Repentance is the primary message of Jesus’ preaching (Matthew 4:17; Luke 24:47) but how does this occur? It begins like the Greek word suggests, as a change of heart. That change is a gift from heaven. In the beginning God said, let there be light, and in the beginning of a new creation in us he must shed divine light on our hearts. At first we find the light fascinating and eventually are ashamed of the darkness in us and the world. In humiliation, we will experience a change of heart, a change from arrogance and self-reliance to humility and reliance on God. Shame grows into a hatred of sin and begins to transform our actions. We fall short of perfection but love the light so much more than the darkness, and we love more deeply God’s forgiveness.
There are a lot of topics that preachers speak about many of which are helpful, but there is always a central theme which Jesus demands. Repentance and the kingdom of heaven are themes with which Jesus began his ministry (Matthew 4:17) and repentance and forgiveness are themes with which he concluded it (Luke 24:47), saying that this would continue to be preached into all the world. Repentance refers to a continual life-changing experience which begins with an initial change of heart and progresses towards an ever growing life of becoming more like God in every way. When we submit to God, we are forgiven all our past wrongdoings and come under the protection of his spiritual kingdom. We grow less interested in the useless pursuits of this world and more interested in living the way of real joy.
Jesus spent most of his ministry in and around Capernaum (Matthew 4:12-23). Pronounced in Greek kap-er-na-’OOM, it was a Hebrew hamlet, Kafer Nahum (ka-’FER na-’HOOM), meaning Nahumville and it sat on the north shore of Lake Galilee. At the time of Jesus’ ministry the only public building was the synagogue, reputedly built by the Roman centurion who’s servant Jesus healed There were no paved streets, public restrooms or even a town hall. It was a small fishing village on a main road. Capernaum was also the place where Peter and his wife owned a house. The architecture was stone homes with thatched roofs, lending itself to the later healing of a paralyzed man who was lowered through a roof. Perhaps Jesus chose this border town as a center of his early ministry because his first disciples came from there.
We all carry burdens and don’t even know it. There are burdens of guilt, consequences of life’s bad decisions that we or others have made, and the oppressive nature of a world of greed. Some face burdens of child-support or alimony from a failed marriage, children they cannot see because of court orders, infertility, disease, loneliness, household responsibilities, taxes, mountains of red tape, inequity in the work place and crime and so on. A prophecy in Isaiah 9:1-4 spoke of one who would shatter the yoke that burdens. If our western democracies are really free then we don’t need Jesus. But the truth is, only Jesus can remove the burden of sin. That Old Testament prophecy began to be fulfilled exactly where it was predicted to be, in Capernum along the border of Zebulun and Naphtali (Matthew 4:12-23).
Isaiah prophesied of a light that would begin to dawn in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali. In a world of fear and darkness where is there light? Statesmen travel back and forwards to make peace but there is none. Legislators wrestle with laws to save their people but they are not saved. Lawyers fight to relieve their clients’ burdens, but burdens remain. Armies fight against oppression, but oppression has not ceased. We spend a lifetime building strongholds to protect ourselves but there is no bulletproof protection. Composer of many songs, the ancient Jewish King David sang, the Lord is my light and my salvation. Matthew quoted Isaiah with the words, where death casts its shadow, a light shines. Death is the theme of the nightly news. Jesus is the answer that some few speak about but even fewer seek.
Beginning at Capernaum on Lake Galilee a light began to shine into this dark world (Matthew 4:12-23). Jesus began to publicly announce the kingdom of heaven. The village of Capernaum did not at first receive that message, and so Jesus denounced it. Modern Capernaum stands as a monument to church division with half owned by Franciscans and the other half owned by Greek Orthodox Christians. In our silly squabbles down through Christian history we have often forgotten the power of that light. That unifying message of the cross is considered to be foolishness outside of Christianity (1 Corinthians 1:10-18). Human politics has no power to unite Christians, yet that message does. It is the power of the cross, the power of God. It is a power that we ignore when we squabble over the things that divide us.
There he was standing in the street again obsessively broadcasting the same propaganda. A lot of people listened to the fanatical preacher. He was a newcomer to town, a hillbilly from the back woods and he had some radical ideas. Other people were angered by his message which they thought to be foolishness. Some just paid him no heed. Yet, he had a few devotees. Word is that they just walked off their jobs to follow him and his wild-eyed doctrines. Had he lost touch with reality? Could it just be that this man was who he claimed to be? Could it be that it is we who have lost touch with reality? Could reality be that we are lost and without hope and desperately in need of the repentance that preacher from Nazareth taught in Capernaum so long ago?
Are snap judgments always wrong? Is second guessing a decision made on a whim always good? How many of us have made intuitive decisions on the spur of the moment that have turned out to be the right thing to do? On the other side of the coin, we often see people who make impulsive decisions which they don’t stick with. Is a snap decision like the parable of the seed sown on stony ground that quickly springs up but has not root and no staying power? The disciples’ sudden decision to follow Jesus (Matthew 4:12-23) seems to contradict that idea. It is appropriate to make some choices speedily, even decisions with life long consequences. Going with our instincts can be the right choice. If we trust that Jesus will lead us to green pastures, why delay following him?
In Exodus 29:38-41 we read of the morning and evening burnt lamb offerings. These were among a long list of offerings to continually forgive the people of Israel their sins. Unlike those sacrifices, Jesus offered himself once for the sins of the entire world (Hebrews 7:11-27). That’s why John pointed to Jesus, because he is that Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29-42). That’s why John twice said, look the Lamb of God. That’s why Jesus said, come and you will see. He was talking about seeing more than just the place where he was staying. The one thing that all the forces of evil would love to have us do is take our eyes off Jesus. Yet, it is him we must look to, because salvation is available nowhere else.
Every preacher worth his salt knows that a pastor is not the Messiah. Every politician worthy of office knows that human leaders are not the Messiah. Every teacher worthy of the title knows that teachers are not the Messiah. Every member of every Christian church needs to know to the depths of their being that we are not the Messiah. Why then do so many have a Messiah complex, delusions of grandeur, an inflated sense of self-importance? Why do so many preachers, politicians and teachers burden themselves with the delusion that they must “save the world”? Like John the Baptist we point to another who is the Messiah. Like a light on a hill we don’t illuminate ourselves but God. We are all appointed missionaries, sent by God to tell the story of Jesus and his love (John 1:29-42).
In John 1:29-42 Jesus is called the Lamb of God (Latin: Agnus Dei). This associates Jesus with the Passover lamb (Exodus 12:1-28; 1 Corinthians 5:6-8). A common phrase used during communion when the bread is broken remembers John the Baptist’s words, “Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.” Revelation refers to the lamb at the throne (5:6-13), opening the seven seals (6:1-16; 8:1), as the shepherd of the nations (7:9-17), triumph in his blood (12:11), the book of life that belongs to him (13:8), celibates who kept themselves pure (14:1-10), a song to be sung (15:3), his victory (17:14), his wedding (19:7-9; 21:9), his city (21:22-27), the river of the water of life (22:1-3).
Whenever there is new territory to be conquered, there are two groups of people awaiting it. The pioneers are early adopters who willingly explore new territory and don’t mind the discomfort of things not completely established. Late adopters are more like settlers, who are willing to take their place after a certain measure of infrastructure has been established. Of course there are people at various stages in between as well. In John 1:29-42 we are introduced to some pioneers of the Christian faith. These were people who willingly changed from the way things were to the new way being heralded by Jesus before there was an established ministry serving growing numbers of congregations. These first few men were the early disciples of Christ. Without visible support, only faith and Jesus as their teacher, they pioneered what we enjoy today.
What would be the first example of the unity of those called out to assemble with Jesus? What can we learn from it in regard to Church unity today? The very first instances of this unity are described in places like John 1:29-42. There was only one teacher, Jesus. There was only one set of doctrines, the teachings of Jesus. As early as the first apostles, differences appeared. 500 years later east and west were culturally and linguistically divided. 1000 years later that division became the Great Schism. 1500 years later, the western church splintered. Our only hope for recapturing unity is in returning to sit at the feet of the master. Perhaps we already do recapture it momentarily. Mainstream pastors often preach the Gospel text from the lectionary. There we again experience unity at the feet of Jesus.
The world is full of gurus promising salvation from various complaints ― like poverty, headaches, big government and old vacuum cleaners. Much of the time, those promises are empty. There is one expert who doesn't make false claims. He actually can provide salvation from something that science cannot, death. His reputation has been sullied in the press and his followers are sometimes obnoxious and self-righteous. However, he does make some interesting and challenging claims. He claims to be the Son of God, God with us. He claims to have taken away the sins of the world. He claims to have the answers. In John 1:29-42 he made a challenge to a couple of men, who were curious. “Come, and you will see.” There is a deeper hint that if we begin to follow Jesus, we will eventually truly see.
In Orthodox iconography John the Baptist is often pictured as pointing to a lamb, echoing his words from John 1:29-42 where he declared, “Look! The Lamb of God!” Iconography is an ancient form of visual art designed to portray the most important aspects of a subject’s life. In John’s case, one of the most important features of his life was to point to Jesus. John’s example is important for us today. We can be easily distracted by human politics, traditions and material desires. It can benefit us to look at the example of a man who lived an uncluttered life, with one simple goal, to point to Jesus. What if our lives were more oriented towards Christ? What if our churches focused more on what he taught? Is it not the mission of every Christian to point to Jesus?
We are used to people being given or giving themselves exaggerated titles. Those who insist on being addressed by some accolade, that makes them appear to be more important, are often oblivious to the negative atmosphere that their arrogance causes. Outside of specific cultural circles such as the military, business, church or academia, titles are often irrelevant and can appear to be pretentious. It is with that in mind that we can hear John calling Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, God’s chosen one, and Andrew announcing him as the Messiah (John 1:29-42). Living in a world of phony self-importance can blind us to the reality that sometimes a title is not only deserving, but also an accurate description of someone. Jesus is who they say his is, Savior of the world.
Have we ever asked ourselves, why are we here? So, here we sit in a church pew, or stand in a church choir, or listen to the Bible preached. But, why are we here? Are we here for the friendship? What about the music? Are we here because of guilt? Are we here because it is the “right thing” to do in our family upbringing? Do we sit in church impatiently waiting for the moment of escape? Do we wish the preacher would sit down and shut up? Do we wish the song leader would suggest that we only sing one verse instead of five? Do we believe that God is here? Do we believe that Jesus, the head of the Church, is here? Do we believe that there is more? Shall we follow Jesus and see (John 1:29-42)?
Have you ever heard someone say that if an immersion baptism was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me? We read that Jesus came "up out of the water" after his baptism. The Greek in Matthew 3:16 means Jesus literally came "up away from" the water. It is perhaps purposefully not clear whether he was immersed or merely stood ankle deep. Some early church mosaics and paintings show Jesus standing ankle deep in the Jordan River and John the Baptist using a shell to pour water over him. In this case Jesus would have also come up out of the water when he left. Historical evidence outside the Bible suggest that Jesus probably was immersed, but the Bible record is perhaps purposefully vague. Is the method of baptism not as important as the fact of baptism?
Who is right about baptism, the dippers or the washers? Baptize literally means to dip, but in the Bible it is not always used literally. It is also used to mean wash (Mark 7:4; Luke 11:38; Acts 22:16). So both are correct. But doesn’t history tell us that dipping was the original mode? History is not infallible. So, Protestant faith is based on sola scriptura, the Bible alone, and the Bible is deliberately vague as to which mode is preferable. When Jesus came up out of the water after his baptism, it could have been ankle deep (Matthew 3:16). Israel was baptized into Moses by walking dry shod through the Red Sea (1 Corinthians 10:1-4). So, less literal modes of baptism like washing are also legitimate. Dippers and washers are equally baptized into Jesus Christ.
A choice between two good things is often the most difficult of all. It’s a dilemma to make a decision between doing the right thing versus fulfilling all righteousness. Both choices may be good and right, but which one is God’s will? As Jesus approached John to be baptized (Matthew 3:13-17), the right thing in John’s mind was that he should be baptized by Jesus. Logically, the lesser ought to be baptized by the superior. However, that was not Jesus’ purpose. His purpose at that time was humility not high position. He was born in a stable, served in an itinerant ministry without a building and died on the cross. What was God’s reaction to Jesus’ choice of taking the lesser position? He was well-pleased. How about us? Do we always demand our rights or willingly fulfill all righteousness?
A baptism of repentance alone is not the baptism of Christ or his church (Acts 19:1-6). What about a so-called believers’ baptism where belief is a prerequisite? The Ethiopian eunuch was told he could be baptized if he believed (Acts 8:36-38). Being baptized and receiving the Holy Spirit are not always the same event (Acts 8:14-17). God gives the Holy Spirit at a time of his choosing. An infant baptism and later confirmation of faith with laying on of hands to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit are appropriate. What about catechism? Pre-baptism classes are very helpful, but not biblically mandated. Acts 2:41 shows 3,000 baptized after hearing and accepting only one sermon. In churches where Christ’s commands in the Gospels are taught weekly (Matthew 28:20) then every sermon is a catechism anyway.
Repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins and receiving of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38-39) included children. Baptism is to wash away sins (Acts 22:16). God can choose to give the Holy Spirit before physical baptism (Acts 10:45-48). It is the washing of regeneration (Titus 3:5), a spiritual rebirth. Jesus declared baptism necessary (John 3:5). It is a baptism into Jesus and his death and a new life (Romans 6:3-5). It is also like circumcision (Colossians 2:11-13), performed on children. Three whole households were baptized (Acts 16:15; 16:33; 1 Corinthians 1:16). At least one must have contained children. A baptism is a physical washing (the mode is unimportant), a spiritual washing (cleansing from sin) and must include Jesus' prescribed invocation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).
Baptism can be viewed as a sacrament, a physical act with divine grace, physical ceremonies for the church. The principal sacrament is baptism. Jesus was baptized (Luke 3:13-17) though the mode is unclear, perhaps purposefully. Baptism pictured a new beginning in Moses for Israel (1 Corinthians 10:2), a new beginning through Noah’s flood (1 Peter 3:20-21), Jesus’ suffering (Luke 12:50) or washing away our sins (Mark 7:4; Titus 3:5). Invoking the name of the Trinity is mandated (Matthew 28:19) but the mode or age are not. Baptism of the Holy Spirit was pictured by fire landing on people’s heads (Acts 1:5; 2:3) and so either placing water on the head or immersion are appropriate. The regeneration of baptism or rebirth differs it from all other ceremonies that could be called sacraments.