John the Baptizer started with a bang: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2).
How’s that for a how-dee-do? “Hey! Never mind who I am. I’m telling you good news. The King has arrived to set up His sovereign rule. That means that you need to repent from your own religion and ways of living, and submit to obey His commands.”
Luke adds that “with many other exhortations [John] preached the gospel” (Luke 3:3, 18). His good news (gospel) was accompanied by exhortations, many exhortations. In other words, he admonished them to turn from their sins. He didn’t plead for them to walk the aisle through the crowd to the river. He didn’t call them to name their healing and claim it. He didn’t slap foreheads and knock them back into someone’s arms. He didn’t shout “Be healed!” He didn’t mesmerizingly offer them their best life now. He didn’t coax them to “Invite Jesus into your heart.” He didn’t lead them in a sinner’s prayer. What John did was something that required much more of them. He called them to submit to the King and exhorted them to repent from specific sins. Receiving the good news required change, noticeable change.
People today tend to describe a message like John’s as “harsh.” Yet Matthew records that Jesus started just like John:
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17).
Matthew also placed Jesus’ pronouncement just prior to the Sermon on the Mount, that convicting sermon about the heart repentance that real kingdom living requires. Again, the message was that salvation requires real heart change evidenced in behavioral change.
Between Matthew 4:17 and the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew tells about two categories of people, both of which were said to “follow” Jesus. One was the disciples. When the King called, they “immediately” left their employment and followed Him. They were called, they didn’t dawdle, and obedience cost them. The other category of followers was the crowds, “large crowds.” From north and south, lots of people brought their sick to be healed. They weren’t called and following didn’t cost; it paid. They came for the goodies of the kingdom, not the responsibilities.
The coming of Christ’s kingdom was good news. It still is. Christ offers forgiveness of sins and peace with God and eventual justice and removal of evil. This is wonderful news! The catch is, a kingdom implies a king ruling subjects. There is only one King, and you’re not it, nor am I. That makes you and me subjects.
Similar to the crowds, we like the forgiveness part of the gospel; that’s a goody. What we don’t like is the fact that participation as a subject in Jesus’ kingdom comes with a responsibility–obedience.
This does not mean that obedience can merit salvation. All of the good works in the world can never counterbalance even one sin. We can never earn God’s favor by means of our own piety in prayers, charity, rituals, and upstanding morals. We need Christ’s righteousness.
In addition, because man is not inherently good, the repentance of salvation is impossible to self-generate. Only the Holy Spirit can grant the faith that saves and transform the heart to repent. We must plead for God’s mercy.
Was the good news of Christ’s coming presented to you the way John and Jesus presented it? Have you repented? Are you one of the disciples or one of the crowd?
Our culture views a word like “repentance” as harsh. Yet Luke ends his gospel with these words of Jesus to His disciples:
“Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations…” (Luke 24:46-47, emphasis added).
So Luke, the kind doctor, a man inclined to compassion, begins and ends his gospel with the call to repent. Repentance leads to forgiveness. It is the road to freedom! To urge repentance is to call a person away from that which kills. What a loving thing to do for someone! Do we who claim to be disciples of Christ love others enough to preach repentance? We need to love the unbeliever and gently, graciously call him to turn from his own way of earning heaven and instead trust only in the work of Christ and submit to Him, the King.