John the Baptist came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2). But what did John expect people to do and why? When we preach the gospel in the West, we tend to tell people to repent but we don’t seem to really think that it is necessary. “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you shall be saved!” we say, “It’s that simple!” And it is that simple. But believing in Jesus as the Lord or as Messiah is not what we think it is. To us, “Lord” and “Messiah” are more or less honorific titles that we grant to Jesus to show that we think He is a good guy. Many Muslims, Jews, and Hindus believe this too, but they are not Christians. To repent of something means to turn away from it and go in the other direction. But this sounds too much to us like “works” and so we rarely attempt an explanation. But John was not vague in what he meant by “repent” and neither should we be.
And the crowds questioned him (John), saying, “Then what shall we do?” And he would answer and say to them, “The man who has two tunics is to share with him who was none; and he who has food is to do likewise.” And some tax collectors also came to be baptized and they said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.” Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not take money from anyone by force or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.” Luke 3:10-14 These are practical and specific commands. But why was John making these demands of the people of Israel? Was he teaching them to attempt to earn their way into heaven? No! That was not on John’s to do list. John was preparing people for the incoming of heaven to earth, not the other way around! This is a major problem in our thinking and in our exegesis of the scripture. We assume that the ultimate goal for humanity is to arrive in heaven on the final day. But that is not the ultimate goal for humanity according to the scriptures, and according to people we encounter in the scriptures, such as John the Baptist. John was preparing people to be ready to act when God established His Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven because God had always promised that He was going to set the world right through the family of Abraham. “And in you (Abraham) all the families of the earth will be blessed.” Genesis 12:3 This promise was based on God’s action but it would be an action carried out through God’s people. That is why John called the people to repentance so that they might be focused and ready to cooperate with the work that God was doing in the person of Jesus. Ultimately it was Jesus, the one truly faithful Israelite, who carried out God’s purposes through Israel to their intended destination. Jesus carried God’s promises, God’s people, and God’s creation, through death and out the other side into the new creation. But He didn’t then rescind the calling of Israel to be the light of the world. Rather, after His resurrection, Jesus said to His followers “As the Father sent me into the world, so I send you…Receive the Holy Spirit.” John 20:21, 22. If our calling to be the light of the world is still in place, then our calling to repent in order to cooperate with God’s purposes for His world is also still in place. This is not so that we can earn our way into heaven but so that the life of heaven can come through us without hindrance. We can be cooperative agents through whom God can establish His rule and reign on the earth as it is in heaven, just as God did in and through Jesus. This is, in fact, why Jesus sent us the Holy Spirit, so that He could help us become those cooperative agents for His Kingdom in a way previously unattainable. We are not the solution to the problem of evil in ourselves, but Christ in us is indeed
the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27). So, repent and believe the gospel!