Advent Sermon: Matthew 3:1-12; The Gospel of Repentance

Matthew 3:1-12

Prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our Rock, and our Kinsman. Amen.

Sermon: People of God, you may be familiar with Leo Tolstoy’s short story entitled: “Where Love is, God is.” The story is about a man named Martin, who after losing his son to an illness “gave way to despair so great and overwhelming that he murmured against God.”[1] He wanted to die; he became hopeless. He had nothing to live for. One day an old man confronted Martin’s view of life. He said that the reason Martin despaired was because he wished to live for his own happiness; to which Martin replied: “What else should one live for?” The old man answered: “For God…He gives you life and you must live for Him.” What Martin discovered as the story unfolded is that in the gospels you will find how God wants you to live.[2] In the gospels, Martin will be restored.

As we navigate the gospel of Matthew this season, we too will find restoration; we too will find how God wants us to live. And what we discover this morning as we look to chapter three of Matthew is that the way to begin this life of restoration is by living the  life of repentance.

The bringing in of a new world order will require a new way of life; a life of repentance. Martin Luther stamped his distaste for the abuses of the church in the 16th century in his 95 theses. But how often do we remember Luther’s first thesis; the one who made the top of the list. It reads as follows:

“When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent,’ He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”[3]

This is the precise message delivered by the greatest forerunner in history; indeed the greatest prophet in history, as Jesus says in Matthew 11. His name is John, and he comes with a catastrophic message for those who do not repent and a message of joy for those who do.

In those days, that is, in “those crucial days,”[4]John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness/desert of Judea. Judea was a place bereft of righteousness,[5] which had produced no fruit. As one early church father wrote:

“The only thing it produced was some sharp thorns, with which it crowned its own Lord.”[6]

It is into this desert scene that John comes to bring the message of the kingdom. It is into this dark world that John comes to announce the ministry of the Light of the World, Jesus Christ. What is the message? “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” John is the herald announcing the coming of a greater Moses, and he comes announcing a message that has been blurred for hundreds of years. He is commanding a change of mind, heart, and action. It is a simple message, but with profound implications for those hearing it. This call to repentance is not just a call to remorse or to feel sad for your sins, it is a call to radical transformation in light of the Advent of Messiah. You may have the remorse of Judas, but if you do not have the repentance of Peter you are doomed.

Who is this man bringing this drastic and revolutionary message? St. Matthew tells us in verses 3 and 4:

For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord;

make his paths straight.’”

[4] Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.

This is a colorful and a powerful man! John fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy. He is declaring that they are to prepare the way of the Lord making His paths straight. This is a metaphor for repentance that John is applying to Israel. Israel had departed from the true way. “They had forsaken God’s commandments; the leaders were oppressing the people; the people were filled with demons; and faith and obedience were nowhere to be found.”[7] John is saying that this is the day of repentance. This is the day to turn from your sins, because Christ is coming and if he has to come on crooked paths, the picture is not going to be pretty.[8]

John also wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist. Who does this remind us of from the Old Testament? It reminds us of Elijah,[9] and the point is that John is something of a new Elijah. Just as Elijah was a prophet to Israel when there were only a few faithful left, John is a prophet to Israel in the 1st century looking for a few faithful Jews left.

John’s “rough appearance, his mysterious aloneness”[10] is also intriguing. He comes with a picture of affliction eating locusts and wild honey. This is a diet of affliction. John is representing in his diet the affliction that is going to come. For instance, John is eating locusts. What do locusts do? They devour and consume things. Frequently, the Gentiles nations around Israel are portrayed as an army of locusts. Food is a picture of incorporation. You have heard that you are what you eat. John knows that and what he eats becomes his message to the first century Jews. John is declaring a message of doom to those who do not repent. If they fail to heed his message, they will be devoured by locusts.

As this messenger of hope and doom begins his heralding work, there were people from Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan coming to be baptized by him,[11] and confessing their sins. They want to be united to this kingdom that is near. They want to be united to the King of the Kingdom. They confess their sins and turn from their spiritual anarchy. They want to make sure that Messiah comes in straight paths and not crooked ones.

But there was also another group of people coming to be baptized: the Pharisees and Sadducees are also coming for baptism and this leads to litany of prophetic indictments from John in verses 7-12. Far from the cries of a prophetic lunatic, John is completely lucid. Robert Rayburn says that:

The harshest language in the Bible is always reserved for church leaders who have betrayed the gospel and deceived the people.[12]

The Pharisees and Sadducees are guilty of this deception and betrayal. This explosion of language is an exposition, an explanation, and a demonstration of what the consequences of an unrepentant people looks like. John is saying, “Do you think that you can escape the judgment to come by being baptized and living like a big pile of evil serpents?” If you think people misunderstand baptism today—and they do—they also misunderstood baptism in the first century. Baptism unaccompanied by fruits of repentance is fruitless. Children, this morning, do not think that because you come from a Christian family and because you have been baptized that you can live as you please. Don’t be deceived like the evil teachers of the day who said in verse 9, “We have Abraham as our father.” Children, listen carefully: God is not your Father because of your parents; God is your Father because of Christ. He uses your parents to bring you into His family; He uses your parents to bring you to the waters of baptism, He uses your parents to nurture and educate you in godly ways, but your blood line will not excuse you at the Last Day. This is a warning for any of you who may put your trust in your families or baptisms for your eternal salvation. A proper view of baptism means that we will never assume that our baptisms– whether as an infant or an adult– can replace an unrepentant life; a baptismal life is a repenting life. The baptized life is a life that bears fruit.

Just as the character in Leo Tolstoy’s short story learned how to live according to the gospels, in Matthew’s gospel you also learn how to die; and John the Baptist’s words in verses 11-12 make that abundantly clear:

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. [12] His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

This is the message of the kingdom. The Advent of Jesus is an advent of peace and grace and mercy and love, but it is also a coming in judgment to those who despise His name. This is very hard language, but this is nothing other than the gospel, and it is good news.

Rich Lusk puts it this way:

“Jesus did not come to give you a hug and a pat on the back, because your problem is a whole lot bigger than that. You don’t need a hug, you need the cross. You don’t just need affirmation; you need a Savior. We’d much rather be pampered and coddled and cared for in this way, rather than be told that we need to repent…The truth is that God is holy, and God wants us to be holy too. …God has in mind bigger things than your personal comfort.”[13]

The message of this Advent Season is to prepare for the coming of the Lord; and preparing for His Advent means hating your sins with a profound passion.

So, what are you passionate about? Are you passionate about hating your sins and destroying those habitual practices? Do you deceive yourself like the religious leaders of the day into thinking that your status in life or your baptism is an excuse to sin?

Parents, how often do you model repentance in the home? You will make mistakes. You will discipline incorrectly; you will say hurtful things; but when these things happen, what do you do? Do you hide it hoping that your children will forget it?

How about our relationships in the Church? Shortly, you will be coming to eat and drink at the Lord’s Table, which is a table of peace and unity. Are you eating and drinking hypocritically? Are you at odds with your brother or sister; are you hating your brother in your heart, while saying you love Jesus at this table?

The message of John is a message for the unrepentant, but a message of joy for those who have repented of their sins and confessed Jesus as Lord. For you, my prayer is that you may walk in straight paths and that your baptism will bear good fruit for the glory of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


[2] As an observation, this story can be misunderstood as moralistic, but Jesus puts it: “If you love Me, you keep commandments.”

[3] Several of these quotations comes from my friend Jeremy Sexton who has been gracious to share his notes with me.

[4] D.A. Carson, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, pgs. 98-99.

[5] Matthew, Volume I. ed. Thomas Oden; Incomplete On-line edition on

[6] Ibid. pg. 44

[7] Jeremy Sexton; notes on Matthew 3.

[8] Again thanks to Jeremy for the metaphor observation. If I am not mistaken D.A. Carson also has a similar point.

[9] For comparisons between John and Elijah, see Peter Leithart’s new book: The Four. Pgs. 62 & 63.

[10] Robert Rayburn.

[11] This is a baptism of diverse washings as in Hebrews 9.

[12] Robert Rayburn, sermons on Matthew 3.

[13] Quote from Jeremy Sexton’s notes.


About Uri Brito

I am the Pastor of Providence Church (CREC) in Pensacola, Fl.
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