Acts 13: 22-26
Luke 1: 57-66, 80
May I Speak in the name of the Son, to the glory of the Father, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen
John the Baptist can be said to be the ‘Key Stone’ of the Bible!
Picture a stone arch. The two halves of the arch are separated in the middle by a wedge shaped ‘Key Stone’. It is only the ‘Key Stone’ that makes the complete arch possible. It does this by keeping the two halves of the arch in tension, preventing them from falling apart. Both halves of the arch are entirely separate structures and only the addition of the ‘Key Stone’ forms them into a single unit.
Now think of where John the Baptist fits into the Bible. He sits right at the end of the Old Testament and at the very beginning of the New. He is in effect the ‘Key Stone’ that joins the two parts of the Bible together. He provides the ‘compressive stress’ that holds both the Old Testament and the New together.
So now we have established the importance of John perhaps now would be a good time to look a little closer at what he had to say. We are told John was to ‘make ready a people for the Lord’ and also that he ‘came proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. But what does that last sentence mean? Any theologian will tell you this is one of the hardest sentences in the whole Bible to translate into any other language other than the one it was written in and retain it’s true meaning. So lets look at it word by word with the exception of the obvious; ‘a, of, for and the’. Let’s start with ‘came proclaiming’.
‘Came’ is not too bad, except that it doesn’t mean coming from one place to another, in this context it means coming into the focus of public attention. But what of ‘proclaiming’? It is the word used about a herald when he brings good news. The same word is used for preaching, proclaiming the Gospels – we are here to bring you good news.
What did John mean by baptism? The word simply means washing. The Jews in those days were always washing themselves; they knew nothing about modern hygiene, they did it because they thought unless you were physically clean you were not spiritually pure enough to approach the Holy of Hollies. So when somebody who was not a Jew wanted to follow the Jewish religion, they had to be baptised, washed, to be purified of all their Gentile thoughts and habits. When John the Baptist said to his fellow Jews, ‘You must be baptised’, he was warning them that birth and race was not enough to obtain salvation. They had to make their own declaration of renewal and commitment. In the same way that a Christian, who may have been baptised at birth, is ‘confirmed’ when they are old enough to make their own commitment to Christ.
The next word is the hardest of all to translate: ‘repentance’. It’s easily confused with the word ‘remorse’. We all know that saying sorry is important, that it is the hardest word to say, and God tells us that we can’t be forgiven until we have owned up to our own actions and said sorry to the ones we have wronged. But that is not what John was talking about. The word which we mistranslate as ‘repentance’ actually means changing your mind. Changing your attitude. Making a fresh start. It is the difference between the Pharisee who said in his prayers, ‘I have done this and I have done that, so I deserve to be saved’, and the tax collector who beat his breast and prayed, ‘Lord have mercy on me a sinner’. John’s message was all about not boasting of our own achievements or our piety, but starting all over again in utter dependence on God.
The words get a bit easier now. ‘John came proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins’. ‘Remission means ‘sending away’. Today we may say a cancer patient is in remission; the cancer has gone away. A penitent once challenged a priest, ‘How do I know that God hears your prayers?’ The priest replied, ‘Ask God what sins I confessed to Him today’. The penitent came back crestfallen the next morning. ‘I asked God what sins you had confessed,’ he said, ‘and God replied He had already forgotten!’ And that is what ‘remission’ means: God sends your sins away, forgives and forgets. In fact God is probably the only one who is capable of forgiving you and totally forgetting what it was He forgave.
That only leaves the word ‘sins’. Sin means basically ‘falling short’, as when an arrow fails to make it as far as the target. The target for each of us is to be as loving as Jesus is. Anything less is sin. So we are all, and always will be sinners, because that target is well beyond the power of the bow we carry or the strength of our arms to pull it. But if we repent, our sins can be sent away into oblivion. John the Baptist, the ‘Key Stone’ of the Bible was born to ‘make ready a people for the Lord’ and ‘proclaim a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins’. Listen to him; make your own declaration of renewal and commitment, and live secure in the knowledge of the forgiveness of your sins by the wonderful grace of God.