“Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near… Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God.” Matt 3:2,8
We don’t hear a lot about repentance. Its a word that is not used in modern vernacular. The only place we do hear about it is in the bible, or occasionally, in passing, at the church. What does it mean?
To repent basically means to change your mind. It means to change your mind about the way you are living, specifically about a sinful lifestyle. Jesus said, “I have come to call sinners to repentance.” So what He means is that He is calling on people who sin (break God’s laws) to change their minds about the way that they are living.
And a change of mind, of course, leads to a change in behavior. This is why John not only preaches repentance, but also says that we must prove that repentance by the way that we conduct our lives (Mt 3:8). Paul the apostle echoes this when he is making an account of his christian work before King Agrippa:
“And so, King Agrippa, I obeyed that vision from heaven. I preached first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that all must repent of their sins and turn to God—and prove they have changed by the good things they do.” – Acts 26:19-20
Jesus gives us a great example of what repentance is when He references the story of Jonah in Matthew 12:41:
“The people of Nineveh will stand up against this generation on judgment day and condemn it, for they repented of their sins at the preaching of Jonah. Now someone greater than Jonah is here – but you refuse to repent.” Matthew 12:41
Since Jesus uses the people of Nineveh as an example of true repentance, we can look back at the story of Jonah to see what it is.
If you remember, Jonah was the reluctant preacher that ran the opposite direction when the Lord told him to go preach to the people of Nineveh. Nineveh was a large city, so large that it took three days walk to get through the whole city. And like most large cities, it was filled with all kinds of evil. This particular city was filled with so much evil that God said, “their wickedness has come up before Me.” (Jonah 1:2) The Lord used the same kind of wording when He spoke of the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:20-21). It almost sounds like He has agents out reporting on the status of cities and places throughout the earth, and the report comes back that this city is one of the worst. And being one of the worst, the Lord deems it necessary to pronounce judgement against it.
God chooses Jonah for the job. Jonah runs the other direction, but God convinces him through unconventional methods to carry on the mission. When Jonah arrives to Nineveh, his message is pretty simple, and not very encouraging:
“Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed.” -Jonah 3:4
That’s it. That was all the sermon there was (or at least that we know about). I picture in my head this guy walking around town, shouting as loud as he can, “Forty days and ya’ll are gonna be dead!”
Remarkably enough, in the midst of a bible where people seem to rarely listen to God, the people of Nineveh take Jonah’s message to heart. The king himself leads the way by stepping down from his throne, taking off his royal robes, and sitting in sackcloth and ashes. Without any conditions of mercy, and no guarantee that it’ll do any good, the king repents before God. Not only does he repent, but he proclaims a fast throughout the city. He asks the people to clothe themselves with sackcloth (uncomfortable clothing like burlap) and to cry out mightily to God. He tells them to turn from their evil ways, and says, “maybe, just maybe God will turn away from His fierce anger and spare us.” (Jonah 3:5-9)
And God does.
When God saw that they ‘turned from their evil way,’ He changed His mind, and did not destroy them.
This reminds me of a scripture found in Jeremiah 18:
“The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, to pull down, and to destroy it, if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it.” -Jeremiah 18:7-8
So this brings us back to our original question: What is repentance?
We see the people of Nineveh doing a few specific things. They start fasting, they put on really uncomfortable clothes and pray, and they turn from their evil deeds.
Fasting is a sign of mourning. In those days, if someone important had died, the people would fast as a way to express sorrow. True repentance involves sorrow. When the people of Nineveh fasted, it was to show the Lord that they were truly sorry for their sins. It was an outward sign of the sorrow that was in their heart. They were sorry that they had offended and displeased God. Refusing to eat or drink was a sign of that sorrow.
Paul was in such deep distress when the Lord appeared to him on the road to Damascus that he did not eat for three days. He was so sorry that he had been persecuting the Lord that he could not bring himself to eat. (See Acts 9)
True repentance doesn’t have to involve fasting (it didn’t for me), but it should definitely involve sorrow. If you don’t feel sorry for offending God then you either do not think you are a sinner, or you don’t understand how offended God is at our sin. You are a sinner and God is offended.
The next thing the people did was that they put on sackcloth, sat in ashes, and prayed. Sackcloth is like burlap bags. It’s extremely coarse and definitely not something that you would wear to be comfortable, which was the point. You would wear it as a sign that you were serious, especially that you were serious about prayer. The sackcloth would be uncomfortable to the point that you wouldn’t be able to relax or fall asleep. The ashes wouldn’t be a pleasant thing either. It would be kind of like if you had an important paper to write and it was late at night. You could either leave your work clothes on and force yourself to work at your desk in a hard wooden chair, or you could put your PJ’s on, grab your snuggie, and work on the couch. If you were serious about getting the paper done then you would opt for the wooden chair.
True repentance doesn’t have to involve sackcloth and ashes, but it does have to be serious. This isn’t something to be taken lightly. We’ve offended the God of the universe with our sins, all of our attention should be fixed on Him until we know that true peace has been made with Him. Our eternal souls lie in the balance and our attention to this matter is of the utmost importance. Truly, there is nothing in the world that is more important.
The last thing that the people did is that they turned from their evil deeds. In their sorrow, and in their serious prayers, they committed to God a life that would be free from the way they lived in times past. They committed to putting behind them forever the things that displeased God. They committed to putting selfish living behind them and to live for the Almighty. His law was now what they desired, and His ways is what they were to follow. The past life was gone, and a new life had begun.
Have you repented before God? Have you considered how offended God is at your sin? He is offended so much that He is ready to cast into hell forever those that refuse to repent. Your sin fights against all that is good and right and He won’t tolerate it forever. Your sin has caused pain and hurt to many people, including yourself. You should feel deeply sorry for this. Your sorrow should produce a seriousness in your heart – such a seriousness that you get on your knees and cry out for God’s mercy. He has promised that He will hear that cry. He will hear the cry that says, “I’m sorry God, I want you to forgive me. I turn from my evil ways. Give me your Holy Spirit that I might live a life that pleases you!”
Jesus Christ died in your place, for your sins on the cross. He rose from the dead to become our Lord and Master. Believe in Him, accept His leadership over your life and you will be saved. God will wipe away every evil deed that you have ever done. There will be no record of it in heaven. No sin will ever be held against you in the eternal courts of justice. All have been forgiven, for those who repent.