The early ministry experiences of Jesus and John the Baptist contain valuable lessons for us today.
"Repent." John's message was singular. In an era when discussion about religious matters was confined to the spiritual elite and religiosity was all about form and making a good impression, John's call to repentance startled the masses. Multitudes were drawn to the barren wasteland of the Jordan valley to hear him preach. Clothed in camel's hair garments secured by a leather belt, John must have been a sight to behold. What a contrast was his appearance to that of the richly-robed Pharisees and Sadducees. John was not about dressing for worldly success, nor was his message aimed at mere outward appearance or political correctness. His words penetrated to the heart: "Brood of vipers," "Do not say to yourselves, We have Abraham as our father," "The ax is laid to the root of the tree," "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matthew 3:1-12, excerpted)
To God's last day remnant church, a similar message of rebuke has been given: "Because you say, 'I am rich, ... and have need of nothing," "and know not that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked," "I counsel you to buy . . . white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness not appear," "Be zealous therefore and repent." (Revelation 3:14-22, excerpted)
The call to repentance is a plea to "turn your eyes upon Jesus, and look full in His wonderful face" so that "the things of earth" will "grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace." As a church, we cannot proclaim the Lord's soon (second) advent with our backs to Jesus. To repent is to turn to Him and away from the world.
The temptations. Shortly after Jesus' baptism he repaired to the wilderness to commune with His Father. His first 30 years of life were marked with humble, faithful toil. No doubt Jesus experienced temptations throughout that time, but nothing like what He faced once beginning His ministry. Have you noticed sometimes how Satan's attacks increase when we set about to follow God's call to a new level of ministry?
But Jesus' temptations were more than mere trials. In coming to this world as our Savior, it behooved Him to be made in all things "like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, . . . For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted" (Hebrews 2:17, 18). Christ came to experience life as we do. His was not the life of an adventure outdoorsman, a successful businessman, or a revered leader. No, His mission to save us took Him to our collective lowest point, and that's what He experienced in the wilderness. It's easy to be a Christian when everything is smooth sailing. It's another thing altogether when our faith is tested and tried, when all others forsake us, and when at our weakest point someone beguiles us with a near-irresistible invitation to reward ourselves with just a little self-indulgence.
That's why Jesus' victory over Satan in the wilderness is everything to us. "We do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15). In other words, Jesus can sympathize with us in our weakness, and not only sympathize, but bring us safely through temptation. He resisted as us. Our greatest struggle may be to believe this good news!
Have you ever wanted something very badly only to see a close friend succeed instead of you? We all rejoice when we win. But what about when we lose? John's disciples experienced this disappointment. They wanted John to succeed. They couldn't understand why John would allow himself to fade to the background while Jesus was gaining followers on every hand. John explained, "He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30). In this one short sentence, John articulated the essence of the gospel: More of Jesus. Less of me. When desire for Jesus' glory is paramount, we will not feel hurt by the slights of others. We will be neither disappointed by apparent failure nor elated by applause. The success of Christ in His mission to save souls will be our heart's desire, and that is something John understood.
"From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand' " (Matthew 4:17) The call to the fishermen is Jesus' call to us, to leave our selfish pursuits and, forsaking all others, to follow Him. We live in an era where people are reluctant to make absolute commitments. Marriages fail. Friends separate. We make contingency plans, just in case. But Jesus' call to us is all-encompassing. There is no middle ground. We can't strike a deal with God. "OK, after the Super Bowl then I'll commit to spending more time with you," or "If I can get my friend to come, then I'll come, too", or whatever the condition may be. Jesus calls for complete, full-hearted surrender of ourselves, our plans, to Him. In exchange for our polluted selves, He gives us His righteousness. He installs a new "hard drive" in our minds that provides a new spring of action: "For the love of Christ compels us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died; and He died for all." Jesus calls for fishermen today who no longer desire to live for themselves, "but for Him who died for them and rose again" (2 Corinthians 5:17, 18).