Though the word gospel has different connotations today, and none of them Jewish, I assure you the gospel of Jesus is a Jewish message. Gospel, as part 1 explained, is a middle English word translating an ancient Greek concept: a message of life and hope delivered by a messenger, usually in a time of fear and war. The gospel of Jesus is found in full form in Mark 1:14-15:
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.”
The idea of times or epochs being fulfilled is a concept straight from the pages of the Jewish prophets. The kingdom or rule of God, which is neither a time nor a place, is practically the core message of the Hebrew scriptures. The gospel of Jesus is a Jewish message indeed.
In this fourth installment, we come to the key word, “repent.” There could hardly be a more Jewish idea. Repentance is embodied in the Torah, Psalms, prophets, and the life and teaching of Jesus. It is also a major theme in Judaism since the time of the Bible.
“Great is repentance,” said Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish, “which converts intentional sin into unintentional.” This is a subject worthy of study and focus on its own. The sacrifices of Leviticus and of Numbers 15 are said to be for unintentional or inadvertent sin as opposed to high-handed sin. We would all despair of ever hoping to know God’s love had the Torah (and the rabbis) not clarified that repentance is what turns an intentional sin into a sin of straying (cf. Numbers 5:5-8, for example).
Jesus certainly agreed. In his example, a major sinner and an upright religious man prayed to God. The major sinner beat his chest and confessed that he was unworthy while the upright religious man thanked God for not being a major sinner. It was the repentant man who was forgiven, while the relatively righteous but unrepentant man had at least temporarily cut himself off from God (Luke 18:9-14).
“Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds,” said Rabbi Yaakov, “than the entire life of the World to Come.” This deliberately scandalous saying is meant to drive home a simple, insightful truth. In the World to Come there will be no repentance since there is no sin. The one who desires reward in the life to come needs to practice repentance now.
Yet perhaps the most telling Jewish expressions of repentance come from the prophets and Jesus’ interpretation of their words as he mediated interactions between sinners and religious leaders.
There is a persistent theme in the prophets which values obedience above worship, humble acceptance of God’s rule over elaborate shows of prayer, fasting, sacrifice, and giving. The theme is so common, I will give only a few examples from many.
In Isaiah’s first chapter, God asks Israel who commanded them to carry on these feasts and sacrificial ceremonies? God says they are nauseating. Of course the reader knows that God is the one who commanded the ceremonies. So something intriguing is going on. A careful read indicates that the problem is not prayer or sacrifice or God-ordained feasts, but the way the people are doing them. They are following all the commands for worship, but their hearts are not with God and obedience is less common than a leopard without spots.
In Micah’s sixth chapter the prophet sarcastically portrays the people suffering under God’s national judgment shaking their fingers at God and asking, “What do you want from us, rivers of olive oil, thousands of rams, my right arm?” God’s response is a well-known classic, “No, all I ever asked was that you walk humbly, love faithfulness, and pursue justice in the land.”
Hosea, in his sixth chapter, has a similarly surprising twist, “I desire faithfulness, not sacrifice.” (Note: Most translations say mercy and the Hebrew word is notoriously hard to capture in English).
The grandfather of all these passages, however, is in 1 Samuel 15, where the prophet says to the clueless King Saul, “To obey is better than sacrifice.”
This prophetic theme has everything to do with repentance, which is the prerequisite to obedience and humbly walking with God.
Jesus not only preached repentance, but he elevated it and demonstrated it in relationships. This was not because Jesus sinned, which he didn’t, but because he welcomed sinners.
Jesus has a consistent critique for the religious leadership of his day. His critique is that they are missing the essential ingredient for speeding God’s kingdom. Some think they can bring the rule of God by making the temple worship grand (Sadducees). Some think they can bring it by violent revolution (Zealots). The most popular group thinks they can bring it by enforcing increasingly stringent practices circumscribing the Torah (Pharisees) and even eliminating heretical groups from the land (Paul in his early days as a Shammaite Pharisee).
When some from the Pharisees criticize Jesus’ disciples for plucking and eating grain on the Sabbath (a practice not directly in violation of Torah since the principle is eating and not harvesting), Jesus says, “And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7).
Jesus’ response to these critics bears investigation. It might seem that the root idea is mercy and the lack of which is exhibited by the Pharisees in criticizing hungry Jews picking grain to eat on the Sabbath. But this interpretation misses completely the original meaning of Hosea 6:6, which I am sure Jesus did not miss at all.
Jesus was accusing these particular Pharisees of fumbling the Torah football, of hitting wide of the mark. Their concern for matters of tertiary vigilance against any encroachment of Torah disobedience was straining gnats and swallowing camels. While these Pharisees were busy decreeing that hungry people might not eat food readily available on the Sabbath, the disciples, by contrast, were doing the right thing. They had recognized and were following God’s representative on the earth. They were speeding the coming kingdom while these Pharisees were contributing to its inevitable delay.
A related theme in Jesus’ teaching was that the kingdom would not come by violent revolution. This is not because Jesus opposed righteous war, which is in the Torah. It is because Israel’s problem was not the domination of the Romans, but their own failure to repent and believe.
The rule of God would not come by religious cleansing or by violent revolution. It would come by repentance. As in the days of the judges, Israel was dominated by foreign powers by virtue of faithlessness. The faithful ones who responded to John the Baptizers message and to Jesus’ were the real revolutionaries.
Repentance is the cornerstone of the gospel. Our modern age has seen an emphasis on faith without repentance. Jesus’ own age saw an emphasis on scrupulous Torah vigilance without repentance.
Jesus’ Jewish message of good news calls out to us, “Repent and believe.”