Context and Life (by Larry Baden)
A recent discussion began when someone read Matthew 4:17, where Jesus says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
There followed a conversation about repentance, especially the difficulty of maintaining a consistent attitude of repentance, and living accordingly. There were many stories of struggle, but, sadly, little mention of success. This doesn’t seem right to me. It is not God’s intent that we fail in living a life that honors him. This idea of repentance is a problem for most of us. The very word leaves us a little uneasy.
There are perhaps a couple reasons for this. First is our understanding of repentance. The what and how of it. The second is the reason and reference point for repentance. Why should we do it, and how do we know if we’re doing it right?
First, what is it? There are two related concepts in scripture, one Hebrew, one Greek. The Hebrew word is t’shuva, something like return or come back. Change the way you’re going. The Greek concept (metanoia) is more mental: change your mind.
Different at first glance, but they go well together and actually say the same thing: Before you can change your direction or turn around, you have to change your mind about the way you are going. So to repent is to change your mind about something with a resultant change of behavior.
Then there is the matter of a reference point, an essential for accurate understanding. We’re talking about context: the setting or surrounding of the word or statement. Only the surrounding defines meaning.
For example, if I say to three different people, “I like your new cat,” you don’t know what I’m talking about. And a dictionary will help you only to know what I might be talking about.
But if I give some context, the fog quickly lifts:
The first person is a young girl who loves her pet kitty. The second works at the local zoo, with lions, tigers and such. And the third is a heavy equipment operator on a highway project.
Obviously, the meaning is very different in each case. And our response to each of the three “cats” would be very different, as well.
So back to Matthew. Here, we could change one word without changing the meaning, and it might help us. So let’s change “for” to “because”: “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Now we see that Jesus was not only telling us to repent, but why. That makes some difference.
Context is something most of us give little thought, yet it’s a basic principle of our lives, and we seldom ignore it. We understand our language, our relationships, and indeed, the world around us by context, using the clues given to us by our surroundings. And the way we understand our world is a primary factor in ordering our lives and making decisions.
So, what’s the context of the exhortation to repent? Is there a compelling reason for us to change the way we see the world and our life in it? Yes. It’s because God’s kingdom is coming to earth. It’s coming here to stay, and over time to take over the entire earth. And more than simply “coming,” it’s because God’s kingdom is here. Now.
First John the Baptist and then Jesus said it over and again: The kingdom of God is here. The kingdom was a main thrust of the teaching of Jesus. And – here’s the mind-blowing part – God has chosen to include us in the plan. He has chosen to work through us, to designate us as his representatives here on earth. We are, using Paul’s term, “ambassadors,” official representatives, sent by Jesus to represent the kingdom of God in the kingdom of this world. He has chosen to entrust us with the good news of his appeal to the world.
“Us” is a big word. It includes me, and if you follow Jesus, it includes you, too.
Friends will testify that I am seldom at a loss for words. But as I consider this idea, I don’t know how to express what goes through my mind. When I think that God – the one true and living God, the God who speaks, the creator and sustainer of all that is – has chosen me for this most exalted of tasks, I don’t know what to say.
How can I possibly represent Jesus? I mean, look at him. Now look at me. If you hadn’t noticed, I’m a nobody. I really understand the response of Moses at the burning bush: Lord, this is too much. Find someone else. Yet as with Moses, God has been pretty clear about both his purpose and his instruction. How can I say no?
At the same time, how can I say yes? I am simply incapable of it. I am far from being up to the task.
But God isn’t impressed with my protestations, any more than he was with Moses’. As with Moses, God knows and has already considered my puny state. And he chose me anyway. Perhaps he chose me precisely because of my lack. Perhaps you, too.
So the context of repentance, in this and some other instances, is “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And it’s important because that kingdom is not something far off, somewhere when we all die. It’s here and now. It’s us.
Larry Baden is a former USAF weather forecaster, a college instructor, and a long-time Bible teacher. He is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary, and attends The Journey, in Saint Louis, Missouri. He spends most of his time working with his friends who are refugees from Burma. His blog is at www.theologywebsite.com.