Surah Al-An’am (Surah 6 – Cattle, Livestock) tells us that we need to ‘repent’. It says
When those come to thee who believe in Our signs, Say: “Peace be on you: Your Lord hath inscribed for Himself (the rule of) mercy: verily, if any of you did evil in ignorance, and thereafter repented, and amend (his conduct), lo! He is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. (Surah Al-An’am 6:54)
What is repentance? Several ayat in Surah Hud (Surah 11 – Hud) tells us
“(And to preach thus), ‘Seek ye the forgiveness of your Lord, and turn to Him in repentance; that He may grant you enjoyment, good (and true), for a term appointed, and bestow His abounding grace on all who abound in merit! But if ye turn away, then I fear for you the penalty of a great day: (Surah Hud 11:3)
“And O my people! Ask forgiveness of your Lord, and turn to Him (in repentance): He will send you the skies pouring abundant rain, and add strength to your strength: so turn ye not back in sin!” (Surah Hud 11:52)
To the Thamud People (We sent) Salih, one of their own brethren. He said: “O my people! Worship God: ye have no other god but Him. It is He Who hath produced you from the earth and settled you therein: then ask forgiveness of Him, and turn to Him (in repentance): for my Lord is (always) near, ready to answer.” (Surah Hud 11:61)
“But ask forgiveness of your Lord, and turn unto Him (in repentance): For my Lord is indeed full of mercy and loving-kindness.” (Surah Hud 11:90)
Repentance is a ‘turning to’ Allah in confession. The prophet Yahya (PBUH) had much to say about repentance in the Injil which we look at here.
We previously saw that the Zabur was completed and closed by the Prophet Malachi (PBUH) who prophesied that someone would come to ‘prepare the way’ (Malachi 3:1). We then saw how the Injil opened with the announcement by the angel Jibril (Gabriel) of the births of the prophet Yahya (PBUH) and of the Masih (and he from a virgin).
The Prophet Yahya (PBUH) – in the spirit and power of the prophet Elijah
The Injil (Gospel) then records that after his birth Yahya (also known as John the Baptist – PBUH):
And the child [i.e. Yahya or John the Baptist] grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel. (Luke 1:80)
While he lived in solitude in the wilderness the Gospel records that:
John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. (Matthew 3:4)
Yahya’s (PBUH) strong spirit led him to dress in a rugged manner and eat wild food out of the wilderness. But this not just because of his spirit – it was also an important sign. We saw at the close of the Zabur that the Preparer who was promised to come would come in the ‘spirit of Elijah’. Elijah had been an early prophet of the Zabur who also had lived and ate in the wilderness and had been dressed with a:
garment of hair and had a leather belt around his waist.” (2 Kings 1:8)
So when Yahha (PBUH) lived and dressed in the way that he did, it was to point out that he was the coming Preparer who had been prophesied to come in the Spirit of Elijah. His dress, and his living and eating in the wilderness were signs to show that he came in the plan foretold by Allah.
The Injil – placed firmly in history
Then the Injil tells us that:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Luke 3:1-2)
This statement commences the prophetic ministry of Yahya (PBUH) and it is very important since it marks the start of his ministry by placing it next to many well-known rulers in history. Notice this extensive reference to rulers of that time. This allows us to historically check much of the accuracy of the accounts in the Gospels. If you do so, you will find that Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas and Caiaphas are all people who are known from secular Roman and Jewish historians. Even the different titles that are given to the different rulers (eg. ‘governor’ for Pontius Pilate, ‘tetrarch’ for Herod, etc.) have been verified as historically correct and accurate. This allows us to make the assessment that from a purely historical point-of-view this was reliably recorded.
Tiberius Caesar ascended the throne of the Roman Empire in 14 AD. So this being the 15th year of his reign means that Yahya received messages starting in the year 29 AD.
The message of Yahya – Repent and Confess
So what was his message? Like his life-style, his message was simple, but direct and powerful. The Injil says that:
John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:1-2)
So part of his message was the pronouncement of a fact – that the Kingdom of Heaven was ‘near’. We have seen how the prophets of the Zabur had long before prophesied the coming of the ‘Kingdom of God’. Yahya (PBUH) was now saying that it was ‘near’ at hand.
But the people would not be prepared for the Kingdom unless they ‘repented’. In fact, if they did not ‘repent’ they would miss this Kingdom. Repent comes from the Greek word “metanoeo” which means “to change your mind; reconsider; or, to think differently.” But what were they to think differently about? By looking at two responses of the people to Yahya’s (PBUH) message we can learn what it was that he was commanding that they should repent from. The Injil records that the people responded to his message by:
Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. (Matthew 3:6)
You may remember in the Books for the Sign of Adam, how after they ate the forbidden fruit Adam and Eve:
‘hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden.’ Genesis 3:8
Ever since, this tendency to hide our sins and pretend that we have not done them is very natural to us. Confessing and repenting of our sins is almost impossible for us to do. We saw in the Sign of the Virgin’s Son that Dawud (PBUH) and Muhammad (PBUH) would confess their sins. This is very difficult for us to do because it exposes us to guilt and shame – we would prefer to do anything else but this. But this is what Yahya (PBUH) preached that the people needed to do to prepare themselves for the coming Kingdom of God.
Warning to the religious leaders who would not repent
And some did indeed do this, but not all honestly admitted and confessed their sins. The Injil says that:
But when he [Yahya] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3: 7-10)
The Pharisees and the Sadducees were the teachers of the Law of Musa. They were the most religious and worked hard at keeping all the observances (prayers, fasting, sacrifices etc.) commanded by the Law. Everyone thought that these leaders, with all their religious learning and effort were the ones who for sure were approved by Allah. But the prophet Yahya (PBUH) called them a ‘brood of vipers’ and warned them about the coming Judgment of fire! Why? Because by not ‘producing fruit in keeping with repentance’ this showed that they had not really repented. They had not confessed their sin but were using their religious observances to hide their sins. And their religious heritage from the prophet Ibrahim (PBUH), good though it was, had made them proud rather than repent.
Dawud’s confession as our example
So we can see from the warnings of Yahya that repentance and confession of sin is vitally important. In fact without it we will not enter the Kingdom of God. And from those warnings to the Pharisees and Sadducees of that day we can see how easy and natural it is to hide our sin in religion. So what about you and me? This is recorded here as a warning for us that we also do not stubbornly refuse to repent. Instead of making excuses for our sins, pretending that we do not commit sins, or hiding them we should follow the example of Dawud (PBUH) who when he was confronted with his sin prayed in the Zabur the following confession:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.
Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. (Psalm 51: 1-12)
Fruit of Repentance
With confession and repentance came an expectation of living differently. The people asked Yahya (PBUH) how they should demonstrate the fruit of their repentance and this is how the Injil records this discussion:
“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:10-14)
Was Yahya the Masih?
Because of the strength of his message, many people wondered if he was also the Masih. This is how the Injil records this discussion:
The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them. (Luke 3:15-18)
The Prophet Yahya (PBUH) came to prepare people so that they would be ready for the Kingdom of God. But he did not prepare them by giving them more Law, but rather by calling them to repent from their sins and to confess their sins. In fact this is harder to do than to follow more guidelines since it exposes our shame and guilt. And it was the religious leaders of that day who could not bring themselves to repent and confess their sins. Instead they used their religion to hide their sins. But because of the choice they made they were unprepared to receive the Masih and understand the Kingdom of God when he came with his message. This warning of Yahya (PBUH) is just as relevant to us today. He demands that we repent from our sins and confess them. Will we?