Read Matthew 3:1-12
Last week we talked about how the gospel changes the heart. Zacchaeus, you might remember, was transformed in a very short time from a greedy, miserable, self-centred little man into a joyful, generous, compassionate little man. That is the power of the gospel. It is not just about changing behaviour but about being changed at the deeper heart level.
I used a quote that said, “Like Zacchaeus, we will not be transformed by the command of Jesus; we will be transformed by an experience with Jesus.” Just trying to modify behaviour doesn’t work. We know how useless New Year’s resolutions are. We can want to change our behaviour and we can resolve to change our behaviour and we can try to change our behaviour but does our behaviour change?
Well sometimes. Some people do lose weight. Some people do go to the gym 5 times a week. But they tend to be the exceptions. By-and-large our New Year’s resolutions have failed by about the second week in January. Because of that, we get disenchanted with trying to change our behaviour. People telling us to change, doesn’t produce change. Even telling ourselves to change, doesn’t produce change. And telling other people to change, doesn’t produce change.
John the Baptist was a bit of a wild man, dressed in his camel’s hair and leather belt and eating locusts and honey. In the wilderness, he cried out “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.”
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to him to be baptised, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”
Let’s notice some things about that. Firstly, his message was a call to repentance. It was a call for people to turn their lives around. Why? Because the Kingdom of God was close. “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” With Jesus, the Kingdom of God has broken into the world and, on the one hand, that meant that people would be healed, delivered, set free, befriended and transformed. There were many blessings. It was fantastic. But that is no reason to repent. Just enjoy the blessings. No repentance required.
So there must be something else happening here because the nearness of the Kingdom is the reason for repentance. The emphasis here is not on God blessing but on God judging. There is lots of judgement language in this passage. The judgement of God is a very good reason to repent. When the judge is coming, that is motivation to sort your life out. When you see a police car, you slow down, don’t you?
Maybe you think, “Well, OK, that was John’s message. He was a bit of a wild man but Jesus was different. Jesus was all about love and grace.” Well, actually Jesus’ message is summarised in 4:17 in exactly the same words that are used here to summarise John the Baptist’s message. Jesus also preached, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” And note that, in both instances, the Kingdom of Heaven was already near. This was urgent. God was at hand. Repent.
And they did. People were obviously profoundly affected by the preaching. They came from all around the region. They flooded to John and openly confessed their sins. They acknowledged before God (and before other people) that they had sinned and needed forgiveness. Then they were baptised. This was, without a doubt, a revival. God’s Spirit was moving, people were convicted, they were turning to the Lord and receiving salvation.
Many Pharisees and Sadducees apparently also believed what John was preaching. They too came for baptism but something was wrong. Something was right. They heard and believed the message about the coming judgement and they wanted to avoid it. Nobody wants to face the wrath of God. John the Baptist said to them, “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” The coming of the kingdom meant the coming of judgement. They heard that message and it resonated with them. It probably required considerable humility for them to submit to baptism in front of the crowds. They liked to think of themselves as righteous – not as sinners needing to repent. Yet they came for baptism.
Something was right but something was also wrong. John was clearly not happy with them and he challenged them. In fact, he called them a brood of vipers: a nest of snakes. His challenge to them was to produce fruit in keeping with repentance.
They were scared by the preaching of the wrath of God. They were willing to go through a somewhat humbling ceremony. But what was missing? They had not really repented. They had not experienced the heart-change. They merely hoped that by being baptised, they would escape God’s wrath. How do we know that they had not changed inwardly? A genuine inner change will result in an outer change but their lives didn’t look any different. John the Baptists said, “Show me that you have repented. Show me that you have turned your lives around. Where are the results of this supposed repentance? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. Show me the results consistent with a real life-change.”
They thought they were automatically children of Abraham – part of the family of God. They thought they were safe. But John told them not to claim that Abraham was their father. Clearly He wasn’t. No, no, no. Do not assume you are OK. “The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
That is judgement language. Again, the telling thing is the presence of fruit. The judgement will depend on the fruit.
When John the Baptist said, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” what was he referring to? What did he want to see? He wanted to see changed lives that would indicate changed hearts.
On another occasion, Jesus said that good trees produce good fruit and bad trees produce bad fruit. A healthy inside produces healthy evidence. A changed heart produces changed behaviour. “So”, John says, “if there is genuine repentance, show me the changed life.”
In Zacchaeus’ case, the inner change produced a changed life. The fruit that was in keeping with the repentance was the generosity and the concern for the poor.
I don’t know if any of you were concerned last week when I said that we are not converted by the commands of Jesus but by an experience with Jesus. Was I saying the commands of Jesus were of no use or no importance? I said the commands could not produce heart-change. Can we ignore them?
So much of the Bible is command: the law in the Old Testament, the words of the prophets, Jesus’ command, Paul’s instructions in his letters. What is the point of all those commands?
The law of God remains the law of God. Jesus said that not a jot or tittle (not the tiniest little mark or squiggle on a Hebrew letter) would ever pass away. God’s law remains. Heaven and earth would pass away but God’s word would never pass away. Jesus was very emphatic that the law remains in place.
We do need a little qualification here. Clearly some of the Old Testament laws – the ceremonial laws and the dietary laws etc – have come to an end, because Jesus fulfilled the law. We do not have to sacrifice lambs now because Jesus the Lamb of God was sacrificed once and for all. But the moral law has not changed.
God’s law remains God’s law and it has two functions. The law (Jesus’ commands, Paul’s commands…) express God’s requirements. On the one hand, God’s requirements show us how far short we fall. God requires this, this, this and this. I cannot do that. The value of that is that it makes me realise how much I need forgiveness. The law makes me aware of my own failure and drives me to the cross to seek God’s mercy. The law cannot save me because I cannot keep it. But the law does convict me of my sin. The law persuades me that I need to be saved; that I need Jesus.
Romans 3:20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.
That is a good thing! It is a very good thing to realise that I am lost without Jesus.
So, then, let’s imagine that I become a Christian. Do all those commands in the Bible have any value for me now? Yes, they do. Now they tell me how to live. What does God require of me? I look to see what the Bible says.
And now I can do what God requires. You might remember that we talked a few weeks ago about dying to sin and rising to a new life – no longer being a slave to sin but free to serve God.
Think, for example, of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. It is perhaps Jesus’ most exalted teaching. It contains all sorts of amazing ethical teaching and raises the bar way above the law. “You have heard that it was said… but I tell you. You have heard that it was said, “You shall not murder” but I tell you that even if you are angry with someone you will be subject to judgement. The law says do not commit adultery. I tell you that if you even look at a woman lustfully, you have committed adultery.”
We say, “Wow! This is impossible!” That is the point! God’s standards are impossible. Jesus’ words make me realise how far short I fall. They help me realise that I need His forgiveness. But, when I am a Christian, they give me an exalted picture of how to life in a way that pleases God – and now it is possible because I am a new person, set free from the power of sin and I have the help of the Holy Spirit.
The teaching in the Bible has two purposes: to convict me of sin and to reveal how to live.
In fact, Christians are called to live a life worthy of the gospel.
Philippians 1:27 Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ…
Ephesians 4:1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.
Think what that means. What is the gospel? Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose again. What sort of life is worthy of that? Jesus died for you. What sort of life is worthy of that? What sort of life is worthy of the fact that Jesus rose defeating death and giving to Christians the expectation of eternal salvation?
Colossians 1:13 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
What sort of life is worthy of that? In the light of that, how should you live? That is what the commands of God reveal. The gospel leads to a lifestyle. How do gospel people live?
So, for example, the first 11 chapters of Romans are about the gospel but then Chapter 12 begins like this:
Romans 12:1-2 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship.
It is a lifestyle of complete dedication to God; offer yourselves as a living sacrifice. We read the rest of Romans, or the rest of Ephesians or the rest of Colossians or the teaching of Jesus (including the Sermon on the Mount) and we find out about that lifestyle of complete dedication to God.
Think of Paul’s own life. After being converted on the road to Damascus, his whole life was dedicated to God. He endured great suffering and rejection but he kept on keeping on, travelling under extreme conditions, modelling holy living and passionate that others hear this same gospel of Jesus Christ.
You might not have been called to be a missionary like Paul. Or maybe you have. What is God calling you to? Even if it is not that life, you have been called to live a life worthy of the fact that Jesus Christ died for your sins and rose again victorious. You have been called to offer your body as a living sacrifice. You have been called to live in the way Jesus talked about and the Apostles talked about. The gospel leads to heart-change. Heart-change leads to a dedicated life. Are you living that dedicated life?