Word of the Week
January 15, 2022
Metanoeō: How Big a Turnaround?
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
The word repent has fallen out of fashion. For many, it evokes the image of a fanatic hauling a signboard down the street with warning of impending doom.
The 70s movie Love Story popularized the phrase, “Love means you never have to say you’re sorry.” No one enjoys admitting, “I was wrong,” and it is even more painful to announce, “I repent.”
Repentance, however, is built into the language of the Christian message.
John the Baptist showed up at the Jordan River to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). With his eccentric attire and diet, he might have been disregarded like the street-corner preachers carrying signboards.
However, Jesus began his ministry with the same message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matthew 4:17).
Repentance was the keynote of Christ’s kingdom message, so I need to understand something about repentance. We can begin by becoming familiar with the Greek word He used.
Both John and Jesus used the word metanoeō in their ringing announcement of the kingdom. It appears over 30 times in the New Testament, most often in Matthew, Luke, Acts and Revelation.
Most Bibles translate it consistently as “repent.” But what does that mean?
To an ancient Greek philosopher, metanoeō might be simply an intellectual matter, changing your point of view about something. If your previous opinion was harmful, you might feel emotional regret. But that is as far as it went.
In the Greek Old Testament, the meaning runs deeper. When a prophet calls on Israel to repent, he demands a drastic change in behavior, not just rephrasing opinions or expressing feelings of regret.
God expects more than the pragmatic regret described by Francois de La Rochefoucauld: “. . . not so much remorse for what we have done as the fear of the consequences.”
What is repentance in the New Testament?
Metanoeō means an about-face that involves the whole person.
- It may start with a mental response to the truth – acknowledging the fact that sin is wrong and Christ is worthy of our allegiance. But it doesn’t stop there.
- Repentance involves an emotional response to the truth. When we see the depth of our sin, it is inevitable that we would have an emotional response. Different personality types express sorrow differently, but the abrupt reversal involved in repentance will surely generate some strong feelings.
Matthew 11:21 and Luke 10:13 – Jesus said that repentance for the pagan cities of Tyre and Sidon would have repented with sackcloth and ashes, the external expressions of remorse.
- Repentance results in changed behavior. Like faith, genuine repentance makes a difference in the way we live.
Acts 26:20 – The apostle Paul explained that his ministry had a clear goal: telling both Jews and Gentiles that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance.
Notice that the same verse uses two verbs to describe the reversal of directions involved in salvation:
Repent – turning away from sin
Turn – turning toward God
Who needs to repent?
- Unbelievers need to repent. Revelation describes the stubborn sinners who refuse to repent even in the middle of the most disastrous judgments from God (Revelation 9:20-21; 16:9-11). If you want a relationship with God, you have to stop running away from Him and turn toward Him.
Note: This is more than just resolving to live a better life. None of us are capable of living up to God’s standards. Repentance means you turn toward God in faith, abandoning your own efforts to save yourself and throwing yourself on His mercy, accepting the salvation that Christ offers
- Christians also need to repent – not to gain salvation but to experience intimate fellowship with our Lord. Jesus instructed five of the seven churches in Revelation to repent (Revelation 2:5, 16, 21-22; 3:3, 19). Whenever I get off the track, repentance puts me back where I belong.
Repentance goes against our grain. Rosario Butterfield describes it well:
One very difficult aspect of sin is that my sin never feels like sin to me. My sin feels like life to me, plain and simple. My heart is an idol factory, and my mind is an excuse-making factory.
Repentance is not for the fanatic on the street corner. It is for the one who remembers all my deepest desires are met only in Jesus and I am a fool to wander away from Him.
The word metanoeō occurs occasionally in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint), including Jeremiah 18:8, 10. Here God says that He may “repent.”
“If the nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will metanoeō concerning the calamity I planned to bring against it.”
And if God speaks a word about blessing for a nation, but “if it does evil by not obeying my voice, then I will metanoeō the good which I had promised”
Obviously, this word does not always mean “to turn from sin to God.” This is an example of the fact that words have multiple meanings. You have to look at the context to determine the meaning in a particular verse.
Q – When Satan tempted Jesus, each of his temptations began with the words “If you are the Son of God.” Was the devil really trying to get Jesus to doubt His role as God’s Son?
A – No, that wasn’t the point of the temptations. In Greek, there are four ways to say “if,” depending on the form of verb used. In Matthew 4, Satan used the form that meant “If you are the Son of God – and you are.” Both Jesus and Satan knew exactly who He was. Assuming that to be a settled fact, the devil tried to persuade Christ to sidestep the Father’s plan and act independently. It’s a variation on the theme that got Adam and Eve in trouble – not blatant rebellion, but the assumption that they could devise their own plan and set God’s plan aside.
Matthew 5:48 says that God commands us to be “perfect.” How discouraging! Next week we will look at the word “perfect” to see if the Lord is really requiring something impossible.
©Ezra Project 2022