What Do You Mean, "Repent?"
By Jonathan Mitchell
John the Baptist preached, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Mt. 3:2, NASB).
Later, Jesus proclaimed, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" (Mt. 4:17, NRSV; NIV is similar for both verses).
These were both public proclamations. But what was the idea of this admonition to the people of Judea in the first century?
Webster defines "repent" as, "to feel sorrow, remorse or regret for one's past conduct; to be penitent; to remember with compunction or self-reproach; to experience such contrition as to amend one's way of life; to have a change of mind about a past action."
This has been the traditional idea regarding the meaning of the "repent" in the preaching of evangelical Christianity since the time of the Reformation. But, was this what either John or Jesus had in mind when they were preaching?
Dr. Ann Nyland, in The Source NT, renders both John's and Jesus' statements, "Change your minds! Heaven's Realm is close!" My own translation of 3:2 reads,
"You folks be continuously and progressively changing your thinking - change your perceptions, attitudes, frame of mind, mode of thought and understanding, and turn back [toward God], because the reign of the heavens (the expression and effect of kingdom rule which has its source in the atmospheres; the activity of exercising the sovereignty which exists being the heavens; the reigning [of the King] which pertains to the heavens; the kingdom which belongs to and comes from the atmosphere; the influence of the sovereignty which is the heavens) has approached and is now near at hand and is close enough to touch (= has arrived and is now accessible)!"
A study of the Greek verb "metanoew" instructs us that the folks listening to John and Jesus would have heard these words with both the meanings that I have given in my rendering of this verb, plus the traditional connotation from the messages of the prophets to Israel, "convert yourselves and turn back toward Yahweh."
But the reason for doing this was because of the nearness of the kingdom and reign of heaven. The situation was changing, and they needed to change their thinking, their attitudes, their perceptions, their frame of mind, their mode of thought and understanding, and their expectations. And this was a corporate message and a public matter affecting the whole people - not just individuals and their personal morals or holiness. As J. Behm points out as to how John used this word, It "advances in the ancient prophetic summons for conversion," but also "it stands under the urgency of the eschatological revelation of God" (TDNT, vol. 4, p 1000).
The arrival of the Messiah with His death, burial and resurrection, was to change everything - affecting all of mankind and the entire universe. Christ came preaching new wine, and it had to be put into new wineskins: they had to change their thinking (or: wineskins) about the expected Messiah and His reign among them.
Later, Jesus told His disciples,
"Truly, I am now laying out my thoughts and saying to you that no longer, under any circumstances, can I (may I; would I; should I) drink from out of the product of the grapevine - until that day, whenever I can drink it (or: constantly drink it) new in quality and kind, within God's reign as King (or: in the midst of the kingdom of God; = the realm of God's activities, influence and way of doing things)." - Mk. 14:25
He was ending the old, and as Paul informs us,
"the original things (the beginning [situations]; the archaic and primitive [arrangements]) passed by (or: went to the side). Consider! New things have come into existence!" - 2 Cor. 5:17b
A change in perspective and way of thinking had to happen. Furthermore, using a different metaphor, Jesus had also told folks,
"No one usually sews a patch of an unshrunk shred of cloth upon an old and worn out cloak (coat; outer garment). Yet, if [he does], is not the filling-result (the [patch] that fills up [the hole]) progressively lifting up away from it - the new (fresh) one from the old one - and a worse split-effect (or: tear; rip) is gradually happening?" - Mk. 2:21
In 1 Cor. 5:7 Paul referred to the covenant community as "a new lump [of bread]." In Col. 3:10 he admonished folks to,
"[be] suddenly clothing yourselves with (or: entering within) the new [humanity] (the fresh one which existed only recently), the one being continuously (or: repeatedly; habitually; progressively) renewed (made new again, in kind and character) into full, accurate, added, intimate and experiential knowledge and insight which is down from and corresponds to the image of its Creator."
The people of Judea were being told that changes were coming, and they would soon find out that with the new arrangements there would be:
no more flesh boundary markers making distinctions between people groups - and the Gentiles were now included in the covenant
no more temple sacrifices
no more celebrations of the annual feasts or distinction of days
no more nationalistic thinking with its attending prejudices
no longer a kingdom belonging to the rich, but belonging to the poor and the outcasts.
The new would be composed of folks being admonished to seek the low positions, and the great ones would now be the folks who served others.
The change that came with the resurrection of the Messiah was much bigger than concerns about personal failures, guilt, bad habits, addictions, etc. It was about the arrival of the kingdom - the new creation - which made old things of the former age pass away. It brought freedom. It brought the Spirit. It brought Life. It brought grace: "the act producing happiness, which is granted as a favor" - Jim Coram. It brought a new relationship with God that required a change of thinking for both Jews and Gentiles. It brought us the Second Humanity, the New Being.
This, then, is the cup that we drink - the cup in which we participate, the bread that we are, and the life that we are called to lead. If we have not yet done so, let us repent - change our minds and our way of thinking - for God's reign is close enough to touch and is available for us.
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