The weekly sermon by a rabbi to his congregation is a comparatively modern custom. In earlier times a rabbi’s role was not pastor of a congregation, but spiritual judge of the community. He was expected to deliver rulings in Jewish law, not homilies. There were two exceptions—two Sabbaths when the rabbi would address the congregation.
The first was Shabbat haGadol, the Sabbath before Passover. At that time the rabbi would explain the intricacies of the dietary laws pertaining to the Passover season so that no one would transgress the law through ignorance.
The second was Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The rabbi would explain the meaning of teshuvah (repentance) and exhort the congregation to repent. He would take his text from Hosea 14:1:
O Israel, return to the Lord, your God, For you have stumbled because of your iniquity.…
As taught in the Hebrew portion of Scripture, teshuvah contains a positive as well as a negative aspect. Teshuvah means turning.” The negative aspect focuses on turning away from our sinful actions. However the positive aspect focuses on the concept emphasized in Scripture—turning to God. In repentance one seeks reconciliation with the Holy One.
In addition to turning, returning or repenting, teshuvah also has the connotation of responding or giving an answer. Teshuvah is our response to the realization of who God is and what He has revealed to us about His character.
In Yeshua’s parable about the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) He taught the meaning of sin, repentance and God’s love for sinners. The prodigal demanded his inheritance prematurely and went off to a distant country, where he lived wildly. He squandered one third of the wealth his father had saved throughout a lifetime. When a famine occurred, the young man had no resources left. Impoverished, humiliated, working as a slave to feed pigs, he was hungry. When he came to his senses he thought, “How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.'”
That is teshuvah from the sinner’s point of view. We see teshuvah from God’s point of view in the rest of the parable. While the young man was still a long way off, his loving father saw him, felt compassion for him and ran to embrace him.
The essence of teshuvah is found in the words of the young man when he said, “I will arise and go to my father.” Or in the words of the Hosea passage, “O Israel, return to the Lord your God.”
Repentance is a turn toward our Creator. It so conceived is the substance of Yeshua’s moral teaching and the purpose of our lives on earth. Repentance is the key to making sense of the Bible.
Teshuvah or repentance is a challenge to all of us. Whatever our failures were yesterday, nothing can stop us from turning completely to God today. The opportunity afforded us by teshuvah is an obligation we cannot safely pass by. We cannot write off anyone as unredeemable, because they may still repent. Because of repentance, we cannot write ourselves off. If we will turn to God, He can change us.
In 1978 Rabbi Wiener of Temple Israel in New Jersey brought a message so unusual that it was quoted in several Jewish newspapers around the country. He said that with all the attention in the media at that time about born-again Christians, he wanted to talk about the Jewish way of being born again—teshuvah. His statement was widely quoted. He came very close to the truth. The idea, which is mentioned in the Tanach and called teshuvah, is the root idea Yeshua developed when He said, “You must be born again.” However, the rabbi’s concept of teshuvah was not the concept of teshuvah that we find in the Jewish Bible. He saw it merely as a decision to live a more Jewish life and to do more good deeds .
In The Condition of Jewish Belief, Rabbi Wiener wrote, “Most often and basically, I think of the mitzvoth [good deeds] as the visible extensions of the Jewish soul. They are the means by which a Jew can connect himself with this soul and through this soul with the wellsprings of life, ultimate reality, God, or whatever you want to call it.”
No disrespect intended, but Yeshua did not come to bring us into a relationship with “whatever you want to call it.” The goal of repentance is reconciliation with a person—the personal, holy God who has revealed Himself in the Scriptures and in the Messiah Yeshua, not a mystical god or a god of our own imagination, however we choose to conceive him.
Repentance is not a New Year’s resolution to change this or that particular thing we do not like about ourselves. That would be a completely negative view of teshuvah. Repentance is a whole-hearted turning from self to the God of the Bible
Without faith in God, repentance in the biblical sense is impossible. Hebrews 11:6 says, “…he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” It doesn’t matter if your faith in God is as small as a mustard seed. God will receive you if you come to Him. But a New Year’s resolution, or a search for enlightenment, or an attempt to find “whatever you call it,” or a Jewish person trying to be more Jewish, does not constitute repentance.
First and foremost, true repentance as spoken of in the Bible is a positive step, not a negative one. It is an approach to God—our response to the reality of His person. Yet repentance does involve turning from sin.
This aspect is illustrated by the young man in Yeshua’s parable. When he came to his senses, he realized that his basic problem was not the famine, or that he had mismanaged his money. His basic problem, the root of all his problems, was that he had alienated himself from his father. If he had a right relationship with his father, his other needs would take care of themselves.
If we are going to turn from our sin, first we must realize the true seriousness of sin. Sin at its root is alienation from God. Its cause is our pride and self-will—our desire to live for ourselves and be our own god. The various actions we call sinful are merely manifestations of our condition of being sinners. The young man in the parable could never have demanded his inheritance from his father and left home if he had the slightest respect for his father’s feelings. Likewise, all the sins we commit show our basic disrespect for the honor of God. We commit sins because we are sinners. We commit acts that displease God because we are alienated from Him.
Sometimes people complain because God doesn’t take a more liberal attitude toward sin. They say, “If God is loving, why doesn’t He just overlook our sins? Why does He demand that we repent and receive Yeshua?”
Imagine this question in the context of Yeshua’s parable. What if, when the son demanded his inheritance from the father, that father had actually followed his son into the distant land? What if he had followed his son everywhere he went, just to be physically at hand in case his son needed anything? Would the alienation in that family have been in any way ameliorated? No. The son chose alienation, and there was nothing the father could do until the son chose to repent. God cannot reconcile us to Himself without our repentance. Unrepentance is proof that we do not want to be reconciled.
Do you want to believe that there will be stealing, lying or greed in heaven? Do you think there will be gossip and unkind speech in heaven? If we will not repent of these things, how can God receive us into His presence? Sin is the cause of our alienation. God could not remain righteous and have a different attitude about sin.
We cannot purge ourselves of our faults, but when we repent, we renounce our sin and allow God to begin to purify us. That is a lifelong work of repentance, which will only be complete when we get to heaven.
If not for the famine, that boy in the parable might never have been forced to face up to his wickedness. He might never have repented. It took physical hunger to make him realize that he needed to be reconciled with his father.
If I were that father, I might not be so compassionate. I might very carefully question the boy’s motives for returning. Yet this father gladly received his lost son, as gratefully as though he had received him back from the dead. Likewise, God is not too proud to receive a sinner who comes to Him with less than ideal motives. If a person comes to God because loneliness, distress, financial reverses or other trials have shown him his need, that person will forever thank God for the trials that brought him face to face with reality.
If life is comfortable and we feel no need to reach out to God, He may show us mercy by bringing famine into our lives. He may remove the things that distract us from dealing with what is truly important. He may bring us to the place where we realize that our most basic need is to be reconciled with Him, where we say as the prodigal did, “I will go to my Father and say, ‘I have sinned against You.'”
Some elements in the traditional Jewish High Holiday liturgy are very enigmatic. One, the Kol Nidre recited at the beginning of the Yom Kippur service, states that all of our promises of self-reformation are vain and worthless, and we ask forgiveness for our impulsiveness in making them. After this confession, you would expect that the tradition would offer us an alternative, but it does not.
The tradition does not know any alternative. The rabbis rejected the alternative of believing that the sacrificial principles of atonement taught in the Torah were fulfilled in the Messiah, Yeshua. Therefore there is nothing left but an attempt to do better. Yet a mere attempt to do better is not teshuvah. Saying we will do our best to change is a deception. We have trivialized that phrase. We really mean we will do whatever is convenient for us, whatever will ease our conscience. Few have any idea of what doing one’s best really could mean. Only when we place ourselves completely in God’s hands can He take over and show us what our best can be. Teshuvah is not self-reformation. Teshuvah means turning away from sin and toward the living God.
The third aspect of repentance is illustrated in the part of the parable where the son determines, “I will arise and go to my father and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants’.” The son determined to return to the father on the father’s terms. He did not return to gain favor while retaining his independence. Ready to be reconciled, he gave up any preconception as to what his relationship to his father would be. He trusted only in his father’s mercy.
Teshuvah is abandonment of self into the merciful hand of God. In the parable we see the father coming out to meet his son while he is still a long way off. When we seek to reform ourselves but ultimately retain control of our lives, God cannot come in and transform us. But when we completely abandon our lives to the mercy of God in Yeshua, we have the promise that God’s Spirit will come to live in us and give us the power to live a new life.
True repentance does not ask, “What am I prepared to do?” but “What am I prepared to let God do in me?” If there are any preconditions—things we will not allow God to do in our lives—if ultimately we wish to retain control while asking God merely to help us change certain things of which we are ashamed—we cannot expect His help.
Repentance means coming back to God without conditions. The prodigal completely abandoned himself to his father’s mercy. If he had dispatched a message asking his father to send cash, it would not have been repentance. He would have been using his father. Likewise, expecting God’s help to do what we want while we remain little lords in our own lives is not repentance.
It is more comfortable to observe a hundred rituals than to face our sin in all its ugliness and admit there is nothing we can do to earn God’s favor. It is much easier to be very religious than to repent in the biblical sense. To repent is to abandon ourselves totally to God.
God’s love for us is deeper than any human bond, and we owe Him our total selves in return. We may consider ourselves to be good, but if our relationship with God has broken down we are not good. Hopefully it will not require a famine in our life to help us see that we need teshuvah.
If we say in our heart, “I will arise and go to my father”—if we desire to be reconciled with Him more than we desire anything else, and without conditions—the good news is that the Father is already coming out to meet us!