Many years ago a famous writer A.W.Tozer penned a book with the title, “Worship, The Missing Jewel Of The Evangelical Church.” It was a challenging book and led to changes being made in church services and in church life and personal lives in many churches around the world. Perhaps it might be time for another book with the title, “Repentance, The Missing Jewel Of The Christian Church.” Certainly, there is a loss of emphasis on repentance in many denominations and churches worldwide. That is surprising when we consider the accounts of preaching in the New Testament.
It may be helpful to look at some of the major words used for repentance in the New Testament. The first word is the Greek word translated as “repent” [metanoéō, μετανοέω] with the associated noun “repentance” [metánoia, μετάνοια]. The basic meaning is seen in the components to the word. The “meta” is a preposition meaning “ with” or after”. The “noia” is derived from “nous” meaning mind, reason or intellect. So “to repent” can mean to have an after-thought, or to change one’s mind. It can mean a change of mind accompanied by a change in direction, a change in behaviour.
The other word used in the New Testament that has some bearing on the meaning of repentance is the word [stréphō, στρέφω meaning “to turn”] and its derivatives, especially [epistréphō, ἐπιστρέφω].
JOHN THE BAPTIST PREACHED REPENTANCE
A change in behaviour was obviously what was in the mind of John the Baptist as he began his preaching. His clarion call to the people of his day was this, Mat 3:2 “Repent [metanoéō], for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” How did his hearers respond? Mat 3:5 “Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins”. Repentance involved confession of sin in order to be forgiven. Both Mark and Luke record that he preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3.
But that confession of sin had to be sincere. When some of the Jewish leaders of the day came to see what was happening he challenged their insincerity. Mat 3:7 “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” John the Baptist was looking for a change in their behaviour. To rely on their status was insufficient. Mat 3:9 “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham”. An eventual time of judgment by the coming Messiah, Jesus, would see the recognition of good fruit [wheat] and the destruction of what was not good, [the chaff.] Mat 3:12 “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
In many ways John the Baptist was preparing the way for the coming King but it must have been a shock to the religious leaders of the day that he expected them to repent and be baptised as well. Luke records these tragic words about those leaders who were not willing to repent, Luke 7:30 “But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him”. Failure to repent = a rejection of the purpose of God! Repentance is obviously very important in the sight of God!
JESUS PREACHED REPENTANCE
Jesus, after His temptations in the wilderness, began his ministry, Mat 4:17 “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” He too expected change in the behaviour of those who witnessed His miracles and heard His teaching. If they failed to repent then they were guilty in His sight, Mat 11:20 “Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent.” He emphasised their guilt by comparing them with those in the past who had not turned to God from their sin, but may have, had they been given the greater opportunities the present generation had been given, Mat 11:21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” Greater opportunities always bring with them, greater accountability
Jesus contrasted the positive response of the people of Nineveh who repented at the preaching of Jonah with the lack of response to His ministry from His hearers, Luke 11:32 “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” He taught about the necessity of repentance in very strong terms, Luk 13:3 “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.’ AND Luk 13:5 ‘No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
True repentance on the part of one person can lead to rejoicing in heaven. As Jesus said, Luk 15:7 “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” AND Luk 15:10 “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” On the other hand His people were to believe those who came to them saying that they had repented of their sin against them, Luk 17:3 “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, 4 and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” It takes a lot for people to repent so any expression of repentance is to be taken seriously. Jesus’ ministry was directed, as He said, not to those who felt no need to repent but to those who admitted they were sinners, Luk 5:32 “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance .”
During His ministry Jesus sent out His 12 apostles with a message of repentance, Mar 6:12 “So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent.” The hearers were meant to respond to the message that God’s kingdom had come in Jesus. After His resurrection Jesus told His disciples what their message should be. He linked repentance with forgiveness of sins. They were to preach Christ as the One in whom forgiveness of sins could be obtained through repentance. Luke 24:45 “Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” But did His disciples fulfil that commission? We will see in another article that they did! Before we do so we look at the other words we mentioned especially [strepho, στρέφω and epistréphō, ἐπιστρέφω both meaning to turn]
Other words associated with aspects of repentance
In Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, Zechariah was told by an angel that Jesus would have a God-given role in bringing many Israelites to God, Luk 1:16 “And he will turn [epistréphō] many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn [epistréphō] the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” His ministry would “turn hearts“ and they would respond to God.
However not everyone’s heart would be turned to God through His ministry. Not all would repent. Some would have hardened hearts which would be resistant to His message, Mat 13:15 “For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn [epistréphō], and I would heal them.” However in a similar passage in John 12:40 a different word is used. “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn [strepho] and I would heal them.” Their healing was dependent on their turning to God. They had a choice. They were accountable for their choices.
Jesus warned them later that entrance into the kingdom of God was also dependent on their humbling themselves and turning to Him, Mat 18:3 “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn [strepho] and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The turning to God in these cases involved a decision on the part of the hearers to humbly respond to the message Jesus preached, an aspect of repentance. There needed to be an ongoing repentance in believers which meant that they would not turn back from God.
Jesus warned Peter that Satan was trying to bring him down. Peter would soon after deny Jesus but Jesus had prayed that his faith might not fail. He would turn again after those denials and become a strength to his fellow disciples, Luke 22:32 “but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Turn is [epistréphō.] It would be a turning back to his role in strengthening his fellow disciples. Which of course he did.
What all these passages are saying is that repentance is a choice we humans need to make. We need to change our minds about living our lives in our own way and turn to God to live our lives in His way. In doing so we to receive His forgiveness for our sins and also the gift of His Spirit who can enable us and empower us to live life in God’s way. We will go on to examine what that involves for all of us, but it obviously means active involvement in our relationship with God and not passive detachment from Him or from His plan and purpose for us! More on that soon!
Blog No.224. Jim Holbeck. Posted Monday 24th July 2017.