So over the past two weeks I’ve been talking about repentance and what that actually means. In the first week, I took great pains to note that repentance is more than being “sorry” for something and requires, among other things, an admission of guilt; that is, we need to admit that we have done something we shouldn’t (or didn’t do something we should) and that we cannot change that fact.
Last week, I talked about the first mention in the bible of the word “repentance” given in the context of the temple dedication, there we are assured that God will respond to genuine repentance with forgiveness. I also noted that the issue of repentance was given in the context of a future exile, which I’ll come back to this week. This week, I’d like to begin by looking at the first New Testament use of “repentance.”
In each of the synoptic gospels, very early on we see John the Baptist calling out to the people to repent. Mark’s gospel (probably the earliest): opens (after telling you this is a Gospel) with a quote from Isaiah about the servant of the LORD, and then the picture of John the Baptist:
The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
–Mark 1:1-4 (NIV)
Likewise, Matthew, after the genealogy and early instances in the childhood of Jesus, cuts to John, whose first words are “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2). There, he is also identified with the same quotation from Isaiah. Even John’s Gospel has John the Baptist identifying as the voice. (see John 1:23).
Why am I making this point? Well, I could go on and talk about the relationship between baptism and repentance (though I think I’ll save that until I get to baptism), instead, I want to talk about the relationship between exile and repentance.
The passage from Isaiah is related to what we call the “servant songs” of that book. As a very brief overview of the book, the first 39 chapters of Isaiah are primarily geared toward the judgment of Judah. God has remained faithful to his covenant, and the people have ignored their obligations frequently. Thus, rather than outright abandon the covenant (which God could have done), God chose to hold the people to the covenant, which can only mean exile. The people have not followed the law in the land, they have not allowed the land to have its Sabbath rest, and thus God will ensure that it happens.
Then in chapter 40 of Isaiah, a shift occurs. The book moves from progressively harsher language of judgment and punishment to open chapter 40 with the word: “Comfort.” “Comfort ye, Comfort ye, my people” (forgive my King James rendering). So assured is the exile by the end of Isaiah 39, that Isaiah is given a message of hope for a people in exile. Yes you are in exile, Yahweh (the personal name for God) through Isaiah tells the people, but that exile is not the end. There is hope. The “servant songs” are poetic pieces in this latter half that speak of the servant of Yahweh (the LORD) who will bring the people out of their exile and return them to the land. The land, if you recall from the Old Testament, was the covenant promise first given to Abram/Abraham and that Moses was leading the Israelites into, and out of Egypt. The theme of the land can even be traced back to Genesis 1:1, which could be translated “In the beginning God created the universe” (which would include the earth) “and the land.” So the people are told they will be brought back to the land, which is to say they will restored in their covenant relationship with God, the relationship which was intended from the very foundations of the world.
There are a few ways to interpret the identity of the servant. The first is in the immediate historical context of the seventh century BC exile of Judah, in which case the servant is the historical figure Cyrus (see Isaiah 44:28). Second, one can understand the servant as the faithful of Israel. Third, one can take the servant to be Jesus Christ. I suggest that, really, two and three can be combined, but that’s another story altogether (where the Gospels generally, and Matthew in particular, demonstrate that Jesus embodies faithful Israel, in a way that the historical nation of Israel never could), and I won’t get too involved in that today.
At any rate, this particular passage from Isaiah 40 that is quoted about John the Baptist acts as a prelude, of sorts, to the servant songs. The servant is mentioned, yet in the context of the book, it is clear that the preparations that are being made are being made for the servant (if Jesus is that servant, then it really fits that John the Baptist is making the preparations). But why is there all this reference to exile? I thought that Judah was released from exile in the Old Testament?
Yes, on the historical face of it, Judah was released form exile to return to Jerusalem and build the temple. While in the intertestamental period they were briefly a conquered people again, they achieved a rather long period of relative independence prior to the Roman general Pompey marching in and taking the territory (almost completely unopposed). So why this talk about preparation to return from exile still, when the return already occurred? It is perhaps because “the land” or promise was never, genuinely, a geographic location. God had taken the presence of his glory away from Judah (Ezekiel 10), and this absence was deeply and intimately felt. The exile was over, but the people still felt the exile.
Thus the people still awaited the end to their exile. It became clear that the land of promise was not a geographical location, but an intimate covenant relationship, though it would one day encompass the whole heavens and new earth, once they were refined and made new. It is in this context that the people wait, hoping for the return of the Glory of God, that is his unique and overwhelming presence, and it was coming in the person of Jesus (see John 1:14, where the language is very carefully chosen). In order for this exile to end, though, preparation must be made.
Thus the message of John was a call to get the pathway ready. Making the desert highway straight. It is not geographic, but in the hearts of people that the path must be made straight. I’ll pick up there next week.
What do you think? What might it mean to think of repentance as the first step to ending exile? What does it mean to encounter the glory of God?