In Hebrew the word is שׁוּב (shuwb), as used in Ezekiel 18:30b: “Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin.” “Shuwb”, translated as “repent”, means “to turn back, (hence, away) […] with the idea of return to the starting point.” — (Strong’s definitions.) In Greek, as used in Matthew 4:17, the word is “metanoeo,” meaning “to change one’s mind.”
“From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.'” The act of repentance is more than just a cerebral or trivial change of mind. Repentance involves a deep commitment to real change that may start in the head, but is acted out in one’s life through choices and which will be seen and experienced by others. When repentance truly occurs in the life of a believer, that believer must make changes that some might consider radical, extraordinary, unpopular, and even strange. True repentance sets us apart — that is, it makes us holy to our God. If you claim to be a disciple of Yeshua (Jesus), and yet you do not turn away from sin, you lie, and the truth is not in you (1 John 1:6). Those are harsh words from John, but we should not be afraid to gently stir the pot in order to expose the sin in our lives and the lives of other brothers and sisters.
Repentance is not just turning away from one thing to another, like changing the channel on TV. The Hebrew root of the word gives us the understanding that it is turning BACK to our original state — returning to our starting point. What is that original state? I believe the Bible teaches that our original state — our starting point — was one of perfect intimacy with the Father — trust, love, complete satisfaction, and perfect devotion to our Father in heaven. This is what Adam had with God in Eden. This is what Yeshua has with the Father. This is what God wants for us. Yeshua set an example of intimacy with God by his life of submission, love, and humility. As I repent in my life, I look to his example and follow him. Yeshua shows us how to live. In Matthew 4:17, he says “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” I think another way to say that is “Come back to the ways of God, His door is open to you.” All throughout the Scriptures, we have instructions for righteous living. I will just highlight a few verses from Ephesians 5.
“3 But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. 4 Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. 5 For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. 6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. 7 Therefore do not become partners with them; 8 for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light 9 (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), 10 and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. 13 But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, 14 for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,
“Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”
15 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise,16 making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.“
There is so much I could get into with these verses, but I will only touch on a couple things. First, we can please God (v. 10). Coming from my background in one of the conservative, reformed traditions, the notion that we can actually please God was foreign to me. It was nearly heretical. I always understood that Scripture teaches that there is nothing that I can do that can gain God’s favor (which is true, but misunderstood). I was taught that no effort or actions on my part meet with God’s approval or pleasure — it is only Jesus who has ever pleased God, and if I am saved, then God sees only Jesus when he looks at me. While there is a certain element of truth to this, it also has untruth in it and is misunderstood, misleading and can be damaging to many believers. Galations 2:20, for instance says that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” And Isaiah 64:6 says that “all our righteous acts are as filthy rags.” This is a complex topic for another day, but this is what I used to understand based on my upbringing — that I am unable to please God. While true in one sense, it does not remain true forever. Hebrews 11:6 says that “without faith, it is impossible to please God.” It doesn’t say it is impossible to please God. It says without FAITH it is impossible to please him. So then, we CAN actually be please our Father. Where I come from, this was not taught, at least not like this. But this also means that as children of God, we have responsibility that actually means something and has real and practical application. Our lives and our choices actually do mean something to God. Repentance is the key. Turning away from sin is radical and life-altering, and the choice to repent must be made by the believer — no one else. Repentance, which is an act of faith, is pleasing to God, but also, it is not just “an act” as we will see.
When we understand “repentance” to mean “turning away from one thing and returning to our starting point,” is it any wonder that as we look at the “Old Testament”, we see a pattern of God calling his children back to holiness by repentance? The purpose of repentance is to bring us back to our original state — a state of holiness — a state of being set apart to God — different. God gives his children instructions for holiness and righteousness, called Torah. He desires his children to walk in HIS ways, not the ways of the nations around them. He gives them His “kingdom rules” much the way a dad may give his kids “house rules.” These are God’s instructions to his children for righteous living. They are our Father’s blueprints for how to please him. Even if you don’t believe that we should continue to follow the Torah, is it not clear that our lives ought to look different than the lives of those who reject God? If you claim Kingdom citizenship, how can you behave as though you have no King? The passage in Ephesians 5 doesn’t say, “cut back on the unfruitful works of darkness”. Rather, it says “have no part” in them and “expose them”. It doesn’t say “reduce filthiness, foolish talk, and crude joking” but rather, “let there be no filthiness, foolish talk, and crude joking.” The language is not permissive. If we have a permissive attitude towards these kinds of things (and others), we will eventually permit them in our lives to some extent which can grow into full-blown rebellion and apostasy.
I have had many friends over the years who subscribe to a version of Christianity that is very permissive of the ways of the world. When we think of a believer living “in sin,” we, in the church only think of one thing: sexual immorality. There are very few who openly live “in sin”, by this definition, and continue to claim Kingdom citizenship. The church simply does not accept it, and rightfully so. But I submit to you that there are many who don’t realize they are living “in sin” because they don’t have a clear understanding of sin or their responsibilities as an image-bearer of the King. For example, do you break the law by speeding? Do you know any Christians who drive over the speed limit? Jesus says to submit to the governing authorities. If you have a permissive attitude toward speeding, you encourage lawless behavior and deny Christ. Do you listen to songs or approve of TV shows that encourage and celebrate lustful behavior, selfish ambition, or self-worship? If you have a permissive attitude regarding such things, it is a matter of time before you partake of them and bear that image. If you have a permissive attitude toward filthiness, foolish talk, or crude joking, you encourage unholy living and bear that image. But Paul tells us that as saints — that is, as disciples of Yeshua — we have no business having anything to do with those kinds of things. The “unfruitful works of darkness” must be exposed, not encouraged, allowed, or ignored. This will make a young Christian wildly unpopular among his friends, but the disciple of Yeshua is called and expected to stand apart as a testament to his royal identity and loyalty to the kingdom.
Repentance, you see, is radical, because it means making big changes to little things, not just the big ones. Let me leave you with a picture that I have used for some time, which I find to be a very good and applicable analogy:
I love to garden. When weeding a garden, the goal is to rid the garden of the unwanted plants. In order to effectively remove the undesired plants permanently, the roots must be pulled out of the ground. It is not enough to simply cut the plant back to ground level. The roots must be removed as well. It is normal to start the weeding process by removing the largest weeds visible. This produces a satisfying sense of progress early on, being able to see a visible difference right away. As soon as the largest weed has been removed, there are two more that have now become the “largest weeds” in the garden. Those are pulled, followed by the next and the next and the process continues. It is normal, when the first few “large” weeds are pulled, to feel that the weeds are multiplying, because the smaller weeds are in much greater number, and now appear bigger because they are now the biggest weeds in the garden, when in fact, they are the same size the were to begin with. But there is always a “largest weed” in the garden — a “biggest sin” so to speak. After some days or weeks go by, a shoot may pop up from the original large weed that was pulled up first, giving evidence that there was still a remnant of a root still in the ground. The weeding process must continue, and each time, an attempt must be made to pull them out, roots and all. Repentance is like weeding a garden. It is not enough to simply cut back on worldly living. Unholiness and sin must be pulled out by the roots and thrown away. As soon as the first “big sin” is addressed, we see another and another and another. It may be tempting to simply dump mulch on the sin through charity or effort, or to take a weed-eater and cut it off so it is not visible, by singing in the choir or volunteering to teach Sunday School. But if the root is still there, it is only a matter of time before it pops back up, stronger than ever. Just as weeding is an ongoing process and the garden must be maintained, repentance is a way of life. It is not enough to just do it once and move on. The garden which is our life must be constantly maintained for any roots or seeds of ungodliness which can sprout into sin. Over time and faithful practice, the remaining roots become fewer and fewer, and maintenance doesn’t require such effort and time as it first did. Instead, the time that used to be spent pulling weeds can be spent nourishing the soil, planting good plants, or even helping your neighbor pull his weeds. I like this analogy because it works. And because it is complex and flexible. Some weeds aren’t very visible, but the roots are hard to remove and require deep cuts in the soil. Some weeds are large and visible but have shallow roots, and are easy to remove. Some come back over and over again even after being pulled. Some might think it is a lost cause, but I enjoy it weeding my garden, because it reminds me that just as my garden must be maintained and tended, and the weeds must be pulled up by the roots, I must repent daily and remove any leaf, root, or seed which does not belong in the Kingdom of Yeshua. I must repent and change my mind, turning back to God’s ways and living a life of holiness which is pleasing to God, leaving “no foothold” (Eph 4:27) for the roots and seeds of the devil.
Blessings, and happy weeding!