The Lord's Day Morning

March 15, 2009

Luke 3:1-20

“John Came Preaching…Repentance”

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

Turn with me to Luke, chapter three. We’re going to be looking at the first twenty verses of this chapter, and as we do so, I'd like to walk you through the outline of what Luke teaches us here about the beginning of John the Baptist's ministry.

The first two verses of the chapter give us the context for John's ministry, and it's a sad context, very frankly. If you look at the names that are listed in verses 1 and 2, they are a rogues gallery of the biggest villains of their age. These are the people who were going to be involved not only in John's unrighteous death, but they are going to be involved in the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God. And so John's ministry begins while they’re in power. The good news for us is that means no matter how dark our times, our circumstances, or our contexts, God can overrule it all. He begins the ministry of the Messiah through the ministry of John in a dark, dark point of Israel's history. Don't ever judge God's power and ability by your present circumstances. In the very darkest night, He can prepare to do His brightest work.

Then if you look at verses 3-6, Luke summarizes John's ministry, and he summarizes it in a phrase in verse 3: “John came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” So the ministry of calling God's people to repent is at the very heart of John the Baptist's ministry. That's really where we're going to camp today. I'm so tempted to look at all sorts of aspects to this chapter because it's an incredibly rich portion here, but we're really going to focus on John's ministry of repentance.

Then in verses 7-9, Luke describes for you the manner of John's preaching–and it was stark, bold, blunt preaching! These crowds would come out from the cities and from their jobs into the wilderness, and he would greet them with phrases like this: “You brood of vipers! Who told you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Not very seeker-sensitive, is it?) And yet they kept coming. John was very straightforward with them in confronting them with their own sin, and they kept coming in great numbers to hear him. He plainly speaks of judgment — “the wrath to come.” You hear the echoes of Isaiah 30 and its warning against Israel of the wrath to come, right here in Luke 3. And he called on them not to give just lip repentance, but to give life repentance: to show the evidence of real gospel repentance by the way they lived and the way they dealt with people that they had wronged.

Then in verses 10-14, Luke shows three specific applications that John made to different groups of people of his teaching on repentance: first to the crowds; then to tax collectors; then to soldiers.

Following that in verses 15-20, Luke shows us the effects of John's ministry — how his ministry made people think about the Messiah, how his ministry pointed people to the Messiah and exalted the Messiah, and how his ministry preached the good news of the Messiah.

And finally, he shows you that just because John was faithful didn't mean that everybody responded positively to his message of the gospel and to his message of repentance. In fact, the chapter ends in verses 19-20, with one of the wickedest villains of the age throwing John into prison…which just lets you know that the faithful ministry of the word does not always result in people embracing Christ by faith. Sometimes it ends up with people hating the message and hating the messenger, and the messenger is getting clapped in the irons.

Well, that's Luke 3:1-20. Let's look to God in prayer, and ask His help and blessing as we read it. Let's pray.

Heavenly Father, it is so hard to see our own sin. We sometimes see the sins of others with clarity. We sometimes feel the wounds of others’ sins against us with intensity. Yet again, we work hard to conceal our own sins with craftiness. But the very beginning of receiving the grace of God in the gospel is to know that we need to receive it in the first place, and for this we need gospel repentance — a repentance which is unto life. Lord, as we read Your word today we are not playing games, and we're not even engaging in Bible study. We are standing under the living word of God to hear Your message of truth delivered straight from Your lips into our ears, hearts, and souls. Grant us, then, the ears to hear it. In Jesus' name. Amen.

This is God's word:

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,

‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness:

“Prepare the way of the Lord,

Make His paths straight.

Every valley shall be filled,

And every mountain and hill shall be made low,

And the crooked shall become straight,

And the rough places shall become level ways,

And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”’

“He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 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.”’

“And the crowds asked him, ‘What then shall we do?’ And he answered them, ‘Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.’ Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than you are authorized to do.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.’

“As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, ‘I baptized you 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. 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.’

“So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother's wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, added this to them all, that he locked up John in Prison.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

The Reformation of the church in the sixteenth century began with an Augustinian German monk nailing 95 theological propositions to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg on October 31 of 1517. You know him as Martin Luther. You probably associate him with the doctrine of justification by faith, and you’re right to do so because there are few doctrines that Brother Martin loved more than the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, and he preached it and he wrote on it constantly. But in those 95 theological propositions that we know as the Ninety-five Theses, the very first thesis, the thesis that set the spark alight of the sixteenth century Reformation was this. Luther said, “Our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, when He said ‘Repent,’ willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.” He was drawing attention to the vital reality of gospel repentance in the life of a believer. And it's not surprising, is it, that John's ministry will begin in precisely the same way, with him saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” and that Jesus’ ministry will begin in the same way, with Him publically proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”?

Why is repentance so important? Why is repentance the prelude to the coming ministry of Jesus the Messiah? Well, think about it. The Messiah [John will say later], the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, has come to do what? To take away the sins of the world. The ministry of Jesus the Messiah is to atone for sin, to provide the way for the forgiveness of sin, and to provide a just and righteous basis where by our loving heavenly Father can forgive us of sin. What could possibly inoculate us to such a glorious message? This: Not adequately appreciating that we need to be forgiven of sin. You can't be forgiven of sin if you don't believe that you have sinned and need forgiveness. Repentance is the recognition of our need for forgiveness of sin, and therefore it is necessary for the forgiveness of sin — not because repentance brings about or causes forgiveness. We could repent until the cows come home, and apart from the saving work of Jesus Christ it would not forgive our sins. But John makes it clear that it is necessary for forgiveness because we need to recognize our need for forgiveness before we are in a position of receiving forgiveness and trusting in the One who has purchased us forgiveness before His heavenly Father. And so repentance is absolutely vital, and Luke summarizes John the Baptist's ministry in terms of his preaching of repentance.

We need to notice a couple of things. Look at verse 3. As John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, we need to understand that that baptism does not forgive. John's baptism didn't forgive people. It acknowledged their sense of their need for forgiveness. Only the Holy Spirit can do a work in our heart and change us so that we repent and believe and apply to us the benefits of Christ's work. Only the Holy Spirit can regenerate us and bring about the pouring out on us all the benefits of Christ's atoning work. Baptism (applying water to someone) cannot do that. John himself will admit the greatness of Christ at just that point in this passage when he says, “I baptize with water, but I tell you that there is One coming who is mightier than I, and He baptizes with the Holy Spirit.”

Nor does their repentance forgive them. Repentance is necessary, but it cannot forgive in and of itself. Atonement is required for forgiveness. Repentance is required so that we know that we need the atonement. Until you see your need, you won't turn to the only hope for supplying your need, and so the gospel begins in John's ministry of repentance.

What keeps us from repenting? Sometimes it's our concentration on other people's sins. We are so fixed on their sins that we do not see our own. Sometimes it's because of the wounds that we've received from other people's sins against us. We are so deeply wounded by the wrongs that have been done to us that we can't concentrate on our own sin. Sometimes it's our desire to protect ourselves from the shame and the humiliation of the disclosure of our sins so that we do not repent of them because we fear that we will be utterly humiliated if our sins are made known.

How then do we repent? We repent by the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. Take your hymnals out and turn with me to the back…if you’ll turn to page 875-876, and look at the bottom of the page, it reads:
“87.Q. What is repentance unto life?”

Then it answers:

“Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.”

Now, there are three things that I want to draw your attention to there. “…A sinner, out of a true apprehension of his sin…” Have you ever (like I have) been in the situation where you so concentrated on the sins of another person, or the wounds that another person has given you, or a fear of your own sins being discovered, that you haven't reckoned with the gravity of your own fault? And then suddenly the conviction of God's Holy Spirit comes and you realize that your sin is more serious than the sin that you’re fixated on? Can you hear Jesus saying, ‘Take the log out of your own eye, before you attempt to extract with tweezers the speck from your brother's’? That is exactly what this passage is talking about, and only God the Holy Spirit can bring that. We can merrily go along for days and weeks and months and years sometimes, luxuriating in our indignation and in our self-justification. We’d rather be right than forgiven. We’d rather be vindicated than forgive. And only the Holy Spirit can open us to that soul-shriveling condition that has captured us. But how?

Well, look at the second thing: “The apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ.” How can someone who is terrified at the exposure of her or his sin reckon with it? I mean, if the thing you fear the most is that people are going to find out what you’re like, how do you reckon with that? By looking up and seeing your Savior saying, ‘That sin of yours, I have taken to myself; and I have borne it in My own body on the tree, so that your shame is mine and the welcome of My Father is yours, no matter what you have done.’ It is the apprehension of that kind of colossal mercy that has been shown to us in Christ on the cross that moves us to leave the wallowing of the mire of our sin and to run back to God.

And then what results from this? “A full purpose and endeavor after new obedience.” Do you hear John saying, “Bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance”? In other words, John is saying ‘Don't tell me about your repentance: show me your repentance.’ And notice how he gets into specific repentances for specific sins…the kinds of sins that are uniquely associated to those people in those circumstances. Those are the things that they are to repent of and those are the things that they are to show fruits in keeping with their repentance. It's all a work of God's grace.

And, my friends, do you understand how powerful a demonstration of the gospel repentance is? Do you realize that it is precisely at the point where you have been wrong the most that there is the greatest potential for the display of the grace of God in the gospel? Do you realize that when the watching world sees us own up to our sins towards one another and towards them, they can only be shocked? Because they’re all about the blame game… somebody else's fault. They’re all about the talk-off (But there's a reason!); they’re all about denial (I haven't done anything wrong!) And when they hear someone own up to their sin and repent of it, it's shocking. It is an irrefutable manifestation of the power of the grace of God in the gospel in the relationships of human beings.

Many of you read the story that Peggy Noonan wrote about the Marine aircraft tragedy in San Diego in December of last year. It happened about five weeks before the U.S. Airways flight miraculously landed in the Hudson River and all the lives were saved. Peggy Noonan tells this story so powerfully, and the story so pertains to what we're speaking of right now and I want to share it with you. She says this:

“It's December 8, 2008. At 11:11 in the morning, a young Marine pilot takes off from the aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, on a routine training flight. The carrier is maybe 90 miles southwest of San Diego. Lt. Dan Neubauer is flying the FA-18 Hornet. Minutes into the flight, he notices low oil pressure in one of the two engines, and he shuts it down. Then the light shows low fuel for the other engine. He begins talking to air traffic control and he is given options and suggestions on where to make an emergency landing. He can either go the Naval air station on North Island, the route that takes him right over San Diego Bay, or he can to go the Marine air station at Miramar, with which he is more familiar, but which takes him over a heavily populated stretch of land. He goes for Miramar. The second engine then flames out. About three miles from either runway, his electrical system dies. Lt. Neubauer tries to aim the jet towards a canyon, and ejects at what all seem to agree is the last possible moment. The jet crashes nose down in University City, in the neighborhood of San Diego, hitting two homes and damaging three. Four people, all members of a Korean immigrant family, are killed: 36-year-old Youngmi Lee; her daughters, Grace, 15 months, and Rachel, 2 months; and her 60-year-old mother, Seokim Kim.

“Lee's husband is a grocer named Dong Yun Yoon. He is at work. The day after he lost his family, he humbled and awed San Diego by publicly forgiving the pilot: ‘I know he did everything he could.’ And he spoke of his faith: ‘I know that God is taking care of my family.’

[I love the way he put that.]

“His grace and generosity were staggering, but there was a growing local anger at the military. Why was this disabled plane over land? The Marines launched an investigation — of themselves.

“This Wednesday the results were announced. They could not have been tougher. “The crash,” said Maj. Gen. Randolph Alles…”

[Let me pause right there. Randy Alles was an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington D.C., where our friend Mark Dever is pastor. He had been at Quantico, and had now been sent to San Diego. He was the Wing Commander for the Marines, and it was his job to oversee and to give this report.]

” ‘The crash,’ said Maj. Gen. Randolph Alles, the assistant Wing Commander for the Third Marine Aircraft Wing, ‘was clearly avoidable. It was the result of a chain of wrong decisions. Mechanics had known since July of a glitch in the jet's fuel-transfer system. This airplane should have been removed from service and fixed, and it was not. The young pilot failed to read the safety checklist. He relied on guidance from the Marines at Miramar who did not have complete knowledge or understanding of his situation. He should have been ordered to land at North Island. He took an unusual approach to Miramar, taking a long left loop instead of a shorter turn to the right, which ate up time and fuel. Twelve Marines were disciplined; four senior officers, including the squadron commander, were removed from duty. Their military careers are essentially over. The pilot is grounded while a board reviews his future.’

“Residents told The San Diego Union-Tribune that they were taken aback by the report. Bob Johnson, who lived behind the Yoons and barely escaped the crash, said, ‘The Marines aren't trying to hide from this or duck it. They took it on the chin.’ A retired Navy pilot who lives less than a block from the crash, who had formed with his neighbors a group to push the Marines for an investigation and for limiting flights over University City, said after he had heard the briefing, ‘I think we're out of business.’ In a later story the paper quoted a retired General, Bob Butcher, Chairman of The Society of Marine Aviators, who called the report ‘as open and frank a discussion of an accident as I've ever seen. It was a lot more candid than many people expected.’ This was not damage control. It was taking honest responsibility. And as such, in any American institution, it was stunning.

“The day after the report I heard from a young Naval aviator in pre-deployment training north of San Diego. He flies a Super Hornet, the sister ship to the plane that went down. He said that the Marine investigation had kept him up last night, because of how it contrasted with the buck-passing that we see everywhere else in society. He and his squadron were in range of San Diego television stations when they carried the report's conclusions live. He had never seen his entire wardroom crowded around the television before. They watched with abated breath. At the end, they were impressed with the public nature of the criticism and of its candor. There are still elements within our government that take responsibility seriously, and he found himself wondering if the Marines had been too hard on themselves. ‘But they are,’ he said, ‘after all, Marines.’”

Now there are so many elements of that story worth discussing, but this is what I want to draw your attention to. Wouldn't it be great if people said of us, “You know, they’re really hard on themselves…but, after all, they’re Christians”? Wouldn't it be great if we were so serious about repentance that the watching world was made to stand with mouths gaping at the honesty and acceptance of responsibility, and owning a fault without blame-shifting? Without excuses, without denial, fully owning our responsibility?

John is calling us to a life of that kind of repentance, where we own our sin, and because of the mercy of God to us in Jesus Christ, are able to accept it, acknowledge it, ask forgiveness for it, realize the consequences of it. My friends, if we were to forgive one another and repent to one another in this sort of way, do you realize how powerful a gospel witness that would be? This is utterly alien to the way that our culture thinks. I think it cannot be an accident that a Christian was in charge of reporting this investigation to the general public: a Bible-believing Christian who understands this doctrine that we're talking about today. What a contrast this is to the way we see the rest of our society reacting.

My friends, John and Jesus call us to repent.

Let's pray.

Our Lord and our God, there are a million sins here and now that need to be repented of. By Your Spirit, show us our own sin. Help us not to say, “But we're children of Abraham!” but to show that we're children of Abraham by gospel repentance, and by lives that are in keeping with that repentance. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.

Would you take your hymnals in hand and turn with me to No. 509, and let's sing, Jesus, Lover of My Soul. Look at the third stanza especially as we sing.