I wrote this sermon for my Introduction to the New Testament class at Fuller Theological Seminary in March, 2022.
Good morning! The title of today’s sermon is “The Root and Fruit of Repentance.” The text is Matthew 3:1-10.
Matthew 3:1-10 says in the NRSV:
“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”’ Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’”
Thank you, God our father, for your word. Please help us, your children, to listen and obey today. We need you. Please help us. Amen.
The thesis of today’s sermon is that John and Jesus lament the sin of the Jewish leaders, who neither humble themselves and receive mercy (the root of repentance), nor do justice (the fruit of repentance). I will explain my thesis in three parts. First, we will look at the content of John’s message to the Jewish people; second, the contrast between the Jewish people and the Jewish leaders; and third, the conflict between John, Jesus and the Jewish leaders in the text. Finally, we will ask how to apply the text in our context.
We see the content of John’s message to the Jewish people in verse two: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
“Kingdom” is used 55 times in Matthew. When we think of “kingdom,” we may think of a place – like the United Kingdom. In the Bible, however, the emphasis of “the kingdom of heaven” or “the kingdom of God” is less on the place that is ruled and more on the person who rules. We can think of “the kingdom of God” as “God’s rule.” In the Bible, God’s rule is both present and future; now and not yet; however, for John, the perfect tense “has come” emphasizes the here-and-now-ness of God’s rule. John does not say the kingdom of heaven will come, or the kingdom of heaven is coming, but the kingdom of heaven has come in Jesus, for whom he prepares the way.
When we think of “repentance,” we may think of feeling sorry for sin. Repentance is not less than feeling sorry for sin, but it is more than that. The Greek word translated “repent” means to change one’s mind. We can think of “repentance” as both feeling sorry for sin and turning from sin to God in obedience.
Importantly, God turns to people before people turn from sin to God. John says, “Repent, for [or because] the kingdom of heaven has come.” 1 John 4:19 says, “We love because he first loved us.”
One way to understand the content of John’s message, therefore, is that it invites the Jewish people to humble themselves and receive God’s mercy (the root of repentance).
Verses one to four describe John and his message. We see the contrast between the Jewish people and the Jewish leaders in verses five to seven. In verses five to six, the Jewish people are described as “baptized” and “confessing.” Confession – turning from sin – and repentance – turning to God in obedience – are the conditions for John’s baptism.
Verse eight starts with the word “but” which contrasts the Jewish leaders to the Jewish people. The NRSV describes the Jewish leaders as “coming for baptism.” It is possible that the Jewish leaders come to confess, repent, and be baptized; however, it is more probable that they come merely to watch. The NLT describes the Jewish leaders as “coming to watch him baptize.”
One way to understand the contrast between the Jewish people and the Jewish leaders, therefore, is that the Jewish people humble themselves, receive God’s mercy, and repent; however, the Jewish leaders are too proud to do so. The story of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18 illustrates the contrast well:
“[Jesus] told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people; thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’”
We see the conflict between John and the Jewish leaders in verses seven to ten. John’s message to the Jewish leaders is different than his message to the Jewish people. He tells the Jewish people to repent, but he tells the Jewish leaders to bear fruit worthy of repentance. The implication is that the Jewish leaders have not repented, as we saw in the contrast between the Jewish people and the Jewish leaders.
John’s message to the Jewish leaders is in the language of lament. In the Bible, God’s messengers lament – or grieve – when God’s people sin. God’s messengers often lament the sin of injustice with anger and alarm. Examples include Isaiah 5, Isaiah 58, and Amos 5. In Matthew 3, John laments the sin of the Jewish leaders with anger – calling them snakes – and alarm – warning them of God’s wrath. John does not say how the Jewish leaders have sinned in Matthew 3, but Jesus does in Matthew 23, the climax of the conflict between John, Jesus, and the Jewish leaders.
Like John, Jesus laments the sin of the Jewish leaders with anger – calling them snakes – and alarm – warning them of God’s wrath – in chapters 12 and 23. In chapter 23, Jesus says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” six times, and “Woe to you, blind guides!” once. “Hypocrite” is used 14 times in Matthew and 7 times in chapter 23. Jesus associates the word “hypocrite” with many sins of the Jewish leaders; however, two are that they do not practice what they preach (in verse 3), and they do not practice justice, mercy, and faith (in verse 23). Verse 23 echoes Micah 6:8, which says God wants people to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with him.
One way to understand the conflict between John, Jesus, and the Jewish leaders; therefore, is that the Jewish leaders neither humble themselves and receive mercy (the root of repentance) nor do justice (the fruit of repentance). John and Jesus lament the injustice of the Jewish leaders, who preach but do not practice justice.
As I reflect on the conflict between John, Jesus, and the Jewish leaders in the text, I am reminded of the conflict between black and white Christians in the American context. As we turn from the text to our context, I want us to listen to a lamentation from Charlie Dates. Dates gave the message we will listen to at the MLK 50 conference in 2018. In it he laments the injustice of many white Christian leaders who preach but do not practice justice. Let’s listen to a few minutes of Dates’ message now (watch from 20:13 to 24:13).
As we conclude, I want to ask how to apply the text in our context. In 2020, Dates wrote an article called “We Out” explaining why his church left the SBC, a majority white denomination. A 2018 New York Times article called “The Quiet Exodus” explains why many black Christians are leaving majority white churches, as does the 2021 Pass the Mic podcast “Leave Loud” series.
One way to apply the text in our context is to follow Dates’ example and leave churches whose leaders preach but do not practice justice. In 2021, my wife and I left our majority white PCA church whose leaders – like those described by Dates — preach but do not practice justice. In Matthew 10, Jesus says followers become like leaders. If we want to become people who practice justice, then we need to follow leaders who do so.
Dates, Charlie. The Most Segregated Hour in America: Overcoming Divisions to Pursue MLK’s Vision of Racial Harmony. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ZT5enPkJA4&list=PL2R4PAjhml_hvN4VfypThMnxzIOhga9Iv&index=3&t=1213s
Dates, Charlie. ‘We out’: Charlie Dates on why his church is leaving the SBC over rejection of critical race theory. Religion News Service. https://religionnews.com/2020/12/18/we-out-charlie-dates-on-why-his-church-is-leaving-the-sbc-over-rejection-of-critical-race-theory/
France, R.T. The Gospel of Matthew. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007.
Green, Joel B. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. InterVarsity Press, 2013.
Keller, Timothy. Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. Penguin Publishing, 2010.
Luz, Ulrich, et al., Matthew 1-7. Hermeneia: A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible. Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2007.
Pass the Mic. Leave LOUD: Jemar Tisby’s Story. https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/leave-loud-jemar-tisbys-story/id1435500798?i=1000512038741
Robertson, Campbell. A Quiet Exodus: Why Black Worshippers Are Leaving White Evangelical Churches. The New York Times, 9 March 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/09/us/blacks-evangelical-churches.html
Turner, David L. Matthew. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Baker Academic, 2008.