literally to go out and flatten all of the roads and fill all the potholes. They were instead to prepare by confessing and repenting of their sins. Repent! That is the key message in Matthew chapter 3–the central message of both John’s and Jesus’ preaching.

Thus, it is a message to which we all must respond.

We must Repent!

John urges the people of Israel to repent, because the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand. God’s kingdom had arrived. This was a tremendous statement to make. To give you an idea of what this meant, listen to the words of Daniel 7:13-14:

“I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.” Daniel 7:13-14

In other words, the arrival of God’s kingdom marked the end of all earthly kingdoms and governments. The arrival of God’s kingdom meant that God’s Messiah, this Son of man who rides upon the clouds of heaven, was about to ascend to his kingly throne over the nations. As a result, there would be true peace on earth. Listen also to the familiar words of Isaiah 9:6-7:

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.” Isaiah 9:6-7

The arrival of God’s kingdom meant that God would now set his Messiah upon the throne of David, over Israel, and over the nations, and he would reign forever and ever. So, in response to this prospect, the people of Israel needed to prepare their hearts. They needed to repent. Otherwise they would find themselves at war with this king. As we’ll see later in the passage, that is not a place you want to be. This, of course, raises an all-important question:

What Does it Mean to Repent?

“Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan, And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.” Matthew 3:5-6

People responded to John’s message by being baptized and confessing their sins. But we must realize that these outward actions are not synonymous with repentance. It’s entirely possible for a person to be baptized and to mouth a confession of sin without actually repenting in their heart. True repentance is something that happens internally. It is, first and foremost, a matter of the heart before it is a matter of action. The word in the original Greek, literally denotes a change of heart. The word in English simply means to be sorry. In this context, it means that you have a genuine godly sorrow over your sins. But in order for this to happen, something must change within you. God must give you a new heart. Listen to these words from the prophet Ezekiel:

“Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.” Ezekiel 36:25-27

A repentant heart is a heart that has been transformed by God, from a heart that loves sin and hates God, to a heart that hates sin and loves God. So, in order to be prepared to receive Jesus Christ as Savior, you must be repentant. Practically, what this means is that you must feel a genuine godly sorrow over your sins, and you must confess them to God. This is why we see people confessing their sins. They were genuinely sorry for offending and disobeying a holy God.

But again, the warning for us is that it’s possible for someone to confess their sins outwardly without actually being repentant or sorry for their sins inwardly.

The Significance of Baptism

The word baptize means to submerge someone or something under water. Baptism was, and is, a symbolic ritual. What it symbolizes is new lifea new beginning. This is why Jesus wants Christians to be baptized. Listen to what the Apostle Paul says about baptism in Romans 6:4:

“Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” Romans 6:4

Baptism is a symbol of death and resurrection. When you are baptized, it signifies that the old you is dying and being buried; and a new you is coming forth from the grave. As these people are responding to John’s message to repent by being baptized and confessing their sins, they are making the statement that they need to be made new—they needed a new heart and a new spirit.

To repent is to be sorry for your sins and to confess your need for forgiveness and renewal. That’s how we prepare for the kingdom of God. If the kingdom of God is at hand, we want to make sure that we are fit to be a part of it. Yet, as we consider verses 7-12, we see a terrifying warning of judgment to come:

The Eternal Urgency of Repentance

“But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: And think 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. And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire: Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Matthew 3:7-12

This is not something to play around with. It’s not something to take lightly. Many people came to hear the preaching of John the Baptist. Many people were baptized. But some came and listened to his preaching, but did not respond. Some came and saw no need for repentance. We are told in verse 7 that many of the Pharisees and Sadducees came to his baptism. The Pharisees and the Sadducees represented two different religious camps within Judaism that were polar opposites.

Religion or Status cannot save you!

The Pharisees, on one hand, were a very staunch and zealous sect of Judaism. They were so zealous about keeping God’s law, that they created numerous man-made rules as a “fence” to keep them as far as possible from actually transgressing God’s law (or so they thought). Yet the Pharisees eventually let their man-made rules replace God’s law. Sadly, although they were actually guilty of breaking God’s laws, so long as they kept their own rules they saw themselves as righteous. They deceived themselves into thinking that they didn’t need repentance or forgiveness. They thought that repentance and forgiveness was for the crooks and the prostitutes, but not for them. They were self-righteous.

The Sadducees, far on the other hand, denied the basic fundamental tenets of the Jewish faith. They did not believe in angels or spirits, nor did they believe in the afterlife or a future resurrection. As a result, they were consumed with the affairs of this present life. They were outwardly religious, but they merely used religion as a means to promote themselves in this world and make themselves comfortable in this life. They saw their abundance of earthly wealth as a badge of God’s blessing upon them; and they viewed the poor and destitute as those who were under God’s curse. So, they saw no need for repentance, because they were comfortable in their present lives. Because they didn’t believe in heaven, hell, or a judgment to come, there was no incentive for repentance.

Yet although these groups were on opposite ends of the spectrum, John places them all into the same category, and calls them all a “generation” or “brood of vipers.” They were all the offspring of snakes! From Genesis, we understand the spiritual significance of calling someone the offspring of a snake: they are the spiritual children of the devil. Moreover, a viper is a highly poisonous snake–one who inflicts great harm on others. This was an appropriate description of the Pharisees and Sadducees, because they used religion to promote themselves at the expense of others. They came to hear John preach, but they refused to repent. So, John gives them a sobering warning to “flee from the wrath to come” and to “bring forth fruits worthy of repentance.”

This demonstrates to us very clearly that simply being religious cannot save you from God’s judgment upon your sin. In fact, being religious is often an obstacle that keeps people from truly repenting and coming to Jesus for salvation. People who are religious often trust in their own religious practices to procure God’s favor, instead of coming to Jesus in repentance, and finding forgiveness and salvation in him alone. Yet being religious cannot save anyone. We must repent!

A Christian Heritage Cannot Save You!

“And think 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.” Matthew 3:9

John also warns them against relying upon their heritage. The belief was common among the Jews that they were God’s people simply because they were physically descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But John warns them that you don’t become true children of Abraham through natural means. The true children of Abraham are those who have the faith of Abraham.

“Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham.” Galatians 3:7

To put this in more familiar terms, you cannot rely upon the fact that your parents are Christians, or that you grew up in church. Being the children of Christians or being in church, does not make you a Christian. You cannot rely upon a religious or a Christian heritage to save you. You must personally repent and trust Jesus as your savior.

You Can’t Afford to Wait.

John warns them that judgment is impending. The axe is laid unto the root of the trees. The unfruitful tree was about to get chopped down and burned. This was a metaphor not only for the unrepentant Pharisees and Sadducees, but for Jerusalem and Judaism as a whole. God was about to bring judgment upon the Jewish people within one generation. Forty years after John spoke these words, Jerusalem was burned to the ground by the Romans, and the Jews were scattered from their homeland once again. There was a very real and impending judgment hanging over the Jewish people at this time. Because Jerusalem ultimately responded by murdering the Son of God, God sent the Roman armies against them and they burned the city and the Temple to the ground.

Yet this is also a warning to everyone. Every tree, John says, which does not bring forth good fruit shall be chopped down and burned. If you refuse to repent, you will be judged by God and condemned to the unquenchable fires of hell. You cannot afford to wait. You must repent and believe the gospel as soon as possible if you have not done so already. John describes Jesus as the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire. In other words, Jesus will either baptize you in the Holy Spirit, or in the fires of hell. Those are the only two alternatives.

The Great Reaper

John uses vivid agricultural imagery to describe final judgment. Harvesters of wheat would bring their harvest to the threshing floor, beat out the grains, and use a winnowing fan (like a pitchfork) to toss the wheat into the air in order to let the wind separate the heavier edible parts of the grain from the light-weight inedible parts like the husk and the straw. John warns that Jesus is coming as the great Reaper. He’s going to separate the wheat from the chaff—those who repent from those who don’t. He will thoroughly clean out his threshing floor of all the chaff. All the chaff will be burned up. This is an urgent message. God’s wrath against sin is impending. Religious practices will not save you. Christian parents will not save you. You must personally repent and believe in Jesus Christ.

The Good News: Jesus Fulfills All Righteousness

Yet when Jesus shows up at the end of chapter 3, we see something truly remarkable. Jesus himself submits to John’s baptism.

“Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me? And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him. And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Matthew 3:13-17

This is how Jesus is introduced at the outset of his ministry. The heavens open up, God anoints Jesus with his Holy Spirit, and publicly owns him as his Son. Back at the end of chapter 1, when Jesus was miraculously conceived, Joseph initially supposed that Jesus was an illegitimate child. Although Joseph was set straight on that issue, the general public (or those who knew Jesus’ family) may yet have thought Jesus to be a child born out of wedlock. Yet here, God the Father sets the record straight in a dramatic way. Jesus was by no means Fatherless.

By the Spirit and by his own words, God publicly identifies Jesus as the Messiah. Throughout human history (and particularly in ancient Israel), kings would be anointed with oil, which signified God’s presence with and upon that king. Yet here, instead of merely being anointed with oil, Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit himself. Jesus wasn’t anointed with the symbol, but with the very One whom the oil symbolized. Thus, at Jesus’ baptism, Isaiah’s words were fulfilled:

“And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: And the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD…” Isaiah 11:1-2

Israel knew also that the Messiah—God’s anointed one—would be called the Son of God. Listen, for example, to the words of Psalm 2:7-9:

“I will declare the decree: the LORD hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee. Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” Psalm 2:7-9

Why was Jesus Baptized?

God speaks loud and clear: “This is my Christ–my King–my Son in whom I am well pleased.” And yet, the first thing that we see Jesus do, is submit himself to John’s baptism. John, of course, is taken aback by this. John says, “I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?” The baptism that John preached was a baptism that signified one’s repentance. But Jesus had no sin to repent of. God the Father said himself that he was “well pleased” with Jesus. So, that raises an important question: why was Jesus baptized? Jesus’ answer to that question was simply “to fulfill all righteousness.”

In other words, this act fulfilled in part Jesus’ mission to live a perfectly righteous and obedient life before God.

The Great Exchange

A key aspect of the gospel that we must understand is the fact that Jesus not only became our substitute when he died on the cross for our sins. Jesus became our substitute when he lived a perfectly obedient life before God. So, when we trust Jesus as our Savior, not only are all of our sins placed upon Jesus and paid for on the cross; but Jesus’ own perfect righteousness is credited to us in place of our sin. When we trust Jesus as our Savior, every perfect act of obedience that Jesus did during his life on earth, is credited to our accounts. This is what Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 5:21, when he says:

“For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” 2 Corinthians 5:21

This is the great exchange. When we trust Jesus as Savior, we give to Jesus all of our sins, all of our transgressions, and all of our disobedience; and Jesus gives to us all of his righteousness, all of his goodness, and all of his obedience to God. As a result, when God looks upon us, he no longer sees our sin, but he sees Jesus’ righteousness, and says over us “I am well pleased.”

A Perfect Baptism and Confession

When Jesus humbly subjected himself to John’s baptism, Jesus did that for our sakes. In being baptized, Jesus did something that God was requiring of sinners. As Matthew Henry put it, Jesus was baptized by a sinner, as a sinner, and among sinners. In other words, Jesus, even beginning with his baptism took it upon himself to fulfill everything that God required of sinners. God indeed requires sinners to be punished for their sins; and Jesus, at the end of his life, took that responsibility on himself in our place. Yet God also requires sinners to repent and be baptized; and also Jesus took it upon himself to repent and be baptized for us, in our behalf, and to do it perfectly. However, instead seeing Jesus confess sins at his baptism like the others, we see a confession from God: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” It pleased God to sent his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh; and for sin to condemn sin in the flesh, that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us (Romans 8:3-4).

In faith, we give Jesus all of our sin and failure; and Jesus gives us his perfect righteousness and obedience in exchange. As sinners, our responsibility is to respond to Jesus by repenting and being baptized; yet the good news is that even if we fail to do that perfectly, Jesus picks up the slack that we dropped. None of us are as sorry for our sins as we ought to be! Also, many Christians fail to be baptized properly (I’m looking at you, Presbyterians). But thanks be to God, that Jesus even perfectly repented and was perfectly baptized for us! Where our failure abounds, Jesus’ righteousness super-abounds. Jesus fulfills all righteousness.

Complete Fulfillment

In the original Greek, the word “fulfill” that Jesus used, denotes a complete fulfillment—a complete accomplishment with nothing lacking. That’s what Jesus did with his life. He completely fulfilled all righteousness. Everything that God requires of mankind, Jesus did it, and he did it perfectly. This is why believing sinners get to go to heaven.

If we believe on the Lord Jesus Christ—if we trust him alone as our Savior, then Jesus’ perfect obedience is credited to our empty accounts. To the praise of the glory of God’s grace, I, a sinner of 35 years, with countless sins piled to the sky, am now holy and without blame before God in love–fully accepted in the Beloved (Ephesians 1:4, 6). Not only did Jesus pay all of my debts in full, but he gave me an infinite surplus of his own righteousness! Therefore, and on that basis alone, I will never and nevermore be condemned.

Jesus fulfilled all the righteousness that God requires of mankind, and he gives that righteousness to us freely by his grace, through our faith in him.