This one is for the nerds out there! Especially if, like me, you want to understand your faith and to know how it plays itself out in everyday life. I can get stuck on religious words that we never use in ordinary life – it’s hard to know what they even mean! I don’t want a faith that only makes sense in a religious setting but doesn’t have any real world application.
Jesus main message sounds great until you try to understand it: ‘The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in me’, he said. (or ‘trust in me’, or ‘have faith in me’ depending on the translation) Lovely stuff! Pithy and inspiring! But, actually, also kinda meaningless, without a little more context to interpret most of those words!
You may have already heard me rave about the kingdom of God! I do that frequently, so if you haven’t you can be sure it’ll come up again! But I have less to say about what it means to ‘repent and believe’. It’s tricky to have a practical understanding of what that phrase means in the 21st century. I’m not often asked to ‘repent’ in work, after all! So I was delighted to find the story below, in a book by NT Wright, earlier in the year. He is drawing from the work of Josephus, a Jewish writer from around the time of Jesus. This anecdote comes from Josephus’ autobiography ‘Life’:
In AD 66, Josephus went to Galilee to sort out some fighting between factions there. A local brigand chief plotted to kill Josephus. Josephus foils the plan, meets the brigand and tells him that he will let him away with his actions if the brigand will ‘show repentance and believe in him’.
There is nothing ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ going on here. It is all very practical: ‘repentance’ in this case means abandoning (turning away from) his own revolutionary plans, and ‘belief’ means trusting Josephus to have a strategy that is more likely to be successful. It’s a nice, practical, down to earth definition of what those words would mean to a 1st century Jewish audience!
Josephus uses the same terms again a few more times – both in the context of persuading rebels / revolutionaries to lay down their arms and to join him. The ‘repentance’ part involved turning away from a course of action, and the ‘belief’ part involved throwing their lot in with Josephus in the hopes that his method for achieving political goals would be more successful.
At the time I read this, the US was getting ready for the next round of electing a President. There were about 10 candidates for the Democratic Party nomination. Obviously only one was going to succeed, and so one by one, over the next few weeks, candidates came to the realisation that their platform did not have enough support, and was not going to be successful. So, they suspended their campaigns, ultimately all ending up supporting the one candidate.
Or, in the language of Josephus, they repented and believed in Joe Biden!
Not of course, the language we choose to use to describe the process, but entirely consistent with the way Josephus used it.
So, back to Jesus (and me). How do I interpret Jesus’ call on me to ‘Repent and put my trust in him’?
If it is something along the lines of:
I suggest that Jesus is saying something more like: ‘You have constructed a life around yourself, and you have plans that you hope to carry out, but these will not lead you to what will be truly fulfilling. I want you to put all of that to one side, turn your back on it, and instead throw your lot in with me. Trust me that my plan for the world is the one that will actually come about, and prove your loyalty by pouring your energies into the things that I ask of you.’
That’s the starting point for a practical real-world mission. Throwing my lot in with Jesus involves, firstly, learning from him so that I know his plans for my life and for the world. Then it involves my time and energies.
The call to faith means that I’ve thrown my lot in with him, after all. I’m not just watching from the sidelines.