Monday, July 4, 2011

Zechariah and Biblical Repentance

"The Lord was very angry with your fathers. Therefore say to them, Thus declares the Lord of hosts: Return to Me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. Do not be like your fathers, to whom the former prophets cried out, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds.’ But they did not hear or pay attention to me, declares the Lord. Your fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live forever? But My words and My statutes, which I commanded my servants the prophets, did they not overtake your fathers? So they repented and said, 'As the Lord of hosts purposed to deal with us for our ways and deeds, so has He dealt with us.'"
- Zechariah 1:2-6

The Prophet Zechariah shared the ministry with the Prophet Haggai in the period immediately following the return of the Jews to the land of Israel after their exile in Babylon. In a curious aside, archeologists may recently have found his tomb!

As I have noted before, repentance is a prominent theme among the writings of the Jewish prophets. When I consider the claim of classical dispensationalists that the Gospel isn't found in the Old Testament, I often wonder whether they are reading the same Bible that I am. But I digress...

Matthew Henry paraphrases verse 2, "Turn you to me in a way of faith and repentance, duty and obedience, and I will turn to you in a way of favour and mercy, peace and reconciliation." I think Henry brings out the essence of repentance: it isn't merely a sorrowing over one's sins, though that is part of it, but rather a change of course, a turning away from one's old path to a new path in fellowship with God. The Westminster Confession of Faith, in the chapter on Repentance unto Life, states it wonderfully (XV:2): "By it a sinner, out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature and righteous law of God, and upon the apprehension of his mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, so grieves for, and hates his sins, as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavoring to walk with him in all the ways of his commandments."

Zechariah illustrates where Judas failed to repent. The story is told in Matthew 27:3-10. In verse 3, we see that Judas "changed his mind." But what does he then do? Plead for the forgiveness of God and the disciples? No, as verse 5 tells us, he committed suicide. In other words, Judas certainly sorrowed over his sin, but he didn't depart from it to walk in a new way. That is what distinguishes his sorrow from repentance.

Returning to Zechariah, we see that God has punished the forefathers of the prophet's audience, and this remnant acknowledges the justice of God's judgment (verse 6), a step that Judas failed to take. Then in verse 12, a new character appears, the Angel of the Lord, who pleads, "O Lord of hosts, how long will you have no mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, against which you have been angry these seventy years?" Along with most orthodox readers, I consider this Angel to be the preincarnate Second Person of the Trinity, because He is frequently addressed alternatively as the Lord Himself. Here, He intercedes on behalf of Jerusalem, acting in His role as Mediator. This is another essential difference between sorrow and repentance: true repentance relies on the intercession of Jesus Christ, the Mediator. Repentance doesn't restore or create holiness; rather, it serves as a step in applying the imputed righteousness of Christ, which alone restores our standing before God the Father.

Then in verses 16-17, Jehovah responds to this intercession: "Therefore, thus says the Lord, I have returned to Jerusalem with mercy; my house shall be built in it, declares the Lord of hosts, and the measuring line shall be stretched out over Jerusalem. Cry out again, Thus says the Lord of hosts: My cities shall again overflow with prosperity, and the Lord will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem.’"

Here are the steps that Zechariah shows for true repentance: sorrow for sins, a new path of obedience (not that this can be done infallibly, since the person is still a sinner), dependence on the intercession and imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ, and a restored relationship with God. Leaving out any step necessarily overthrows the reality of the others.

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