16 Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said, “Men of Israel, and you who fear God, listen: 17 “The God of this people Israel chose our fathers and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with an uplifted arm He led them out from it. 18 “For a period of about forty years He put up with them in the wilderness. 19 “When He had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, He distributed their land as an inheritance -all of which took about four hundred and fifty years. 20 “After these things He gave them judges until Samuel the prophet. 21 “Then they asked for a king, and God gave them Saul the son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, for forty years. 22 “After He had removed him, He raised up David to be their king, concerning whom He also testified and said, ‘I HAVE FOUND DAVID the son of Jesse, A MAN AFTER MY HEART, who will do all My will.’ 23 “From the descendants of this man, according to promise, God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, 24 after John had proclaimed before His coming a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel.
This is the first time I have heard this phrase. While it certainly makes sense given what John the Baptist did to pave the way for Jesus’ entry into our lives, we must contemplate the implications of this term. Baptism is a symbol of rebirth. It is an outward action motivated by an inward change. Sometimes it is used as a ceremonial symbol to indicate the acceptance into a group. Yet when Paul combines baptism with repentance, we get a different picture.
Repentance, at its core meaning, means turning away from something. In the Christian sense, it signifies not only turning away from sinfulness, but towards Christ. Jesus’ first words in ministry were, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This is the call we are given in response to understanding God’s love and sacrifice for us. It isn’t a baptism of saying, “hey, I’m going to be different from now on.” It is a baptism of submission and recognition. It isn’t an initiation ritual so you can get a certificate from the church and be part of the “in crowd,” it is a receiving of grace and cleansing. Jesus’ call to repentance is about receiving the grace of God and becoming empowered to bring the Kingdom to others.
Paul’s exhortation is about understanding what God has done for us and accepting it. It’s about understanding and receiving the gift of life. The short explanation of the deliverance of Israel is comparable to our deliverance as Gentiles as well. God has done so much for us yet we continue to ignore it. This is why we are called to repentance. We are called to recognize God’s goodness to us so we can fully appreciate and live in it. This baptism of repentance is about living as a new creation. Paul describes this in more detail in his second letter to the Corinthians, chapter 6:
14 For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; 15 and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf. 16 Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. 17 Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. 18 Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, 19 namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.
God reconciled us to Himself through Christ, but we cannot live in this reconciliation without repentance. If we truly repent and turn from our former selves then we will be compelled to receive the baptism of Christ. Just as Paul writes in Ephesians 4:
21 if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, 22 that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, 23 and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24 and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.
If we truly believe in what Christ has done for us and our need for Him, then we are set free to live our new lives in communion with Him. We have received the gift of living in the Kingdom of God. This is what was promised all throughout the Old Testament and foretold through the prophets. Paul is preparing to exhort his audience about hearing and knowing the scriptures but not putting them to practice. It is our own ignorance of which we must repent! We are ignoring the simple truths of the Kingdom that are right before us. We have moved on to preach love, peace, and hair grease but have bypassed the very core of Jesus’ message: “recognize what I have done and repent.” We cannot bring the Kingdom to others if we ourselves are not living in the kingdom. That’s like trying to sell a product you have never used before. Once we recognize our depravity and need for Christ, we can walk into the newness of life He has prepared for us and then we can take that good news to others. Let us not deceive ourselves that taking the good news to others will reserve our own seat next to the King.