In the days when John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, baptism was not completely uncommon. John was not doing a brand new thing, but at the time, Jews used baptism in only two ways:
First, baptism was part of the conversion process for Gentiles to become Jews. This process typically involved three things: you were circumcised (which I think had to reduce the potential male convert pool pretty dramatically), you memorized some key passages out of the law, and you got baptized, showing that you were washing away your previous, sinful, pagan life.
The second use of baptism was a ritual cleansing you gave yourself, as a Jew, in purification ceremonies, before you offered sacrifices and the sort.
But John’s baptism was different than either of those. It wasn’t aimed at Gentiles; it was directed at Jews. So this wasn’t about becoming a Jew or just a ritual cleansing.
It was a baptism of repentance. He was talking as if Jews—religious Jews—needed to be converted, too. That was a revolutionary concept.
John noticed many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, because that’s what religious people do: They find out where religious things are happening in the religious world, and they go hang around and do those religious things so they can add them to their religious resumes.
John said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume 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” (Matthew 3:7 ESV).
John is telling the religious leaders to stop hiding behind their religion. They’ve been telling themselves, “I’m a Jew, and I’ve been through this or that ritual, so I’m OK.” What John is talking about—true repentance—is something that needs to happen at your very root.
One of the most revolutionary stories Jesus ever told is the story of the prodigal son.
The first son took his inheritance, left his father’s home, and gave in to riotous living—today’s equivalent of frat parties, smoking weed, and blowing all your money in Vegas. He was separated from his father because of his rebellion.
The second son stayed at home but is also “outside of the house,” which is Jesus’ way of showing that he also was not in fellowship with his father, even though he was close to the house.
The second son was furious at the grace the father showed to the returning prodigal, which Jesus says means that he doesn’t get that he also is a recipient of grace. He thinks he deserves the Father’s possessions, and he never deals with the core issues of his heart—pride and his need for grace—and these things keep him separated from the father, just like the prodigal.
Jesus was saying that there are two ways to be separated from God. One is by defying the laws of God (like the prodigal son). The second is in thinking you are good enough to earn the Father’s approval, never dealing with the core of your heart, and failing to recognize the grace that you desperately need (like the second son).
It’s kind of like a married guy who keeps a mistress. He’s with his family most days, but Friday and Saturday mornings he spends with his mistress. When his wife gets upset with him, he really tries to focus on being a great husband Sunday through Thursday. But he doesn’t stop seeing the mistress on Friday and Saturday.
The problem is not that he’s not trying hard enough on the days he is with his wife. The problem is that he has a divided heart that he’s given to another lover.
That’s what religion does. It keeps a lot of people from ever dealing with the root problem in their heart: the love of self, money, and idols rather than love of God.
Even worse, religion keeps you from throwing yourself on God’s grace, the only hope you have of heaven.
This is why John is so harsh with the Pharisees and Sadducees. He wants to wake them up. His message for religious people in Jesus’ day is the same for people today who spend all their time trying to figure out what other religious thing they need to do to be a good Christian:
Stop doing your damnable good works, and just repent. Surrender yourself fully to God, and throw yourself on his grace.
It is our only hope.
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