“And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” (Luke 3:3)
The third chapter of Luke introduces us to the work of John the Baptist. John was a cousin to Jesus, born in the hill country of Judea about six months before his more famous relative.
As the son of a priest, John was supposed to enter into the work of the temple on his thirtieth birthday. God, however, had different plans for John. John grew up to be a rough hewn character who wore strange outfits made of camel’s hair. He lived on a diet of locusts and honey.
One day, John began preaching to the people along the banks of the Jordan River. He came as a new sensation to the people of Judea. Everybody wanted to hear him. Upon hearing him they were reminded of the prophets of old— Elijah, who had spoken in sentences that fell like thunderbolts; Isaiah, who spoke of condemnation and hope; and Ezekiel, whose words struck the heart like lightning.
And so, the people came to hear John preach. The priestly came from Hebron; the Pharisees came from Jerusalem. From every city and village the people rushed to the desert sanctuary to hear John the Baptist preach. The long-silent Spirit of God was speaking. The chain of prophecy, which seemed to have ended four hundred years earlier with the prophet Malachi, had again been formed.
They gathered, trembling and awestruck, around this strangely dressed man listening to his message. “Can this be the dawn of the Messiah’s coming?” they asked one another. “Is this the Messiah who was promised to our fathers?” John the Baptist very quickly renounced their claims saying, “I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I comes, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke 3:16).
John the Baptist was a forerunner, that is, one who runs ahead to announce the coming of the honored guest. His role was a lot like the role of a courier for a king. Whenever a king would propose to tour a part of his dominion, he would send a courier ahead of him to tell the people to prepare for his coming. Upon hearing that the king was coming, the people would fix the roads, clean their houses, plant flowers, and do all that was possible to make everything look pretty for the king who was coming. In a way, John the Baptist is that kind of courier for the King. The Messiah is coming, and John tells the people to get ready. Except that John does not tell the people to clean up their streets and their homes; he tells them to clean up their lives.
A Very Simple Method
John used a very simple, time tested method to get the people prepared for the coming of the Christ, a method proven over and over again through the ages to be effective: he preached to them. John was a preacher, and a very powerful one, at that.
There are many people today who speak against the power of preaching. They no longer think that preaching is important, nor do they believe that it can have any effect on the lives of people. Some proclaim (yes, ironically, they preach) that the Spirit of God has left the church and preaching is no longer valid. There are those who would like to put a moratorium on preaching and suggest that the evening worship service should be spent doing something else.
I would argue that for preaching that is careless and half-hearted we do not need a moratorium—we need a morgue. But to say that we need a moratorium on all preaching is to have a lack of understanding for the power of the spoken word.
The power of the spoken word is incredible. If you would read about the impact that mighty orators have upon their audiences, you would not doubt the power contained in the spoken word. Winston Churchill inspired people to heroic resistance through his speeches. Who can forget the words of President F. Roosevelt’s inaugural address in 1933: “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself”? Adolph Hitler aroused the German people through his speeches and led them to a destructive and demonic nationalism long before the United States and Canada ever became involved in World War II.
Some will argue that that does not happen anymore. Tell that to the people who participated in Promise Keepers or a Right to Life March in Washington, D.C.. Tell that to young people after they return from an RYS convention. Say what you will about televangelists, but you have to admit that they captivate their audience. They know the power of speech and they use it to their advantage.
Add to that power of speech the power of the Holy Spirit, and you will understand the power of John the Baptist’s preaching. People came from far and wide to hear him. The message that he was proclaiming was the message of God: “Repent and be forgiven.” John called the people to repent from their sins and to sin no more.
In repentance the people professed their sins and they would promise to make good all their evil deeds. The rich were called upon to share with the poor; the tax collector was called to be fair; judges were called to be just. All who came were called to return stolen property, apologize for an offense, take back false accusations. John called upon the people to cast away all their transgressions and make new their hearts. He called them to live new lives.
The design of his message was to make people devout and pious; holy and humble; meek and sober; just and honest; generous and kind. To be any of those, they needed to repent. It was the same message Ezekiel had preached some five hundred years earlier: “Turn yourself away from your transgressions so that your iniquity will not be your ruin!”
A Very Simple Message
That same, very simple message is just as relevant today as it was when John the Baptist preached it so many years ago: “Repent and be forgiven.” The word “repent” has fallen on hard times today. It has become so watered down that we hardly know the meaning of the word anymore.
People applaud preachers who preach about faith and the love of God. The fastest growing church movement today has this to say about God’s love: “God is love. Love is ultimate reality. Love is absolute. Wherever people love, they live in the reality of God. Loving a neighbor, an enemy, or the environment is living in the reality of God” (Postmodern Liberalism: Repainting a Non-Christian Faith - An Evangelical Critique of Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis by Rev. C. Freswick available through Reformed Fellowship). Today we applaud preachers for their quest for truth. Rob Bell, a leader in the Emergent Church, states emphatically that there is no such thing as absolute truth, which, in and of itself, would be false even by his own definition. And yet, he is the minister of one of the fastest growing churches in Western Michigan. This is what people want to hear today.
Preach about sin and the need for repentance and people will say that the preacher is old-fashioned. That may be true, but what needs to be preached today is the old-fashioned gospel! What needs to be preached is the grass that will not wither; the flower that does not fade, that is, the Word of God that stands forever.
That Word calls us to repentance. The sinner must take his stand with God and join God in condemning his own sin and seeking the mercy of the living Triune God. That was the message that John the Baptist was trying to get across; that is the message that needs to be proclaimed today. There can be no real sending away of sin until we recognize our own sin and are repulsed by it.
A Very Simple Meaning
The very simple message of John had a very simple meaning: get ready for the One who is coming. Do not straighten out your roads; straighten out your lives. John was the forerunner of the Christ. He was the voice crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way for the Lord; make straight the paths for Him.”
That is the message that needs to be proclaimed today, as well. Prepare the way for the Lord. Straighten out your life. Repent, believe, and be saved. Get ready for the divine One who is coming again to judge the living and the dead.
Repentance means a complete turning around of your life. No one can be prepared for the coming of the Lord without repentance. No change of personality is going to take place unless there is a genuine sorrow in the heart for your sin and a turning to Jesus for forgiveness.
When we repent of our sins we take God’s side against ourselves and the wickedness that we have within us. When we reform ourselves by the grace of God and repent of our sins by turning to Jesus Christ, true reformation can take place within us and the joy of Christ will fill our hearts. Then, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we shall know the joy of being cleansed by Christ.
Rev. Wybren Oord is the pastor of the Covenant United Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He is also the editor of The Outlook.