We’ve all seen occasional comics of a robed and bearded street preacher with a placard sign that reads, “Repent, the end is near!” Usually there’s a punchline of some sort that makes the prophet of doom seem silly. Yet, as with most caricatures, there’s a kernel of truth in the mix. And, I suspect, there’s more than enough truth in this issue for us to pause and reflect for a moment. That kernel is that both John the Baptist and Jesus launched their respective ministries by calling on listeners to repent. As did Paul after he met Jesus.
The topic of repentance jumped on me as I prepared to preach Acts 26 this weekend. In that text Paul faces the Roman governor of Palestine, Festus, along with King Herod Agrippa and his sister Bernice as a subset to his trials for sedition and for Temple desecration. There Paul repeated his account of meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus to the listeners. Central to the account is Christ’s commission to him:
“I am sending you to open their [i.e. Jewish and Gentile] eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” [Acts 26:18]
In preparing the talk what struck me is the way Paul interpreted and applied Christ’s challenge: he obeyed Jesus by calling everyone he spoke with after this encounter to “repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with repentance.” [verse 20]
Before then Paul (when he was still called by his Jewish name, Saul) was among the most self-driven young Pharisees in his generation. So in his trial at Caesarea before Festus, Agrippa, and the others, he would have recognized many of the second-tier figures among his Jewish prosecutors. He even touched on this in a wry comment during his defense—“They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify . . .”—that he had been a rising star in his generation.
What drove Saul in those early days, before the Damascus Road event, when he would have had free access to the office of the High Priest in Jerusalem to get permits to search synagogues here, there, and everywhere, for possible heretics? It was his ambition to be part of God’s blessing to Israel. The “promise” he noted in verse 6 that had been given to Abraham and then restated to Isaac and to Jacob was a guiding light to any devout Jew. A coming “Seed”—the promised offspring of the patriarchal fathers and of David—would eventually appear to rescue and to rule God’s people. Until then Saul meant to protect Judaism from any false messiahs, including Jesus.
What Saul realized after he met Jesus is that he had been wrong. He had missed the crucial lesson of Isaiah and elsewhere that the Christ must first suffer—even to the point of death—before he would return to his glory with the Father and only then be ready to establish his kingdom. Saul had been earnest, but earnestly wrong!
So now, after taking up the Hellenized name of Paul, he was full of repentance. Everything in his early training—though it was rich with elements of truth—had been misdirected. He was utterly sincere but utterly wrong. And now with heart filled with a passion for Christ he was urgent in challenging Festus and Agrippa to repent as well. How? By changing their direction of life! By no longer treating the earthly rule of Rome as primary but as a mere backdrop to the true reign of Jesus, the Christ.
Repentance, in this context, is about finding someone so important in life, so compelling, and with a standing in reality so great that he commands instantaneous worship. And then to say to him, “my Lord and my God.”
Repentance, then, wasn’t so much a feeling of deep remorse for Paul; it was a heart-shaking realization that before meeting Jesus he had gotten everything wrong! So much so that the only way to get things right was to reverse course. So the once-stardom-bound Saul was ready to become the despised and hated Paul for the sake of his devotion to Jesus.
For Paul the message from Jesus had been personal: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” It was Jesus speaking of “you” and “me” in absolutely compelling and personal terms. As Saul he had hated Jesus and all who followed him; as Paul he was hated by all who dismissed Jesus and refused to follow him. This was repentance. It was both passionate and practical. It changed everything. And it was a message that made me want to grow in my own personal repentance. If many of us were to repent with Paul’s sort of repentance I suspect the world would begin to notice in a hurry. I hope they do. I think the end is near!