“Now, therefore,” says the Lord, “Turn to Me with all your heart, With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” So rend your heart, and not your garments; Return to the Lord your God, For He is gracious and merciful, Slow to anger, and of great kindness; And He relents from doing harm. (Joel 2:12-13)
Today’s verse is a wonderful call to real repentance which contains the assurance of God’s love, grace, and mercy. It’s clearly a message of actively engaging in repentance, of a wholehearted commitment to the process of returning to God without holding back. But there is so much more here that is often overlooked if we focus only on the most obvious superficial message of the need to have heart repentance rather than the outward form of repentance. The deeper meaning points directly to Christ and the cross, and to the rending of the temple veil that separated the Holy of Holies.
Christ, the cross, and the temple veil help us to understand that rending the heart is repentance not regret.
This rich spiritual significance is the foundation on which the understanding of repentance is built. It is what determines whether repentance is real – of the heart – or is simply regret – outward. So, to understand this distinction, we must first dig deeper into the concept of rending. While it’s a fascinating study if you’re so inclined, a quick background will suffice for our devotional today.
The Jewish people had, in fact, 39 ‘rules’ which comprised the Law of Rending – when, how, and for how long this occured, and who was expected to do it. What is most significant is that there were four occassions which demanded the rending of garments: (1) death; (2) the apostasy of a member of the family; (3) the destruction, during persecution, of a copy of the Law; (4) blasphemy. It’s vital that we understand that death is the common denominator – in all other instances listed, the inherent understand was one of death. For example, in the case of the apostasy of a member of the family – turning away from the faith – they were effectively ‘dead’ from that point on. The rending of the garments was to signify mourning the death of one loved.
From this, we clearly understand that Keriah – the rending of clothes in mourning – covers both spiritual and physical or literal death. It is this context that defines the imagery of rending as an outward expression of an inward condition. The inward condition is always one of grief or mourning. This is the very nature of repentance – acknowledging our spiritual death in sin and mourning it from the heart. Repentance is always, first and foremost, an attitude of the heart. Outward signs, therefore, are irrelevant and can actually masquerade as ‘real’ emotion, masking a lack of true inner repentance.
So why, then, does the Bible provide us with so many examples of the rending of garments? Jewish laws are there for our instruction. This doesn’t mean that we are required to follow them. As Christians, our path is the liberty and grace of the cross. But they do reveal vital principles which help us to understand spiritual significance directly related to our relationship with God. This may seem confusing, but the custom and practice of Keriah gives us deeper insight into repentance or regret by revealing God’s heart in the matter.
It’s important to understand the ‘who’ of it. In physical death, direct family members only were expected to rend their clothing – fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, and spouses. Do you see the parallels? Keriah covers the death of a deeply personal relationship, and this in turn signifies not only our death in sin but the death of the relationship with God in all His complex interaction with His people. God Himself is the pattern for every human relationship, and in Christ, we are members of His family. Our death in sin is also the death of the ‘familial relationship’ with God on a spiritual level.
Over and over, the Bible teaches us the seat of our relationship with God lies in the heart. The Laws of Rending stipulate that the garment should be torn over the heart and to the heart, i.e. to the skin. The implication is that of bearing the heart, denoting a deep and genuine grief. This is fundamental to repentance. We must genuinely and honestly grieve our sin and fallen condition and the severing of our relationship with God. Regret is a human emotion, but it is essentially self-focused.
To understand the difference, let’s pause for a moment to look at Judas who, realising that he had betrayed Jesus, committed suicide. While his emotion was undoubtedly real, it manifested an entire focus on self. That is regret. Repentance has its focus on God, and regret has its focus on self. Repentance restores us to right relationship with God by bringing us into grace. Regret further separates us from God by turning our focus to self and so excluding us from working of grace.
Today’s verse illustrates this so clearly. Outward rending reflects the outward man with emotions that may be genuine but which are self-focused. Inward rending of the heart reflects the inward man with a spritual response. The question is whether we mourn our failing ourselves or whether we mourn failing God. Rending the heart is repentance not regret.
At this point, you’re possibly wondering where rending the veil comes into this. After all, Joel is talking about our response to God, isn’t he? This is the real beauty of the truth contained in the symbolic rending mentioned here – God mourns our ‘death’ with His eternal love and grief. How do we know this? At the death of Christ, He rent the veil in the temple. Remember, when Jesus hung on the cross, He was us. You and me, and the entire human race. It was not the Son of God – the glorified King of Heaven – who died on the cross. It was the Son of Man. His identification with us was so complete that, in that moment, His death was our death.
When God rent the temple veil, it was in His grief for our death. The Holy of Holies was the place in the temple where God’s presence dwelt. In other words, it was His heart – where His life ‘lived – and the veil was the outer garment that hid the heart. Of course, we cannot exclude the truth that rending the veil allowed access for all believers into the very presence – the heart – of God. That is the beautiful truth, the gift of grace, that genuine repentance brings. God has already made the way for us to enter into His heart providing that it is a heart rent by genuine repentance.
This is the critical truth that distinguishes between repentance and regret. Rending the heart includes God in a reciprocal, interactive relationship that brings grace and restoration. As we grieve, God grieves with us. Remember that the cross, and all it signifies, occurs in eternity. This doesn’t mean that it is repeated over and over like some kind of looped event that reoccurs constantly. What it means is that the truth of it constantly exists in every situation. The cross includes everything that happened in and around it, so the truth of the rending of the veil is also eternally constant. As we grieve in genuine repentance, so God’s eternal grief over us is a dynamic and reciprocal truth.
Jesus died once and for all. God grieved once and for all. As He rent His heart, which is symbolised in the rending of the temple veil, so we are called to rend ours. This spiritual rending of our hearts is the human response to the divine truth. Through it, we are able to enter into the place of grace. In Christ, God revealed His real heart, a heart that focused entirely on us and gave all. In Christ, we are able to reveal our real heart, to focus entirely on Him and give our all.
Rending the heart is repentance, not regret. If we can only grasp the magnitude of the Father’s grief for the ‘death’ of His children, the Husband’s grief for the death of His bride, how much more will we be drawn to the magnitude of His grace. It is a poignant reminder that in Christ, we are first called to die. The grace released in the cross requires that we die to self first. As we mourn what we truly are, as we share in the rending of God’s own heart for our sakes, we are able to enter the grace and the new life in all it’s fullness and abundance. To receive, we first must grieve.
Father God, thank You for revealing Your heart to us, not only through Your Word but through Your actions too. Help us to rend our hearts and not our garments, to live in the reality of our spiritual death and rebirth instead of outward responses. We do not deserve Your grace, but You have given freely and without measure. Help us to do the same, and to dwell in Your presence in the way that You have intended and provided for.