Biblically Based Repentance
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "If anyone sins and commits a breach of faith against the Lord by deceiving his neighbor in a matter of deposit or security, or through robbery, or if he has oppressed his neighbor or has found something lost and lied about it, swearing falsely - in any of all the things that people do and sin thereby - if he has sinned and has realized his guilt and will restore what he took by robbery or what he got by oppression or the deposit that was committed to him or the lost thing that he found or anything about which he has sworn falsely, he shall restore it in full and shall add a fifth to it, and give it to him to whom it belongs on the day he realizes his guilt. And he shall bring to the priest as his compensation to the Lord a ram without blemish out of the flock, or its equivalent for a guilt offering. And the priest shall make atonement for him before the Lord, and he shall be forgiven for any of the things that one may do and thereby become guilty." (Vayikra / Leviticus 6:1-7; ESV)
Recently I was reading the account of Yeshua's interaction with the chief tax collector Zakkai (commonly known as Zacchaeus - see Luke 19:1-10). Tax collectors were despised by the first-century Jewish community, since they were in the employ of the hated Romans to collect funds from their own people for these foreign oppressors. What made matters worse is that they often grew rich by extracting more than required.
It must have been scandalous for Yeshua to invite himself to Zakkai's home. There is nothing I can find in the story to suggest why the Messiah focused on him at that moment. What we do know, however, is the profound effect this had on this outcast. He repented. Right at that moment he determined to live differently by being generous to the poor, and if he had truly defrauded anyone he would give back to them four times as much. Yeshua's response confirmed the godliness of Zakkai's repentance: "Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham" (Luke 19:9).
I don't know if I have ever heard any one confirm the reality of salvation in a person's life based on their determination to take action as we see in this story. What Zakkai did looks a lot more like what God required under the Sinai Covenant than what is expressed in most so-called gospel preaching today. As I read earlier, God through Moses was clear as to what should happen when a person did the kind of thing Zakkai did: restoration followed by sacrifice. That Zakkai went beyond the restoration requirement only further demonstrates his change of heart, but his understanding of what to do once he was ready to admit his wrong was derived from the Torah of Moses.
Biblical repentance whether in the Hebrew Bible or New Covenant Scriptures is always the same: a change of heart intimately associated with a change of lifestyle. Deeds don't manipulate God. But if we truly humble ourselves before him, admit our need of him due to sin, and demonstrate willingness to submit to him, he receives us. Righteous deeds will always follow a truly humbled heart as the fruit of repentance. Even though what's going on in the heart is crucial, it is deeds that are the evidence of the internal reality.
What Zakkai did that day relates to what we read from this week's Torah portion not only with regard to his act of restoration. Moses commanded an offering as well. Zakkai likely didn't understand that Yeshua's statement of salvation to him was made effective by Yeshua's offering of himself which was yet to occur. While a change of heart and behavior are necessary elements of salvation, they in themselves do not resolve our alienation from God. Until Yeshua conquered death through his unjust execution and resurrection, repentance alone could not bridge the gap between humans and God. A sacrifice was always necessary to restore relationship with God. Moses commanded it; Yeshua fulfilled it once and for all.
Yet Yeshua's sacrifice as the final solution to our broken relationship with God in no way reduces our need to respond like Zakkai did. On the contrary as people reconciled to God, we should now seek to discern what pleases him (see Ephesians 5:10). Once of the ways we do that is by knowing the Scriptures. Zakkai was a sinner, but when he finally repented he knew what to do, because he grew up in a culture that knew God's Word. It's never too late to start learning.
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