‘Repent’ is a word that has been neatly packaged up in church usage, particularly in Evangelical circles. It is used as part of the A-B-C, step-by-step process that a person must go through in order to become a Christian: Admit (that you have done wrong – ie repent of your sins); Believe (that Jesus died for you and was resurrected) and Commit (your life to him). A helpful process for a person to go through, to be sure, but one that can rob the idea of repentance of its fuller meaning.
Jesus came with one overall message: ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand’ (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15). But what might Jesus have meant when he called people to repent? Can we assume we know so obviously?
The Hebrew word for repentance means, literally, ‘to turn’ or ‘to return’, and Jewish thinking in the first century saw repentance along two lines. Firstly, as Tom Wright has hammered home to us so clearly, it was bound up with their hopes for liberation and return from exile. Israel’s exilic condition was the result of her sin as a nation in rejecting Yahweh as her one God, turning to the other nations’ gods and forgetting her call to practice justice and righteousness. For Israel to be restored and returned to her land, she must repent so that her sins might be forgiven.[i] ‘Repentance’ thus had an eschatological focus in that, when the people as a whole repented, the hope they longed for would come to pass.
Secondly, ‘repentance’ had a more every-day meaning. This is best illustrated by an event that happened in AD66. Josephus – an aristocratic Jewish historian who became an interpreter for Emperor Titus – went to Galilee to sort out some trouble there being caused by a Jewish faction. Having foiled a plot against his life by the rebel chief, Josephus told him that he would overlook his actions if he repented and believed in him.[ii] In other words, the insurgent leader was to abandon his militaristic, revolutionary way of achieving the overthrow of the Romans and trust in Josephus’ way instead.
Thus, Jesus’ call to repent carried two emphases: ‘it was an eschatological call, not the summons of a moralistic reformer. And it was a political call, summoning Israel as a nation to abandon one set of agendas and embrace another’.[iii] This is not to say that there is no individual aspect involved as, of course, personal repentance from sin was well known to the Jews (hence the complex sacrificial system of the Old Testament). Rather, it is to highlight that the concept of repentance should not be reduced to the individual alone.
Repentance, then, is about more than an individual saying sorry for their sins and committing themselves to Jesus, although it certainly involves that. It is a broader concept to do with how we expect ‘salvation’ to come, both for or communities and for ourselves. What are our agendas today? Where do we expect liberation and salvation to come from?
For many the answer lies in consumerism, in the things we buy and surround ourselves with. There is an underlying agenda of self-satisfaction and a continual quest to see that happen. Other messages say that liberation comes from our own selves. We have the ability to do it. It is up to us to stand strong and not let ourselves be mucked about and messed around. Our inner selves should be strong, beautiful and calm! For our communities, salvation is looked for through government initiatives and projects; through better education and improved laws and policing and, on an international level, liberation is secured through war and militarism; economic might and aid and development.
Jesus, however, says we have to repent: leave all that behind and follow him. As individuals and communities, we must admit that we have not got all the answer and that we cannot do it ourselves. Jesus calls us to abandon our agendas and false expectations of salvation/liberation; follow him and pursue his agenda. Our next job is to think through what that agenda is and how we might pursue it…
This blog post is coming out of thinking I’m doing for the Spring Harvest 2013 event: ‘The Source: Encountering Jesus Today’, at which we are looking at how Jesus is the good news and what it means to be, say and do that good news today.
[i] See, for example, Isa. 45:22; Jer. 3:10-14; Ezek. 14:6; Hos. 3:5; Joel 2:12.
[ii] The official translation of the phrase is, ‘I would, nevertheless, condone his actions if he would show repentance and prove his loyalty to me’, but the Greek can equally well be translated as, ‘if he would repent and believe in me’ (NT Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 250).
[iii] NT Wright, JVG, 251.