So far we have seen some crucial elements to the process of salvation in the opening chapters of Matthew. God’s grace is seen through the genealogy and will be shown in following chapters through Jesus. Joseph gives us an example of how to respond to God’s grace with trust/faith even when we don’t understand why he says to do something (he also exhibited God’s grace to Mary). The magi give us an example of how to make following God a priority. Again Joseph gives us an example showing us that following God leads to places of unfamiliarity and that following God means to constantly turn back to him in those times of unfamiliarity. In essence, these first two chapters of Matthew actually outline the Christian life. It outlines how a Christian responds to God’s grace; his gift of salvation through Jesus.
The passage we are currently studying tells us of another way to respond to God’s grace. Before Jesus began his ministry his cousin John came on the scene. His job was to pave the way for Jesus. His initial message was “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!” God’s kingdom was beginning to be established in the hearts of people. God’s kingdom would grow as people accepted his gift of salvation through Jesus.
Salvation is a free gift. There is no way to “earn” it. We have done nothing to merit God’s favor in this instance. It is given completely free of anything we have done. It is given out of love.
What is “salvation?” It is freedom from the punishment we deserve because we sin. The punishment is eternity in hell apart from God. It is a punishment given to those who have broken God’s moral law. It is a punishment everyone deserves.
Even though it is given freely it doesn’t mean everyone automatically gets it. We must “act now” to receive it. Some might ask “How is this different from not earning it.” Earning it means we have worked for it and therefore deserve it, but we have done nothing to deserve it. It is offered freely, but that doesn’t mean there are not stipulations for how we are to go about receiving the free gift. A physical/material gift must be physically taken from the giver. The gift of salvation is given when a person recognizes their sin through confession and repents.
Here is an interesting question though. From what do we repent? Repentance is, in the Old Testament sense, to “change one’s mind about something” and, in the New Testament sense, “to turn away from.” It is important to recognize both of these definitions. To only go with one does damage to our understanding of salvation. Does the repentance that takes place only mean to change our mind about sin? Exactly how should our mind be changed? Does it mean to turn away from every sin we commit at once? That really is impossible for there are sins we are not even aware of. So we can’t instantly turn away from all sin, and it isn’t just a mere changing of how we think about sin. So what is it we are repenting of? What exactly are we changing our mind about and what are we turning from?
The sin committed in the Garden was the desire to be like God. Adam and Eve ate of the fruit so that they could obtain the knowledge of God. Unfortunately Satan had tricked them. Chances are, there probably wasn’t anything special about the fruit. The fruit was the object by which sin entered into the world. Up to the point of Adam and Eve eating it there was one rule: Don’t eat the fruit! The real temptation was not to eat the fruit. The real temptation was to live contrary to God’s will. The temptation was to be a god and live life according to one’s own will and desire. It is with this knowledge that I would say that the “repentance” that takes place on the day we accept Jesus’ free gift of salvation is when we turn away from living life on our own terms and giving control back to God who is the rightful owner of our lives.
The gift of salvation can only be truly understood through this knowledge. If we continue to play god of our own lives then how can we truly receive salvation? We can’t because we are living by our own rules and terms; our own authority. This then makes God’s salvation gift null and void. A person can’t just say “I receive your free gift” and not accept God’s authority because the whole point of salvation hinges on his authority.
So when one accepts God’s salvation gift there must be a visual response that conveys the message that a person’s heart truly understands what is happening. In essence, God is saving us from ourselves. The authority we think we have over our own lives is a false authority which ultimately leads to eternal punishment. To accept God’s gift is to relinquish our authority over our own lives, because it is a false authority, and accept God’s authority. We give back our lives to the rightful owner.
Do we do this instantaneously (change our thinking about and turn away from sin)? No, turning away is a process like anything else. As we live out our relationship with Jesus we are in the process of changing our thinking about and turning away from our own “godhood.” Everyday should see us changing bit by bit as we turn away from ourselves and more toward God. Question is, can we do this on our own?
John foretold that after him would come one who is greater and can do greater things. John said he baptized with water for the remission of sin (it symbolized the cleansing that takes place when we confess and repent). He said that Jesus would come and baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. It is necessary for us to be baptized by the Holy Spirit. Even though we have repented of complete control over our own lives we continue to fall back into old habits. The truth is we can’t maintain lives of repentance without help. Before Jesus left he promised a Helper. Why? Because up to that point the disciples had him to keep them in line. They needed Jesus. Even though Jesus was leaving it didn’t mean they didn’t need his help any longer. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to be the presence that is needed in our lives to help us live as repentant individuals.
Fire can be taken a few ways here. One interpreter says that fire refers to judgment of those who do not repent. This very well could be the correct interpretation, but could fire refer to tribulation? Wouldn’t the true test of repentance be tribulation? We come under fire every day in one form or another. The temptation in such situations is to continue to exert control over our own lives instead of allowing God to have the control. Would every “tribulation” be a test of how well we are doing?