Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.
Augustine of Hippo
The Double-Edged Sword of Expectations: Expectations are, at their core, necessary but dangerous. They are necessary because they enable us to dream of a better future, but dangerous when they become unrealized. These unmet expectations, when they fester, can turn into petty conflict all the way up to large-scale revolutions. They provide the kindling that, when consistently ignored, can become a great conflagration of unrest and violence.
Biblical historians, drawing primarily from the Jewish writer Josephus, have demonstrated just how dangerous were the unmet expectations of John and Jesus’ times. Militaristic messiahs and their zealous followers were a dime a dozen at the time, regularly calling upon Israel’s faithful to take up arms against their imperial overlords. It is against this backdrop that our text takes place.
Waiting Expectantly: Luke begins our passage by telling us “the people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah.” (vs.15) This was no passive waiting, but an active, restless desire for change, so powerful that it drove them out into the wilderness to meet a prophet named John. I can imagine being one of those people, those countless throngs that made their way out to meet this bizarre prophet John who lived off a steady diet of insects and wild honey.
“You never can tell what a prophet might say,” a friend or family member might argue as they reluctantly make their way out into the desolate wilderness.” And such fears were not unfounded. “You brood of vipers!” John proclaims to the crowd, “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? (vs.7) Can you imagine going to Sunday worship and the pastor beginning with that?
John’s Prophetic Ministry: But I would imagine, deep down, many understood why John preached such a challenging message. All around them was a living menagerie of their disobedience to Yahweh. One foreign power after another claiming sovereignty over them, God’s own people. The Jewish path to restoration would always go through the righteous worship of the one true God, and so John, like his prophetic predecessors, preaches a baptism of repentance. And when he is asked, “are you the messiah,” he faithfully argues that no, he is simply the one who makes clear the path for the true messiah to arrive. The one who will baptize not with water, but with “the Holy Spirit and fire. (vs.16)
This baptism (of fire and spirit) represents a cleansing force that will enable a fresh expression of God’s people to grow in faith and power, not by worldly standards, but by God’s very presence.
John’s prophetic ministry is not for the poor or even the rich, but for all who claim a relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As Darrel L. Bock notes, “John’s message reaches the upper echelon of society, and no one escapes his penetrating call to repent.” (NIVAC Commentary Series, Zondervan, 1996) John’s message, which remains for us today, is that no one is entitled to God’s favor.
A Rebuke to Entitled Religion: You can’t simply say, “I come from the tribe of_______” therefore I am God’s chosen. In the same way, we can’t say, “I am a good Presbyterian/Catholic/Methodist/Evangelical, etc. I go to church regularly,” therefore God will bless me. True Righteousness comes of course from Christ alone, but that righteousness ought to lead to fruit, fruit that, John argues just a bit earlier in chapter 3, “that leads to repentance.” (vs.8)
This is the lesson of John’s teaching, which ultimately leads to Jesus himself being baptized. The text tells us that “the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (vs.22) And herein lies the tension we must always keep when describing the Christian life.
Jesus, as far as we can tell, has performed no miracles, begun no earthly ministry, and yet God say to him, “This is my son; with you I am well pleased.” There is a message of unconditional love here, agape love, that leads God to say such words about Jesus. These are words that many people hope God will say to them when they enter eternity, myself included. So we must maintain this paradox, that God working in us ought to produce fruit, a fruit that leads to repentance and ultimately the sanctification of God’s people.
Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. His primary passion is equipping the saints for the ministry of the church (Ephesians 4). He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.
In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golf, reading a good book, and watching baseball.
Lack of repentance is the root cause of powerlessness in the church, in this materialistic, self-indulgent age. There can be no spiritual power in a non-repentant church.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
A Deep Breath and a Turn
There is an interesting history of the word repentance. The word in Hebrew means originally “to take a deep breath and sigh.” A deep feeling of sorrow, of remorse. Repentance at the root, at the very beginning, seems to have the idea that you realize that you have done something wrong and you feel badly about it. And you feel it deeply; it gets down deep inside you, and you groan or sigh or you breathe deeply.
All of us know how that works. We know that part of repentance. We know the part that has to do with our feelings. The interesting thing is that use of the word didn’t last long in the Bible. Very quickly the writers began to substitute another word for the same action, and this other word meant “return” or “turn around and go.”
Not a word of feeling at all, but a word of action. Under the influence of the prophets, repentance became not something you felt but something you did. And it’s essential you get that through your head if you are going to understand what the Bible means about repentance. You don’t repent by taking a deep breath and then feel better.
You repent only when you turn around and go back or toward God. It doesn’t make any difference how you feel. You can have the feeling, or you don’t have to have the feeling. What’s essential is that you do something. The call to repentance is not a call to feel the remorse of your sins. It’s a call to turn around so that God can do something about them.