Up Close With God?

We Must Answer Well, part 3

(To read in order, click: Answer Well)

It may seem like a long detour, but I’ll say again, “Real answers are not often very short.” We are finding our response in the lives and writings of 5 people: John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, Paul, and the writer of Hebrews.

Last time we looked at the life and death of John the Baptist, and saw

  • John was sent by God to turn hearts from disobedience to attitudes of righteousness,
  • his parents were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke prophetically,
  • that John’s name means “God is gracious”
  • that John spoke regarding God’s lawful standards
  • and that not everyone wanted to hear what John had to say.

What did John have to say?

John’s Preaching: Forgiveness and Closeness with God

Mark opens with a quick summary of John’s preaching.

Mark 1:4-8

John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea was going out to him, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins. John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist, and his diet was locusts and wild honey. And he was preaching, and saying, “After me One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to stoop down and untie the thong of His sandals. I baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Huh. John’s not preaching a sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins, like the book of Leviticus would point out. Sacrifice for this, sacrifice for that. Peace offering. Guilt offering. None of that. John is preaching baptism—a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

And people come out and confess their sins, get baptized and get forgiven?

We turn the page and find Jesus forgiving a man who hasn’t sacrificed.

Mark 2:5
And Jesus seeing their faith said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

The religious leaders are not cool with this. ‘Only God can forgive sins, and sins require a sacrifice, and this guy hasn’t sacrificed because he’s not even allowed in the temple and, whoops, now Jesus has healed him so I guess he’s allowed in the temple now—but none of this makes sense!’

Not only are the religious leaders stumped by Jesus’ authority and power, they don’t understand his way of making disciples.

Mark 2:18

John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and they came and said to Him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “While the bridegroom is with them, the attendants of the bridegroom cannot fast, can they? So long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day…

This seems like an even further deviation from the norm.

‘Hey, we fast. Why don’t you guys fast? How are you not relating to God through fasting? What’s so special about you that you don’t need to fast?’

And Jesus’ answer is a stumper if we don’t know that Jesus is God Himself. ‘I am with them, they cannot fast.’ God is physically present. Jesus’ disciples cannot draw any closer to God. Yes, being practicing Jews they sacrificed at one time, most likely fasted too, but Jesus is forgiving people left and right, and calling people like tax collectors and zealots to follow Him without putting them through a rigorous training program first. ‘Matthew, leave your tax collecting booth, follow Me, and don’t worry about fasting. Throw Me a party instead.’

Is anyone expecting this kind of closeness with God?

More Preaching: The Fruit You Bear

Matthew gives us a bit more of what John preached.

Matthew 3:1-12

Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet when he said,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
‘Make ready the way of the Lord,
Make His paths straight!’”

Now John himself had a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea and all the district around the Jordan; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

“As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

John says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

John says, ‘There’s wrath coming. Bear fruit in keeping with repentance or get cut down and thrown into the fire.’

Sounds more like judgment than grace. I thought John’s name meant, “God is gracious.”

He is. God is gracious. God has sent John to warn people. That’s the grace. It may come as a surprise, but God does not owe people a warning. He doesn’t owe them a chance to turn around and stop sinning. But God is graciously warning people of the wrath to come through John.

And (oops) look at who John says is bringing the wrath:
“He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

Read that paragraph out loud and you might take 5 breaths. John is preaching Jesus as the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire. Jesus is the One to bring the promised Holy Spirit of God, and God’s judgment. Unquenchable fire. That’s the penalty for sin.

So where is the grace? That God sent John to warn people.
That God told John to preach repentance and water baptism.

Water baptism is a picture of surviving the flood from Noah’s days. How could one survive the flood unless they were declared righteous by God, unless they were in the ark that God specified to be built?

To repent and be baptized in water for the forgiveness of sins is to say, ‘I submit to God’s standards of righteousness and accept His promise and design to save me from the wrath I deserve for my sinfulness.’

That people are given this chance to avoid the coming judgment: that’s the grace.
That John is sent to warn people: that’s the grace.
That Jesus comes offering forgiveness freely, brings God physically close, makes payment for our sins and allows Himself to become our ark: that’s the grace.

Grace is not quietly accepting people and their sin. We’ve misused the word. ‘So and so offended me. I’ll graciously say nothing and forgive them, and maybe they’ll change.’

Um… no.
We can forgive. We can graciously remind ourselves that we are all sinners, we all offend God and each other. But remaining silent is not grace. If it were, John would have come and said nothing. ‘God is gracious, so I’ll keep quiet.’ Doesn’t work.

God sent John as a messenger of grace, and John preached, “Flee the coming wrath of God. Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”

Check Yourself

…If you got this far and think that we now get to beat people up with guilt, you haven’t been reading with your heart.

God, help us.

…next time: How Do We Repent?

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