Read Matthew 3:1–12.

The Gospel writer Matthew preserves the historical setting for John the Baptist’s ministry with a simple timestamp: “In those days” (v. 1). To read the previous chapter (as well as Luke 3) is to understand these were the days of megalomaniacal rulers—like Herod the Great who, in bloodthirsty rage, killed the little boys of Bethlehem. After Herod died and his son had risen to power, Joseph remained afraid for his family and moved them to Nazareth “so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene” (2:23, ESV).

Matthew’s gospel is insistent upon the fulfillment of God’s prophetic promises. “God said—and it was accomplished,” Matthew emphasizes over and over again. This notion isn’t to be treated as self-evident, of course, not when visible reality suggests evil is winning. When babies are dead at the hands of an evil king, for example, can we really trust that heaven is breaking in, as John preaches (3:2)?

John the Baptist cuts the figure of Elijah in the Old Testament, dressed in camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey. Elijah was another prophet who ministered under an evil regime. King Ahab, like Herod, also killed for ambition. After Elijah’s dramatic victory over the prophets of Baal, his Queen Jezebel put a price on Elijah’s head.

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. This is essentially the word preached by all of God’s prophets, and by God’s grace, it is a word that arrives in the darkness. It’s a word of good news: There’s been a change of administration. This proclamation, preached both by John and Jesus, anticipates that another king will ascend to the throne. As the prophet Isaiah himself declared many hundreds of years earlier, the government of this king, unlike the government of King Ahab or King Herod, will be one of peace (Isa. 9:6–7).

To follow King Jesus is not simply to be saved by him; it’s to be changed by him. According to Paul, the gospel tells us that Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:14).

We know the working of amazing, saving, cleansing grace when God’s people turn from sin and surrender themselves wholly to God. If Advent is the dawning of light, repentance is the daily habit of walking in it.

Jen Pollock Michel is a writer, podcast host, and speaker based in Toronto. She’s the author of four books, including A Habit Called Faith and Surprised by Paradox.

[ This article is also available in español Português Français 简体中文 한국어 Indonesian 繁體中文, and русский. ]

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.