Mark Tibdit 1: Repent and Believe

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Update: This post has retroactively become part 1 of a series: Mark Tidbits.

Jesus' first words in the gospel of Mark are "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel." (Mark 1:15, ESV) Paul summarizes the ministry of John the Baptizer: "John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus." (Acts 19:4, ESV) The nouns for repentance and faith/belief appear together again in Acts 20:21. I'm wondering if there's a connection between the two concepts and that they're not just two indepedent commands, as I think this sort of statement is often taken, but one command put two ways.

Paul's statement about John in Acts 19 seems to be saying that John's message was to repent, i.e. to believe in the one who was to come after him, Jesus. In the next chapter, Paul tells the Ephesian elders in his farewell address to them that the message he preached was of "repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ" (the same Greek word is used for faith here and belief in the other two passages). One further passage makes the connection. The author of Hebrews says his recipients don't need to keep laying the basic foundation but need to move on to deeper things. That basic foundation is " of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God". The same one foundation is those two things. So maybe they're not really two things at all. We might read the statement in Mark a little differently in light of all this.

Jesus says "Repent and believe in the gospel." In context, this is because the kingdom of God, the reign of God, is here, fully realized in the person of Jesusm the implications of which will be developed throughout the rest of this gospel and the rest of the New Testament. The importance of repenting and believing comes to the fore, then, because a new time is upon us. The events on which the history of the entire world hand are beginning.

So what is Jesus telling people to do? The word for repenting is metanoeo. It has connotations of changing and returning and links with prophetic calls to return to the Lord from a lifestyle of not seeking him, which could range anywhere from idolatry to what many nowadays call practical atheism or what the Bible calls the fool in his heart saying there's no God, i.e. simply living your life as if God's existence and God's words shouldn't affect what you do. The prophets over and over again call God's people to return to him, to stop doing what they were doing, to trust in him and not in horses, chariots, Egypt, or whatever else they may be trusting in. This was ultimately a call to be faithful to the covenant between God and Israel, a covenant Israel did not honor much of the time, to the point of being compared to a prostitute with respect to her marriage to her God. Jesus clearly identifies himself throughout all four gospels as standing in this tradition of prophecy. Thus 'repent and believe' must be heard in light of what the prophets called God's people to do.

Once that's clear, I think it's easy to see how repenting and believing are really the same thing. Since the same word is used not just for believing and having faith but also for being faithful to the covenant, belief here is not just trusting in God in an intellectual or emotional way, though that's part of it. It's not belief in the biblical sense unless it involves being faithful to the covenant, which was clearly the old covenant in the prophetic tradition and is clearly the new covenant in the apostolic tradition. Jesus stands here at the crossroads, calling those in the old covenant to be faithful to the covenant God graciously made with them. As the book of Mark develops, we begin to see that a new covenant is appearing on the scene, and the rest of the New Testament fleshes this out as a continuation of the old covenant while acknowledging that not all in the old covenant really counted as being in it, while some not in it were brought in by the good news of Jesus Christ's death and resurrection. So at this crossroads, Jesus is calling them to faithfulness to the covenant they have known but also moving them toward faithfulness to the new covenant foreseen in Jeremiah 31 and other places and now about to be revealed in its fulness in Jesus.

We see throughout the book of Mark, and the other gospels, that enough of God's people at the time were not faithful to the covenant God had made with them that it makes sense to call for a turning back to God, just as it made sense for the prophets to call for this. But it's clear also that even those who were generally faithful through repenting when they sinned, who availed themselves of the sacrificial system, needed that repentance. The covenant itself entailed as much. So it's not as if the faithful didn't need repentance. Being faithful required repentance, as it does now in the new covenant. So faith/belief and faithfulness are two sides of the same coin (or the same word in this case). Faith is faithfulness to the covenant, since trusting in God for his promises made in the covenant is part of being faithful to it, though obeying his commands is equally part of it. Repenting is a turning back to God from being unfaithful to the covenant, from trusting in other things besides God.

When Jesus called people to repent and believe, he was telling them that returning to God requires being faithful. It requires trust. At the same time, faithfulness to God and trust in God require returning to him when we don't seek him and changing our whole stance. The good news Jesus was preaching was a whole life change involving repentance from one's own indepedent ways and trust in God as revealed in the old covenant and its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. When he said to repent and believe, he was telling them in two different ways to do one thing. I don't think I'd ever noticed that before.

This has a few consequences. One is that you can't repent and then later believe. You haven't really repented unless you have trusted in God, unless you have committed yourself to faithfulness. Another is that you can't believe without truly repenting. If your life hasn't changed, that's reason to wonder what kind of belief you have. It may not be faith in Jesus Christ but simply an intellectual assent or emotional appreciation. Christian faith is much more than that. It's a lifestyle, a commitment. It's a changing from old ways and a covenant with God, one that requires being faithful to that covenant. Third, this has serious consequences for how Christians should preach the good news of Jesus Christ. Calling people simply to an emotional experience or intellectual conversion is not preaching the gospel. Expecting people to live a Christian lifestyle when they're not in a covenant relationship with God is also a partial gospel (and thus a false gospel and not really a gospel at all, as Paul explains in Galatians).

This isn't restricted to the political sphere, but it's common there, more visibly when it comes to homosexuality but more fundamentally when it comes to how Christians' views on sex and marriage differ from those of others, and I don't mean whether marriage is between a man and a woman. I mean all the other places society around us differs so strongly with the biblical understanding of marriage. As important as those issues are, I don't elevate any of them to anywhere near the message of good news of Jesus Christ, and I insist on living my life in such a way that when I have an opportunity to speak that message it will be received in a way that the message itself will be heard and not some political or social message at odds with the basic values of those in my life who do not believe. Those are important distinctives, and I will maintain the distinctives as someone in a covenant relationship with God has already made a commitment to do, but I won't equate those details of the later outworking of repenting and believing with the initial commitment to repenting and believing that's required for even understanding why those details are important.

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13 Comments

Good on you, have blogged about this over at my plac e..

Excellent. Timely. I would say more, but my adjective generator just quit.

I also believe they are linked, since how can one believe if they do not repent, and if they repent part of the basis of that repentance is belief that what they are doing is real and has value, otherwise why do it? Does that make sense?

It's late and this is a quick gut-level agreement.

Yes, although I think what I'm saying is that the connection is much deeper than that. I think what I'm saying is that repentance and belief don't just require each other but that they really are the same thing under different descriptions.

The word "repent", as we are so often taught, means "to turn around" or "change direction". God calls us to follow Him, but we are busy running in the opposite direction. In order to follow Him, we must change direction--repent. But it is not enough to merely change direction. Theoretically, one could change from one wrong direction to another. What we really need to do is start heading in the right direction. It does us no good to repent from a life of gluttony to turn to a life of sloth. True repentence involves turning to God. And that is what is meant by "faith" or "belief". Thus the command "believe" answers the question "in what manner/direction should I repent?" True repentence requires belief.

Similarly, belief/faith entails repentence. Belief/faith is, if you will, heading in the right direction. But if you start off heading in the wrong direction, you cannot head in the right direction without changing direction. So you cannot have belief/faith without an accompanying repentence.

I'm not sure I would go quite so far as to say that repentence and belief are identical, but they are flip sides of the same action. Repentence describes the action (turning away) with respect to what you were heading towards; faith describes the action (turning towards) with respect to what you are now heading towards.

>I think what I'm saying is that repentance and belief don't just require each other but that they really are the same thing under different descriptions.

That is a big leap and requires you to separate belief from knowing something to be true and requiring it to carry more of the acting on the belief to include bowing the knee, which would include repentance.

I say this because it has always been a given that Satan believes. He knows the truth but rejects its demands. This seems to fit Paul's statement in Romans 10:8 "That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."

Here belief needs the preamble of bowing the knee to complete itself and produce salvation. So I am not sure I can agree to take it as far as you want to take it.

Wink, I meant that Christian repentance and Christian faith are two different descriptions of the same thing. William, I think the same goes for your example of Satan believing. When James discusses this, he mentions demons believing, but it's in the context of saying that faith without works is dead. In other words, any notion of mere assent without a life change, i.e. repentance, isn't really Christian faith. That actually confirms my point. So when Paul says that faith alone justifies (or grace through faith, when he's more precise about it later in his life) he means the more robust notion of belief, not the barebones one that you and James use when you acknowledge that Satan or demons believe.

Wink, I'm not sure the word for repentance could really mean turning from any old thing to any other, at least by the time of the NT. Maybe I'm wrong, but could that be one of those etymological fallacies. Either way, Jesus was using them in the context of the ministry of John, and John was using them in the manner of the prophets back to Moses, who repeatedly talked of returning to the Lord rather than simply changing your stance or attitude any which way. So the biblical context makes a difference here even if the term itself could, in other contexts, be so general as to be contentless.

The system John the baptist taught preceeded the Way Jesus would perfect by his crucifixion so that John's system is proven to be inadaquet for making a person one with God. No person can become one with God without first hearing the apostles' message to learn the only Way the Acts 2:38 command can be obeyed. re Jn.17:20 NIV "their message". John's system was eliminated so that the Way into the kingdom of God is small and narrow. John's system of repenting of sins for frogiveness of sins proves that this system of faith fails to make a person one with God in that no spiritual gifts are granted by believing and using the process of repenting of sins or confessing to be a sinner.

There are surely some things in the new covenant that supercede, replace, or modify things in the old covenant, and John is a transitional figure in some ways, so we might expect him to have some of both covenants. But he does major on the new covenant, since that's what he's heralding.

But one thing I don't think you can get away with is taking his "repent and believe" statements to be something that gets removed with the work of the Messiah. The apostles repeated the same thing after Jesus' crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. The same is true of confession and repentance, since the apostles repeated this teaching. Confession of sins is explicitly repeated in I John, for instance, and repentance is taught throughout the epistles. It's especially important in Hebrews, for instance.

It's not mere confessing of sins and repentance that leads to restoration with God. It's a work of God, initiated fully by God and undeserved by any human being. It's brought about via confession of sins to God, repentance before God, and commitment to serve God fully.

Pierce you have made a conjecture that has a direct refute in 1 Cor. 2:7-9. Nobody had any idea what the reason for crucifying Jesus was before Pentecost. The new covenant perfected by crucifying Jesus is NOT a modification of pre-existing covenants. Further it is NOT "repent and believe". It is fully believe that you must repent of Jesus murder to be saved from the penalty of death. If sins could be repented of for salvation then sins could have been repented of PRIOR to Jesus' crucifixion for salvation. John's system cannot be the small narrow gate Jesus has perfected for escaping death, for if it were, "teaching them to obey whatsoever I HAVE COMMANDED" would have already been taught and the true reason for crucifying Jesus would have been known PRIOR to his crucifixion.

I Cor 2:7-9 says something about the rulers of the world who crucified Jesus. I don't see anything about nobody having any idea what the Messiah would end up accomplishing. Isaiah certainly had some idea, even if the two strains in his prophecy (conquering king, suffering servant) were hard for people in Jesus' time to put together.

If sins could be repented of for salvation then sins could have been repented of PRIOR to Jesus' crucifixion for salvation.

Well, yes, which is why those who repented and trusted in the covenant provisions in Israel will be saved, on the basis of Jesus' provision at the cross.

Sooooo...

Your understanding is that "repent" and "believe" are commands describing the same thing, "repent" from the point of view of turning from which necessarily includes turning to, and "believe" from the point of view of turning to which necessarily includes turning from. Both involve life change.

I like it, but I have a couple of observations (correct or otherwise) that prevent me from completely accepting it.

Luke 17:3-4 has Jesus using "repent" in a context between two believers where "believe" or "faith in God" or "covenant faithfulness" does not come into it.

In Mark 1:15, Jesus is telling people to repent because the "Kingdom of God is at hand" (cf Matt 3:2, 4:17) and then tells them to believe the good news/gospel - not in the old covenant. Did the people at that stage know what the good news was? What was it other than "the Kingdom of God is at hand" - a very near but future event. In other words, Jesus says repent now, believe that the kingdom is coming - two separate requirements, especially if you include "covenant faithfulness" into the command to believe.

Acts 19:4 is read more naturally that way, also. John baptism was one of repentance now and his call to belief was in one who was to come. The very fact that the disciples had been baptised with the baptism of repentance but needed to be re-baptised into Christ indicates a distinction between the two.

Now, it can rightly be argued that John's call to repentance was at the same time a call to faithfulness to the old covenant, but two things can be said in reply:
1) Luke 17:3-4 shows it does not have to and
2) Paul specifically says the "believe" call of his ministry was actually directed not to the old covenant, but to Jesus.

So, I agree that repentance and faith/belief (which I do not agree always refers to covenant faithfulness) are closely linked and intertwined, but I do not agree that they are necessarily the same command - unless you convince me otherwise.

By the way, I thought this was an interesting verse worth thinking about in the context of your post:

testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Acts 20:21.

To me it reads as saying repentance and faith are two related but separate things, but I guess it doesn't need to...

Repenting is turning from something. Genuine repentance in salvific context always involves genuine belief. That doesn't mean every act of repentance is salvific. People can easily turn from something without belief.

I think what I mean is that the repenting and believing are logically separable (because in a non-salvific context you might have one or the other), but they turn out to be different descriptions of the same action when the action you're referring to is repenting and believing regarding salvation.

Acts 19:4 speaks of those who followed the transitionary figure, so of course that baptism wasn't sufficient for alignment with the Messiah. Repentance in that context isn't yet repentance and believing in Christ, even if it's repentance and believing in a fact about his coming. It lacks the content of the belief and the recognition of the object of the belief.

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