A New Message from the Wilderness
(Matthew 3:1–6 ESV) “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”
In the first two chapters of Matthew, we’ve covered roughly 2000 years of history. Matthew brings us all the way back to Abraham, and the covenant promise to bless all the peoples of the earth through him. Matthew opens today’s section with, “In those days” What he’s referring to here could be summarized in what we’ve seen thus far. The days appointed for fulfilling God’s plan, the coming of the messiah are here. These are the days of the coming of the messiah. Decades pass and we’re still in those days. Matthew now introduces another new character for us: John the Baptist.
Just a few pages back in your bible, let’s look at the last section of the last chapter of the last book of the old testament. (Malachi 4:5–6 ESV) ““Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”” This is the last prophetic word spoken in the Old Testament. Malachi’s prophesy was the beginning of a long silence from God through prophets, but the last thing he shares is that a prophet would come before the day of the Lord. Guaranteed destruction is coming he prophesied in 4:1, the proud and sinful (those who do not bow and submit) will be mown down and burned up, but there is a path for safety. Those who fear the name of the Lord will go out with joy, but only if they listen and heed the words of the prophet. Malachi is talking about John coming, he is the “Elijah” that was prophesied to come to turn hearts. Interestingly, the word here “turn” in Malachi 4 is the same word for repent in Hebrew. The consistency of this message is staggering. Even John’s father, who heard directly from the angel Gabriel that John would be the one who would “turn” the hearts of God’s people back to the Lord in Luke 1:16.
John is a preacher. He preaches repentance. The Hebrew word for repent is to turn, like a physical turning from one direction to another. We talked about this back in Ruth seeing Naomi turning away from her life in Moab and turning to Bethlehem and Israel, the promised land that God gave for Israel. The greek term is translated roughly change of mind. So we have a physical turn and a change of mind, the combination of these things is really an astounding way to convey the idea of repentance; a mind change, and a change of direction.
Our first point of this sermon is all about this repentance, a change of mind and a change of direction. Take this example. Let’s say you’re going to Wal-Mart. On your way to Wal-Mart, as you’re driving, you notice that your car is running low on fuel. As you are going you have a decision to make. Do I go to Wal-Mart first, then head to the gas station? Or do I go to the gas station first and then go to the Wal-Mart? For the sake of argument lets say that you change your mind at this point. Your original plan was to go to Wal-Mart, but now you’ve changed your mind so you’re going to go to the gas station first. Now that your mind has been changed, what happens next? Well at a certain point you’re going to have to act on your change of mind and move your vehicle from one lane of the road to another. Wal-Mart is on the west side of the road, and the gas station is on the East. If you’re going to have your change of mind matter. If you’re going to act on what you believe, you are going to get in the appropriate lane to turn toward the new destination. This is in essence what repentance is. If repentance is real, then it is belief joined with action.
Repenting is turning away from sin. It is an act of faith. Without faith in God, true repentance is impossible. Without believing, ceasing an action is just a form of asceticism or self discipline. I’m not going to do this or that from now on. On the other hand, if we have a change of mind without a change of action, then it is simply indecision. Like saying you believe one thing but ignoring that belief entirely. It’s hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is not righteousness. Self discipline is not righteousness. Faith in action is at the heart of righteousness. Remember back to Abraham. (Genesis 15:6 ESV) “And [Abram] believed the LORD, and [The LORD] counted it to [Abram] as righteousness.” No law keeping required, no circumcision necessary. His believing God, having faith that what God said was true was counted to him as righteousness. Because he believed, Abram believed God and then kept his covenant.
Repentance is active faith. Repenting is faith in action. We say no to sin and turn from it because we believe something. We believe that it is not what God wants for us. We believe that the lie that the tempter is telling us is in fact false and that a greater truth prevails. We believe that resisting temptation will benefit our relationship with God. We believe that God will be glorified, and that there is no greater purpose in the universe than God receiving glory.
John calls the people to repent because something is about to happen. The kingdom of heaven is near. The reign of heaven is coming. The king is here. Jesus has been born and he is about to show himself take up his position as sovereign over all creation, and specifically, his reign is not of this world as Jesus himself told Pilate at his trial. He’s not interested in squabbling over the hills and the cattle. God says of himself, (Psalm 50:10 ESV) “For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.” He doesn’t have to take over the earth because the earth is rightfully his already. He came to establish the kingdom of heaven in the hearts of people. That is why he draws people to himself. John is awakening people to see and to understand that their nationalism is not what guarantees them a place with God. A heart that is repentant is required. They have to be changed from the inside out. A change of mind that overflows into a change of heart. If you expect attendance in church to be sufficient to gain you paradise, to warrant you peace with the God of the universe, then you have not yet understood your sinful condition. How self centered must I be if I believe that my presence in a building and association with a group of people is enough to earn me eternity with God. It would be like saying the Minnesota Twins only play baseball if I go to Target Field.
I was talking with my friend Adam about this on Wednesday. Remember when we were kids and a new piece of furniture or an appliance would get delivered to the house? It would come on one of these massive boxes. I looked at those boxes the same way I’ve seen my own kids look at them. That empty box wasn’t empty at all. It was packed full of potential. It could be anything. Growing up in the 80’s the NASA space program was the coolest thing I could imagine. People were able to leave earth and look at it from the outside. What an amazing thing. They could be out in the darkness of space and seemingly touch the stars. I would dream of opportunities like that, and when I saw an empty cardboard box, I saw not what formerly housed a refrigerator, but the beginnings of a grand spaceship that could fly me to the moon and beyond. My imagination ran wild. Sometimes it was on its side and became a racecar, sometimes it was a secret fort. Believing that I create my own salvation by my self righteous acts is like believing that the cardboard spaceship could actually take me to Mars. The box is powerless, and so are my righteous deeds. The only righteous deed that impacts our salvation, is the one Christ did for us. His death on our behalf is the key piece that changes things for us day by day.
In verses 1 and 2, we’ve learned that John is a preacher, that he preaches repentance, and next we’re going to learn why he preaches repentance.
(Matthew 3:3–4 ESV) “For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’” Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.”
The first word of this piece, “For”, points back to the why John came preaching, and shouldn’t be confused as the reason that one should repent. We already read the reason for repentance and it is the heaviness of the reality that the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
The ground then, for the preaching of John is that he is the one prophesied of by Isaiah. Isaiah Has two basic messages in his prophesy. The first part is all about the judgement of the Lord that will come because of the covenant promises that are broken by his people. The second thing that he does is comfort and prepare his people for restoration. This passage is right at the beginning of that comfort and encouragement of the promised restoration. The Lord says to his people to be comforted because there is peace coming. Part of that comfort that is prophesied is the forerunner of the Messiah that would remind God’s people of his purposes and the coming of the Messiah. That’s who John is.
Matthew wants us to catch that in a couple of ways. In this passage Matthew points to the Isaiah passage reinforcing what was first presented in verse 1. John came preaching in the wilderness. Just like last week when we talked about Egypt, Matthew intended to make us remember the Exodus, so too there are layers of implication here that the wilderness are supposed to point us to. One of them is the wilderness wanderings. This isn’t the first time a word from the Lord has come from the wilderness. The first time it happened the Mosaic Law was handed down by God through Moses. Now a new message is coming from the wilderness. John the Baptist comes preaching repentance. Then we consider how John is described in verse 4. He is wearing a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt. Compare this to (2 Kings 1:8 ESV) “…“He wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist.”…”” Matthew isn’t being coy here, he’s telling us, this is the prophet like Elijah as was prophesied in Micah. This is him. Now we know understand that this is John and not Elijah, but it is the prophet like Elijah who was prophesied to come. Look at the rest of verse 4. Here this man is making his way off the land. Eating wild honey and locusts, one of the few lawful insects to eat, this he is seeking out his sustenance on the land, not unlike Elijah did. God had ravens bring Elijah food when he lived in the wilderness. John comes looking and living like the prophet of old. God is painting a living picture of life coming from where life isn’t. The wilderness is where things go to die, but here, out of the wilderness news of new life originates. New life that begins with repentance.
Lets go back to that Isaiah prophesy. “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’”.
John cries in the wilderness, so did Moses, so did Elijah. What does he cry? Prepare the way of the Lord. This is point two. This is kingly language. A king is coming, welcome him into the city. Prepare the roads that the king will tread when he comes into his kingdom. How is the way of the Lord prepared? By making his paths straight. Now we talked in the last point about the kingdom that Jesus is coming into his reign over a kingdom of repentant hearts. People who will bow to his kingship over their hearts and lives. What is the path to hearts if that is what he is coming to reign over? Answer: it is making our wills submissive to him. We raise up the low places and lower the high places and make the path of God straight. That’s what preparing the way of the Lord is about. We’re not talking about calling up Moyer Mowing to do some heavy duty landscaping. It’s about dying to self and living for him. That’s the path that true repentance sets us on. God seeks us out and we respond to him with a hearty “Yes Lord.”
Preparing the way of the Lord is submitting to his will. He wants to be Lord of our lives. Not just one aspect of our life. Not just one area. But over our whole lives. Submission to God begins with repentance. It begins with understanding that we have been going the wrong way in every aspect of our lives. Enemies of God but even while we were enemies, God sought us out because he loves us and desires to be with us. This is preparing the way the Lord. This is what making the path straight looks like. Every surrender of our lives is repentance in action.
Now the last section of scripture. (Matthew 3:5–6 ESV) “Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”
Geographically, we’re looking at an expanding map. We started in verse one in the wilderness of Judea. This is outside the city. In the countryside, but now Matthew draws our attention to the city of Jerusalem itself. He says, Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the region about the Jordan. So let’s put this in terms we can understand a little better. Lets say you work with Pastor Brian and put on one of these amazing outreach events together and God blesses it beyond all our dreams. Then Waverly, and all Bremer Country, and all the Cedar Valley would come out to it. Now this isn’t to compare Waverly to Jerusalem, but to help us understand the concept. The draw to see John was staggering, alarming even. There was no facebook event telling everyone to come. They didn’t have the Printery around to make flyers and invitation cards. This is word of mouth, a real “God at work” kind of drawing that made people stop what they were doing and come.
And when they came out they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. We’re going to cover baptism more thoroughly in a couple weeks, but as I said in our study of 1 Peter, this is a picture of judgement. There have been many waters of judgement. We think about the flood, the crossing the red sea, the crossing of the Jordan River. We also think about the ritual purification that took place at the temple, but of particular interest is the process of an outsider becoming part of the people of God. If a sojourner, or foreigner came to Israel, learned about YHVH and wanted to be part of the community, God instructed his people to take them in. Part of the becoming part of the community was a ritual whole body washing. If you wanted to become a Jew, you had to do this cleansing. John is implying that the “contemporary Jewish society is no longer truly constituting the holy people of God.” Next week as we study the next passage we’re going to hear John call out the Pharisees for their ignorance and lack of fruit. But for now we are seeing droves of people coming out of the city and from all over the countryside to see John. They are preparing the way of the Lord. They are repenting of their sins and being baptized. But even more than that, they are confessing their sins to one another. This isn’t some kind of absolution process where they go into a confession chamber with a priest and privately confess. They are publicly declaring their sins to one another. This is testimony language.
Point three of this message from the wilderness is confession. God calls us to this. It’s so easy for us to follow the secular trend to fake it till you make it. We tend to think that if we can hide our weaknesses then we’ll advance in position. That’s not the example that Christ gives for us. Some of you are smart enough and perceptive enough to think you know enough of what is going on in a situation to put together a bunch of half truths and present it as though you know what is going on. That’s deception, and it needs repentance. Some of us pretend like we’ve got it all together when in reality we’re using every ounce of strength to hold up a shield and keep a mask on, because if we let them down for a second, then someone might figure out that we’re really broken inside. That’s deception, and it needs repentance. Some of us are outright lying to ourselves and our family about our spiritual walk. I’m fine, you say, thinking that eventually you’ll get everything really sorted and it will someday be true. That’s deception and it needs repentance. What is the connection between repentance and confession? It’s the last thing that we’re hiding, because we’re so worried about others knowing the truth and how it might change what they think of us. Let me present this argument for why that might be a good thing, contrary to popular belief.
First, as a community of believers, we can’t care for one another’s weaknesses if we don’t know them. Confessing our sins reveals our weaknesses. Think of prayer concerns. If I don’t tell anyone that I’m suffering under a medical condition, then who will pray for me for that situation? No one. On the other hand, if you start seeing me loose weight quickly and appearing weak, your eyes are going to tell you, something’s wrong, and you’ll be praying for me. But if I loose weight quickly and appear weak and ask you for prayer for my illness, then you’re going to be praying for me even more effectively and specifically. I use illness as a simple example because its an evidence of human physical frailty. None of us have never been sick. Its one of those realities that we all just have to deal with. In the same way sin is one of those realities that we all have to deal with. None of us are immune to sin and its effects. But that doesn't stop us from pretending. Some of us are really good at it. Acting like nothing is ever wrong. Life is just a dream, no spiritual struggles. Nothing to confess. We’re lying to each other. We’re concealing the truth, and confessing is by definition speaking the truth. Confessing says, I’ve been living a lie. I act like things are one way and in reality they are not. This is the fruit of repentance. Repentance leads to confession, confession leads to reconciliation with one another. Repentance begins with faith. If you have reason to repent, then you have reason to confess, and if you are in this room with blood pumping through your veins and thoughts moving in your mind, then you are of of the people on the planet that needs repentance. Just to clarify what I mean by that, leet me say it more explicitly. We are all in need of repentance, and therefore we are all in need of confession.
Here’s where the problem comes in for so many of us. Confession is a position of vulnerability. I’m not saying everyone’s dirty laundry needs to be a matter of public record today. That day is coming at the judgement. There’s no hiding it from anyone then. And in reality, there’s no hiding it from God today anyway. But how does confessing to one another work in our lives? How do we do this and still have respect? The answer is on the front of your bulletin, and the sign by the road. It is grace. Because of grace, that amazing reality of the gospel, we can confess in safety. That vulnerability is right. Author and Pastor Michael Horton said, “The Gospel frees us to confess our sins without fear of condemnation.” We have to pull ourselves along at some point and say I really believe this is true and I’m going to start living like it. The same faith that tells you that there are things to repent of, also tells you because of the gospel you can confess your sins and know peace and reconciliation because of it. Some of our sins are against each other. All of our sins are against the Lord. Confession brings peace between us and each other and between us and the Lord.
Think about it this way. Let’s say you were sinned against by someone in this room. Now of course, that would never happen here, but lets just say it did. Now you know you’ve been injured, hurt by the sin of someone else against you. You can forgive them without them ever saying anything to you at all. That’s overlooking a sin. Let’s say that you did exactly that. But lets say that that person felt convicted about that sin maybe it was something said behind your back that somehow they heard about. Or maybe it was a lie that they thought would be kinder than telling the truth. You may overlook that sin, but it affects the relationship none the less. Now watch what happens when confession takes place. That person in the conviction of the Holy Spirit and their conscience comes to you and says, I hurt you. I said something untrue about you or to you. I’ve sinned against God and against you, and I need to confess. I’m sorry. Will you please forgive me? Confession brings freedom. Confession brings peace. Before there may have been forgiveness of overlooking an offense, but that confession brought peace to that situation that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.
Repentance leads to confession. By making peace with each other and with God we are making the way straight for him. We are declaring his glory and worth to the world around us. We are saying the temporary discomfort of repentance and confession is worth the freedom of heart and the glory that goes to God when we live out his grace to one another.
On the flip side, what are we saying if we refuse? If we say we have nothing to repent for then we say Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf was worthless and needless. If we say I’ve repented but have no need for confession, we’re effectively saying that the Gospel can save us, but its not enough to keep me safe.
We need confession as much as we need repentance. How can we exist as the body of Christ if we can’t have unity as a body. Either Christ is enough for us, or God is lying. If I need Christ and the mask over my face concealing the truth, then I call God a liar and am lacking faith.
Let me close this way. Confession is an act of faith just like repentance is. We stretch ourselves. Each time a little more. Every step of the way our sanctification in the Holy Spirit is increasing. Our spiritual maturity grows and we become a more free people than we were before. How long do you want to carry that baggage that is weighing down your heart. How much longer will you hold that burden close to yourself. Find freedom in Christ today.
You’re going to go back to your normal grind tomorrow. Those relationships that have been fractured over and over again over the years. Do something different this week. Live out the love of Christ offering freedom through confession. Be healed and offer healing in Christ so that his name will be glorified. My name is nothing. It is Christ who forgives. I have hope and freedom to confess the truth of my need and weakness to those around me. Confess your sins to one another and find joy.