Repentance

Repentance is, I believe, one of the most misunderstood doctrines of the Christian life. People will say that they have repented from their sin, and yet they see no inconsistency with going on being enslaved to that sin. This cannot be. Repentance means a turning away from sin. This is quite evident from the OT Hebrew word for repentance “shub” (pronounced “shoove”). This word means a change in direction. That is what repentance is: a change in direction from sin to God. It is important to recognize also that repentance is a gracious gift from God. We, on our own, cannot turn away from sin. We, in our sinful natures, are dead in sin, unable to turn away from it.

The relationship of repentance to faith is often a hot topic. Obviously, there can only be a repentant faith, as well, conversely, as a faithful repentance. You cannot have one without the other.

Repentance involves a recognition of sin as sin. The way this happens is through recognition of what the law demands. This is one of the big reasons why OT law needs more than ever to be preached in our churches today: people simply do not recognize their sin, because they are ignorant of the law. Therefore, they are ignorant of their need of a Savior.

Repentance is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for pardon from God.

The WCF has this marvelously comforting thought about repentance: “As there is no sin so small, but it deserves damnation, so there is no sin so great, that it can bring damnation upon those who truly repent.”

Repentance is also a daily thing, though, in addition to being a once for all turning. This is part of that already/not yet condition in which the believer finds himself, being in-between the two comings of Christ. We need to repent of specific sins, not just our general sins.

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Christ’s Baptism

Matthew 3:13-17

Baptism is a contentious issue in the Christian world. Some say that only believers should be baptized. Some say that children of believers should also be baptized. Some say that immersion is the only way to do it. Other see immersion, sprinkling, and pouring all to be legitimate. But one of the major problems we have is that often we do not understand what baptism does. Some say that baptism saves us. Others say that it does not, and that it is no more than a token. Still others, and the Reformed community fits in here, say that baptism is a sign and seal of being included in the visible church, and that baptism points to spiritual cleansing, much like a sign points the way to a city. What does Jesus’ baptism have to do with us, specifically our baptism? As we go through this passage, we need to be thinking about our own baptism.

Jesus knew that the time had come for His ministry to begin. He knew that from the ministry of John the Baptist. That is why he came on purpose to be baptized by John. The words at the end of verse 13 indicate a sense of purpose on Jesus’ part.

Now immediately, we are faced with a problem. How can the Holy One of Israel participate in John’s baptism which existed for the repentance of sin? In the first part of chapter three, John preached about repentance, and the baptism was a baptism of repentance. Jesus was sinless. So how could Jesus undergo this baptism? We can see why John was upset, and wanted to oppose what Jesus wanted. John says that he needs to be baptized by Jesus. Probably, John is thinking of that baptism by the Holy Spirit and by fire that he was talking about in the immediately preceding passage. That is what John needs. John knows that the baptism that he does is only a temporary measure that comes to an end when the Holy Spirit-baptism comes that Jesus will bring.

So Jesus starts to allay John’s scruples. Jesus says that this baptism needs to happen because it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness. Notice that word “us.” it is not merely important for Jesus to fulfill all righteousness, but it is also important for John. John’s ministry would be incomplete without doing this one last thing for Jesus. That is what Jesus is saying here. But then, we come to a puzzle. What does Jesus mean by the words, “all righteousness?” I don’t ever recall reading a law anywhere in the Old Testament that said that Jesus had to be baptized in order for Scripture to be fulfilled. But that is precisely the point. Again, it is the Scriptures as a whole that Jesus is fulfilling. The whole direction of the Old Testament points to Jesus’ ministry, of which his baptism was the beginning. That kind of reasoning convinced John the Baptist. But we need to know more. What was Jesus doing by being baptized?

The first thing Jesus was doing was joining himself to Israel. Baptism means a joining to a people. There is a solidarity expressed in baptism. Specifically, Jesus was identifying Himself with sinners. He was not personally repenting of sin. Rather, He was saying that sinners were the people to whom He was sent.

The second thing Jesus was doing was starting His ministry. When Jesus came to earth, he became human, taking on our humanity, though without sin. That started Christ’s humiliation. In the same way, Christ’s baptism identified Christ with sinful humanity, thus starting Christ’s redemptive mission, his mission to seek and to save those who were lost.

The third thing that Jesus was doing was receiving the anointing of God for His ministry. Who better to do that than the one who prepared the way, John the Baptist? We can see that anointing is part of the picture here by seeing that God the Father set his seal of approval on Jesus with the words that came down from heaven. Jesus received an anointing. The word is Messiah. Messiah means “the anointed one.” Here it is: Christ’s anointing in Christ’s baptism. He was anointed with the Holy Spirit, which came out of heaven like a dove. More on that later.

Verse 16 is sometimes used to justify baptism by immersion to the exclusion of all other forms of baptism. The reasoning goes like this: Jesus went under the water, such that He came out of the water. That means immersion. The problem with that is the geography of the Jordan river. In most places of the Jordan, the banks are non-existent: there is no gradual descent to the water-line. Instead, there is a steep bank. In order to use the water at all, one would have to either stoop down very low, or actually get into the river, which was very shallow at most points. The text here does not say that Jesus went under the water, and then came up out from under the water. It merely says that Jesus was standing in the river, and came up out of the river. Jesus could have been immersed. However, the text does not say that Jesus was immersed.

What is more important to realize here is the connection with Israel going through the Red Sea. Just as Israel goes down into the water, and was baptized into Moses, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10, so also Christ goes into the Jordan river, and comes up out of the river. This symbolizes new life, a new people of God. In order now to be baptized into God’s family, we now have to be baptized into Christ Jesus. Jesus is the new Israel. Instead of being the disobedient son Israel, Jesus is the obedient son, with whom God is well-pleased.

What happens next is a remarkable occurrence. The heavens open, and the Holy Spirit comes down in the form of a dove. Why a dove? Remember that it was a dove that went out from the ark to find dry ground. The dove there symbolized the Holy Spirit hovering over the water during the creation. Now, in Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit hovers again over Jesus, only this time, the Holy Spirit has found a place to rest on Jesus Himself. The Holy Spirit no longer needed an olive branch. Instead, the Holy Spirit comes to rest on the Branch from the stump of Jesse. Doves were also the animal that a poor person could purchase for sacrifices. The Holy Spirit indeed comes to poor people to make Jesus a perfect sacrifice for them. The dove also symbolizes gentleness. This is important for us. In Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ baptism, the context indicates that baptism is a purifying agent. We saw a little of this last time. Baptism means that a person comes under the judgment of the covenant: blessing for obedience, and cursing for disobedience. We sinned, and therefore deserved the cursing. However, Jesus took on Himself the curse, and instead gave us His righteousness in order that we might have blessing. The dove coming to rest on Jesus indicates that blessing comes to all those who believe in Him. The covenant blessings come to all who are obedient to the Gospel call to believe in Jesus Christ. Lastly, the dove also represents Israel itself in several passages in the Old Testament, notably Hosea 7:11, “Ephraim is like a dove, silly and without sense, calling to Egypt, going to Assyria.” We might say that Jesus is the non-silly dove of Ephraim. Ephraim is another way of saying Israel.

We need to notice that the entire Trinity is involved in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, just as the entire Trinity is involved in missions, as in the Great Commission. Jesus is here, the Holy Spirit comes down out of heaven, and the voice of the Father comes to rest on Jesus. J.C. Ryle says this, “It was the whole Trinity, which at the beginning of creation said, ’Let us make man;’ it was the whole Trinity again, which at the beginning of the Gospel seemed to say, ’Let us save man.’” The whole Trinity is involved in saving mankind. This is very important. There are those who say that Jesus came to placate the wrath of God against sinners, and that is all they say. This is true, as far as it goes. However, it was the Father who sent the Son to die for sinners. God the Father loves us, just as He loves His beloved Son.

What the Father says here is a quotation from Psalm 2, and from Isaiah 42. Both indicate that Jesus is the royal king that Psalm 2 talks about, and that Jesus is the suffering servant that Isaiah talks about. Here is yet another fulfillment of the Old Testament.

The question for us is, “Are we well satisfied with Jesus? Do we know how much we have in Him?” The temptation is to think that we need Jesus plus something else. That we need Jesus plus a huge farm, or Jesus plus a huge bank account, or Jesus plus a new truck, or Jesus plus that special relationship, or Jesus plus health. The truth is, that we have all we need in Jesus. Jesus is the King of the universe. He owns it all. The only way to have true riches is to belong to Christ. If God is satisfied with Jesus, how come we often are not? We despise the benefits that we have in Christ Jesus, in order to praise to the skies all the benefits we have that we have gotten on our own. We think that we are rich, but we are really poor.

When we are baptized, we come into the circle of God’s people. That is where true riches are. When we think of our baptism, (do we think of our baptism?) do we remember that all our riches are to be found in Christ Jesus? Baptism means that we must come to faith in Christ in order to be saved, and that, as part of God’s covenant, we are placed in the very best position to see that. Being part of God’s community means that we have the Word of God and the Sacraments. We have the fellowship of believers. We have these many blessings. Baptism is a sign and seal. It is like an engagement ring. If you were to ask an engaged woman whether the ring meant anything, she would probably say “yes.” Does it make a difference whether a young man proposes with a ring or without a ring? You bet it does! It means that the man is putting his money where his mouth is. The same thing is true of baptism. God says, “You are mine, and I give you this sign, that of baptism, to prove it.” However, engagements can be broken, can they not? God will never break His engagement with us. So, let us not break our engagement, but rather come to the wedding feast of the Lamb. Come to trust in Jesus.