To be clear —
1. I am NOT arguing that people do not have to “repent” when converted to Jesus in the sense of adopting the moral standards of Christianity. No one here is taking the antinomian (no rules!) position. “Repent” could mean “unicorns and griffins” and it would still be true that Christians must adhere to the Christian virtues. Countless verses say this without using “repent.”
2. I am NOT arguing that “repent” takes on one and only one meaning in the NT. In fact, I think “repent” is a rather flexible term and so the meaning ALWAYS has to be taken from the context.
In fact, there are places in the NT where “repent” plainly means “turn away from your life of sin” or “turn away from this particular sin.” This is not in dispute. Rather, my challenge is whether “repent” ALWAYS means “turn away from this sin” or “turn away from sins in general.” I don’t think it does. And I think it matter, a lot, for reasons we’ll be getting to.
In traditional Church of Christ theology, “repent” appears in two places. First, and most famously, it appears as part of the Five Step Plan of Salvation: hear, believe, repent, confess, be baptized. The proof texts are essentially Acts 2:38 and Rom 10:9-11. But — oddly enough — it’s hard to come up with one passage that requires both faith and repentance to be saved. And if they speak of two very different things, how can that be true?
Second, “repent” shows up in the magic formula for having a sin forgiven. If you commit a sin post-baptism, the traditional teaching is that you must confess the sin, repent of the sin, make restitution when possible (especially in the context of a divorce), and ask forgiveness from God. To “repent” is taught as meaning “no longer commit the sin.” Of course, if that is true, then we’re all damned because the only way to have your slate clean is to have repented of all your sins, meaning that you no longer sin at all. Fortunately, this particular teaching — much more easily found in the proceedings of the Council of Trent than the scriptures — is not biblical doctrine.
So that’s part of the problem with defining “repent.” It’s a key element of Church of Christ doctrine, and yet we plainly don’t really have a good grasp of its meaning.
The Destructions of Jerusalem
The word is also essential in our understanding of the narrative of scripture. You see, it’s all about the Exile. And for many readers this will be a new teaching, so I’m going to cover it some detail.
First, a true story. About 20 years ago, I worked on a case in Atlanta with a Jewish lawyer. We drove back and forth together several times — about a 3 1/2 hour trip each way — and so eventually we discussed the great moral issues of the day, and soon we discussed Christianity and Judaism. This lawyer is an incredibly smart guy, and it made for scintillating conversation.
When he asked me about my faith, I made no progress convincing him of Chrisitanity’s claims for hours. He wasn’t persuaded that Jesus fit the messianic prophecies, and didn’t want to be persuaded. Finally, I made this point —
About 587 BC, God allowed the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar to overthrow Judea, to destroy Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple, and to take the Jews into captivity. At this time, and for years earlier, God’s Spirit caused the prophets to pour forth a vast stream of prophecy warning the Jews against their behavior and threatening their destruction, even their captivity. The Jews refused to listen, even killing or jailing the prophets — and finally God ran out of patience and allowed Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, to capture Judea, Jerusalem, the Temple, and the Jews.
Plainly, when God allows his own Temple to be destroyed by pagans and his people to be scattered, he’s upset about something. They’ve done something horribly wrong, and there will be a vast volume of inspired prophecy warning them and telling them what they should do. God loves his people, and so he gives them ample warning.
Then in 70 AD, God allowed the Romans to overthrow Judea, destroy the Temple, impose suffering on the Jews just as dreadful as that suffered during Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of the city. Now, nearly 2000 years later, the Jews, who have great wealth and political influence — who even have a nation-state that includes Mt. Moriah — cannot rebuild the Temple.
What did the Jews do wrong? Where is the outpouring of Spirit-inspired prophecy that warned the Jews of the coming destruction?
My theory, I said, is that the New Testament is the Spirit’s warnings to the Jews — especially the accounts of Jesus’ mourning over the coming destruction and warning his followers to flee. According to Josephus, the church in Jerusalem left Jerusalem as Rome was preparing to lay siege, not only saving their lives, but also avoiding the blame for the Jews’ rebellion. Hence, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are the First Century equivalents of Ezekiel and Jeremiah.
And what the Jews did wrong was primarily reject Jesus of Nazareth as God’s Messiah. And if that’s wrong, then why did God allow the Temple to fall and why has it kept it from being rebuilt ever since? And if that’s wrong, what prophecy from the Spirit warned the Jews of the coming destruction? There is no possibility other than the first three Gospels.
My friend thought about this for a while and finally promised to get back to me. Unfortunately, he soon moved from town.
Christians do not think about the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans much because it’s not recorded in the Bible. Jesus prophesies it, but the actual events come from historians — Josephus most importantly. And so, to us, because we are so tied to the Bible, it’s almost as though it never happened. But, obviously, God sometimes communicates through events, not words.
Recent scholarship has increasingly focused on the second destruction of Jerusalem as being a major theme of the Gospels — N.T. Wright has argued this case, but so have plenty of others.
Now, as we’ve seen in the earlier series dealing with God’s covenants, the destruction of the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar marked the beginning of an interruption in God’s relationship with Israel.
God’s promised David that a descendant of his would rule forever, and yet the Davidic line seemed to end with the destruction of Solomon’s Temple.
God created a special place of dwelling among his people in the Holy of Holies, first in the tabernacle and later in Solomon’s Temple. That presence left — a recurring theme throughout Ezekiel — when Solomon’s Temple was destroyed. And it did not return when Nehemiah rebuilt the Temple or when Herod rebuilt Nehemiah’s temple.
The gift of prophecy ended shortly after Ezra and Nehemiah led a partial return of the Jews to Judea, only to come back with John the Baptist and Jesus. The time between those events — a period of over 400 years, the “intertestamental period” — was devoid of prophecy.
And so the coming of the John the Baptist was a big deal, because he was the first real prophet since Malachi — and he declared that the Kingdom of God was at hand — soon to appear.
In short, many Jews in the early First Century thought that the Exile had not yet ended, because the promise of the end of the Exile, according to the prophets, included an outpouring of the Spirit, the coming of the Messiah, and the rule of Israel by the Messiah. And none of these things had happened.
While the biblical accounts of exile serve as an important background for NT studies, the retelling and reexperiencing of these accounts among the Jewish people in the Second Temple period is all the more influential. When the literature of this period is probed to see if a fulfillment of the promises proclaimed by the exilic prophets was realized, one is hard pressed to show a postexilic return in the grandiose manner often predicted. The hope of the prophets, from Isaiah to Zechariah, of a return from exile was not realized. When Persia provided an opportunity for an exodus, the majority of Jews either remained in Babylon or assimilated themselves among their neighbors (see Diaspora; Jewish History: Persian Period).
During the Second Temple period, many in Palestine still considered themselves as being in exile because they were under foreign rule, which was an indication to the faithful that Yahweh had not yet returned to Zion (Ezra 9:8–9; Neh 9:36). This perception was continually confirmed by the oppressive regimes of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, Pompey and Titus (see Seleucids and Antiochids; Jewish History: Roman Period). The underlying reason why many Jews saw themselves as still remaining in exile was their assumed perennial state of sinfulness (Bar 1:15–3:8; 1 Enoch 89:73–75), a concept that is grounded in the “cursing and blessing” motif in Deuteronomy 27–32. The true return from exile was inseparably bound with the forgiveness of sins. And as long as Israel was dominated by foreign oppressors, the sins were not yet forgiven.
Several key examples within this period underscore not only the feeling of exile but also the eschatological anticipation of God coming to restore his people (Is 40:3–5). One important example that has often been considered is Daniel 9, a text that extends Jeremiah’s prophecy (e.g., Jer 25:11–12) of a seventy-year desolation for Jerusalem sevenfold. Recently J. M. Scott, following A. Lacocque and O. H. Steck, has shown how Daniel’s prayer of confession for the transgression of his people parallels the “sin-exile-restoration” theme of Deuteronomy 27–32 and thus brings to the forefront the reason for the belief in a continued exile, namely, covenant unfaithfulness. …
And fourth, one of the most expressive texts showing the enduring experience of exile is the prophecy of restoration in [apocryphal] Tobit 14:5 (see Tobit), which reads:
But God will again have mercy on them, and God will bring them back into the land of Israel; and they will rebuild the temple of God, but not like the first one until the period when the times of fulfillment shall come. After this they all will return from their exile and will rebuild Jerusalem in splendor; and in it the temple of God will be rebuilt, just as the prophets of Israel have said concerning it. (NRSV)
“Exile,” Dictionary of New Testament Backgrounds, 348-349.
Hence, it appears that most Jews were still looking for the end of Exile, for the OT prophecies of the Kingdom and Messiah to come true, and for their sins to be forgiven as part of entry into the Kingdom. Forgiveness of sins was expected, but it was expected as part of the coming of the Kingdom, the Messiah, and the outpoured Spirit. Forgiveness was seen as essential but as a means to an end — toward being once again in right relationship with YHWH, which would be evidenced by the Messiah’s rule and the outpoured Spirit.
Thus, when John the Baptist showed up announcing that the Kingdom of God is at hand and demanding repentance, it made sense. But “repentance” would have been heard as a plea for national repentance from the sins that were so awful as to impose Exile on Israel.
So what sins were these? When Nebuchadnezzar overthrew Solomon’s Temple, there was no doubt as to the sins to be repented of.