On the Jewish calendar, the Sabbath between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuvah. It is the Sabbath which occurs during yamim ha-nora’im, the ten “days of awe” which precede Yom Kippur. This year Shabbat Shuvah is on September 15.
The ten days of awe are traditionally used as a time to do serious soul-searching and to focus on repentance. Repentance was a major part of the messages preached by the Old Testament Prophets, by John the Baptist, by Yeshua, and by the Apostles. All these men called God’s people to repentance.
What exactly is repentance? How important is it to know? And how important is it to repent? Well, consider the following:
The very first recorded words of John the Baptist are “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). The very first recorded words of Yeshua’s preaching are “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). The Apostles’ very first sermon after receiving the Holy Spirit concluded with a call to “Repent, and be baptized every one of you” (Acts 2:38). The very first of the six “principles of the doctrine of Messiah” is “repentance from dead works” (Heb. 6:1).
Based on the information in the above paragraph, I’d say it’s pretty important to know what repentance is and to do it. The Hebrew word for repentance is teshuvah, which is formed from the verb lashuv, which means to return, to come back, to do again. Sometimes the verb is translated simply as “turn,” as in Zechariah 1:3 (“Turn ye unto Me, saith Yahweh of hosts, and I will turn unto you”) and 1:4 (“Turn ye now from your evil ways”).
If repentance means to return, that naturally raises the question: Return to what? You can only return to a place where you previously were in the past. I can return to Israel, because I’ve been there before. But I can’t return to China, because I’ve never been there before. If we are called to “return,” to what are we supposed to return?
The Old Testament Prophets, John the Baptist, Yeshua, and the Apostles were calling Israelites to repent. Therefore their audience was being called to return to the commandments of the God of Israel. But what about non-Israelites, those Gentiles who never knew God? How can a Gentile “return” to a place he has never been?
Technically speaking, in the strictest sense of the word, you could make the case that a Gentile cannot really “repent.” A Gentile can only “pent,” because a Gentile is not “returning” to God; he is turning to God for the very first time. So even though “pent” is not a real word (as used in this context), maybe our message to Gentiles should be “Pent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
How does a Gentile “pent”? A Gentile’s “pentance” (or, we might say, “penance,” since that is a real word) is summed up in Paul’s words to the Gentiles in Thessalonica: “how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven” (1 Thes. 1:9f). Whether you want to call it repentance, “pentance,” or penance, this is what every individual needs to do.
Repentance is foundational. It must accompany your faith, or your faith is phony. As James 2 puts it, “faith without works is dead.” Repentance is more than just a state of mind only; it involves actual works of righteousness. When John the Baptist preached repentance, he told his listeners, “Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8). In other words, do something to show you are serious.
Yes, actually do something. John’s listeners understood perfectly that John’s call to repentance required them to do something, because their immediate response was to ask John what they should do:
“And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then?... Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do?... And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do?” (Luke 3:10-14).
After Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost, the people asked the same question: “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). When Saul met Yeshua, he said, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:6).
Repentance always involves doing something. Yes, we are saved by faith, not by doing works of righteousness. But if your faith is genuine, it will move you to do works of righteousness.
I was saved in the early 1970s, when a wave of the Holy Spirit swept great numbers of young people into the kingdom. If a person wanted to follow Jesus in those days, there were certain things which were assumed and expected. It was understood that if you were going to follow the Lord, you were going to change your way of living.
There were certain things you were going to stop doing, and there were certain things you were going to start doing. You were going to stop doing things like getting drunk or high. You were going to stop any and all forms of sexual immorality. You were going to stop cussing and swearing. You were not just going to try to stop doing these things, you were going to totally and permanently stop doing them. Among the Christians I knew, people were even expected to stop smoking cigarettes. Television and movies were not regarded as sinful, but they were regarded as something potentially dangerous to a believer’s spiritual well-being, because they could easily become a distraction and a diversion away from the pursuit of spiritual things.
Among the Christians I knew in the 1970s, it was understood that there were certain things which a serious disciple did not do. And it was understood that there were certain things you were going to start doing regularly - spiritual disciplines like prayer, Bible study, fasting, fellowshipping with believers, testifying to unbelievers, etc.
I remember when it was not uncommon for some unmarried brothers to feel guilty about having a full-time job in the secular world. They felt like they were compromising their faith by spending time at a job. “I need to be praying and reading the Bible and telling people about Jesus! All I’m accomplishing in this factory is making bricks for Pharaoh! Let my people go!”
That attitude might seem extreme and radical nowadays, but I knew brothers who left high-paying jobs with excellent benefits in order to focus on serving the Lord. Some people thought they were crazy to sacrifice their careers, but they did it anyway. As new born-again believers, we were eager to serve the Lord who had redeemed us from a life of sin and shame. We were zealous of good works. We wanted to serve the Lord, not Pharaoh.
Paul reminded the Thessalonians that they had “turned to God from idols.” But don’t stop reading at the word “idols.” The rest of the sentence tells us the rest of the story: “to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven” (1 Thes. 1:9f).
When you turn to God, it is not just for the purpose of getting your sins forgiven, though that is the beginning step. When you turn to God, you turn to Him so that you can serve Him and wait for His Son from heaven. To serve God means to worship Him and to work for Him, to do something for Him.
The Lord has a job for you to do in His kingdom. If you are new in the faith, you may not know yet what that job is. But if you mature spiritually, you will eventually know what the Lord wants you to do. A child born into a family is eventually expected to grow up and do certain chores to help keep the household operating. A lazy, able-bodied teenager who expects everyone else to do all the work is a shame to his parents. “He that gathereth in summer is a wise son: but he that sleepeth in harvest is a son that causeth shame” (Prov. 10:5). If you have been born into the family of God, you have a job to do. Repentance is not only turning from idols, it is also turning to serve the Lord as we wait for His Son from heaven.
Paul’s statement to the Thessalonians that they had “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven” shows the past, present, and future aspects of our salvation. We turned to God in the past; we serve Him in the present; we wait for His Son to return in the future. This same pattern of three tenses is also seen in Titus:
“For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world, looking for that blessed hope and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Yeshua the Messiah, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto Himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Tit. 2:11-14).
The grace of God hath appeared in the past when “grace and truth came by Yeshua the Messiah” (John 1:17). That grace teaches us how to live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world. We look for the appearing of Yeshua in the future.
I hope that everyone reading this has at some time in the past turned to God and been saved by His grace. I hope that everyone reading this is eagerly waiting for His Son to return at some time in the future. And I hope that everyone reading this is presently serving God and living soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world.
Are you living soberly in this present world, or are you so drunk on the comforts and pleasures of this present world that you are numb to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and deaf to the Spirit’s voice? He speaks! Turn off the noise of the world around you, tune in, and listen.
Are you living righteously in this present world? Are you doing what the Lord says is right? Or are you deciding for yourself what is right and wrong, instead of following His commandments?
Are you living godly in this present world? Is your life a reflection, albeit an imperfect reflection, of what God is like? Or do you live no differently than the worldlings around you?
Are you zealous of good works? Or do you exhibit more passion and excitement over temporal things that are of no eternal value?
Titus 2:14 says that the Lord gave Himself for us to do two things: 1) to redeem us from all iniquity, and 2) to purify unto Himself a peculiar people who are zealous of good works.
This is the season of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The rabbis point out these same two things in relation to Yom Kippur. They say that the Yom Kippur sacrifice accomplished two things: kaparah (“atonement”) and taharah (“purification”). Why these two things? Because sin results in two things which need to be rectified. First, sin makes you liable. A penalty must be paid for your sin, to redeem you. Second, sin defiles you. You need to be purified.
The penalty for sin is paid through kaparah (“atonement”). You are redeemed from all iniquity. You are acquitted of your crimes against God in the heavenly Courtroom. You are declared “not guilty” and given a pardon by the Judge. Even though you committed the crimes, you are free to go. But you go and sin no more. “Neither do I condemn thee,” the Lord said to the adulterous woman. “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11).
The defilement of sin is removed through taharah (“purification”). From a legal standpoint, the blood of atonement removes our sins and obtains our pardon. But from a practical standpoint, we can be forgiven and yet still feel defiled because of our past sins. This is the reason we need taharah, purification. For a disciple of Yeshua, this purification takes place through water. First, through literal water when the disciple is first baptized, then through figurative water, “the washing of water by the word” (Eph. 5:26). Your initial baptism in literal water gives you a fresh start, a clean slate. As you abide in His Word day by day, the figurative water of the word washes away the defilement of the world which tends to cling to you as you walk through this sinful world and are exposed to sinful things and sinful memories.
An illustration: There is a cleaning product called “Goop” that mechanics use to remove the dirt and grease from their hands. The Goop cuts the grease and loosens and lifts the defilement from the skin. But until the hands are rinsed in water, the hands still feel dirty, because the contamination is still clinging to them, even though it has been loosened and lifted off the skin. After you wash away the Goop and all the defilement it contains, your clean hands are revealed. So it is with the washing of water by the word. The word of God washes away all the defilement we feel from our contact with this sinful world.
In the passage Paul wrote which speaks about the washing of water by the word, we once again see past, present, and future aspects of the faith: “Messiah also loved the church and gave Himself for it, that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that He might present it to Himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25-27).
Messiah gave Himself for His church in the past; He is sanctifying and cleansing it in the present; He will present it to Himself a glorious church in the future. If this is your future in eternity, be zealous of good works and live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world. Submit to His purification in preparation for that great day.
“Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is. And every man that hath this hope in Him purifieth himself, even as He is pure” (1 John 3:2f).
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Image (Top): Psalm 5 an original painting by Daniel Botkin from his Psurrealistic Psalms series. Visit his art galleries online: DanielBotkin.com