So why did people pour out “from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan” to hear John the Baptist and “confess their sins,” Matthew 3:5-6?
None of them had received the Holy Spirit yet, but they felt a deep need to own up to their guilt, seek forgiveness, and wash away their past and start anew. So what made them do that, when it wasn’t the Holy Spirit?
Well, it had to be their conscience, right? God had given them the Law, so they knew right from wrong. And all through their history they were constantly being faced with either blessings for obedience or punishment for disobedience. And sometimes, when they knew they were way out of line, and the punishment was severe, they repented. They knew they were guilty and they accepted it. Having a conscience, then, that enabled that to happen was a wonderful gift from God.
But their sad history showed that conscience wasn’t enough to create either constant or permanent change. Even after the Jews were carted off into slavery for their rebellion against God, their conscience wasn’t enough to permanently correct their attitudes after they returned. And it stayed that way up to the time John the Baptist turned up.
But what was the point of John the Baptist turning up and stirring up their conscience, when their history had already proved a guilty conscience never creates permanent change?
Because it was preparation for “one more powerful” than John, who would “baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire,” Luke 3:16, which to John was “good news” (verse 18). Good news, yes, because at last, the solution had arrived to conscience not being sufficient.
The solution was Jesus “asking the Father to give us another Counsellor,” John 14:16 – “the Holy Spirit,” verse 26, “whom the Father will send in my name (acting on my behalf),” who, John 16:13-14, “will guide you into all truth….by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.” And how the Spirit does that is by “living with you and in you,” John 14:17. The Spirit who’s always with us now lives what Jesus taught in us, enabling constant and permanent growth and change – something the Israelites never accomplished without the Holy Spirit. We are fortunate, then, to have the Spirit as our guide, not our conscience.
Note: For those who haven’t received the Holy Spirit and rely on their conscience to moderate their behaviour, God honours that too (Romans 2:14-15). But it’s only by the Spirit that we “participate in the divine nature,” enabling us to “escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires,” 2 Peter 1:4.
(Feb 9 – “When conscience conflicts with the Spirit”)