What is the background and meaning of “repentance” as used in the gospel accounts? The word is traditionally understood from within an ethical framework: cease from sinful activities or lifestyles and begin to live morally upright and virtuous lives. But perhaps Jesus’ (and the Baptist’s?) call to “repentance” should be understood primarily from within an eschatological, rather than ethical, framework. The difference is subtle but important. A study of the relevant Old Testament texts is crucial here. And one strand that comes out is the question of the nature of the repentance being a corporate activity versus an individual activity. Thinking of repentance in ethical terms misleadingly implies isolated individual activities. But perhaps repentance is meant to be understood as a corporate activity having quite different implications. In other words, the call to repentance means what it means within the overarching announcement of the return of YHWH and the dawning of the kingdom of God.
One interesting text related to this is Jubilees 1:13-18. The book is dated from about 150 B.C. so it is a fitting text to demonstrate the way some Jews in the Second Temple period thought about repentance. In this passage, the audience of the book of Jubilees lives long after the time of Moses but is being reminded that not only their exile was predicted by the scriptures but also their national repentance, and it will serve an eschatological purpose. Notice how the predicted repentance serves as the catalyst for the end of exile and construction of the new sanctuary/temple (see bold text):
Jubilees 1:13-18 — And I will hide My face from them, and I will deliver them into the hand of the Gentiles for captivity, and for a prey, and for devouring, and I will remove them from the midst of the land, and I will scatter them amongst the Gentiles. And they will forget all My law and all My commandments and all My judgments, and will go astray as to new moons, and sabbaths, and festivals, and jubilees, and ordinances. And after this they will turn to Me from amongst the Gentiles with all their heart and with all their soul and with all their strength, and I will gather them from amongst all the Gentiles, and they will seek me, so that I shall be found of them, when they seek me with all their heart and with all their soul. And I will disclose to them abounding peace with righteousness … and they shall be for a blessing and not for a curse, and they shall be the head and not the tail. And I will build My sanctuary in their midst, and I will dwell with them, and I will be their God and they shall be My people in truth and righteousness. And I will not forsake them nor fail them; for I am the Lord their God’ — R. H. Charles, ed., Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913), 12.
As VanderKam rightly summarizes, “Some future generation, presumably that of the author [of the Book of Jubilees], must receive this message of God’s faithfulness, Israel’s infidelity, and the power of confession, repentance, and obedience to the covenantal stipulations to open a new day in the covenantal relationship between the Lord and his holy people” — James C. VanderKam, “Jubilees, Book of,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1031.
This is not to suggest that there is no ethical importance to repentance, merely that it is not the theologically load bearing element of the concept. Repentance, as a national and religious phenomenon, was meant to result in so much more than a new generation of morally upright people; national repentance was expected to result in the end of exile, the return of YHWH, and the rebuilding of the temple—in short, repentance was the advance sign of the fulfillment of all the glorious prophetic promises in Israel’s scriptures. Repentance was therefore eschatological.
So when Mark tells the readers of his gospel that “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mark 1:4-5), Mark is tapping into exactly this eschatological matrix of hope. Or, to put it another way, there is a reason that Matthew says “John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Matthew 3:1-2). Repentance has eschatological import.