Over the past several weeks, we’ve been going through a series which I’ve entitled, “Living Faithfully in a Fallen World.” My basic concern through this has been the changing culture (particularly Canadian culture – though, as we’ve discussed, this is really just an instantiation of the changing western culture). My specific concern is what it means to be a Christian – that is, what it means to live “Christianly,” – in the midst of this culture.
To that end, we explored a number of topics related to the changing culture: Worldview, Idolatry, Humanism, Individualism, Identity, and Gnosticism. And in case this wasn’t made explicit, the point of exploring these different topics was to explore how the world is changing, and has been changing. One of the things I hope we realize is that it’s not the case that the world we grew up in still exists (whenever it is that was) and that we’re seeing some things added to it or challenging it. Rather, the world is changing. And it was changing back when we remember whatever world it is we remember when we think about growing up.
Which is all just a very roundabout way of saying that we (or people) have also changed along with it. In other words, we can’t just say that the world is different as if this is somehow distinct from us. We need to examine our own worldview, our own tendency towards idolatry, the extent to which Christianity itself has been shaped by humanism, individualism, and Gnosticism, and how we understand our own sense of identity.
At any rate, through these topics, we’ve tried to ground things in a biblical framework and we’ve tried to explore some spiritual practices that are important and that I hope can be helpful.
We are going to wrap up our series in the next few weeks – just in time for Advent. And over the last few weeks, we’re going to explore a few different practices that again are important, and that I hope can be helpful.
So today, I want to talk about repentance. We’ve actually talked about this before during our study of the book of Matthew, so some of this will be review. But I thought it worth discussing again because of how it fits into our series. Because what we’re talking about is seeing things, and therefore living things, in a biblical way as distinct from a way that is shaped by the prevailing culture. And that’s fundamentally what we’re talking about when we’re talking about repentance.
There are several words in the Hebrew which refer to repentance or related ideas, but there isn’t one Hebrew word which equates to what we usually think of as repentance. In Greek, the word usually translated as repentance is metanoia, which means change of mind. And that’s what I have in mind, especially when we reflect at the level of worldviews.
So what I’m suggesting is that the practice of repentance fundamentally has to do with a change of mind regarding worldview. That is, specifically, repentance is discovering or recovering a worldview in which God is God.
Now when we usually talk about repentance – at least, in traditional or usual Christian vernacular – we mean something along the lines of saying ‘sorry,’ or asking forgiveness for sins. So when we hear the call to repentance, especially in the context of a call to salvation, we usually interpret that as meaning something like, “forgive me, God, for doing wrong things, especially so that I can go to heaven.”
And, despite my glibness, I don’t want to suggest that this is not true or valid. But what I am suggesting is that repentance, at its heart, is perhaps much bigger than that. Maybe, repentance isn’t just asking for forgiveness for wrong acts, but a change of mind with regards to our very system or understanding of right and wrong. Repentance, at this level (because, again, I think it’s even more than this), we are (or should be) changing our minds, changing our understanding, changing our worldview, about who gets to decide what’s right and wrong (that is, it’s not me). We are changing our minds about the very moral constitution of creation. Repentance at this level entails recognizing that all the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.
So, certainly we have to ask forgiveness – to repent – for wrong acts. But we are not doing so as some sort token-earning on a path to earning salvation. Rather, in repentance, we are recognizing that we have contradicted or rebelled against the very creation order of the creator God.
Turning our attention back to the gospel of Matthew, this is one of the over-arching themes we explored. I believe I’ve shared this anecdote before, but one of my first memories in one of my first classes at seminary occurred during a course on biblical interpretation. The professor asked the class what they thought Jesus’ main message was. And the usual answers came out: “Love,” “Salvation,” etc. And one student called out what turned out to be the right answer, “The Kingdom of God is near.” Jesus’ main message was that the Kingdom of God was near. Into a world that had long forgotten God, had turned God into an instrument, had lived as if God was distant or irrelevant, Jesus’ message was that the Kingdom of God was near, indeed it is in your midst.
In Matthew 4:12-17, we read:
12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:
15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.”
17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”Matthew 4:12-17
Jesus’ pronouncement is that into a world that was living in darkness, darkness precisely because of the “absence” of God, the kingdom of God has come near. Something drastic was about to happen; something inconceivable was to come: God’s kingdom, announced by and personified in the person of Jesus. Therefore, Jesus preached, “Repent!”
Now it’s also worth noting that immediately preceding these verses is the passage concerning Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness (read the passage here). As Jesus is about to begin his earthly ministry, Satan comes to Him and tries to lead him away. Satan tempts Jesus to make the kingdom about Himself – about His own power, His own relevance, and according to worldly standards – instead of about God. But Jesus refuses. Jesus insists that He will be about His Father’s business.
Would we have done the same? Would we have allowed God to be God, if it meant giving up our own benefit? Most commentators recognize, in Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, a parallel with the Israelite’s 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. And we know that the Israelites failed repeatedly to allow God to be God. From the golden calf to the constant grumbling to outright rebellion, they continually wanted God to serve their own kingdom rather than the other way around – the right way round. Repeatedly through the history of Israel, we see that they try to set up a kingdom like the prominent, powerful nations around them. Repeatedly, they seem to leave God entirely out of the picture.
But Jesus, throughout his life, ministry, and death has only one goal. To do the will of the one who sent Him. His entire story announces, “The kingdom of God is near.” Therefore, repent.
Now there are a lot of passages that we could (and should) look at, but I want to look at just one more, and this one from the Old Testament. 2 Chronicles 7:11-16 says,
11 When Solomon had finished the temple of the Lord and the royal palace, and had succeeded in carrying out all he had in mind to do in the temple of the Lord and in his own palace, 12 the Lord appeared to him at night and said:
“I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a temple for sacrifices.
13 “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, 14 if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. 15 Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place. 16 I have chosen and consecrated this temple so that my Name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there.2 Chronicles 7:11-16
I imagine most of us are familiar with verse 14: “14 if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” But what I especially want to turn our attention to is the fact that this whole exchange with Solomon happens in the context of the construction and dedication of the temple. The temple in Jerusalem was the first permanent structure of worship for the nation of Israel – previously, they had worshiped in the tabernacle. And the construction of the temple was an integral part of the identity of the Israelites as the people of Yahweh.
Now I’m not going to get into the details, but we know that the temple was the center of worship. It was where the priests served and where sacrifices were performed. The Israelite people were expected to make regular trips to the Jerusalem temple in order to worship God. But the temple also was also a representation of creation. The way that the temple was constructed was meant to represent all of the created universe. In the ancient near east, typically an idol, an image of the god, would be placed in the center of the temple to represent the god at the center of creation – though the Hebrew temple had no idol of Yahweh.
Fast forwarding, my point is simply that the temple is understood as a concrete, visual, and liturgical representation of the kingship of God. So when God says, “15 Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place. 16 I have chosen and consecrated this temple so that my Name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there,” (I think – I may be biased here) God is saying something not about the temple, but about His place in the hearts and minds of the worshippers. (I think) it is saying something about how those worshippers understand God’s place (as God and as king) in the created order. It says something about their worldview.
So, to put a not-too-fine point on it, to “humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways,” is more than just saying sorry. It’s more than just admitting we’ve done wrong. God is on His throne in the temple; God is on His throne over the universe. But are we willing to live as if this is the truth?
So, if this (repentance) is our key practice for re-orienting ourselves into a biblical, God-centered worldview, and if the practice is more than just saying sorry, how do we refine that practice?
Well firstly, though repentance is more than just saying sorry, it is also at least saying sorry. That is to say, I think that it’s important as a regular practice to acknowledge when and how we live in ways that are contrary to the ordinances and wisdom of God. I think that regularly examining how we actually live our lives, the choices that we make, and how we affect other people is extremely important.
But it’s also important to recognize that this “sorry” is only meaningful inasmuch as we acknowledge and affirm the order that God has created, and created for us (and it’s important to recognize that this created order is a reflection of the very character and nature of God).
So the second thing that repentance implies (that is, the second way to refine our practice of repentance) is examining our worldview. If God is not the actual foundation of our worldview, what is?
Now examining and understanding our worldview is not actually a simple thing. But you may remember when we began this series, we talked about how (following N.T. Wright), worldview flows out into basic beliefs, and basic beliefs flow into consequent beliefs. Now I don’t want to get sidetracked by terminology so what I would simply say is to think about what are the things that are really important to you? And I don’t mean what are the things that you say are really important to you. I mean, when you actually look at your life, the things you spend your time and energy on, the things you are willing to work or sacrifice for, the things that bother you or even anger you, the things you think you deserve, the things you think are not fair, what you think justice, love, and peace look like – when you think about these things, what does it reveal about what is truly important to you? And then ask yourself where those values came from.
And quite simply, we need to bring those things before scripture, and before God in prayer. And if it’s not obvious, all of the other practices we have been talking about over the past several weeks have been (hopefully) oriented around or towards desiring a God-view of the world, of life, and of faith, rather than a human-view.
In other words, what I’m suggesting is that we don’t practice spiritual disciplines (merely) so that we can grow, but so that we grow towards God.
The final thing I want to say is that repentance, if it is more than saying sorry though that’s at least part of it because it means recognizing that we’ve been living and acting from the wrong starting point, and if it means we therefore need to change our worldview (that is, cleave to a worldview that is in God’s truth and light), then it finally means that our orientation must ultimately become eschatological. In other words, repentance isn’t just leaving behind the things that we’ve done (presumably the wrong things), but turning towards what we are meant to be.
I talk about this a lot because I think that it’s really important that we understand that to be a Christian, to be called by Jesus’ name, means that everything has changed. It surely means that we do things differently, that we have different values, that we are working and living for different things. But all of this is because of the reality of Jesus. Because Jesus came into a world of darkness, of selfishness, of human ambition and pride; because Jesus took on the fullness of humanity and walked and lived among us; because Jesus died on the cross; and because Jesus rose again. Because of Jesus, everything has changed and we have new hope and new life.
So being a Christian isn’t just about having a certain set of morals, holding to a certain doctrine. Being Christian isn’t about building churches or even about convincing others to join those churches. Because of Jesus, we are talking about new life. And because we are in the in-between, we are constantly wrestling with the old life. But it is to the new life that we are called. It is to the fullness of life that we are called. To life-life.
16 the people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.”
17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”