Repentance is a central aspect of the faith and life of those who follow the Lamb of God wherever he leads. I recently heard a Christian speaker leave the impression that repentance was an experience basically designed for the non-Christian or the very marginal Christian. As we will see, this is patently false from John’s perspective. Furthermore, if preached at all, the idea of repentance in the contemporary North American church often focuses too narrowly on the idea that it entails the changing of one’s mind about who Jesus is rather than the necessity of altering one’s behavior. The behavior of Christians is so very important to Jesus, that five of the seven letters in Revelation begin with Christ pointing out to believers that “I know your works” (Ephesus, 2:2; Thyatira, 2:19; Sardis, 3:1; Philadelphia 3:8; Laodicea, 3:15).
The reason that John’s message about repentance was so challenging to his day as well as to the contemporary Christian is that it casts the net very widely and covers even a lot of believers who have positioned themselves in their own minds beyond the need of repentance. Second, John’s message includes not only what one thinks about Christ, but equally important how one necessarily behaves because of what he thinks about Christ. John Calvin (Commentary on Isa. 55) caught the spirit of repentance not only in its necessary role in salvation, but in its role as a necessary part of the believer’s life.
Hence we infer that the doctrine of repentance ought always to accompany the promise of salvation. . . . And indeed no man will sincerely desire to be reconciled to God and to obtain pardon of sins till he is moved by a true and earnest repentance. . . . Thus repentance embraces a change of the whole man. . . . And if any man boast that he has been changed, and yet continues to live as he formerly did, it will be vain-boasting; for both are necessary, conversion of the heart and change of life.
John the prophet had not been infected with the later misconception that his messages were only given in order to assure Christians about their future victory, “who wins in the End.” This prophetic message had a more subversive purpose to it, both for ancient and modern congregations. John’s message of repentance had to be addressed to an entire congregation like Ephesus (Rev. 2:5) and not only to a handful of backsliders among it, for we learn that its very existence was dependent upon its decision to change its behavior (2:5, “do the deeds you did at first or else”). To another congregation of believers (Pergamum) Jesus demands “repent, or else,” with threats that he himself will come “to make war agains them” (Rev. 2:16). Unrepentant Pergamene Christians will be looking down the wrong end of the same sword that Christ promises to use against “godless heathens” later in the book (compare 2:16 & 19:15, 21). In the congregation at Pergamum Christ wanted to see greater intolerance in their behaviors toward pagan practices. These believers who had already changed their behaviors toward polytheism when they became Christian also had to start being intolerant toward other Christians who were still too sympathetic toward pagan religious and social practices (Rev. 2:14-16). It is certainly subversive to the surrounding culture’s values and to some Christians to affirm that at times Christ accepts nothing less than intolerance from his followers.
The prophet John writes at a time when these seven churches are living in a world of dynamic and pervasive polytheism, evident not only in traditional religions but also the worship of the Roman Emperor. Yet, with all theses “godless heathens” in the vast numerical majority, it is primarily believers and not the non-believers who are told to repent. Five of the seven congregations in Roman Asia are commanded to repent. In addition to Ephesus and Pergamum, forceful messages of repentance were necessary for Thyatira (2:21-22), Sardis (3:3), and Laodicea (3:19). There is a total of 8 occurrences of this word in two chapters of Revelation addressed exclusively to believers, while repentance is mentioned only four times in association with the “godless heathens” in the numerous remaining chapters of the book (Rev. 9:20, 21; 16:9, 11).