Mark 1:14-20: A Practical Repentance
In a recent New York Times editorial piece, a columnist complains about the shifting allegiances of a particular Republican candidate who the day before had set aside his aspirations to be the next president in order to throw his support behind the frontrunner in the primaries. Apparently, at least as far as this editorialist was concerned, it was nothing less than the height of hypocrisy and the betrayal of one’s dearest ideals to criticize a competitor in the primaries only then later to align oneself with the former rival.
On reading the piece, I confess to being rather perplexed. After all, I thought to myself, this is just what politicians do. They hold positions and attach themselves to certain individuals one day, only to repent for practical purposes of political survival. Of course, when the shift entails a principle self-contradiction, this should raise questions. On the other hand, it would be the rather foolish politician who consistently and inflexibly refuses to take into account political realities as they are. Except for the most starry-eyed idealists among us, we generally make room for practical repentance. Sometimes our convictions, practices, and social affiliations need to be adjusted in light of changing realities.
When we read passages like Mark 1:14-20, perhaps we may be forgiven for concluding that God seems to be calling us to something entirely impractical, that is, something that sits completely askance to reality as we know it. Jesus calls four adult men and they follow without a moment’s hesitation by leaving everything familiar behind. If we were to do the same, it would mean – at least for most of us – not our leaving behind a fishing business, but forsaking various pre-commitments and familiar dependencies. Translating the call of the disciples into our own lives, we imagine what such a cutting of ties would look like and suddenly we find ourselves in a terrifying free fall. Faced with this imposing claim on our lives, we are tempted to soften the impact, to say, “Well, that is not what it really means. God could not be asking that of me!” Too often at this point, we close our Bibles and go back to our all-too-familiar paths free from divine interruption. On one level, the call of Jesus recurs unnervingly in the direction of human impracticability.
At the same time, paradoxically, the repentance which God offers is a very practical repentance. To be more exact, when Jesus says, “Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15), he is not speaking to us in a vacuum nor is he expecting us to respond as if we were in a vacuum. Instead, if we look at the famous story in Mark 1:14-20 more closely, we see that Jesus is issuing his call to repentance and discipleship within the context of certain redemptive-historical realities. When it comes to responding in repentance to the Word of God, these objective realities, the very trajectory in which God has placed us, become the scaffolding of our repentance. In short, repentance – exchanging one way of life (with its bundle of convictions, practices, and affiliations) for another – is only finally sustainable with reference to our whole life story, that is, our past, present, and future.
First of all, when Jesus calls his disciples to repent and follow him, this means a decisive break from the past. Not just the past of the individual disciples, but Israel’s past. This is clear from v. 15, where Jesus says: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news.” The Greek word kairos behind our English translation “time,” together the heavily freighted verb “fulfilled” (peplōrētai), surely indicates that Jesus is announcing the termination of exile, in accordance with Daniel 7:21-22. If exile meant a condition in which the beast would pounce on the saints and successfully wage war against them (Dan 7:21), then the end of exile coincided with these conditions being reversed, the Ancient of Days pronouncing in favor of God’s people, and finally their coming into their rightful place in the kingdom of God (Dan 7:22). Thus the phrase, “The time is fulfilled,” is not so much a way of saying, “It’s time to get cracking.” Rather it is to say that the appointed period of oppression, deprivation, and marginalization has run its appointed course.
But what exactly does the end of exile have to do with repentance? Well, in the first place, since the law and the prophets consistently affirm that the restoration of Israel would coincide with God’s people acquiring newly responsive hearts (Deut 32:36-43; Jer 31:31-34; Ezek 36:24-32), then the announcement of the end of exile meant that God would bring about conditions that would make repentance possible on a widespread and recognizable scale. Israel’s God was about to stir in an unprecedented way and the individual failure to respond appropriately to this divine movement would eventually be taken into account.
For us today this means taking sober stock of our own conditions of exile. The catalogue of covenantal curses (Lev 26:14-46; Deut 28:15-68) are not for pleasant reading; much less are they the kinds of things any of us who like to experience. But to some degree or another, we all experience the curses of the covenant as a kind of negative compass point for our lives. Of course a great number of the unpleasantries and sufferings which we experience in life have absolutely nothing to do with any choices we have made. But, by the same token, at least some of our sufferings are the result of our own prior choices, or the result of systemic sin in which we have eagerly participated. Sin and its consequences have, whether to a large extent or small, shaped our existence.
But here’s the good news: Jesus has declared an end to Israel’s exile and by extension our individual exile as well. The time of our sinning and its consequences has been completed. Whereas for a time that sin might have served to define us, because of Christ it defines us no more. For the one who says, “It’s no use. I love my sin and can’t leave it,” Christ says, “The time of sin, cursing and exile has run its course. It’s over. You’re done with all that now.” Because of this new reality uniquely wrought in Christ, Jesus can come to us with the realistic command: “Repent!”
But we must also take stock of what is taking place in the present as well. Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is near” (v. 15). It is near now! What does that mean? Why, that means that God is not only reversing the conditions of exile, but that he is also actively about the business of taking up his rightful place as Lord of the universe. Of course, Yahweh the Creator has always been Lord of the universe but when Jesus speaks of the coming of the Kingdom, he means that God is about to exert his divine presence in an unprecedented and palpable way.
In our own experience as Christians, we realize this promise through our reception and on-going experience of the Holy Spirit. Where God rules, there also the Spirit rules over our inordinate passions and fallen thinking. Since we have the promise of the Spirit, and with Him the promise of renewed and renewing obedience, we can respond to Jesus’ call of repentance with confidence that God himself will make good on our intentions to follow Him. So while responding appropriately to the Word of God really is out of our reach humanly speaking, it is God who gives us the power to obey. We repent knowing that the kingdom has come, and since it has come in the power of the Spirit, we know that our repentance is not in vain.
Finally, there is a future aspect to Jesus’ announcement. This become very clear in Jesus’ summons: “Come, follow me, and I will make you into fishers of men” (v. 17). Granted, to come “after me” (opisō mou) is no easy thing; as we learn soon enough from Mark 8:33-34, there are high stakes in the “after-me” (opisō-mou) life. But the promise is one of future transformation. We notice from the Greek that Jesus does not literally say, “I will make you fishers of men” but rather “I will make you to become (genesthai) fishers of men.” Stated otherwise, Jesus does not promise to turn his disciples magically and at one stroke into fishers of men, rather he promises to create conditions whereby they might progressively take on their destined role of evangelists. The narrative which follows outlines the path by which these same would-be fishers of men actually become fishers of men. Followers of Jesus today can participate in the same.
The exciting implication here is that repentance is not essentially a negative movement (“Don’t smoke, drink, or chew or go with girls who do”), but a positive one (“Repent … and I will make you to become fishers of men!”). Many of us struggle with letting go of personal sin not because we remain to be convinced of sin’s misery (most of us are somewhat convinced of that much already). Rather the problem we face is in wondering where we shall land after we do let go. Psychologically speaking, it is extremely difficult to repent into a vacuum. God knows that and that is why He has provided in his Word a gripping vision of who we can become under the powerful shaping influence of the Risen Christ.
In the end, as scandalous as this may sound, the repentant Christian is not altogether different from the politician who shifts his allegiances on the basis of shifting realities. When Jesus of Galilee came proclaiming the kingdom, he announced the coming of Yahweh’s kingdom and that he himself was the unchallenged frontrunner for the role of long-awaited messiah. By summoning his disciples to throw in their support with him, he was not asking them to play the hypocrite but ultimately to be true to their own true selves. In a world of static realities, any change of mind must be seen as hypocritical. But the world in which God has entered, changing one’s mind is the only appropriate response. In fact, it is the height not of human hypocrisy but of human genuineness. Repentance too, if it is to be lasting repentance, must land on the map of our past, present and future. Anything less is simply impractical.
Dr. Nicholas Perrin is Franklin S. Dyrness Professor of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.