July 19 2009 Preparing for the Messia


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"Preparing for the Messia."


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This morning we’ll look at the man who Jesus said was “the greatest man born of woman.”  From Luke’s gospel, we want to see what God will teach us through the ministry of John the Baptist.  John came to prepare God’s people for the coming of the Lord Jesus and   he comes at a unique moment in salvation history and preaches to a unique group of people.  Still, we can today glean important truths that will enable us to know how to live more faithfully to God and how God through his word prepares a sinner’s heart to receive the forgiveness Christ offers.  As we read earlier John quotes Isaiah chapter 40 to announce that purpose of preparation.  He says, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  Every valley shall be lifted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become levels ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” God prophesies that he will send John to remove the obstructions that would hinder people from coming to Jesus.  He uses this geographical language to convey this--every valley will be elevated to sea level—the mountains and hills will be flattened, the crooked roads shall be straightened ones, the rough places, leveled. The purpose of all of this spiritual excavation is so that all flesh—people from every people group (but beginning with the Jews) will be able to have a clear vantage point from which to view the salvation of God seen in his Son, Jesus Christ.

That begs the question, “What are those obstructions that obscure people from having a clear view of Jesus Christ?”  The main one is revealed later in Isaiah in a very similar passage.  In chapter 57:14, in a passage that teaches what is required for a sinful people to come to God, the prophet says, “And it shall be said, “Build up, build up, prepare the way, remove every obstruction from my people’s way.”  For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy; “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”  Do you hear what he is saying?  He’s saying two main things—1. “prepare the way for my people to come to me and 2. I am holy and that means that I dwell with those who are contrite and lowly in spirit—I revive the lowly and contrite.”

John’s role within salvation history was to bring a message that would prepare God’s people (and all flesh) for the Messiah by humbling them through a very pointed, prophetic message exposing their great sin and calling them to repentance.  Another clue that tells us that the purpose of John’s ministry was for spiritual preparation through humbling is--the venue in which John’s ministry takes place.  Did you ever wonder why the gospel writers make a point of telling us that John ministered in the wilderness?  This is surely a terrible evangelistic strategy.  Doesn’t John know that if you want to influence a culture, you must take your message to the cities?  The reason John was in the wilderness is because in the Bible, the wilderness or the desert was seen as the place where God prepares his people.  The Jews after the Exodus were led by God into the wilderness to be prepared to enter the Promised Land. 

How does God use the wilderness to prepare his people?  Moses tells them why God had brought them into the wilderness in Deuteronomy 8:3. “And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mount of the LORD.”  Before entering the Promised Land, the Jews must know that the bread they need in order to live is not fundamentally physical, material bread—true life is not found in the temporal things of this world like food—it is found in the eternal Word of God.  Do you see the connection with John?  So here Jesus on the stage of world history about to make his entrance—and he comes as the bread of heaven—THE Word of God who gives life to all who believe in him.  In order to receive him, you must be humbled and see that your essential need has nothing to do with the things of this world.  It’s spiritual—our essential need is to be made right with God because we have a massive sin problem.  John’s wilderness venue for ministry was chosen intentionally to help communicate that the nature of his ministry was to prepare God’s people for the Messiah by humbling them to see their devastating need for him. 

Now that we have a lens through which to look at John and his ministry, I find three elements of his ministry of preparation—all of which involve humbling his hearers.  First, he calls them to repentance.  Repentance is a large Biblical theme and entire books have been devoted to it, but to repent is to turn away from your sin—by God’s grace, to turn away from the things of this world and reorient yourself to God.  This is a radical change in a person’s orientation from self to God, from sin to obedience.  This change begins in how we think or the attitudes we have toward sin and God, but that change in thinking or attitude always works its way out to how we live. 

Repentance is a very important theme to Luke.  He emphasizes repentance in both his gospel and in Acts.  In his version of the Great Commission he says, “...Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”  When Peter preaches his first sermon in Acts and his hearers are cut to the heart over their sin and ask Peter and the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” his response to them in Acts 2:38 is, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  Paul is preaching to the Greek intellectuals in Athens and says in Acts 17:30, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.”  Luke, and more importantly the Holy Spirit who inspired Luke, would have no tolerance for those today in the church who teach that repentance is not an essential part of salvation.  As we see from the ministry of John the Baptist, a repentant heart is necessary to receive Jesus.

I see at least two truths about repentance revealed in Luke’s portrayal of John’s ministry.  First, in order for repentance to occur, you must by God’s grace see yourself as God does.  After John announces his mission by quoting Isaiah chapter 40, we read in verse seven, “He said therefore to the crowds that come out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers…”  In order to see just how chilling these words are, we need to hear them the way John’s audience heard them.  John literally calls the crowds “ You offspring of vipers” or “baby vipers” and that’s significant.  The viper that most people knew about in that area was the called the Nicander’s viper[1].  This snake was renowned for its nastiness.  After mating, the female bites the head off the male and the baby snakes give some payback to their mother.  When they were ready to be born they would eat their way out of their mother’s womb.  THAT creature is what John likens these crowds to.

We must understand that John was speaking as a prophet of God here which means he is speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  That implies that God characterizes these people who had come out to John as a “brood of vipers.”  This wasn’t just a loud man dressed like Elijah calling them this; this was the God Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who was comparing them to nasty snakes.  God intends this to be a cold, hard slap in the face of his people who had been spiritually snoozing and living just like the rest of the world.  They had not been seeing their sin or themselves as God did and therefore they felt no burden to repent.

This truth exposes something about much of what passes for evangelism in North America.  Jesus is often peddled as being the answer to our financial, emotional or domestic problems—as the key to a prosperous and happy life.  People who come to Jesus fundamentally on those grounds cannot possibly be saved because as we have seen, Jesus did not come to make our world any easier, he came because we are born into this world (as Whitefield said) as “monsters of iniquity” who desperately need our sins forgiven.  The ground of the human heart must by God’s grace be softened and made humble through the recognition of our need of a Savior before it will receive Christ.  There is application here for believers as well. Many in the church struggle to overcome a stubborn sin for years unsuccessfully because they have not repented of it and one reason they have repented of it is because they haven’t seen in as God sees it.  They know its “wrong” and at some level they feel bad about it, but that is not the same as seeing it from God’s perspective. 

The understanding that I am doing something “wrong” has never led me to the godly sorrow that brings repentance.  People pray about certain stubborn sins for years because they are troubled in their conscience and don’t like that so they pray for freedom.  But if you pray for awhile about a sin and you are not seeing progress, that would seem to indicate that prayer alone is not enough.  Have you humbled yourself by going to someone you know who, when you confess your sin to them, will shoot straight with you--who will lovingly put the word of God on you.  Duncan, what you are doing is selfish—do you see what you are doing to those who love you—James says in chapter two…”  We don’t have many friends like that—we tend not to want those people in our inner circle.  Or, when we are struggling with a sin we can’t get free of, do we go to those sections of the Word of God that specifically speak to those areas of sin and immerse ourselves with God’s mind on it, crying out that we would see our sin as God does?  That can by God’s grace allow us to experience the godly sorrow that leads to repentance. 

A second truth about repentance seen in John’s ministry is genuine repentance always brings a fruit-bearing change in the life of the repentant.  Notice that the command John issues here is not “Repent!”  No, the command part of verse eight and is “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.”  The command is to “bear fruits,” which always happens when you repent.  Something always changes when we repent—an attitude, a desire, an action changes and fruit replaces sin.  If an attitude, desire or action hasn’t changed, then you have not repented.  This is what separates repentance from remorse.  In remorse, you just feel badly.  In repentance, fruit is produced.  In response to John’s call to repentance in Luke three, three different groups ask him what this fruit of repentance looks like in their case.  First the crowds ask him in verse ten, “What then shall we do?” And he answered the, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.  The word used for “tunic” was used for the undergarment worn under your outer tunic.  Most people back then didn’t have discretionary income like we do--so if they had anything that was extra, it was in places like their closets or their food pantries. John says, “Show the fruit of a changed heart by giving away what extra you have to those in need.”  This call is very hard for us to appreciate in America because our houses are filled with extra things. We count extra not as extra, but as necessary.  It’s necessary because, “What if I should need it someday?  What if I should run out?” 

Repentance is always marked by the presence of faith and often, sacrifice.  If you give your spare undergarment away, then the one you keep will wear out twice as quickly as if you had two.  If you have no discretionary income, you will have to trust God for the money to buy another one in half the time.  If it gets dirty, you will have to wash it immediately if you want to wear it the next day.  The same faith and sacrifice is seen when a person with no discretionary income gives away their extra food.  You have to trust God for any future needs.  It’s no coincidence that in Acts 2:45, Luke mentions that one of the marks of a repentant church is seen in their willingness to sacrificially meet the material needs of other believers.  He reports, “And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.”  A repentant heart is a trusting, sacrificial, generous heart.

The tax collectors, who frequently abused their office by collecting far more than they were entitled, ask John, “what then shall we do?”  And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” This will mean a significant decrease in income for many of them.  To be a tax collector was basically a license to steal and the Jews hated them so much they excommunicated people for being tax collectors.[2]  You made a lot of money this way.  John doesn’t tell these men to quit their jobs.  He tells them to bear fruits seen in collecting only what was required.  Finally, the soldiers asked, “What then shall we do?  These soldiers were almost certainly what we today would call police. They were Jews and who served under the Roman authorities.  They had some authority and many abused it by intimidation and extortion. John tells them that in their case bearing fruit meant, “do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”

Notice he confronts these police in two areas.  First, he tells them that they were not to (literally) “shake people down” through extortion by threats and false charges, but he also confronts their underlying heart attitudes.  These soldiers made only enough to meet their basic needs but if they abused their authority they could get much more.  John tells them that repentance for them looks like this--“be content with your wages.”  You earn enough—be content—don’t covet after what God hasn’t given you and you won’t be tempted to abuse your authority.  Notice with all three groups, John’s call to repentance will bear fruit in ways that impact the pocket book.  You will have to buy clothing or food more frequently if you give away your extras.  In the case of the collectors and the soldiers, repentance would have a significant impact on their bottom lines.  What connects all these fruits of repentance is being genuinely concerned for those around you.  A repentant, humbled heart is one that increasingly inclines you to live for other people.  Those people are sensitized to the needs of others and not only refuse to take advantage of others; they also do what they can to meet the needs of others.  Micah says in 6:8, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?  That’s a good summary of what John’s call to repentance looks like.
           A second element of John’s ministry of preparation is:  he warns them of the coming judgment.  The two main warnings are in verses nine and 17.  In verse nine he says, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.  Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  In these warnings, John takes his message one step further.  Not only is repentance seen in bearing fruit, but if you don’t bear fruit, you will face the judgment of God.  There are sharp teeth in his call to repent.  The picture is of an axe-wielding God who is about to lethally bring his axe down on the roots of the tree—the Jewish people--who are in imminent danger of violent judgment.  It’s after John issues this prophetic call to judgment, that these three groups begin asking what they must do.  The threat of judgment, though rarely heard in most evangelism today, is often essential at some point in the evangelistic process, for a person to be prepared to receive Jesus. God calls John to issue this threat to the Jews before they receive Jesus and he goes even one more step in his message by picturing the coming Christ as the Judge in verse 17.
          He says of Jesus, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  This metaphor is taken from a common agrarian scene.  At harvest, the grain was beaten to separate the edible part from the hull or the chaff.  After the grain was beaten, someone with a wooden pitchfork would then throw the grain up in the air on a windy day or in front of a winnowing fan and the chaff would blow away and be gathered for burning, while the grain would fall on the floor and be stored away.  John says—the Winnower is Jesus who will separate those who repent from those who do not.
           Two groups are seen here.  First are those collected into the barn and deemed valuable to the farmer and second, those that good only for burning.  And the difference between the two is--one group by God’s grace repents and accepts Jesus and the other refuses.  If you refuse to repent, first you are separated out and then you face judgment. Again, notice that the threat of judgment is part of John’s role in preparing the way for people to receive Jesus.  If you are here today and have not repented of your sin and placed your trust in Christ, today is the time to do that.  The axe is laid at the root of the tree as John says and you must hear his urgency and God’s perspective on your sin.
          A third and final element of preparing people to receive Jesus that John shows us here is he clarifies for them who Jesus is.  The people wondered if maybe John wasn’t the Messiah and John makes a clear distinction to clarify who Jesus is as contrasted with himself.  In verse 16 Luke says, “John answered them all, saying, “I baptize with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” John does two things here to clarify Jesus’ identity.  First, he distinguishes him from sinful humanity. Jesus is mightier than John.  And he illustrates how much mightier he is by telling the crowds that he is not worthy to untie his sandals.  One of the duties of slaves in the Ancient Near East was to untie their master’s sandals.  But within Judaism, that task was considered so contemptuous—so degrading that Hebrew slaves did not do this.[3] 
           To the Jews who heard this, what John was saying was—The Messiah is so far above me that I am not worthy to perform even the most onerous task to minister to him.  Today, we might say—I am not worthy to empty his spit bucket.  What John is saying through this is that Jesus is not simply a bigger, much improved version of himself, he is qualitatively different.  John dramatically exalts Jesus here.  Part of what prepares people to receive Jesus is for his people to rightly exalt him—and John models that here for us by drawing clear and distinct differences between Jesus and himself and by implication--every other so called god or prophet.  Jesus is not just a prophet as many claim.  If the greatest man born of woman distances Jesus from himself, how much more should we work to distance him from Allah or Joseph Smith?  The church must consistently communicate the utter uniqueness of Christ if lost people are to be prepared to receive him.  Again, we contrast this with the popular conception of Jesus we often hear in modern day evangelism where Jesus is portrayed only as a loving and compassionate friend and not someone for whom fallen humans are not worthy to do even the most menial and degrading tasks.
          A second thing John does to clarify Jesus’ identity is he communicates that Jesus will do for you what only God can do for you.  John contrasts his water baptism with Jesus’ Spirit baptism.  Anyone can baptize with water—dunking someone in the Jordan River is no trick, but only God can baptize--can immerse you to the point of indwelling you with the third Person of the Trinity.  Only Jesus can give God himself to indwell you.  Again, this exalts Jesus because only God could possibly ever baptize a Person…with God.  The Jews and even John didn’t understand all of this, but they clearly understood that this One who was to come was in a completely different class than John.  John also says that this One who was to come would baptize “with fire” those who receive him.  The image of fire implies that Jesus comes to those who believe and purges them from their sin.  He is coming not only to separate the wheat from the chaff—the saved from the unsaved.  He is also coming—make no mistake about it—to separate you from your sin.  He will baptize you with fire—a fire that will burn away everything that doesn’t look like Jesus.  We see this in a prophecy about the coming of Christ in Malachi chapter three. He says, 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord.”   It’s important for unbelievers to know that when Jesus comes into their life, he will begin a process that will make an end to all their sin.  If they are not interested in moral and spiritual transformation, then Jesus is not for them.
          As we close, here two are points of application for us from the text.  First, we must be Biblical in our evangelism.  That is—we must allow John’s message to remind us that there are certain truths that are necessary to prepare a person to be ready to receive Jesus and they are, like John was—counter cultural and will bring persecution.  Now, does this mean that we are to call sinners names like “brood of vipers?”  No, but we must pray that sinners will see their sin as God sees it and sometimes we need to apply the Word of God to them so that they will do that.  It also means we need to be clear to teach the necessity of repentance--that willingness to change their orientation from self to Jesus—from ascribing supreme worth to the things of this world to the things of heaven.  The message John models for us also reveals our need to communicate the reality of divine judgment.  The command to bear fruit is God’s command and refusal to do that brings eternal consequences.  Don’t miss verse 18.  After John gives these flaming and hard truths, Luke summarized his ministry saying, “So with many other exhortation he preached good news to the people.”  Luke sees all this as good news!  Its good news to be told you are a brood of vipers because the knowledge of God’s perception of you as a sinner can lead you to Jesus.  Warnings of eternal judgment are good news because God uses them to wake people up from their slumber and repent of their sin.  Calls to radical and sacrificial repentance are good news because they prepare our hearts for Christ.  A final element of Biblical evangelism is that the world needs to know in very clear terms the utter uniqueness of Jesus.  He is God in the flesh and is not comparable to any other religious figure in history.
          Second, even though this message was originally intended for people who lived before the cross, it still contains some valuable insights into repentance.  That’s important because believers are to live lives marked by continual repentance. We must practice Biblical repentance.  Biblical repentance is not remorse—feeling bad about your sin—it’s a change of mind, a change of our attitudes, desires and actions.  It’s a miracle of God’s grace that occurs within the human heart. We don’t need to struggle with sin for years—in Christ we can repent in the Spirit’s power and be increasingly free from sin.  Work to see the sin from God’s perspective and humble yourself before others in confessing it to them and hearing them speak truth to you.  May God give us the grace to repent of our unbiblical repenting and not be afraid to tell others all the good news to prepare them for Jesus.

[1] The IVP Background Commentary S. Luke 2:52-3:19.

[2] Bock, Baker Exegetical, Luke, p.312.

[3] Bock, Luke, p.321

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