Word Study #6 — “Repent” does NOT mean “Grovel!”

Nearly thirty years had passed since all the wonderful events recorded in the introductions to Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of the ministry of Jesus. After so long, did even the participants begin to wonder if it had all been just a beautiful dream? That can happen so easily, when hope is long deferred. Did anyone remember the prophecies, the promises, the wonder of those days?

Then, suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a strange figure appeared at the edge of the Judaean desert, reminiscent of the prophets many centuries before, both in his rather scruffy appearance, his odd behavior, and his compelling, unequivocating message.

Metanoeite!” he thundered. “The promised Kingdom has arrived!” English expositors have rendered that command, “Repent!”, and subsequently distorted it into a demand for repetitive, coerced assent to the sentence of guilt that they have concocted against their target audience. Oddly, neither Jesus, nor John, nor any of the later messengers, associated that call, either with violations of any list of forbidden thought or behavior, or with any convoluted connection to Adam and Eve in the garden. The word they chose was much more vital than either. Interestingly, it appears only 34 times in the entire New Testament, but the idea is pervasive.

Metanoeite, a present imperative form, never carried any implication of “I’m so sorry I was naughty — I must be a terrible person!” or “oops! I was caught!”. Metanoeite indicates a total and radical change of one’s mind / orientation / behavior / purpose — and results in a complete transformation of life. It represents a shift of focus from one’s former, self-centered concerns to a singular focus on the ways and goals of the Kingdom. Such a transformation takes a while — thus the use of the present tenses. Remember that the present tense, especially in the imperative mood, indicates a sustained, not punctiliar action. But that the results are expected to be seen in one’s behavior was well understood. This is obvious in the question posed by John’s listeners: “What shall we do?” Look at the description of his interviews in Luke 3:10-14.

–People in the crowd are expected to share food and clothing with those who lack either.

–Tax collectors are to quit cheating!

–Soldiers are forbidden to do violence to anyone!

Not a word is said about what they were supposed to “believe”!

And although the word appears very rarely in Paul’s writings, (as a verb only once, and as a noun four times), the understanding and expectation clearly persisted in the early church, as evidenced by the exhortations to the churches of Revelation. The folks at Ephesus are urged (Rv.2:5) to return to the loving behavior they had exhibited at the beginning; those at Pergamon (2:16) and Thyatira (2:22) to turn from the idol-worship they had come to tolerate; those in Sardis (3:3) to return to the way of life they had adopted at their conversion; and in Laodicea (3:19) to quit bragging about their financial prosperity and return to their dependence on the Lord’s provision. These expectations echo Jesus’ own statements, when he compared the responses of various groups to his message, with comparable historical situations — see Matthew 11:20-21 and 12:41, and parallels in Luke 10 and 11, and also Lk.13:3-5. It is behavior — “lifestyle” if you prefer — that is addressed in every situation: and metanoeite requires an all-encompassing change.

The noun form, metanoia, occurs only 24 times, and presents similar expectations. Both John (Mt.3:8 and Lk.3:8) and Jesus (Mt.9:13, Mk.2:17, Lk.5:22) insisted upon observable evidence of one’s having made a change, as do Peter and Paul in sermons and epistles. Consistently, metanoia refers either to a person’s initial ceding of his life to the Lord’s control, or to a major course-correction by a person or group that had (either deliberately or inadvertently) turned away. In either case, again, a drastic change of direction is in view.

A new Kingdom was being inaugurated — one with markedly different norms of behavior and citizenship from the prevailing culture — of the first, and every subsequent century! I have dealt with some of these counter-cultural issues in greater detail in an earlier volume, Citizens of the Kingdom, 1993.

The call, “metanoeite” constituted, in essence, an invitation to citizenship in Jesus’ Kingdom, which he was creating for the purpose of demonstrating the original intentions, and the transforming power, of God. The whole of the New Testament is intended as a “user’s manual” for Kingdom living!

Perhaps the most significant reference, in light of present day teaching and practice, is found in Hebrews 6:1. Metanoia — traditionally translated “repentance” — (I have chosen to use “a changed life”) — heads the list of “foundational” things that, the writer urges, once established, need to be “laid aside” in order to move on to maturity! Not abrogated; not denied; definitely assumed, but nevertheless laid aside, no longer the primary focus. Why then are committed followers of the Lord Jesus constantly berated — and in liturgical circles, continually expected to repeat profuse apologies and pleas for “forgiveness” (another needed study)– about an assortment of supposed deliberate offenses against God — none of which could possibly be a part of a life that had truly changed direction! The same writer does have some very sobering things to say about turning one’s back on the gracious gift of life (Heb.6:4-7), but quickly adds (v.9) that such behavior is not assumed among the faithful!

I submit that continually groveling in one’s supposed “sinfulness” constitutes a denial of the life-changing grace of God! True, at the point of initial commitment, we have not instantly reached maturity. We have been born into a new life, which needs to grow and develop. We may even stumble, or fall flat on our faces, like children learning to walk. But we are expected to be headed in the direction our Lord has indicated, urging and helping one another along the way (Heb.3:12-14.)

“Repentance” and “forgiveness” are NOT the sum total of the gospel message, as is implied when an “accredited official” needs to pronounce the audience “forgiven” at every meeting, and to state that this “news” represents the “gospel” that they are to “believe.” That is only the beginning of the message. Jesus’ invitation is to participation in the work of his Kingdom — to life the way he created it to be lived — in company with all the others he has called.

Metanoeite! Continually engage in the process of changing life to conform to his pattern! With the Spirit of the Lord enabling the Body of Christ, it can be done!

Metanoeite!! Reject the Accuser, recognizing that it is he who insists that you are “not worthy”. Turn to the Redeemer, instead, who has said that you ARE (Col.1:12)!

Metanoeite!! Stop groveling at the gate! Stand up on your feet, and with thanksgiving, join the triumphal procession of the King!

2 Responses to Word Study #6 — “Repent” does NOT mean “Grovel!”

  1. […] a bunch of things I need to get written and no time to write, but you guys have got to check out my Mom’s latest article on repentance. It’s related to all the sin and atonement and kingdom stuff we’ve been talking about. […]

  2. that’s a great word… thanks for sharing.

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