Today we begin our 6 month journey through the Gospels, seeking to learn from Jesus (Matthew 1-3).
“What does “believing” look like?” That’s an interesting question to ponder. The usual way of thinking might ask, “What does a believer look like?” to which we might answer in all sorts of ways. We have many pragmatic standards for measuring the portrait of a “believer,” but those standards–in and of themselves–fall far short. By “believer” we probably mean someone who prayed a certain prayer (i.e., “sinner’s prayer”), and/or walked down an aisle and signed a card, and/or was baptized, and/or is a member of a church, and/or attends church regularly, and so on and so forth. None of those things are bad or even necessarily wrong. Yet, we must admit such a definition of “believer” falls short.
Imagine if you ran into a man wearing a robe made of camel hair with a fanny pack full of honey hanging off his leather belt. That might catch us off guard, but what if he came up close and began to say something like this to you: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. How would you respond? You would probably yell, “Police!” or “Stop judging me, man!” or “What freak show are you starring in?” or something along those lines. John the Baptist must have been a startling presence in that day and time (Matt. 3:1-12).
John was preaching to those claiming to be, if you will, “believers” in that day and time. At least, they considered themselves to be such. John preached to the Jewish people, actually, exhorting them to repent. Now, you must understand the context of his audience. These were folks who knew the (then) bible. The men and boys would wear scripture on their person and each family would station scripture on their home and talk about it as they walked to the grocery store or wherever. These folks were back in their “homeland,” the generation following Babylonian captivity. Though they lived now in the “promised land,” however, they were still in captivity under Rome’s heavy hand–literally prisoners in their own home. Their leaders, trying to keep Rome at bay–as well as their own circumstances–turned their status as “believers” into an impossible religiosity. The common Jewish family was, then, between a rock and hard place (which is why Jesus will later say “Come to me all who are weary and heavy ladened…”).
To these people, these religious yet struggling people, John says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Repent means to “return” or “turn away from.” What John was asking them to do was this: Return to the promises of God. Though they were religious and would consider themselves believers, their “believing” was not in the promises of God but in their wayward religious activity (to which Jesus would eventually compare them to Isaiah’s audience by saying, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.”).
When we list out all of the ways we think a “believer” should look, we often think of all the qualities of religion that seemingly matches our definition. But describing the activity of the verb form paints a different light on the question. John, crazy man in crazy clothes with a crazy sermon, preached and lived out the reality of God’s promise. He fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy because when he saw Jesus he saw the promised servant of the Lord who takes away the sins of the world. His audience had defined their brand of “believer,” yet they were living in view of man’s religion rather than God’s promises. John’s message was “return to the promises of God.” “Let your believing match what God has promised rather than what you hope to achieve.” “Do not presume to be God’s people because of your genealogy; God defines who are his people–not DNA–so produce fruit” (Matt. 3:9; John 1:12-13).
Returning to the promises of God is part and parcel with “bearing appropriate fruit.” So meditate on this today: What does “believing the promises of God” look like for me this moment? in this situation? in my marriage? for this decision? It is not merely enough to identify the transforming power of Christ’s presence in you with church attendance and tithing records. Again, those are not bad things or even unnecessary practices, but merely surface deep activities that can be accomplished without spiritual transformation. We can all agree that if believers really lived according to what we say we believe, our lives would look much different–and perhaps the world would look much different, too.
Repent and return to living in view of God’s promises, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. These are urgent days, yet “he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them [we] may become partakers of the divine nature” (1 Pet. 1:4). What does “believing” look like? Jesus is about to teach us by word and by example in Matthew’s following chapters. In the meantime, prayerfully meditate on that question for your life today.