Repentance is Good News – Luke 3:1-20

It might seem odd to this that repentance is good news. But to hear the good news about Jesus can be harder than we sometimes think.

The Bible has some pretty stark messages for us. John the Baptist certainly didn’t hold back, as we’ll see. And yet even the strongest words are, in the end, Good News.

  • If I say, “Don’t touch that; it’s hot” – it’s a kindness.
  • If I say, “Don’t eat that; it’s poisonous” – it’s a kindness.
  • If I warn you about the judgment of God against you, it’s a kindness. Because there is very Good News to go with it.

John preached a message of repentance. You might think you know what that means. But as you look more closely at what he was saying you realise how broad and challenging repentance really is.

You need to realise that for yourself, and for anyone you’re hoping might come to know Jesus.

These notes accompany a sermon on YouTube delivered in August 2022 at Bromborough Evangelical Church, Wirral. You can find more in the series in our sermon index.

You need forgiving (1-6)

In Luke 3:1-2, we’re given the time setting. They didn’t have a year system like “1967” or “2022”. Time was located by who was ruler where and when.

The key detail is at the end of v2, when we’re told that John “was living in the wilderness.” That’s key because of the link to Isaiah’s prophecy about John given 800 years earlier. We’ll come to that.

We get a summary of what John did: Read Luke 3:3.

More literally, “He went into all the vicinity of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Three key words: baptism, repentance, forgiveness.

You might think of repentance as being sorry for your sin and turning to God. But for many people, it’s much bigger and harder than you realise.

  • In the 16th Century, it was widely believed and taught that the earth was fixed in place and the sun went round it.
  • The scientist Nicolaus Copurnicus challenged that, saying that it was the earth that went round the sun.
  • There was uproar.
  • Texts like Psalm 104:5 were quoted: He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.
  • People (generally) accepted the truth over time.
  • It’s now known as the Copernican revolution – a massive realisation that the world around you isn’t how you thought it was.
  • (Now we know the sun is on a path too, with the earth actually corkscrewing through space!)

Personal Copernican Revolution

For many people, repentance requires a personal Copernican revolution. 

  • You are not the centre of your universe.
  • God is the centre of all things; you are dependent on him.
  • You are accountable to him for all you do.
  • And you have offended his goodness towards you.
  • You need to realise that you’re rebelling against God in God’s world, breaking God’s laws, due God’s punishment.

There is nowhere safe from God; no refuge to hide in. Repentance begins with this realisation. It’s an important note for evangelism, for tracts, for verses on posters etc. Churches generally need a wider understanding of repentance, helping people come to their own Copernican revolution, their own realisation of self before God.

But v18 will describe this as Good News. Why? Because it’s a warning with an invitation!

God is ready to forgive: That’s why he’s warning you.

  • Speed cameras are painted bright yellow and are easy to see: They don’t want to catch you speeding, they want you not to speed.
  • The warning about God’s judgment is a warning, an invitation to come to God for forgiveness.
  • There’s no refuge from God, but there is always refuge in God. 

Repentance is two things: Realisation and reorientation.

  • Realisation of your sin and offence to a personal God.
  • Reorientation towards him, and a desire to live for him.
  • You go to him and ask for forgiveness, and he forgives.

That was John’s message, and then he baptised people as a public declaration of repentance and forgiveness, a kind of symbolic cleansing. Those people baptised by John in the Jordan weren’t Christians – we’re in the crossover time from Old Testament to New in this text. But they were saved by faith, forgiven of sin by God.

John’s baptism anticipates Christian baptism

Read Luke 3:4-6.

  • John’s message and baptism was preparing the way for the coming of the Lord, for Jesus who is Christ the Lord.
  • Valleys will be filled – the humble and broken lifted up in hope.
  • Mountains and hills will be made level – proud hearts brought down in humility before God.
  • Curves straightened, rough places smoothed – Sinful, crooked hearts straightened in realisation and reorientation towards God. Ready for Jesus.

It’s a quote from Isaiah 40, which is a message of comfort, comfort, for the people of God. Jesus is the Good News; he is the comfort to the broken, the sinful, the rebel, the one seeking peace.

You can see how Christian baptism is anticipated by John’s baptism, and how it speaks of a much greater reality in Jesus:

  • John: Repentance, forgiveness of sins, public declaration of repentance (realisation, reorientation)
  • Jesus: Repentance, forgiveness of sins (as before), plus
    • Your own death and resurrection in union with Christ (dead to sin, alive in Christ)
    • The gift of the Holy Spirit in you
    • Then a public declaration of your union with Christ

Which is why this is Good News! Jesus is the Good News.

This is his message of comfort to you: Repent of your sin (realise that you’re a sinner before God, reorient yourself towards him), and ask for the forgiveness he longs to give. Then you will be united to Jesus forever in bliss, with the deposit of the Holy Spirit in you.

(Side note: If you’re a Christian, get baptised!)

You’re not too good or too bad for Jesus (7-14)

We get a taste of John’s preaching and it’s pretty blunt stuff. Read Luke 3:7-8.

  • God chose the nation of Israel both to bless them and to use them to make his name known in the world.
  • Many disobeyed, many were judged.
  • “Not all descended from Israel are Israel,” writes Paul in Romans 9:6 (CSB).
  • That is, not all ethnic Israel are God’s spiritual Israel.

John makes the point in dramatic fashion! Many of his listeners felt they were secure before God because they were descended from their Father Abraham. John calls them a “brood of vipers” – meaning that their true father is a serpent. The serpent, Satan. This is deliberately strong language.

This is for you, if you feel that your confidence before God is based on your religion, or your church background.

  • You might have gone to church all your life, know all the Bible stories, and be highly thought of.
  • But none of that is standing before God. Read Luke 3:9.

You might point to the fruit of your works – charity, church stuff. Luke 3:8 (CSB): …produce fruit consistent with repentance. If all you’re relying on before God is your “good” life then the axe is at your feet; you’re almost ready for the fire.

Right standing with God begins in your heart.

  • Repent of your sin; ask God for his forgiveness.
  • The fruit of repentance is good works that spring from a heart for God.
  • If you jump straight to good works then your heart is still wrong before him, and you’re trying to twist his arm as if he owes you heaven. He doesn’t. He is God; you aren’t.

You’re not too good that you don’t need Jesus. Equally, you’re not too bad either.

Anyone can come

In Luke 3:10-14, various sample groups come forward to ask John how they should live – what are the fruits of a repentant life

  • For the crowds, John says to take care of the poor – social responsibility matters to God, and is the opposite of selfishness (part of that Copernican revolution centred on God, not self)
  • For the low-life tax collectors, traitors to their nation, who became rich by taking money from their own countrymen in occupied territory, they’re to deal justly and fairly.
  • The soldiers (known for corruption and extortion) are told to work for their wages only. 

Notice that none of them are to withdraw from society in a holy huddle. Nor are they told to do more religious stuff.

  • If you’re a Christian, make sure you’re not limiting that to Sundays! 
  • You’re a Christian at home, at the shop, at work. Your whole life and attitude is to be changed, not just part-time.
  • John’s message to those people was to live out daily lives oriented towards God, worked out in his values: honesty, fairness, generosity.
  • Not as works, but as the fruit of repentance – the natural outworking of a heart oriented towards God.

Complete the Revolution

If you find that your life through the week is different from the way you are on Sundays (how you feel at church, how you speak):

  • Perhaps your Copernican revolution isn’t complete.
  • You need to realise again that you’re not the centre of your universe: God is, and your life is to be oriented towards him.
  • Repent: Jesus tells us all to do that because we all keep needing to do it.
  • Realise your distance from God, and reorient yourself back to him: He will forgive you, and he will bring you comfort and peace in life.
  • And live for him in your job, in your family, as he would want it. Deny your self and live his life in you.

All this is Good News because, in the end, your eternity is Jesus whether he forgives you or not.

Your eternity is Jesus (15-20)

Read Luke 3:15.

This “voice in the desert” didn’t do any miracles, he just taught God’s own message of repentance and forgiveness. And still people thought he might be the messiah – don’t lose sight of the power of the Good News.

John denied being the messiah, obviously. Read Luke 3:16.

  • They were impressed by John, but one far greater is coming!
  • In that culture, a Jew could have slaves who were Jewish or Gentile. 
  • They wouldn’t make a Jewish slave undo their sandals as it was so demeaning. 
  • Only the lowest slaves were used for such low work.
  • And John says that he isn’t worthy for the lowest of low work for Jesus – so glorious and worthy of honour is Christ

He said that Jesus “will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” You might feel ok with the Holy Spirit bit, but what about the fire? Read Luke 3:17.

Most of us haven’t worked on a farm, so what does that mean?

  • Wheat grains grow at the top of long stalks.
  • You only want the grain – the rest of the plant is useless.
  • You chop it down, and break it all up (careful not to crush the grain).
  • Then you get a winnowing fork (a big garden fork), and lift up your crushed wheat plants.
  • The grain just stays or falls to the ground, while the chaff (the waste stalks etc) blow away in the wind.
  • A tidy farmer will gather up the chaff and burn it.

A Big vision of Jesus

John says Jesus will do that with all humanity. He’ll separate us all out, keeping the grain (his own people) and then burning the rest.

  • If you haven’t understood Jesus as being the one who will judge us all in this way, you haven’t understood him at all.
  • Repent, and go to him for forgiveness.
  • It’s scary, but it’s actually good news: Read Luke 3:18.

For all who will come, Jesus will baptise with the Holy Spirit – he will give you life, and dwell in you.

For all who reject Jesus, he will baptise you with fire – your rejection of him will be matched by his rejection of you.

Expect Opposition

If you come to Jesus, and want others to know him, you can expect much resistance.

  • People like to be at the centre of their own universe.
  • They don’t want God in it.
  • The chapter ends with Herod locking John up in prison. Why? Because John pointed out Herod’s sin before God, and Herod wanted to silence him.

The god of this world has blinded the eyes of people to the truth. He says to them, “You be you. Go your own way. What’s true for you is truth for you. Be the centre of your own universe.” But that serpent is the father of lies. Lying is his language.

Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. He calls you to repentance (realisation of the truth that you’re a sinner before God, and then reorientation towards God). He calls you to forgiveness of your sin.

And Jesus calls you to life. Real life, with God at the centre, life in him, worked out for him to his glory.

This is Good News: Comfort and peace with God are in Christ alone.