Focus on God's continuing call to repentance. The last lesson considered God's calls to Israel to repentance (read Solomon's plea in 1 Kings 8:46-53 for Israel's forgiveness when they repented, and Ezekiel's declaration in Ezekiel 18:30-32 that God prefers repentance to vengeance). The Old Testament contains numerous calls from God to Israel to repent.
John, the one who baptized, and repentance:
The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke contain brief descriptions of John's ministry. Briefly each notes the core of John's message to the Jewish people. Matthew 3:2 states John's core message to be, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." Mark 1:4 states John's core emphasis in this manner: "John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." Luke 3:3 emphasizes John's core message this way: "And he came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins ..."
First, note his basic emphasis: repentance. Second, ask: "What did that mean?" Third, note that repentance must precede baptism for the remission of sins, or that baptism had no effect. If there was no consciousness of sins and no internal desire and intent to direct life away from recognized evil, a physical submission to baptism was meaningless.
Those three things declare a person's commitment to repentance was essential. God through miraculous conception (John 1:13-20) sent John to prepare Israel for the Messiah [the Christ]. God's prophets declared God would send the Messiah (Luke 1:16,17; Mark 1:2,3). What did John stress in his message to prepare Israel to receive the Lord? Repentance! He told even religious leaders who came for baptism that it was meaningless to baptize them for the remission of sins if they did not first repent! (Consider Matthew 3:7,8.)
What did John mean when he called Israel to repentance? Or, if people repented, what would occur? John meant two things.
First, he meant a genuine redirection of personal behavior. Luke 3:10-14 addresses the meaning of repentance. The person who had two undergarments [they looked similar to a long undershirt] should share one with the person who had no undergarment [an active compassion for the huge section of their society existing in poverty]. Those who collected taxes would cease victimizing tax payers--tax collectors would collect no more than they were instructed to take. [Tax collectors frequently used their position to steal.] Soldiers would do three things: (1) cease taking money by force; (2) cease making false accusations, and (3) be content with their wages.
Second, he meant past religious acts and rites could not be substituted for redirection of life. Matthew notes incidents when John made the following statement to the Pharisees and Sadducees, an indication he directed it toward the highest levels of religious leadership on occasions. Luke notes occasions when John made the statement to the Jewish crowds. The statement: "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father,' for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham" (Luke 3:7,8; Matthew 3:7-9).
First, a brood of vipers is a group of poisonous snakes--rather than being harmless representatives of God [as were the prophets], they were poisonous snakes. [They needed redirection!]
Second, their desire for baptism came from a fear for self preservation, not a sorrow that motivated a dedication to change. The "why" of wanting baptism was important! That "why" went beyond a desire for the remission of sins! The only acceptable motivation was a desire to repent, to redirect life! A desire to escape God's wrath was insufficient! The proper motivation for "baptism for remission of sins" was critical!
Third, if the repentance was genuine, it would be obvious in their behavior. Repentance evidences itself in the way a person lives and acts. Repentance bears fruit. Repentance's fruit is evidenced in changed behavior.
Fourth, the first century Israelite people used an alternate approach to righteousness. They believed genealogy [heritage, ancestry, "where I came from"] was the essential factor in being the people owned by God. Because Abraham was their ancient ancestor, they did not need to repent. They were a godly people because of their ancestry, not because of their behavior. They endorsed the "do you know who I am" philosophy. To John, that approach was spiritual disaster. The key to escaping God's wrath was repentance, not ancestry! John declared God could make ancestors of Abraham out of rocks. One does not exercise personal choice in ancestry--that is beyond his/her control! One exercises personal choice in repentance--producing repentance's fruits is his/her decision about the use of his/her life!
Jesus and repentance:
When Jesus began his ministry, what was his core message? Consider Matthew 4:17, "From that time Jesus began to preach and say, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.'" Repentance was central to Jesus' message in his ministry [consider Luke 15].
See the common theme: God called Israel to repentance; John called Israel to repentance; and Jesus called Israel to repentance. Does that evidence the importance of human repentance to God?
Thought and discussion questions:
Link to Teacher's Guide Lesson 5
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