In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
… People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.” (verses 1-3, 5-9)
“Repent.” Such a simple message. It means to have a change of mind that leads to a change of behaviour – a reorientation of life, no longer facing in your own direction, confident in yourself, following your own path, but turning instead to face the Lord. Hence, when he comes, you’ll be looking in the right direction, prepared to meet him.
“The Kingdom of heaven is near.” What greater motivation could there be? The Jewish people had yearned for this day, the time when God’s rule and reign would be fully experienced. Here, now, is the open door.
Clearly, many people in John’s day found this to be incredibly good news. They came from Jerusalem and Judea and the region of the Jordan, eager to hear, eager to respond. They repented and confessed their sins, turning from their waywardness and turning back to God. They demonstrated it by being baptized in the Jordan River, the very waters that Naaman, commander of the King of Aram, had despised so many years earlier when he sought cleansing from his leprosy. But once he submitted, he was healed. So now, those who heard John’s message submitted also to Jordan-baptism, repenting of sin, turning to God, and seeking forgiveness and cleansing.
Many did. But the religious elite did not. They came to the Jordan, also, but not humbly. Rather, as John the Evangelist tells us in his Gospel, they came to pin the Baptist against the wall with questions, pressing him on his identity and methods. Their lack of personal response to his message betrayed their skepticism and latent hostility.
But they, too, needed to repent. They had produced “fruit,” yes, but of self-righteousness rather than repentance, proudly relying on their scholarly learning, their adherence to legalism, and their national heritage as children of Abraham. But they, too, needed to repent. They needed to turn round, to have a change of mind, allowing the scales to fall off blind eyes, in order to see their own shortcomings and neediness and sin. They needed repentance.
But it didn’t happen. They didn’t turn. So they weren’t prepared when the Lord himself came. Which then set them up for an ongoing series of confrontational interactions with the very one who had come to save them. And then, of course, they themselves were instrumental in his execution.
It’s a cautionary tale. Humble repentance is the ongoing stance of Kingdom life. So, embrace the attitude of those who plunged beneath the waters of Jordan. Keep turning, afresh, in the direction of the King.
Lord Jesus, I choose to have eyes on you. Soften my heart by the presence of your Spirit to keep me sensitive to my ongoing need to keep turning back in your direction. Give me eyes to see my waywardness, my sin. Strengthen me to repent. Refresh me with straight paths toward you.
Reflect: How regular is your pattern of confession of sin? Keep short accounts. Turn back to him constantly. (Take time to do so now.)