John the Baptist, the divinely chosen herald of Christ’s first coming, came preaching a message of repentance: “Repent,” he urged, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). Jesus, too, called for repentance: “From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 4:17). The apostle Paul went to the Jews and Greeks alike “preaching the kingdom of God,” a message of “repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21, 25).

Notice how, in each case, the call for repentance is linked to the message of the Kingdom of God. Note also that the statements above are summaries of the things John, Jesus, and Paul preached. This is most revealing. It tells us that the call to repentance is at the heart and core of the Kingdom message.

Jesus touched on many important subjects in His famous “Sermon on the Mount,” and illustrated truths about the Kingdom of God through scores of parables. Yet, interestingly, Matthew summarizes Jesus’ preaching ministry with a single line: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In truth, all that Jesus taught relates to repentance and the Kingdom in one way or another.

Repentance and the heirs of the Kingdom

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus expounds the characteristics of the heirs of the Kingdom: They are not given to anger, violence, or pride; they mourn the injustices of society; they long for fairness and justice; they are merciful; they eschew immorality and perversion; and they are willing to endure hardships of every sort rather than compromise what they know to be right (see Matthew 5:1–12). Heirs of the Kingdom are called upon to acquire these qualities, but obtaining such qualities is not possible for the impenitent. Repentance is required.

The whole of the Sermon on the Mount concerns the question of what one must do to enter the Kingdom of God. It provides an overview of the changes of mind and conduct heirs of the Kingdom are required to make: They hold God’s law in high esteem (5:17-20); recognize that sinful acts such as murder and adultery begin in the heart and sometimes require radical preventative measures (5:21–30); honor divinely ordained institutions such as marriage (5:31-32); highly value truthfulness (5:33–37); are always willing to put aside grievances and bear extra burdens in order to turn bad relationships into good ones (5:38–48). They closely examine their own motives and priorities, seeing to it that in all they think and do they “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness…” (6:33).

Such qualities of character are rarely seen in today’s world. They are the fruit of the radical commitment known as repentance.

Parables of the Kingdom

Many of Jesus’ “Kingdom parables” (parables that illustrate the Kingdom of God through some common activity or situation; “the kingdom of heaven is like…”) focus on the necessity and true nature of repentance.

In the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24–30), the Kingdom is compared to “a man who sowed good seed in the field.” The story involves a man who sows a field with wheat, and an enemy who comes by night and sows tares among the wheat. When the grain sprouted and produced a crop, it was discovered that tares were mingled with the wheat. The owner of the crop instructed his servants to let the wheat and tares grow together until the harvest, at which time the wheat will be gathered into a barn and the tares will be burned.

Jesus interprets the parable this way:

He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the tares are the sons of the wicked one. The enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels. Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age. The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear (Matthew 13:36–43).

The “tares” are those who “offend” and “practice lawlessness.” Lawlessness means “without law.” The tares disregard God’s law. They display a spirit diametrically opposite of repentance. The “wheat,” on the other hand, represents the “righteous.” The Psalmist declares, “For all Your commandments are righteousness” (Psalm 119:172). The righteous, then, are those who keep God’s commandments. They are the ones who have turned from sin and to obedience. Like the “good seed” that produced a good crop, they produce “works befitting repentance.”

In the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21–35), the kingdom of God is compared to “a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants” (verse 23). One servant, unable to pay his debt, begged the king for mercy, and the king responded by forgiving the man his debt. The servant then went out and refused to extend the same mercy to a man who was indebted to him. In the end, the unforgiving servant was delivered to the torturers “until he should pay all that was due to him” (verse 34). The primary lesson for us appears in verse 35: “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.” But there is also a lesson here about the nature of true repentance. Genuine repentance is not mere self-pity; it is both a change of mind and a change of behavior. It involves recognizing that the recipients of mercy are doubly responsible for being merciful.

When a person truly repents of his past offenses against God, and casts himself on God’s mercy, relying wholly on His compassion and accepting His provisions for salvation, then that person can know in his heart that his sins have been forgiven. If his repentance is real—from the heart—and not mere self-pity, then he will be impelled (but not forced) to extend to others the same mercy he has received. That’s the way true repentance works.

Other Kingdom parables similarly illustrate the principal components of repentance. The parable of the wedding feast (Matthew 22:1–14), for instance, stresses the importance of responding positively to God’s invitation and accepting His provisions for salvation. The parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14–30) urges diligence and faithfulness in carrying out the tasks God has assigned to us. These are the actions and qualities of the repentant heart, and the stories urging these actions and qualities are “Kingdom parables” because no one will enter the Kingdom without a heart attuned to and conditioned by the will of God as expressed in His commandments.

It’s easy to see why Jesus’ message is summed up in one line: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!” The good news of the Kingdom is a message of repentance.