Jesus introduced the gospel of the kingdom of God with the call to repent. It’s the first word of the good news. It’s even more surprising that he also closed his preaching with the message of repentance. From beginning to end the New Testament urges us to press deeply into change, and change is made possible by repentance.
The book of Revelation, that final book of the Bible filled with strange and vivid images along with the promise of a new life in a new age, speaks of repentance in equal measures addressed to both the world at large and to the church. The command to repent is directed at four churches. Just when we might be tempted to think that repentance is for other people, to those outside the club, we are reminded that repentance is the way of life for us, and it will be so until the Lord returns. Let’s consider those passages where Jesus calls the church to repentance.
Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place (2:5).
From the church in Ephesus we learn not only that our love for God can fade, but also that repentance is one way to revive it. The church in Ephesus was hard-working and faithful. They endured hardships and persevered, yet Jesus saw that they had fallen from the heights of love into the rut of doing their duty. Jesus called the church to repentance because he knew it can renew the flame and provide sustaining passion for mission and relationship.
Repent therefore! Otherwise I will soon come to you and fight against them with the sword of my mouth (2:16).
The church in Pergamum had faithful witnesses, people willing to die for their faith. They were good people, yet mixed in and among those good people there were also pockets of people who embraced a counterfeit faith, urged on by false prophets who taught them to love worldly pleasures. Even in a good church there is a mixture of motivations and all manner of people. Jesus called the church to repentance by asking them to tend the garden of their own community, or he himself would come with a sword. Repentance is how we tend that garden.
Remember, therefore what you have received; hold it fast, and repent (3:3).
Sometimes repentance is the means of “holding fast.” The lasting road of endurance is paved with stones of repentance. It is the overcoming way. All seven letters to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3 contain promises to “the one who overcomes.” These promises are for us as well. The quiet wisdom of mature disciples is that they understand the connection between repentance and overcoming. The strength to overcome life’s circumstances is given to the meek: those who demonstrate strength under discipline. Jesus called the church to repentance because it is how we overcome the world.
Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent (3:19).
Such direct language! Jesus pays us the compliment of speaking plainly. He is treating us like grown-ups. This is real faith; grown-up faith. It’s a perspective that understands—and thrives—in the dynamic between love and growth. One sure sign that we are “earnest” is our willingness and ability to repent as a part of everyday life with God. He stands at the door and knocks. What opens the door to his presence? A humble and contrite heart, a heart practiced in repentance. The door opens up to feasting on his presence. Repentance sets the table for “eating” with God, receiving nourishment and rest day by day. He comes to our home and knocks on our door. Jesus called the church to repentance and we open the door, daily, with repentance.
Here, in this collection of his last words to the church, the triumphant and overcoming Lord reminds us again and again that repentance is woven into the Christian life. Repentance is not some cowering religious weakness acted out before an angry god; it is the secret known to people both strong and humble. Such people know that God’s eyes and heart are always turned toward the contrite, those who have trained themselves to rethink their lives and return again and again to the master of living.
This article is an excerpt from Ray Hollenbach’s new book, Deeper Change.