The current population of the United States of America rose to 328,145,132 on Saturday, February 2, 2019 at 12:18 p.m. And it is estimated that on Sunday, February 3, 2019 at 6:30 p.m. thirty percent of the population (that is over 100,000,000 people) will be watching the New England Patriots take on the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII.
Compare this with anytime on any given Sunday anywhere in the United States in the last year. Less than seventeen percent of the population gathered with a local church on any given Sunday. Compare this with anytime on any given Sunday anywhere in the United States in the year to come. It is estimated that fifteen percent of the population will gather with a local church on any given Sunday.
And, I think, the big question is, what then shall we do?
It Begins With a Rather Long Sentence
It begins with a rather long sentence in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar. And not just in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, but Pontius Pilate being governor. And not just in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar and Pontius Pilate being governor, but Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip being tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias being tetrarch of Abilene. And not just in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, but also during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.
Luke begins with a rather long sentence in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar to emphasize a point. In that fifteenth year, Luke lists the names of seven historical figures, most are more recognizable than others. For instance, who is Lysanias? He is as real as Tiberius Caesar. And there is the point. In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor, Herod and Philip and Lysanias being tetrarchs; and during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (Luke 3:1-2).
Luke begins with a rather long sentence to emphasize that the word of God is real. And the word of God coming to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness was as real as Tiberius Caesar and as real as Pontius Pilate and as real as Herod and his brother and Lysanias. The word of God coming to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness was as real as Annas and Caiaphas. And nothing like this had happened in a really long time.
The language of this rather long sentence reflects the language of the Old Testament, particularly in the Old Testament books called the Prophets. “The word of the Lord that came to Hosea, the son of Beeri, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel” (Hosea 1:1). The historical names are different, but it sounds almost identical to Luke 3:1-2! So, this leads me to say this: nothing like this had happened since the Old Testament prophets.
The last Old Testament prophet – God’s chosen preacher – was a man named Malachi. Nothing like this had happened since the days of Malachi. It had been some four hundred years since the days of Malachi!
So, what then shall we do?
What is Repentance?
Read Luke 3:3. “And John went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” What does that mean? Notice the word proclaiming. Another word for proclaiming would be the word preaching. So, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness and he then went about preaching. And the big idea of John’s preaching, the big idea of his message was repentance. And as John preached this message of repentance, people would get baptized, immersed into water. The baptism was a visible demonstration of an inner reality. The baptism did not do the repenting. The baptism was not the repentance or granted the repentance. The baptism was not even necessary for repentance. It was simply a visible demonstration of something that had happened.
But I think we need to ask, what is repentance? Notice that Luke not only says that John preached a baptism of repentance, but a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Again, the central idea or the big idea is repentance. How important is repentance? It is necessary for the forgiveness of sins. So, it seems that it is good to ask, what is repentance?
It is much more than a change of mind or a change of behavior. There is something that causes repentance. “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4). What causes repentance? God causes repentance. It is the riches of God’s kindness that causes repentance. And where do I see God? Where do I see his kindness?
Let’s keep thinking. What is repentance? I think that the Gospel of Luke is my favorite book of the Bible. I love how he thinks! Luke knew that we might be asking about repentance in Luke 3, so he gave us a definition in Luke 1. It was when Zechariah first learned that he was going to be a first time dad. And he was told this about his son: “And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (1:16-17). Notice the word turn, it is mentioned twice when it comes to the life and preaching of this man named John the son of Zechariah. He will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. Hearts will be turned. So, what is repentance? It is a turning. It is a turning toward God. It is a turning of the heart toward God which means the heart was turned away from God toward something else other than God. Something else had my heart!
It made me think of Matthew 6:21. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” So, when it comes to repentance, I am being confronted with my heart. Where is my heart at? What has my heart? And so, repentance is a turning of the heart away from sin and turning the heart toward God. It is a turning away from a behavior God hates and turning toward a behavior God loves. I read a pastor add this: it is a turning away from my own effort and my own strength and turning toward the strength of God. And what causes the turning? It is God; the riches of God’s kindness. And where do I see God? Where do I see his kindness?
All Flesh Shall See the Salvation of God
Luke then directs our attention to Isaiah. He says that all of this is exactly what the prophet Isaiah was talking about in Isaiah 40. And not only does Luke say this, but so does Matthew and so does Mark (Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:1-3). Interestingly, Mark calls this the beginning of the good news about Jesus. So, we can say this, this message of repentance is good news! But both Matthew and Mark only quote Isaiah 40:3. Luke, though, quotes Isaiah 40:3-5.
And the point of quoting Isaiah 40:3-5 is to show that repentance is much bigger than we think. Repentance removes every immovable obstacle. It levels mountains. It fills valleys. It smooths rough roads and takes the long and windy roads and makes them straight. For what purpose? See, there is a purpose to repentance. It is Isaiah 40:5 (or Luke 3:6). “And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
However, Isaiah 40:5 actually reads, “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” So, which is it? Glory or salvation? And why does Luke change glory to salvation? It is because it is both. Remember in Luke 2 when old man Simeon held Jesus in his arms? He said, “my eyes have seen your salvation” (2:30). And do you remember something John wrote, not John the Baptist, but the other John, when he saw Jesus? “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). So, to see salvation is to see God’s glory. And what does Jesus’ name mean? It means “Yawheh is salvation.” So, to see Jesus is to see God’s salvation. And to see Jesus is to see God’s glory. And how are we to see Jesus? It is repentance!
A repentant person is one who then can see the salvation of God. And all flesh can see the salvation of God when they see a repentant people.
What Then Shall We Do?
So, what then shall we do? This should make us tremble. Who did John preach this message to? Who was this message for? He initially calls them “brood of vipers,” or in other words, children of serpents, i.e. children of the devil (cf. John 8:43-44). And he tells them, this is really important, to bear fruits in keeping with repentance. Then he says this, “and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’” (Luke 3:7-8).
In Acts 13, the Apostle Paul said that John was addressing those who fear God (Acts 13:16, 26). John was preaching to people who were conscious of God’s Word and knew his promises. They were holding on to God’s promises. These were God’s people! It is no different than talking to a Christian, someone who goes to church. It is no different than talking to those seventeen percent who gather with a local church every Sunday.
God is saying to us, you seventeen percent, I am standing here with an axe to get rid of dead wood. I am looking for trees that are bearing fruit (Luke 3:9). The heart of John’s message is not just repentance, but that God’s people would bear fruits worthy of repentance. And what is that? It is a lifestyle, it is a distinctive lifestyle.
It is why the crowds cried out, “What then shall we do?” And why the tax collectors cried out, “What then shall we do?” And why the soldiers cried out, “What then shall we do?” All kinds of people cried out. And John narrowed the distinctive lifestyle, the fruits worthy of repentance as sacrificial giving and glad getting (being content with what you have). And it sounds just like what the writer of Hebrews said. “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). The heart turned toward God is content with what it has. And what do we have?
Job, righteous Job was a repentant man. The end of his story, it seems like his story was building up to when he would repent. And when he repented he said to God, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (Job 42:5). Consider the prophet Isaiah, perhaps one of the most righteous people in the Bible. In the beginning of his story, when he saw the Lord God high and lifted up, he repented. “Woe is me! I am undone! I am a man of unclean lips! For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5).
This is therefore how all flesh can then see the salvation of God. A repentant people, content with God.