Tag Archives: Repentance

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 7:3-17

Read 1 Samuel 7:3-17

In verse three Samuel reappears in the narrative, having been out of the picture since chapter 4:1, and out of the picture for perhaps as long as twenty years. After their devastating loss to the Philistines Israel was indeed impoverished, and subject at least, to Philistine power. During this time Samuel continued to grow, not only in years but in his call, service, maturity, and reputation. Samuel was a prophet-judge, a circuit judge “bringing justice and encouraging worship” on an annual basis in the region where he served (Evans, 54). The four cities mentioned—Bethel, Gilgal, Mizpah and Ramah—are all centrally located a little south of Shiloh.

But Samuel appears to have done more than become a localised prophet or judge. In verse three he is addressing “all the house of Israel,” with a call to repentance that includes a rejection of idolatry. In the pre-exilic period of Israel’s history idolatry was a perennial issue, a form of religious-cultural syncretism, in which Israel were not whole-hearted in their devotion to God. Samuel confronts this attitude head-on:

If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your heart to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.

To the modern western mind, the idea of idolatry is curious if not foolish, primitive and superstitious. But the ancient Israelites were simply adapting themselves to the surrounding cultures, adopting their mores and religious values, and the promise of security that they brought. Seen in this light, idolatry is not simply the worship of wood and stone statues, but seeking one’s security in and setting one’s heart on anything other than the one God. Samuel will have none of it. True repentance will be indicated by the sole devotion of their hearts toward God; there is no place here for a divided heart.

True repentance, and true religion, are matters of the heart. This is understood in the Old Testament as the defining and motivating centre of human personality. It is this centre, as representing the whole, which is to “return” to the Lord in full and sole devotion. “For human beings,” says Murphy, “monotheism is never just a theory, but a decision” (52). And if Israel will do this, Samuel promises, God will deliver them from the power of the Philistines.

Samuel, it seems, has managed unify Israel, or at least gathered them in unity to Mizpah. The prophet-judge is in this sense also a prophet-general, a military as well as juridical and religious leader, as was common with a number of earlier judges. The gathered people confess their sins and make an offering to the Lord.

What happens next is difficult to describe. There is both a military confrontation and a divine intervention. Or it may be that the divine intervention was through the military confrontation. Murphy suggests,

What happens in the story theologically is that ‘the Lord thunders’ against the Philistines and throws them into terrified flight; what happens humanly is that all the tribes act as one; and these two, the human and the theological, occur simultaneously (53).

All the focus of the narrative is on Samuel and his action. Samuel does not fight; he prays and sacrifices, and God hears and answers his prayer. Certainly Israel fights and pursues; certainly God superintends and gives deliverance. Yet it is Samuel’s leadership, his wholehearted and single-minded devotion to God which calls, inspires, and gathers Israel, and acts as a lightning rod of divine presence in the face of imminent threat and crisis.

There is no doubt that this was a significant military victory: the power of Philistia over the Israelites was decisively beaten for the whole period of Samuel’s life. More significantly, it was a crucial stage along the road of Israel’s national and religious development. Through the force of Samuel’s example, spirituality, and leadership Israel, emerging from a period of terrible defeat and oppression, was becoming unified as one people devoted to one God.

Scripture on Sunday – Luke 3:10-11

“The Sermon of John the Baptist” Frans Pourbus (1545-81)
“The Sermon of John the Baptist” Frans Pourbus (1545-81)

Luke 3:10-11
And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’

  • Read the whole section (Luke 3:1-18) here.

John lashes his hearers as he preaches the “good news” to the people (v. 18). And these are those who have come out to the wilderness to hear him! Might he be even harsher with those who refuse to come? Many Christians today would not recognise this sermon as good news at all, while others think this is the only way to authentically preach “the good news.” Tear strips off the people! Flay them with words! Drive them to repentance!

John is obviously anticipating the end of all things; the wrath is coming, but so is salvation (vv. 6-7). Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees (v. 9). Now is the time of decision. Now, before time expires and the opportunity is lost. Soon the Mighty One will come, gathering the grain into his barn—but the chaff!—the chaff will be burnt with unquenchable fire; the unfruitful tree, too, will be cut down and thrown into the fire (vv. 16-17, 9). John’s fierce rhetoric is born of urgent times. This is not simply eschatological vision, but apocalyptic certainty. It is a minute to midnight and the axe is poised to strike. Judgement is inevitable and imminent, and the people flee like vipers before a spreading fire. So John calls to the people to repent while they still can. There is but one possibility of escape.

They have come for baptism. They have come because they are Abraham’s children. They have come because he is a prophet, the first in four hundred years. They have come because they are curious. The news of the coming judgement and salvation is good news indeed—so long as one is on the right side of the judge! And so John preaches repentance. His baptism is a baptism of repentance (v. 3), though baptism alone will not suffice. Not religion or ritual, but repentance. Not belonging to the right group outwardly, but a new life demonstrating that we are indeed, not a brood of vipers, not simply children of Abraham, but children of the kingdom of God (cf. Matthew 3:2). “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” I. Howard Marshall suggests the question is rhetorical and indicates the sheer impossibility of escaping the coming, total judgement, least of all by an “external, ex opere operato rite” (Marshall, The Gospel of Luke [NIGTC], 139).

In verse 8 John warns the people to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” The analogy of verse 9 speaks of “good fruit” and warns that every tree not bearing such fruit will be cut down and destroyed (cf. Matthew 7:19 where the warning is also found on Jesus’ lips). What fruit does John have in mind?

Some commentators suggest that the fruit is the repentance itself, that baptism must be undertaken in repentance if it is to be genuine and effective. Marshall, however, notes that the word for “fruit” is in the plural rather than the singular (karpous), and that the phrase as a whole (poiēsate oun karpous axious tēs metanoias) suggests “fruits befitting repentance” (140). At this point Luke includes additional information not found in Matthew (i.e. vv. 10-14), which suggests that Luke identifies precisely the kinds of fruit he has in mind. The crowd ask “What then shall we do?” (v. 10), to which John responds,

Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.

John identifies acts of generosity toward the poor as a key indicator of true repentance in the kingdom of God. This is more than simply having a “generous heart” or a generous intent, but involves concrete acts of compassion, sharing, participation and solidarity.

The good fruit of verse 9 is worked out in terms of good works: works of love, kindness and mercy rather than works of the law and more than religious works of ritual. Soldiers may keep soldiering and tax collectors keep collecting, but they must do so without violence or greed, avoiding the sins of their profession (Marshall, 143). Certainly John wants the people to be baptised and receive the forgiveness of sins. But their faith must be genuine, and so repentant, and their repentance must move in directions which characterise the love, kindness and mercy of the God who cares for every living person.

To be baptised is to enter into the life and community of the kingdom of God, freely offered to us through the forgiveness of sins. Yet this involves repentance, a decisive turning from the kinds of sins which render present life antithetical to that kingdom. To those, like me, who are so very rich—I have far more than two tunics, and I never go hungry—this word comes as a great challenge. John is interested in deeds. Note the threefold question from the crowd, the tax collectors and the soldiers, “What shall we do?” What, then, do I do with respect to the poor in specific, concrete deeds of sharing? And do I do it from a distance, writing a cheque or making a bank transfer, or is it a case of love with dirty hands? Is my sharing personal and participative or impersonal and aloof? Is my life characterised more by the way of the kingdom or by the way of the world?

This verse has been unsettling me all week.

 

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:21

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:21
Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

After my conversion, the church I attended used the King James Version of the Bible and this became one of my favourite verses. The quaint terminology, rhythmic cadence, and almost absurd weightiness of the language made it memorable: “Wherefore, lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.” It still makes me smile. Nonetheless, the language needs updating, and even the NRSV might be clearer; the NIV reads simply, “Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent…”

The commentators are divided on whether this verse better belongs with verses 19-20 (e.g. Davids and McKnight) or with verses 22-25 (e.g. Moo and Vlachos). This may indicate that it is better not to divide the passage here, but to consider verses 19-27 as one overarching unit with several subsections. James’ use of “my (beloved) brothers and sisters” in verses 19 and 2:1 may be the best marker of what he intended, given he often uses this phrase to introduce a new section (cf. 1:2, 16, 19; 2:1, 2:14, 3:1, 3:10b(?), etc). There are certainly connections both with the previous section, and with that to come. The “implanted word” (Logos) recalls the “word of truth” in verse 18, as well as foreshadowing the instruction in verse 22 to be “doers of the word.” The exhortation to “receive with meekness” may echo the command to be “quick to hear” in verse 19, and several commentators suggest that the evil (kakias) spoken of in this verse is best understood in terms of malice, and so parallel to the anger of verses 19-20 (see, for example, Vlachos, 56; McKnight, 142).

James’ first instruction is not a grammatical imperative although it functions like one. “Therefore, rid yourselves” (dio apothemenoi) does suggest that this instruction is predicated upon what has come earlier, probably in verses 19-20, but also reaching back to verse 18. The participle apothemenoi literally means to “put away” or “lay aside,” and is often used in the sense of removing one’s clothing (cf. Acts 7:58). The image is common in New Testament exhortations to lay aside pre-Christian patterns of behaviour. Thus, in Romans 13:12 Paul calls on the church to “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.” This pattern of “putting off and putting on” is found also in Ephesians and Colossians. In Ephesians, the believers are to put of the old self and put on the new self (4:22-24; cf. v. 25), while in Colossians they must put away anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk, and put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and love (3:8-14). The author to the letter of Hebrews exhorts his readers to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely” so that they may be freed to run the race set before them (12:1). Finally, Peter also instructs his hearers to “put away” all malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy and slander, and to hunger for the word of God that they may grow up into salvation (2:1-2). All these texts show that this was a common theme and metaphor in early Christian teaching.

James calls upon his readers to rid themselves of “all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness” (pasan rhyparian kai perisseian kakias). Rhyparian continues the clothing metaphor, its cognate being used for the shabby clothing of the poor in 2:2. The adjectival form is also used in Zechariah 3:3-4:

Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘Take off his filthy clothes.’ And to him he said, ‘See, I have taken your guilt away from you, and I will clothe you in festal apparel.’

It is impossible to know whether this text stands behind the common New Testament usage, but its context is suggestive. Joshua the high priest must take off his filthy clothes and be clothed with “festal apparel” (“pure vestments” [ESV]) in order to stand before the Angel of the Lord. The change of clothing is a symbol of his cleansing from sin, and so the change of status given him. The metaphoric use of the term also indicates that the concern of the writer is with moral filthiness. The “rank growth of wickedness” (perisseian kakias) is literally, “abundance of evil,” although as already noted, it may be better to understand kakias as malice (cf. vv. 19-20; 1 Peter 2:1). This translation would suggest that James’ admonition in verses 19-20 were not simply general advice, but specific instruction directed toward disunity and anger in his community. The NRSV correctly picks up the “middle voice” of the participle: “rid yourselves,” which indicates the believer’s responsibility for a deliberate and decisive repudiation of all these things.

Repentance in the New Testament, however, is more than simply repudiation. Not only must the believer turn from that which is evil; they must also turn toward and embrace that which is good. Thus the second part of the verse—“and receive with meekness the implanted word” (en praútēti dexasthe ton emphyton logon)—provides this balance in James’ teaching. Praútēs (meekness, gentleness or humility) stands in contrast to the anger and refusal to listen of verses 19-20. Instead of an aggressive or demanding disposition, James’ hearers must adopt the meekness that characterised Jesus (Matthew 11:29) and so “receive with meekness” the implanted word. Vlachos (57) suggests that the aorist imperative for “receive” (dexasthe) be interpreted in parallel to apothemenoi as a “true middle” with the sense of “open yourselves up to” the word of God, and so once more affirming the believer’s responsibility. The imperative calls the community to a humble listening to and hearing of the word of God (“be quick to hear!”), which must be welcomed and embraced if it is to work powerfully in one’s life. That this word must be “received” and is also “implanted” in us, shows that it is a work of grace to which we are called to respond, one of the good and perfect gifts which is from above (v.17), and for which we are allowed to pray (v. 5).

How is this word implanted? That it must be received suggests that it comes from without, most likely through the preaching and teaching ministries of the church. In verse 18 James showed us that our “new birth” was occasioned “by the word of truth,” which as we noted then, is an expression synonymous in the New Testament with the gospel. James says more: this word “has the power to save your souls” (ton dunamenon sōsai tas psychas humōn). Believers are to “open themselves up to” this word, maintain a continual openness toward it, so that its power might be continually at work within them. Although we are already born again or brought forth by the word of truth (v. 18), we are still awaiting the completion of our salvation, which in James refers to deliverance from the eschatological judgement which is yet to come. The same word by which we were brought to new birth is the same word by which we grow and by which we finally will be delivered. When James says that our soul will be saved, he likely is referring to our whole person, and not simply to some immaterial aspect of our being.

This verse, then, is a call to repentance—a life of continual repentance, which includes a decisive turning away from all the kinds of evil that characterised our pre-Christian life, and a humble, voluntary openness and submission to God through his word. This is not to be understood as a dour or joyless life, but as a life lived in accordance with God’s good and perfect purpose, a life, James will go on to explain, of liberty, generosity and moral integrity.