Oddly, it’s taken me a couple of weeks to complete this post. I actually started writing it, or a version thereof, a year ago. I was using a Bible plan that had me reading Isaiah and Matthew at the same time. It struck me that God has some tough talk for people who say that they belong to Him, who have a name that they belong to Him, but don’t act like they belong to Him. I was reading words like judgment, and wrath, and disaster. In Isaiah, He indicts their worship—what He calls the “evil assemblies” of His chosen people. In Matthew, John calls the religious elite a “brood of vipers”—which, according to every commentary and for a variety of reasons, was not at all a nice thing to say.
The thought of judgment of the religious filled me with dread. I am fearful for the American church. In my last post, I mentioned the ho-hum worship of which I was long guilty. Churches are full every Sunday. We say we belong to Him. We have a name that we belong to Him. Are we any different from these religious people who were warned of the coming judgment?
From my Bible Study Fellowship days, I remember that John the Baptist is the prophesied herald of the coming Messiah. If you pick through the various definitions in a dictionary, you’ll find that a herald acts in service to a king. He precedes, makes proclamations, or ushers in. Likewise, John proclaimed the coming of the King and set the tone for Jesus to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). He “[prepared] the way for the Lord” by calling the people to repent, and demonstrate that change of heart through baptism.
OK, so this all sounds about right. Repent. Be baptized. Sounds very churchy…so, what’s the big deal? Well…
What is so interesting about John’s baptism is that 1st century Jews would have a different association with baptism than the modern reader. Baptism was a ritual performed when a Gentile converted to Judaism. It symbolized a complete turn from the old way of life and entrance into the covenant of Abraham. Gentiles professing Yahweh as the one true God turned from pagan religions and idols—practices that Jews found abhorrent. Therefore, baptism indicated a radical change of heart, an abandonment of a sinful life for one patterned after God’s law.
So, John tells a people who say that they belong to God, and have a name that they belong to God, that they should be baptized—in the exact same way as people who don’t belong to God but want to belong to God. Huh. That’s curious. My assumption is that it was humbling, and perhaps a little confusing. I would guess that some Jews found it downright offensive. I’m OK, right? I follow the rules, make the sacrifices, dot every ‘i’, cross every ‘t’. Now, tell me again why I’m being treated like a pagan?
But John’s message is clear—the correct response to the coming kingdom is repentance. Repentance makes us ready for Christ to enter in. With repentance comes a recognition that I need something from God—His mercy. Many things cause us to seek Him out. Failing marriages. Broken hearts. Financial needs. Loss. Loneliness. We go to Him for provision, for healing, for answers. But entering the kingdom begins with repentance. Do not misunderstand me. God cares about all those hurts and wounds. He does meet our needs. But He knows that your most crucial need is His mercy, even if you don’t know it yet. The first step in salvation is repentance, turning from our old way of life and relying on God’s mercy for our rescue.
The people must have sensed that sin still had its grip on their hearts even if they outwardly carried out the rules of religion. In a sense, by baptism, they agreed that sin is the great equalizer. Then, we encounter the Pharisees and Sadducees. The brood of vipers. If you ever believed that you belonged to God because of your lineage—because you come from good folks—this is the passage to read. If you’re tempted to place your faith in your religious involvement—in all your churchy stuff—verse 10 will cure ya. Verse ten puts me right in my place. If you are devoted to God in your heart, you will bear the right fruit, i.e. your life will look like you’re devoted to God.
I mentioned in The Rotting Branch (March 9, 2014) that I love studying genealogy. Every time I think I’ve found the last interesting tidbit on the Prescotts, something new falls into place. Yesterday I discovered that two of my Puritan ancestors, my 8th and 9th great grandmothers, were accused of witchcraft. Y’all. That’s just awesome. Yes, I’m a big nerd. It took a while for me to come to terms with it (nerdiness, not witchcraft), but I’m OK now.
It’s triple the nerdy fun to be a genealogist, a history teacher, and a Prescott all rolled into one. There are a couple of notable Prescotts who took part in the American Revolution. Dr. Samuel Prescott rode with Paul Revere on April 18, 1775. Actually, Samuel Prescott is the one who completed the mission and made it all the way to Concord. The British captured Revere. It’s true. The only reason we all know Paul Revere’s name is because Longfellow immortalized him in a poem. And get this…he chose to use Revere’s name in the poem because it rhymed. Listen my children, and you shall hear… Yeah, nothing rhymes with Prescott.
History is kinder to Colonel William Prescott, who led the American forces at Bunker Hill. You may have forgotten his name, but you probably remember the famous quote, “Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes!”
I don’t know my exact genealogical connection to Samuel and William if there is one. From the available evidence, I simply have the same name. So where does that leave me? With not much claim to these people at all! But, notice, that doesn’t stop me from bragging about it. My students just love it when I wax enthusiastic about my family tree. (Not really.)
Here’s the thing. I can wear my maiden name with pride, but I don’t have any part in the glory. Not really. It’s just talk. I’ve done nothing worthy of association with William Prescott’s courageous leadership or Samuel Prescott’s derring-do. My connection to them is tenuous at best. I can wave my credentials around and make a claim to their inheritance, but who I truly am is so far removed from who they were that I don’t really belong to them at all. Ever wonder what it means to use someone’s name in vain?
How about claiming an identity that you don’t really have? How about claiming that identity in order to take something for yourself that is not rightfully yours? How about expecting the inheritance and glory that really should pass to someone with a more genuine connection?
What, then, is taking the Lord’s name in vain? What if it’s claiming Christ and His inheritance but not living for Christ? What if it’s wearing that name Christian in anticipation of being saved, but not turning from the old way of life? What if it’s sitting in church week after week while refusing to admit that a true Christ follower abandons the idols and lives a life devoted to Him? What if it’s checking in at our regular pew for a song and a sermon when nothing else in our lives distinguishes us from someone who sleeps in on Sundays?
If who you really are is so far removed from who He really is, then your claim that you belong to Him is possibly false. Jesus Himself tells us in chapter 7, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter into the kingdom of Heaven, but only He who does the will of my Father” (verse 21). So, how do we fix that problem?
John came and cleared the path by giving us the first steps to entering the kingdom of heaven. First we repent—we turn from the old life, acknowledging our need for God’s mercy. This prepares us for Christ to enter in. Then we “bear fruit in accordance with repentance.” That doesn’t sound like we get to sit back in the pew and get comfy, does it?
I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. Revelation 3:1-2
Questions to Think Over:
- Is the person you really are far removed from who He really is? If so, what needs to change?
- In what ways is it evident that you have turned away from a former life to follow Christ?
- In what ways should the church show a greater devotion to Him?