Let’s look at how “repent” is used by Luke. We begin with John the Baptist —
(Luk 3:3-9 ESV) 3 And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”
7 He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 9 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
John warned of God’s wrath — destruction that would soon come — and assured his readers that being Jews would not be enough to save. No, salvation from God’s wrath would come through repentance — a repentance that John symbolized in baptism.
(Luk 3:10-17 ESV) 10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
15 As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Repentance, as taught by John, requires not only conventional morality — not doing harm to others, not abusing one’s office — but also action on behalf of those in need (which any student of the Torah would know, of course).
It seems that John considered the Jewish people, on the whole, to have rejected God’s morality. They may have kept the rituals of the temple, but they did not care for those in need.
In chapter 5, Jesus explains the nature of his mission —
(Luk 5:30-32 ESV) 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
His mission is to call sinners to “repentance,” a mission very similar to John’s. But it’s clear that many sinners did not see themselves as such.
Luke shortly follows this saying with the parable of new wineskins.
Then, in chapter 10, Jesus instructs the 72 on their missionary work —
(Luk 10:11-16 ESV) 11 ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ 12 I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.
13 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. 14 But it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 15 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades.
16 “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.”
What does “repent” mean here? Jesus was instructing the 72 missionaries, who were sent to preach,
(Luk 10:9 ESV) 9 Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’
The lesson wasn’t: “You are lost in your sins and need forgiveness.” It was: “The kingdom is coming; therefore repent.” And we learn from v. 16 that the goal was for those preached to accept Jesus by accepting the teaching of those he sent.
Part of repenting is mourning (Jer 31:19; Luke 10:13), but exactly why mourn?
(Luk 11:29-32 ESV) 29 When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. 30 For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. 31 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. 32 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.
Jesus is unhappy that the crowds sought signs but did not repent. He compares them to Nineveh following the preaching of Jonah.
(Jon 3:4-9 ESV) 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. 6 The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, 8 but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”
Both Luke 10:13 and 11:32 are plainly built on this account. To repent appears to be to mourn and to “call out mightily to God … turn from … evil ways and from … violence.”
Notice, the Jesus compares the Jews of his day to the Ninevites of Jonah’s day. The use of “repent” compares the Jews of Jesus’ day to the Jews of Jeremiah’s day — a time when the nation was filled with idolatry.
And yet Judea wasn’t idolatrous. Rather, they just didn’t take their Judaism seriously. They honored the rituals but lived lives built on power and greed (per John the Baptist). They’d not turned to Zeus and Athena, but worshiped the idols of wealth and control. And that makes Jesus’ and John’s teaching very relevant to today.
(Luk 13:1-9 ESV) There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 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.”
6 And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ 8 And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. 9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”
In this passage, “repent” implies bearing fruit for the owner. Indeed, it’s plainly not good enough to be nice or to be merely moral. God must receive some return on his investment. Not only must we stop sinning, we must produce the good things that God enjoys. (What are those?)
(Luk 15:3-7 ESV) 3 So he told them this parable: 4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 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.”
To repent is to be found by the shepherd and restored to the flock. The parable seems to be backward, because we think of “repent” as the sheep finding its way back; but Jesus pictures “repent” as the sheep being found by the shepherd and carried back.
In the next parable, he speaks of a lost coin, where the emphasis is again on the action of the owner. Then again, in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the action is both the son’s and the father’s.
Thus, to “repent” is to respond to God’s urgent plea — God’s initiative — that you return to him. After all, in Nineveh and in each previous example, God or Jesus was taking action to call his people back. God seeks; we respond.
(Luk 16:27-31 ESV) 27 And [the rich man] said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house– 28 for I have five brothers–so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.'”
“Repent” here means “change their ways,” with the implication being that, like the rich man, these were men with no concern for the poor.
(Luk 17:3-5 ESV) 3 Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, 4 and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” 5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
Here we see a second meaning for “repent.” Clearly, sometimes “repent” means to repent of a particular sin — which is quite different from the use in the previous passages, where “repent” refers to a change in one’s life.
Jesus then commissions the apostles near the end of Luke —
(Luk 24:44-47 ESV) 44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”
45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
Notice that Jesus describes the apostolic mission as preaching “repentance and forgiveness of sins.” Where is faith in Jesus? We’ll find that answer in Acts.