John the Baptizer penetrates the heart with authority when he commands, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!”, in chapter 3 of the Gospel according to Matthew. These words are powerful and loaded with meaning.
We often hear of the idea of “repenting” or “repentance”. Many times the concept of repenting is simply equated with “personally getting right with God”, asking for “forgiveness of sin” or “individual cleansing”. While this is a correct and proper view of what is at the heart of repentance, it is also a narrow view and doesn’t fully encompass the biblical idea of the matter. The Greek word used here by John translates repentance as “changing one’s mind” or “turning away from one thing to another”, and in this case, towards God and his kingdom.
Back to John. After he says, “Repent!”, he then tells the crowds to “bear fruits worthy or repentance”. This is found in the Luke 3 passage of the same event. This highlights the definition given above, that John the Baptizer is expecting fruit or different outcomes/behaviors as repentance happens. The crowds fired back right away, asking John, “What then shall we do?” The crowds wanted to know what repentance looked like. John replied, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise” (Luke 3:11).
John is equating repenting with the movement from self to others. John is saying that repentance looks like helping those in need, the poor. The kingdom of God is at hand when we “turn away” from current selfish behavior towards the needs to the poor, marginalized, and oppressed. No wonder Jesus says in His first line of the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20).
Repentance does need to be individualized to a certain extent. We need to ask God for forgiveness of sin and be cleansed. However, to stop there is insufficient and unbiblical. Repentance also has corporate meaning within the kingdom of God. John the Baptizer said repentance looks like helping those in need. Repentance needs to bear fruit towards the commandments to “love God and love others”. Without fruit, it is worthless and idle chatter to God. The Lord in Isaiah (58) commented on empty ritual saying that fasting and prayers without concerning oneself with the oppressed or the poor or injustice is “meaningless”.
We need to embrace a comprehensive understanding of what it means to repent. I sit in my room at night asking for God’s forgiveness for having unloving thoughts towards others, or impure thoughts, or for not managing my time right…but I also need to repent for having a house full of food and a closet full of clothing. After all, John didn’t say if you have 5 pairs of jeans, give 1 away. He said if we have 2 we should do away with 1…early church fathers used to say things like, “If you have 2of such and such, one belongs to the poor.” Another thing that grabbed my attention about this passage with John is that after he “preached the good news” (funny that this is part of the good news as well) to the crowds, the crowds were questioning in their hearts whether John was the Messiah. Of course he wasn’t and John corrected them, but the point remains: this was a powerful and holy message.
In a world full of “financial security”, pension accounts, fancy cars and houses, and abundance of resources such as food at our overindulgent fingertips, it’s time to re-imagine repentance… not in a new way, but in a way as old as our faith. Please pray for me as I try to live into this life of simplicity, so others may see the love of Jesus and simply live. I will be praying for you as God leads you if you are convicted as much. If you are open to accountability, encouragement, etc. please let me know and we can journey this path together. In this with you!!