John was a strange guy. He ate locusts and wild honey, dressed in camel’s hair, and lived out in the wilderness. He stuck out like sore thumb, uncomfortable and strange. John was a constant reminder to sinners that something’s gotta change.
But John seems strange for other reasons, also. His preaching is strange. He says, “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.”
Now repentance is something that at first blush seems easy enough. We’ve been giving apologies since we were three years old. Our parents forced us to say “I’m sorry” whenever we hit our brother or sister or kicked the dog. (I had two younger brothers, so you can imagine how often I had to say that. But I guess it was easy enough—just say the words and move on.) In the English language that’s pretty much what repentance means.
But that’s not what John is talking about.
Biblical repentance is something altogether different. Biblical repentance isn’t just an apology or even the remorse that we may actually feel when we do something stupid or make a mistake. Repentance isn’t about promising to be better or try harder. It isn’t saying whatever we need to say or doing whatever we need to do to avoid punishment. It’s not about showing God how genuine you are in your sorrow. The Pharisees excelled at this but John called them a “brood of vipers.”
We forget just how much we are like the Pharisees. We instinctively assume that our behavior is what makes us worthy or unworthy. Some of us puff ourselves up in this regard. Others of us despair because we have a low view of ourselves—we’re well aware of our mistakes and failures. But either way the focus is on us, on something we’ve got to do. We make repentance all about us.
However, in the Greek language the word for repentance is metanoia which denotes a change of direction or change of mind, a reorientation, a fundamental transformation of outlook. It’s about seeing yourself as the problem and seeing God—not your efforts to make things better—as the only hope for a solution.
How do we do this?
I’ve been a pastor for thirteen years and I still find that this is one of the hardest things for Christians to understand. We’re so stuck on the idiotic idea that the kingdom of God is full of well-behaved, goody-goodies who always do everything the bible says, and we figure that if we want to be in this Kingdom, too, then we have to try harder to be goody-goodies, and when we fail, we say our “I’m sorry” and move on. We think we can make things better somehow.
But John, in all his camel-haired strangeness, and with brutally honesty couldn’t care less how good we’ve been or how hard we’ve tried. He spits on our apologies. He doesn’t care what kind of qualifications we have—it wouldn’t matter one iota even if Abraham was our father. John declares that nothing about us and that nothing we do can make us worthy or make-up our failure before God.
We are chaff, fit only to be burned in the fire (Matthew 3:12).
So, what do we do?
Well… maybe a little fear would help.
I’ve heard people say that “God does not frighten us into heaven. But John had no problem with a little fear. Jesus, too. He said more about the judgment of hell than anyone else in the Bible. Judgement should frighten us, like a child might be frightened when a strange dog comes running with bared teeth and a menacing bark.
What does the child do?
< THE ANSWER TO THIS QUESTION IS MOST IMPORTANT>
What does the child do? He flees for refuge. He changes direction. He runs into the arms of his parents. He sees his own inadequacy and runs to the one who can keep him safe.
That’s metenoia. That’s what repentance is.
Whenever we are confronted with our sin and its consequences, in repentance, we flee for refuge into the arms of the one John points us to. We flee into the arms of Jesus.
The kingdom of God is for all who repent, for all who flee to Jesus for refuge.