And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. Luke 1:76-79

John the Baptist’s father Zechariah is prophesying over his newborn son about the Baptist’s ministry. That the Baptist was the forerunner of the messiah who prepared the way before him is something any Bible literate person knows. That his ministry and message were noticeably similar to the prophets of old may not be so familiar, but what stood out to me is why. John was called to raise awareness of the need for salvation and the availability of it via the forgiveness of sins. Indeed, the central message of John’s ministry—and Christ’s own first sermons—was to repent, to strive to cease doing evil and replace it with good.

On the lips of believers today, the message of repentance that God spoke through Jesus, John, and the Old Testament prophets of old is condemned as hateful, legalistic, intolerant, and divisive by the world and Christians taken captive by the world. If we don’t consider what John the Baptist actually preached, we can miss here what giving people knowledge of salvation and forgiveness of sins looked like for John. If we do, we’ll also miss the reason God gives here for sending John to preach, “you’re going to burn unless you forsake your evil ways, come to the water of repentance and new life, and get your sins washed away by the blood of the Lamb.”

God cites his motives for sending out anyone to preach repentance being not judgment, hatred, and division, but the loving, compassionate mercy that brings us the literal sunrise and the “Sunrise” of Jesus, who came to offer the light of life and truth to those dying in the darkness of sin (all of us at one time.) Not only that, this message calls everyone to forsake the sin that truly brings division and warring and let God grow his righteousness in us.

At the same time, those who are in the light cannot live fully at peace with those in the darkness. We can try to respectfully work and live in harmony with those who don’t have God’s grace at work in them and aren’t repentant and allowing God to change their ways, but that will inevitably become like unequally yoked oxen. The strong oxen pulls the weak oxen the way the strong wants to go. If the captive to sin can accept working with us within our boundaries, that’s one thing. More often, though, we will be the ones who forsake seeking to please God and instead seek to please the world, often on excuses of love, peace, duty, or evangelism. True, there will be times when holding true to your convictions will bring strife and division no matter how respectful and kind you are about it, but that’s why the Bible adds “as much as lies within you” to “live at peace with all men.”

Peace with God should be our number one priority. Anything less is idolatry and spiritual adultery. God wants there to be peace on Earth and good will between humans, too, and it breaks his heart when people who live in darkness forsake him and they or the circumstances demand that we choose between their way and God’s way and hence between living at peace with God and living at peace with them. It should break ours, too, but God still requires to be first place in our lives. Remember, Jesus himself warned us that following him would separate us from the world and bring strife and animosity between the adopted children God has freed from our former bondage and those still enslaved to sin and the evil one.

Lord, give us the wisdom, discernment, and grace we need to walk in your ways and repent of evil. Give us the courage to hold fast to the beliefs and convictions you have taught us from your word. Help us to be respectful, kind, and sincerely seek the best interests of all people, including our enemies. Teach us how to deal with unbelievers and other captives to sin peaceably as much as lies within us, but without compromising to please man and returning in any degree to the slavery you’ve saved us out of. We pray also that we would not be ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ, but that we would do the work of the Kingdom boldly, in whatever way the Holy Spirit has sincerely called, empowered, and equipped us to labor.