Jesus doesn’t want repentance. He wants metanoia.
Turn away from your sins, because the Kingdom of heaven is near!
After his experience in the wilderness Jesus went to the city of Capernaum in the territory of Galilee and began his ministry. Matthew says that, “From that time Jesus began to preach his message: “Turn away from your sins, because the Kingdom of heaven is near!”
The first thing I notice is that Jesus isn’t the first one to preach these words. Earlier, in Chapter 3, it says, “At that time John the Baptist came to the desert of Judea and started preaching. ‘Turn away from your sins,’ he said, ‘because the Kingdom of heaven is near!’” (Matthew 3:1-2).
These words, preached first by John the Baptist, and repeated by Jesus are a call for radical change. Both Jesus and John are calling on his fellow Jews (and everyone else) to step up their game and get serious.
So what does it mean to repent? Here’s the Webster’s definition: “to feel or show that you are sorry for something bad or wrong that you did and that you want to do what is right.” And what does it mean to turn away from your sins? What is sin? Again, turning to Webster’s, sin has three definitions:
- a: an offense against religious or moral law
- b: an action that is or is felt to be highly reprehensible <it’s a sin to waste food>
- c: an often serious shortcoming, a fault
Words like “sin” and “repent” have become toxic in our society and for good reason. These words have been used by the Christian establishment to condemn Christians and non-Christians alike. God wants us all to fully experience the true extent of our depravity, right?. He wants us to feel guilty because we are not perfect in God’s eyes and even, perhaps more important, in the eyes of others. To be a Christian is to live in a continual state of repentance, marked by regret, remorse, and shame! To repent is then to turn around, stop doing the bad stuff and start doing more good stuff, right? Stop breaking God’s laws, right? Especially things like sexual morality and substance abuse, right? Those are the main things that Christians seem to talk about, right?
However, when I look a little deeper, I find that the Greek word (used to translate the Aramaic word was actually spoken by both Jesus and John the Baptist) is metanoia. This is an extremely important word, which means “to change one’s mind or purpose.” The expanded definition according to Strong’s concordance, is “to change one’s mind, change the inner man (particularly with reference to acceptance of the will of God), repent.”
Change one’s mind? Change the inner man? So where is the guilt, regret, remorse, and shame part? Where is the behavioral modification component?
When I go to Wikipedia, I discover that people have been struggling with the proper translation of this scripture for a very long time. It seems that we have been misinterpreting what Jesus wants us to do. The prevailing wisdom is that the original word has been mistranslated into English and many experts are still struggling to come up with a way to convey the original meaning of the Greek. Here are some of the attempts to properly translate the word:
- In his age, Tertullian protested the unsuitable translation of the Greek metanoeo into the Latin paenitentiam agite by arguing that “in Greek, metanoia is not a confession of sins but a change of mind.” “Conversion” (from the Latin conversiōn-em turning round) with its “change in character” meaning is more nearly the equivalent of metanoia than repentance. Synonyms for “conversion” include “change of heart” and “metanoia.”
- In his age, Treadwell Walden sought to promote the proper meaning of metanoia as “change of Mind, a change in the trend and action of the whole inner nature, intellectual, affectional and moral.” over against its mistranslation as repentance. In the present day, other writers continue Walden’s effort.
- Edward J Anton refers back to Walden’s effort and makes a similar effort in his Repentance: A Cosmic Shift of Mind and Heart. Anton observes that in most dictionaries and in the minds of most Christians the primary meaning of “repent” is look back on past behavior with sorrow, self-reproach, or contrition, sometimes with an amendment of life. But neither Jesus nor John the Baptist is telling us look back in sorrow. For St Paul, “metanoia is a transfiguration for your brain” that opens a new future.
- Charles Taylor defines metanoia as “to change one’s mind of attitude” and builds his pastoral counseling method on the “metanoia model.” In doing so, Taylor recalls that the center of Jesus’ ministry was a call to metanoia.
- Robertson lamented the fact that in his time there was no English word that signified the meaning of the Greek μετἀνοια (metanoia). Merriam-Webster has remedied this deficiency by transliterating the Greek μετἀνοια into metanoia and borrowing it as an English word with a definition that matches the Greek: “a transformative change of heart; especially: a spiritual conversion,” augmented by an explanation of metanoia’s Greek source: “from metanoiein to change one’s mind, repent, from meta- + noein to think, from nous mind.”
In fact, even Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary has conceded that metanoia is a word that has no English counterpart. It defines metanoia as “a transformative change of heart; especially, a spiritual conversion.”
Jesus and John the Baptist don’t call us to either remorse or rehab. They call us to enlightenment. They call us to spiritual transformation. They call us to be re-formed, re-shaped, re-made, re-newed and re-born so that we might become what God created us to be. They call us to a deep, profound, inner change of heart and mind. It’s not becoming what we want to be, it’s about becoming what God wants us to be. It’s not about looking back, it’s about looking forward. Repentance is about critiquing and judging ourselves, but metanoia is about having our hearts and minds focused securely on God and allowing ourselves to be continually reformed and remade. He is the potter, we are the clay, the wheel keeps on spinning, and God’s finger gently reshapes us. (Isaiah 64:8). If we allow ourselves to become fixed, rigid, hard, and unyielding then God can no longer work with us. We need to remain soft, malleable. When we think we have everything figured out we are no longer in the metanoia state that Jesus commands us to enter into. And the pottery’s opinion of itself is irrelevant, along with the pottery’s opinion of others – so both repentance and judgment others are unproductive exercises.
Metanoia also gets rid of a “once and for all” mentality. I’ve been baptized once and for all. I’ve been confirmed once and for all. I’ve committed my life to Jesus once and for all. I’ve been baptized in the Holy Spirit once and for all. I’ve determined the will of God for my life once and for all. Instead, it’s about continual morphing, continual evolution, continual spiritual growth.
And what are we looking forward to? What does the Kingdom of Heaven look like? In these excerpts from Isaiah 65 the Lord describes his new creation:
I am making a new earth and new heavens. The events of the past will be completely forgotten. Be glad and rejoice forever in what I create. The new Jerusalem I make will be full of joy, and her people will be happy…There will be no weeping there, no calling for help. Babies will no longer die in infancy, and all people will live out their life span…Like trees, my people will live long lives. They will fully enjoy the things that they have worked for. The work they do will be successful, and their children will not meet with disaster. I will bless them and their descendants for all time to come. Even before they finish praying to me, I will answer their prayers. There will be nothing harmful or evil.
Sounds good to me. The Lord’s Prayer says, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This scripture says to me that the Kingdom of heaven is not somewhere we go after we die. It’s not about people sitting around on clouds after they die. Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is near. I believe that it is so near that you can see flashes of it breaking out all over the place.
Jesus calls us to metanoia, continual rebirth and a thousand new beginnings. Metanoia is not a “once and for all” thing. I’s about perpetual change. Metanoia is the key to knowing the will of God for our lives. God leads us on and we must follow, just like the Hebrews in the wilderness. We must be in a continual state of being awakened, reformed, surprised, and remade.
How do we get into that metanoia state of being? What does continual renewal look like? What is it like to be prepared to a good citizen of the Kingdom of heaven? How do things work in the Kingdom of heaven (aka the Kingdom of God)? What are the rules that govern this mystical place? I can tell you that I have read Matthew many, many times and so I know that Jesus will devote the rest of his life to trying to teach a reluctant mankind about the nature of these things.
I am now going to dive into this adventure, making an effort to forget about what I’ve been taught and look at the worlds of Jesus with fresh eyes. It’s a new day! Awake my soul and see the coming of the Kingdom! Shake me up right down to the depths of my soul and prepare me for the glorious future that you want to reveal to all of mankind. I want to see it happen. I want to help. I want to be a part of the mysterious Kingdom of heaven that’s perpetually coming and yet already here. Metanoia!!
What does this scripture say to you?