Repentance! It’s a time for making a life-changing turn in our lives, admitting and stopping our sins. We attend classes on repentance. We hear sermons on repentance. We pray for forgiveness and the strength to put our sins behind us.
But we hear about repentance all the time–maybe to the point that even during a time when it’s mentioned more than usual, it’s nothing more than a word. As we know, repentance requires action that marks a major change in our lives.
In the Old Testament, the people of Israel were told to repent, repent, repent, repent. Sometimes they did, and sometimes not. Even when they did, they often returned to their old ways. And were told to repent again.
In the New Testament, we hear about the need to repent from John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul, and other New Testament writers. John the Baptist kicks it off by declaring: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:2 (NIV) This call for repentance was repeated by Jesus in Matthew 4:17.
Repentance is a form of humility. I’ve done something wrong. I must change. I can’t make it on my own. I need God, his Son, and his Holy Spirit.
In the Old Testament, there were outward signs of one’s repentance and humility. Prophets spoke of these signs: “Put on sackcloth…and roll in ashes…” (Jeremiah 6:26) In Daniel 9:1-6, Daniel prayed and fasted in sackcloth and ashes and confessed: “We have been wicked…we have tuned away from your commands.” And if you want to read an entire book of the Bible about repentance and its signs, consider Ezra.
Sackcloth was a very rough fabric made of goat’s hair. Ashes were, well, ashes. Both were meant to convey humility and a commitment to repentance. Those kinds of signs are mentioned infrequently in the New Testament. (See Matthew 11:21, Luke 10:13, Revelation 6:12 and 11:13.) John the Baptist’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, not as scratchy and rough as sackcloth, but a sign of humility.
Will we don sackcloth and sit in ashes? Maybe not publicly but in a private place. (Matthew 6:16-18) Or there could be another symbol we use: a cross, Bible, a post-it-note to which we awaken each morning–some kind of sign just for ourselves. It reminds us. It can call us back when we stray. A symbol of a covenant between us and God.