Repentance and Faith
“Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:2; 4:17).
The difference between John the Baptist and Jesus is striking. The Bible portrays John as a prophet of old who dresses strangely, eats locusts, and is distant from people. Jesus is portrayed as being among the people and easily approachable. Although John and Jesus were quite different, both men had the same message. Both proclaimed, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.” Repentance was at the core of their message. Their call to repentance was urgent because the kingdom of heaven, together with judgment, was near. Although their message was the same, their work addressed different aspects of repentance. John’s efforts addressed the question, “What shall we do?” Jesus’ work focused on “How shall we do it?”
The passage in Luke 3 gives us a clear picture of John’s ministry. John was going about the regions of the Jordan River proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (v.3). When religious leaders witnessed what was happening, John yelled out to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” His warning to them was stern. Only “fruit-bearing” actions resulting from repentance would keep them from the flames of God’s wrath. As John said, “Every tree, therefore, that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10).
Right after John’s interaction with the religious leaders, some who came to be baptized asked, “What shall we do?” Luke 3:11-14 records John’s response:
John answered, “He who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
If we were to summarize John’s response, it would be “stop doing what is wrong and start doing what is right.” When asked, “What is right?” John’s response was for them to do what is ethically and morally acceptable to God. His answer gives insight into the evidence of repentance. The evidence of repentance is found in outward activities that stem from an inward change of character. John was telling his hearers to prove their repentance through charity, honesty, mercy, and contentment. What was missing in John’s message was how to continue this character change after baptism. He pointed to the answer when he said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
There is no adequate way to summarize Jesus’ ministry on earth, but his inaugural address in Luke 4 provides help. After Jesus took the scroll in the synagogue, he read from the place in Isaiah, saying:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor” (Luke 4:18-19). While one could take these words as ethically inclined, the truth is they are spiritual in nature. Jesus’ message wasn’t about alleviating poverty or freeing prisoners any more than it was about healing physical blindness or ending physical oppression. His message proclaimed good news to those who were poor in spirit and mourned over their captivity to sin. The good news that Jesus proclaimed was that He had come to set humanity free from sin’s oppression, removing its death grip and ultimate penalty.
Jesus proclaimed the Lord’s favor as God’s only Son, saying: “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin. [However,] if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:34-36). Jesus had come as Savior to set people free of sin and its penalty. That work would be fulfilled upon the cross, saving all who would believe in Him.
The book of Acts records the words of Paul, saying he did “not shrink back” from testifying about “repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 20:20-21).” In the same speech, he later uses the same phrase saying, “I did not shrink back from declaring to you the whole will of God” (Acts 20:27). The whole will of God for us is this: We are to repent from our sinful ways toward the righteous ways of God, fighting against sin daily by placing our faith in Jesus Christ.