A Biblical Theology of Repentance, part 7: John and Jesus on Repentance

A couple of weeks ago, I began posting portions of a paper I wrote for my Biblical Theology course titled, “That Times of Refreshing May Come: A Biblical Theology of Repentance.” This is the seventh installment. The previous parts can be found at the following: one, two, three, four, five, and six.

A CALL TO RETURN / REPENT IN THE GOSPELS

John the Baptist

The preaching of John the Baptist, in line with the prophetic tradition from which he is associated (cf. Luke 1:16–17), is one of calling the people of Israel back to God: “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matt 3:1–2; cf. Mark 1:4–5; Luke 3:1–3). The people were said to have come en masse, confessing their sins and that forgiveness of sin resulted (Mark 1:5). John’s baptism was a “baptism of repentance” (Matt 3:11), to which Luke adds, “for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). There is an expression of indignation by John toward the Temple establishment when, upon seeing them coming to him, he warns them to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt 3:7–8; cf. Luke 3:7–9). His ministry was as a forerunner to that of Jesus, who, in contrast to John’s baptism by water, will come with a baptism of the Holy Spirit (Matt 3:11–12).

Jesus

Jesus’ Early Message

John’s message of repentance was authenticated by Jesus. In fact, Jesus not only authenticates John’s message but also appropriates that message himself: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel’” (Mark 1:14–15 emphasis added; cf. Matt 4:17). The expected Jewish kingdom was, in some way, inaugurated with Jesus’ ministry of gospel proclamation. Essential to Jesus’ early message was a link between believing the gospel and repentance. Jesus’ preaching of repentance demonstrated a continuity between his ministry and his forerunners’ ministry.

Jesus’ Commissions His Disciples with a Message of Repentance

After assembling and training a small group of disciples, Jesus then sends them out to the cities of the Galilee. Their task was also to proclaim the gospel and call for people to repent: “So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent” (Mark 6:12; cf. vv. 7–13; also Matt 10:1–15; Luke 9:1–6).

Jesus’ Judgment on Those Who Fail to Respond Appropriately to the Message

Jesus had harsh words for the people who refused to repent in the towns of the Galilee (i.e. “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” Matt 10:6) to which he and his disciples proclaimed their message: “Then [Jesus] began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent” (Matt 11:20 emphasis added). The Galilean towns of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum receive special mention; judgment would be more bearable for non-Israelite towns in the judgment than it would be for them (Matt 11:21–23).

In the face of disbelief among his fellow countrymen in response to his preaching, Jesus exalts Nineveh as a model for the proper response to the message: “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (Matt 12:41 emphasis added; cf. Luke 11:32).

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees for his casual associations with “sinners” (Luke 5:30). Jesus’ response to their grumbling shows part of the purpose behind what he intends by fraternizing with such hoodlums. Jesus answers the Pharisees by explaining that “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31–32). Notice he doesn’t call sinners to righteousness; he calls sinners to repentance.

In contrast, according to Jesus, turning to the Lord in humility is given the distinction as being the sole criteria for greatness in the kingdom of God. When asked by his disciples who would be the greatest in the kingdom, Jesus calls a child and answers, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn [Grk. strephoo] and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3). The absolutely necessity of humbly turning to God is emphasized by the fact that without this trait people “will never enter” his kingdom.  For Jesus, childlikeness entails a humility that accompanies the wholehearted surrender to God.

Jesus’ Parables with the Message of Repentance

The trio of parables of “lost” items – the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son (Luke 15:1–32) – have repentance as the fundamental issue of concern. To each of the first two parables Jesus adds a final comment that stresses the role of repentance in the parable. Concluding the parable of the lost sheep Jesus says, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7 emphasis added). As there was rejoicing over the finding of the “lost” sheep there is rejoicing in heaven over one who repents. Likewise, Jesus’ concluding line for the parable of the lost coin has a similar refrain: “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10 emphasis added). Notice again that joy results not because one sinner is “found” but that one sinner repents. Repentance is connected to being “found”.

Although this refrain of heavenly rejoicing is not present in the third in the series of parables (the prodigal son), the power of the story speaks forcefully of the idea of repentance without using the specific term. The son’s words and actions – both his internal change of heart and outward manifestation – clearly articulate what repentance looks like. Meanwhile, the father’s response vividly evokes the same “rejoicing” of Jesus’ concluding lines in the previous parables. Indeed, the combination of the son’s contrition and the father’s joy so powerfully pictures repentance that such concluding remarks would be quite superfluous. Repentance is clearly the idea that undergirds all three stories.

Jesus’ Use of Tragic Events to Encourage Repentance

On one occasion, Jesus was confronted with a theodicy. People approached him about a disturbing incident regarding Pilate’s apparent slaughter of some Galilean Jews (Luke 13:1). Apparently the concern was whether this senseless act was as a result of their sinfulness and if this was the outworking of God’s judgment. Jesus adds to this horrific act by Pilate another tragic event where a tower fell near the pool of Siloam in Jerusalem and killed eighteen people. To both of these tragic incidents, Jesus rejects the notion that these events occurred as a result of their sinfulness (Luke 13:2–5):

And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:2–5 ESV emphasis added).

Notice, however, that although these events are not part of the judgment of God on sinners, Jesus does take these tragic events as an opportunity to warn the people about the coming judgment of God and calls them to repent: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3; also in v. 5).

Jesus’ Post-Resurrection Commission to Proclaim Repentance

After his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus appears to his disciples in Jerusalem. Appearing in their midst, he verified that he was real, showing them his hands and feet and even eating some food in front of them. Then Jesus’ final words recorded in Luke’s gospel give the disciples an explanation for what had happened as well as their mission and task going forward:

Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:45–48 emphasis mine).

Notice that preaching and repentance, resulting in forgiveness of sins for those that to repent, is emphasized. Not only was the Messiah’s suffering and resurrection foretold in the Old Testament (“the Scriptures…it is written”), it seems that the message of repentance was as well. These themes of repentance and forgiveness carry over into Luke’s sequel to his gospel, the Book of Acts. There we see how a Spirit-empowered group of disciples continued this message of repentance that Jesus had demonstrated for them years earlier.

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