Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Ephesian believers in Acts 19 and John’s baptism to repentance

The next use of a “repentance” word in Acts is in Acts 19:4. In this passage, though the word is used, the behavioral content of repentance is not directly in view:

1 While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul, having passed through the upper country, came to Ephesus, and found certain disciples. 2 He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They said to him, “No, we haven’t even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 He said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” 4 Paul said, “John indeed baptized with the baptism of repentance (metanoias), saying to the people that they should believe in the one who would come after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Acts 19:1-5 (WEB).

On the one hand, John told the people he baptized that they should believe in the one who came after him, Jesus. This is the central focus of this passage. These disciples of John the Baptist were told of Jesus, believed and were baptized. On the other hand, Paul clearly tells them that John’s baptism was a “baptism of repentance.” While this is not the focus of the passage, it accurately references the central message of John—that they must repent, because the Kingdom, represented by the King Himself, was near. As has been shown in a previous post, when John told the people to repent, he very much had in mind changed behavior, and a changed way of life.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Burning Cultural Bridges: Paul in Athens, Acts 17:22-30

The next passage containing a “repentance” word is a little more difficult to explain in terms of a fundamental change of behavior. It is also, by nearly all commentators’ estimates, central to a proper understanding of evangelism in a Gentile-dominated world, although there are extreme differences between commentators regarding what it implies for evangelism. Thus, this passage demands care and attention to understand exactly what Paul was trying to say. Moreover, Paul’s statement in verse 30 that God now commands all people everywhere to “repent” is at the heart of his message. It appears, at first, to be speaking only of a change of beliefs. However, for the reasons discussed below, more than mere belief is involved—the command Paul proclaims is that his hearers must repent of their worship of their self-made gods and their own philosophical ideas and worship practices surrounding them. Stated a little differently, he is commanding them to repent of creating gods they believe they can manipulate, and to start serving the one true God who created them. He is commanding a change in the religious part of their behavior, with radical practical consequences.

This conclusion leads to the further conclusion that Paul was not advocating syncretistic acceptance of the practices of other religions to “win” their adherents to a neutered “Christianity.” Rather, he made use of limited parts of Greek religious and philosophical writings, familiar to his audience, to convince them to repent of those beliefs and the practices that accompanied them in favor of faith in the true God alone.

Recalling the context, Paul had come to Athens alone, after being forced within the space of a few weeks to flee first Philippi, then Thessalonica, then Berea, because of opposition to his message. Acts 16:12-17:15. Once in Athens, “his spirit was provoked within him as he beheld the city full of idols.” Acts 17:16 (WEB). Athens, by all accounts, had numerous idols and shrines. Indeed, some ancient authorities indicate that, by the First Century, Athens—which had passed its prime economically and politically and had a declining population—had more statutes of gods than it had citizens. However, all of the deities in the Greek mythological pantheon had at least three things in common. First, while each deity was thought to have some degree of control over some part of the natural world, none of them—not even Zeus—had created it. Second, all of the Greek gods were conceived of as having very human moral weaknesses, and, indeed, as being aligned in parties that were in a state of continuous intrigue and hostility against each other (hostilities in which innocent, helpless mortals were often caught, to their own hurt). Third, it was believed that deities could be appeased and propitiated by worship and sacrifice, and thus manipulated to do what their worshippers wanted done, or at least to get out of the way of what their worshipers wanted to do—though propitiating one god might anger another. As John Span (p. 558) wrote, the heart of the Greek religion was “‘I give in order that you may give.’ In other words, I, the human worshiper, give in order that you, the god, may give to me.” In this selfish aspect, Greek mythological religion was similar to much modern human religion, and even to much that is today falsely preached in the name of Christ.

Paul, who was raised as a strict Jew, a monotheist who hated all foreign gods, now committed to Christ, had an immediate and violent reaction against the idolatry he saw in Athens. As several commentators point out, the word translated “provoked” in verse 16 is parōxuneto--Paul had a paroxysm, a fit. As a result of his fit of revulsion at seeing the city given to idols, though alone in Athens Paul went to the synagogue, and then to the marketplace (which was also the location of the largest number of idol statues in the city) to reason with those who would hear him. As verse 18 indicates, Paul’s message brought him into conversation (or debate) not only with Jews and traditional Greek polytheists, but also with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. Both the Epicureans and the Stoics accepted the traditional Greek pantheon and myths, at least in a formal sense, but built upon them very different views of the universe and humans’ place or duty in it.

For their part, the Epicureans adopted Democritus’ atomistic, materialistic view of the cosmos, and taught that even the gods were essentially material—and perishable—collections of atoms. While they, thus, allowed for the existence of gods that should be worshiped as such, the Epicureans’ gods were far removed from the lives of humans, living in a “void of space,” and had no real interest in them. To the Epicureans, “pleasure” was the chief end in life. Their founder, Epicurus, defined “pleasure” not as hedonism but as “freedom from pain in the body and disturbance in the mind,” that is “a life of tranquility, free from pain, disturbing passions, and superstitious fears (including in particular the fear of death).” (As quoted by Sewell, at 9). As Sewell also notes, by the First Century of our era, the early Epicurean pursuit of “pleasure” as freedom from pain, passion and fear had largely degenerated into hedonism. Because life itself, including the human soul, was believed to be only a temporary collection of atoms that would dissipate back into nature after death, Epicureans believed in neither the immortality of the soul nor the possibility of a physical resurrection of the body. They would have mocked and dismissed as ignorant a teacher who proclaimed resurrection, but would not have been repulsed by him.

The Stoics, likewise, were materialists, and believed that everything—including the gods and human souls—were composed of some form of matter. In contrast to the Epicureans, who were atomists, the Stoics were panentheists, believing in an impersonal divine ordering principle that was in all things and beings. Early Stoic literature calls this ordering principle the Logos (“word”, or, better, in this context, “reason”), but later it is generally referred to as physis (“nature”). The goal of life is to discover and live in accord with this rational ordering principle. Stoics often identified this ordering principle with Zeus, but, in doing so, did not ascribe to it a personality. To the Stoics, both gods and souls were composed of a more refined form of matter than the material universe, and thus might be immortal. However, the Stoics viewed the physical body as the prison of the soul, which we escape to return to nature after death, and thus would have been morally offended by a teacher who proclaimed a physical resurrection (to continued imprisonment!).

After Paul had debated the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in the marketplace for an unstated number of days, the philosophers still were unable to understand how his teaching fit within their philosophical systems. Some thought he was a “babbler”—a person who picks up seeds of knowledge from others, like a small bird flitters about finding seeds, and repeats them (v. 16b). Others thought he was preaching “new gods” (plural)—perhaps thinking he was saying Jesus and Resurrection were gods to whom a new shrine should be built (v. 16c). In either event, he was a potential threat to either the established local philosophical schools or the established local shrines, and his message had to be investigated. He was asked to appear before the Areopagus, the collection of philosophers who formed the city council under Roman rule as a semi-independent city.

There is some disagreement among the commentators whether this invitation was a friendly invitation Paul could have declined or a formal summons, but it hardly matters. Paul actually did appear before the Areopagus, and presented them a formal address. In this address, it will be noted, he challenged all of the religious presuppositions of the traditional polytheists, Epicureans and Stoics and made a clear presentation of the resurrection of Jesus as the basis of our faith:

You men of Athens, I perceive that you are very religious in all things. 23 For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I announce to you. 24 The God who made the world and all things in it, he, being Lord of heaven and earth, doesn’t dwell in temples made with hands, 25 neither is he served by men’s hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he himself gives to all life and breath, and all things. 26 He made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the surface of the earth, having determined appointed seasons, and the boundaries of their dwellings, 27 that they should seek the Lord, if perhaps they might reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live, and move, and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also his offspring.’ 29 Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold, or silver, or stone, engraved by art and design of man. 30 The times of ignorance therefore God overlooked. But now he commands that all people everywhere should repent (metanoein), 31 because he has appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he has ordained; of which he has given assurance to all men, in that he has raised him from the dead.

Acts 17:22-30 (WEB).

There are two different general lines of commentary about this speech. One line of commentators emphasizes the neutrality of Paul’s language, his citation of the altar to the unknown God, and his quotations from the Greek poets Epimenides of Crete and Aratus, as showing we should “build bridges” to our audience (particularly in cross-cultural evangelism), by showing acceptance of as much of their religious and cultural background as we can without sacrificing the Gospel. Other commentators, by contrast, point out that Paul’s “neutral” language is really ambiguous and can be read as deliberate irony and that Paul expressed no approval of the Greek poets’ underlying message but instead used the quotations to challenge his hearers’ religious and philosophical presuppositions. On study of the passage, as explained below, my conclusion is closer to the second set of commentators. Paul built bridges all right, and then promptly burned them to make his point.

Paul’s speech begins neutrally enough: he makes an observation about the Athenians. He observes that they are “very religious.” However, the word he uses for “very religious,” deisidaimonesterous, is ambiguous. Its range of meaning runs from “very religious,” which the Athenians would have regarded as a virtue, to “very superstitious” or “irrationally afraid of daemons” (the large class of lesser spirits, both good and evil, that the Greeks posited as filling the void between gods and humans). So, as Span points out, already in the first sentence of his speech the council would not have known whether to salute or stone Paul.

Paul then gives as an example of his point about the Athenians’ extreme religiosity (or superstition) his observation that they even had an altar to an “unknown” (agnōstō) god (v. 23). Commentators are generally in agreement that the altar to an “unknown” god was associated with a plague during the 6th Century, B.C., which was not helped by offerings to other gods. Therefore, according to the legend, the Athenians, directed by an oracle, sent a message to the Cretan hero Epimenides. Epimenides instructed them to bring a flock of hungry sheep to Mars Hill, release them, and have shepherds watch to see if any laid down instead of seeking pasture outside the city. They were to mark the locations where the sheep laid down, and sacrifice them there. Athens followed Epimenides’ instructions, and the plague ended. An altar to this “unknown” god—the god the Athenians had missed in building their pantheon—was constructed at each of the locations where a sheep laid down, although it is possible only one of these altars was still in existence in Paul’s time, 600 years later. The Athenians apparently never attempted to discover the true identity of this “unknown” god. It was good enough for their purposes that they had been able to manipulate this god, to appease him or her and escape the plague.

However, Paul declares that he wants to tell them about this “unknown” god, after first reminding them that they worshiped this god in self-confessed ignorance (agnoountes). The first thing he tells them about the true God, the one of whom they were ignorant, is that, unlike any of the deities in their pantheon, the true God created the heavens and the earth. (Even Paul’s choice of the very Jewish, Old Testament term “the heavens and the earth,” for the material universe, emphasizes this). The material universe did not pre-exist the current batch of gods, as in Greek mythology. God was not merely the rational world soul immanent in the universe and co-existent with it, as in Stoic philosophy. Nor was the true God a finite part of the universe, a mere collection of atoms, as in Epicurean philosophy. Rather, God pre-existed the heavens and the earth, exists independently of them, and created them. Thus, Paul’s first statement about the true God denied the fundamental tenets of all three systems of religious thought then common in Athens. He built a bridge with his observation of the altar to an “unknown” god, then promptly burned it by telling them of a God they could not possibly reconcile with their own preconceived religious thinking.

But it gets worse. Paul’s next two statements deny the heart of the Athenians’ views regarding their relationship with their gods. Pagan gods live in temples built by men to contain them and are served by cultic rituals and sacrifices in those temples. The true God, by contrast, does not live in a temple built by human hands (v. 24b) and is not served by human hands (v. 25a). Pagan gods have needs men can provide, and can therefore be manipulated by our sacrifices and cultic acts in service of their needs. The true God needs nothing (v. 25b), and thus cannot be manipulated by our acts of worship. Indeed, far from our being able to provide anything to meet God’s needs, it is God who gives us life, breath, and everything we have (v. 25c).

Verses 26 through 28 are an exercise in deliberate irony. Paul is subtly mocking Athenian religion and the Greek view of their own cultural dominance. The Greek gods were associated with cities, different cities collectively serving different sets of gods out of their pantheon. They also conceived of their gods as territorially going with them wherever they conquered territory and started to establish their culture—and Alexander the Great had conquered a huge territory that included Judea and Galilee. Greek gods thus, territorially, went with Greek conquests and cultural dominance. By contrast, in verse 26 Paul declares that it was the true God, the God the Athenians did not know, that made from one man all nations and determined the territorial and temporal bounds of their habitation. God made all nations out of one man--Adam--and no culture was "superior." Moreover, the division of the nations, their spread and decline, was done by God for his own purposes. Thus, it was not Alexander who carried the Greek gods throughout a huge area, it was the true God who determined that Alexander would conquer his empire and spread Greek language and culture throughout it! Greek cultural dominance thus did not imply the superiority of their gods. The true God had his own purpose in it.

Irony reaches a peak in verses 27 and 28. According to verse 27, the purpose behind God’s activity determining the times and places of human nations is that people will seek the true God, and possibly “reach out” or “grope” after (psēlaphēseian) him and find him. The picture painted by Paul’s words is that of a blind person groping about on the floor looking for something (compare Isaiah 59:10, LXX). Several commentators also point out that the verbs translated “reach out” or “grope” and “find” are in the little-used optative mood, and that the optative mood implies a wish that is very unlikely to be fulfilled. Thus, the full force of verse 27 is that people who have made their own gods may grope blindly after the true God, but all of their groping will probably not find him.

But the true irony is this: God is not far from any one of us. (v. 27b). Contrary to what all of the religious philosophies then current in Athens (and in the modern world!) taught, God is not distant and uninterested. He is near. Indeed, “in him we live and move and have our being.” (v. 28a). Here Paul builds, and promptly burns, another cultural bridge by quoting a poem ascribed to Epimenides—the same Epimenides to whom the altar to the unknown god was ascribed. Epimenides, though speaking originally of Zeus, stated that “in him we live and move and have our being.” Thus, even one of the Greeks’ own poets told them that God is near, not distant and unconcerned. Therefore, they had no reason to be groping after him blindly. The reason human groping is unlikely to find God is that we are looking for gods we can contain and control. We are looking for gods of our own making. We have blinded ourselves to the true God, whom we can neither contain nor control. So we cannot, on our own, find the true God to whom we have blinded ourselves, even though he is all around us.

Paul then takes his point one step further by building, and burning, another bridge, this time by quoting the Greek poet Aratus, who had written, again of Zeus, that “we are his offspring.” Paul applies this directly to the true God. God is not only nearby, all around us, but we are also his offspring about whom he is concerned. Paul then argues (v. 29), that, because we are God’s offspring, we should not think God is like an idol we can make for ourselves. If we are God’s offspring, he made us, came before us, and we could not possibly have made him. Moreover, since we could not make ourselves by our own art and design, by our own skill—it took God to do that—how can we possibly think that we can create God by our own skill?

At this point, Paul calls for action on the part of his hearers. In the past, God overlooked their ignorance—agnoias, the very state the inscription on one of their altars proclaimed. But now God calls all men everywhere to repent of this willful ignorance. The subject of the entire speech thus far has been that the Athenians were willfully ignorant, blinding themselves to the true God who was all around them so that they could follow gods and philosophies of their own making. The repentance Paul is calling for is, therefore, logically to turn away from the gods they had made for themselves, and the philosophies that supported them, to seek the true God.

Then, in verse 31, Paul provides his hearers two motivations to seek the true God. The first motivation is the coming day of judgment, on which God will judge the world through the man he has appointed—Jesus, although Paul does not name him. The second motivation is that God has proven what Paul has said by raising that man from the dead.

This was the end of Paul’s speech. There is some indication in verse 32 that, when Paul mentioned the resurrection—a concept some of his hearers would have found offensive—the Council cut him off (“some of them sneered, but others said we want to hear you again on this subject”). Certainly Paul did not make a complete presentation of the Gospel on this occasion; indeed, he didn’t even mention the name of Jesus. But the point of the presentation he actually made was that the Athenians needed to repent of their entire manner of worship and all of the mental constructs and cultic practices surrounding their worship. He called for a radical change in their way of life.


This list includes only resources available online.

Acts 17 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Georges Houssney, “Analysis of Acts 17”

John Span, "The Areopagus:A Study in Continuity and Discontinuity," St. Francis Magazine 6(3):517-582 (June 2010)

Alida Leni Sewell, “Paul at Athens: An Examination of His Areopagus Address in the Light of its Historical and Philosophical Background”

Wikipedia, "Unknown God"

Wikipedia, “Greek Mythology.”

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Paul’s sermon at Pisidian Antioch places repentance in John the Baptist’s message, Acts 13:24

The next reference to “repentance” in Acts is found in in Paul’s sermon to the Jewish synagogue at Antioch in Pisidia. Paul, in identifying Jesus, associates him with John the Baptist, who had first preached “repentance” to Israel to prepare the way:

22 When he had removed him, he raised up David to be their king, to whom he also testified, ‘I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after my heart, who will do all my will.’ 23 From this man’s offspring, God has brought salvation to Israel according to his promise, 24 before his coming, when John had first preached the baptism of repentance (metanoias) to Israel. 25 As John was fulfilling his course, he said, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. But behold, one comes after me the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.’ 26 Brothers, children of the stock of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, the word of this salvation is sent out to you.

While Acts 13 nowhere specifies that the “repentance” here referenced involves any change in behavior, other than by using the stronger word, metanoia, the fact that the reference is made as part of the description of the preaching of John implies this. In Matthew 3:1-12, and in Luke 3:1-14, the message of John the Baptist is clearly one of “repentance” from our mistreatment of each other, and “repentance” to behavioral fruits worthy of repentance, as has previously been shown (see Repentance, Changed Way of Life, and John’s Baptism). Paul’s Jewish audience in the Antioch synagogue would have been familiar with this.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

God gave the Gentiles repentance, Acts 11:18

Acts 11:18 is a verse—the first in our survey of “repentance” verses in the New Testament—in which a word derived from the verb metanoeō may arguably mean only a change of belief, without implying a change of behavior. The context is this: Prior to Acts 10, the Church of Jesus Christ was strictly Jewish and Samaritan (after the events of Acts 8); Gentiles were not welcome. In Acts 10:1-6, Cornelius, a Gentile, the Roman centurion in Caesarea, had a vision to send for Peter. Peter, through a vision of his own (Acts 10:9-21) was shown that he was not to treat as unclean people God had made clean, and that he should go when Cornelius’ messengers arrived. Peter went to Cornelius’ house, and preached Jesus to them. Acts 10:34-43. However, while he was speaking, “the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message.” Acts 10:44. Because Peter and the Jewish believers with him plainly saw that the group of Gentiles in Cornelius’ house had received the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:45-47), Peter ordered that they be baptized. Acts 10:48.

Upon Peter’s return to Jerusalem, the other Apostles and the Jewish believers there questioned him. Their objection was not that he had Cornelius’ household baptized, but that he had gone to his house at all. “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” Acts 11:3. It was thought that he should not have associated with Gentiles at all. Peter then explained his vision, and Cornelius’ corresponding vision to send for him (Acts 11:4-13), and then describes for the brethren in Jerusalem the outcome of his visit to Cornelius’ household:

15 As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, even as on us at the beginning. 16 I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John indeed baptized in water, but you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave to them the same gift as us, when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I, that I could withstand God?”

18 When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance (metanoian) to life!”

Nothing in this context indicates that anything more than a change in belief is in view. But it was a change in belief to which God responded by placing his Holy Spirit on them!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Simon Magus told to repent of his attempt to buy the power of God, Acts 8:22

The next use of a repentance word in Acts presents a simple, clear-cut example of the behavioral aspect of repentance. In Acts 8:9-16, Philip the Evangelist preached in Samaria with great success. We are told that great signs and wonders accompanied Philip’s preaching. Before Philip came to Samaria, many in that city had been under the influence of a sorcerer named Simon, whom they called “the great power of God.” Obviously, the signs and wonders done by Philip were greater than any Simon could muster, because first the people of Samaria, then Simon himself, believed in Jesus and came to Philip to be baptized. Yes, the text actually states that Simon “believed” and “was baptized.” (Acts 8:13).

But, though Simon “believed,” his heart was not right, and it showed in his actions. When the apostles James and John came down to Samaria to lay hands on the new believers, that they might receive the Holy Spirit, Simon demonstrated that he had believed in Jesus out of envy and still wished to be a sorcerer—a manipulator of the power of the spirits—by offering money to buy the ability to confer the Holy Spirit on others. Simon’s act, of which he was told to repent, is set forth in this passage:

18 Now when Simon saw that the Holy Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, 19 saying, “Give me also this power, that whomever I lay my hands on may receive the Holy Spirit.” 20 But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! 21 You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart isn’t right before God. 22 Repent (metanoēson) therefore of this, your wickedness, and ask God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity.”

Acts 8:18-23 (WEB).

Here, Simon was clearly told to repent of his act, and his desire, to purchase the power of God. Although he had previously believed and been baptized, his heart would only be right toward God after he changed his way. The story ends with Simon’s response, which, unfortunately, leaves it very uncertain whether he actually repented:

24 Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that none of the things which you have spoken happen to me.”

Various early, extra-biblical church traditions held that Simon never repented, and became the founder of heretical sects. But this is uncertain. The best that can be said is that we don’t know whether he repented of his attempt to buy the power to manipulate the Holy Spirit. Still, it is clear that, when he was commanded to repent, he was to repent of a behavior—indeed, a behavior that is very common in the church today!

(The shameful thing is that, in the Church today, so many teachers pander to those who want to buy the Spirit's power, and even openly market God's power--though falsely. They should instead be calling those who want to buy God to repentance!)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Jesus came to give Israel repentance and remission, Acts 5:31

The next use of a repentance word in Acts occurs during the second trial of Peter “and the Apostles” before the Sanhedrin. At the conclusion of the first trial, Peter and John had been released, but warned—“commanded… not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus.” Acts 4: 18. Of course, the Apostles had disobeyed that command, and had continued to preach Jesus. The chief priests had ordered them arrested, and an angel had miraculously released them. Acts 5:17-23. They had then returned to the Temple to preach, and had been arrested again. Acts 15:24-26. After being arraigned before the high priest on the charge of not heeding the earlier warning, but instead continuing to preach Jesus, and filling Jerusalem with their teaching (Acts 15:27-28), the Apostles gave the following response:

29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. 30 The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you killed, hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him with his right hand to be a Prince and a Savior, to give repentance (metanoian) to Israel, and remission of sins. 32 We are His witnesses of these things; and so also is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”

Acts 5:29-32 (WEB).

God exalted Jesus to his right hand to give “repentance” and “remission of sins” to Israel. If this were all Peter had said, it might be justified to read this in the sense many modern Christians seem to read it—i.e., God exalted Jesus to make the people feel sorry for their sins so that he could forgive (remit) them. But Peter didn’t stop with verses 30 and 31. He added verse 32, in which he declares that God has given the Holy Spirit, not to those who merely feel sorry for their sins, but to those who “obey” him. So, even in this context, in which the behavioral aspect of repentance isn’t directly in view, the whole context manages to connect the concepts of repentance and obedience.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Repent, turn again, turn away from your wickedness, in Acts 3:19

Peter’s next recorded sermon, in Acts 3:12-26, clearly linked repentance to a change in the believer’s life. Peter and John had just healed a life-long paralytic at the entrance to the temple. The healed man had entered the temple with them, “walking, leaping and praising God,” incidentally drawing a crowd. Peter explains that God’s servant Jesus, the Prince of Life, the same Jesus the people had recently crucified, God had raised again to life, fulfilling the prophecies about him. He further explains that it is by the power of Jesus’ name that the paralytic was healed. Peter then invites those in the crowd to repent and turn again, and to listen to Jesus:

19 “Repent (metanoēsate) therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, so that there may come times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord, 20 and that he may send Christ Jesus, who was ordained for you before, 21 whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, which God spoke long ago by the mouth of his holy prophets. 22 For Moses indeed said to the fathers, ‘The Lord God will raise up a prophet for you from among your brothers, like me. You shall listen to him in all things whatever he says to you. 23 It will be that every soul that will not listen to that prophet will be utterly destroyed from among the people.’

Acts 3:19-23 (WEB)

It is interesting that Peter does not tell his listeners to “believe” in Jesus, or link the remission of their sins with faith (according to our modern concept of faith). Instead, he tells them to “repent,” using a strong word that often has clear behavioral connotations, and to “turn again” (or, turn around, come back to the Lord). He then quotes Moses’ prediction and command regarding the prophet like Moses himself whom God was later to send to His people. (Deut. 18:15, 18). What Moses commanded the people to do when the second great prophet came was to “listen” to him, not to let his words pass unheeded. (Deut. 18:18). As Peter reminds the crowd, God will call to account those who hear the words of the prophet, but do not listen. (Acts 3:23; compare Deut. 18:19). The only way we have to show that we have “listened” to the words of God is to obey them, to do what they say. It is quite possible to hear words proclaimed, even to ask God to please speak and welcome his words, but then treat them only as mere advice, or, even worse, as a form of entertainment, and leave without doing them. (Compare Ezek. 33:30-33; Jer. 42). Hearing the message in this way, without really listening and heeding, is inadequate.

Peter then drives home his point by saying that Jesus came to turn away his people from their wickedness:

God, having raised up his servant Jesus, sent him to you first to bless you, in turning away every one of you from your wickedness.

Acts 3:26 (WEB)

The behavioral aspect of turning a person away from his “wickedness” is obvious. This is the objective of the “repentance” in verse 19.

Monday, September 3, 2012

“Repent and be Baptized,” in Acts 2:38

We now leave the Gospels and move into Acts. Some of the uses of repentance words in Acts are not as clearly behavior-related as those in the Gospels. However, all but possibly two of them are demonstrably behavior-related, when considered in their larger contexts. Acts 2:38 is an example of a command to “repent” that requires a larger context to reveal its behavioral dimension. It is Pentecost. The Holy Spirit has descended on the 120 disciples gathered together, apparently in an upper room (Acts 1:13, 15 & 2:1-3). As a result, the gathered disciples had begun to praise God in many different languages, the languages of the Jews gathered in Jerusalem for the feast. This gained the attention of the crowd, giving Peter the opportunity to preach his first sermon. The conclusion of Peter’s sermon, and the crowd’s response, were:

36 “Let all the house of Israel therefore know certainly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

Acts 2:36-37

At this point, Peter could have reflected one modern Evangelical understanding by saying “nothing. You can do absolutely nothing—only believe!” But Peter did not say that. Instead, he told the crowd two things they were to do:

38 Peter said to them, “Repent (metanoēsate), and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Acts 2:38

Thus, Peter answered the question “what shall we do” with the commands “repent” and “be baptized.” I will not here investigate the issue of baptismal regeneration that has divided the Church for centuries—i.e., whether the new life starts at the time of baptism—as that question is not essential to the point I am making. Rather, I would merely point out that both repentance and baptism were here identified by the Apostle Peter as things that must be done, not merely believed.

Those who responded to Peter’s words were baptized. Acts 2:41. But their baptism was only the beginning of an entirely different way of life. Luke continues, “They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and prayer.” Acts 2:42. Indeed, the transformation was so complete that they openly gave up ownership of their lives and property: “All who believed were together, and had all things in common. They sold their possessions and goods, and distributed them to all, according as anyone had need.” Acts 2:44-45. The repentance that preceded their baptism gave them joy and an undivided heart to worship God: “Day by day, continuing steadfastly with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread at home, they took their food with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people.” Acts 2:46-47a. Obviously, among those who believed on the day of Pentecost, repentance had very obvious behavioral results.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Repeated sins, repeated repentance and repeated forgiveness in Luke 17:3-4

Jesus' instructions in Luke 17:3-4 are really quite simple, and are no exception to the general rule that repentance involves a change in behavior:

Be careful. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him. If he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in the day, and seven times returns, saying, ‘I repent (metanoō),’ you shall forgive him.

Repeated sins are to be met with repeated forgiveness. When one who has sinned against me many times comes to me again, professing he has repented, I am to freely forgive him again. How do I know that he didn't fully repent last time he came to me? Because he committed the same sin against me again. But what is to be my expectation when he comes to me saying he has repented, again. I am to expect that he will change his behavior this time. Or, at least, I am not supposed to permit my bad past experience with him poison my present expectation, so that I will withhold forgiveness in the expectation that he will only do it again.

So the main emphasis of this passage is the command to forgive, even repeatedly, when faced with professed repentance--just as God forgives us repeatedly. But the assumption that true repentance should lead to changed behavior certainly underlies the passage.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Repentance in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Luke 16:19-31

In this parable, the use of the word “repent” is fairly simple to understand. The unnamed rich man, upon awakening in hell, sees the poor man, Lazarus, in the “bosom of Abraham.” The rich man first asks Abraham to send Lazarus to put water on his tongue, to relieve his agony. After Abraham assures him that this is impossible, because of the great chasm fixed between the place of reward and the place of punishment, Lazarus asks another favor. He asks that Lazarus be sent back from the dead to warn his brothers, so that they will not also come to the place of torment that has taken him. Abraham’s response is simple—no: “They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.” This is followed by the exchange in which the word “repent” (in the strong sense) is used:

He said, “No, father Abraham, but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent (metanoēsousin).”

He said to him, “If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if one rises from the dead.”

Luke 16:30-31 (WEB).

The main point of the parable is, of course, in the last verse—those who ignore the law and the prophets will not be persuaded to repent even if someone rises from the dead. This point was very graphically proved to be true by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, which only a relative few people have ever believed, in spite of the abundant evidence. Only those who are willing to listen to God can be persuaded of Jesus’ resurrection. Not many of the wealthy and powerful (like the unnamed rich man in the parable) are willing to listen. See, I Corinthians 1:18-24. “It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.” Matthew 19:24

There is, however, a secondary point made by this parable, and it is what illuminates the meaning of repentance. The rich man, in hell, knew that his brothers needed to repent. He told Abraham that if someone would go to them from the dead, they would repent. But of what would they need to repent?

The preceding verses tell us what it is in the unnamed rich man’s life that needed repentance sooner than it came. Verse 19 says not only that he was rich, but that he lived like an emperor (dressed in purple) and lived in luxury every day. He was not only wealthy, he flaunted it. Verse 20 then shows that, in his wealth, he was indifferent to poverty on his own doorstep. The poor man, Lazarus, begged at the rich man’s gate, but was allowed to eat only the crumbs that fell from his table, along with the rich man’s dogs—dogs that, as an added indignity, licked poor Lazarus’ sores. These verses alone would give us a good clue that a major part of the rich man’s sin was self-indulgent misuse of wealth and indifference to the needs of others around him.

That Jesus’ is highlighting exactly this sin is also shown by what happens after both the rich man and Lazarus die. Lazarus, the poor man who was forgotten by the rich, God remembers by name. He is Lazarus. The rich man is never named; he is just the wicked rich man. In hell, even the nameless rich man remembers Lazarus by name, and tries to continue treating him as a servant! He asks Abraham to send him to relieve his distress. Abraham’s answer is that, on earth, the rich man received his good things, and Lazarus evil things, but now the tables are reversed. The rich man is in torment, because he treated his good things as his own.

It is at this point, seeing that there is no hope for any relief of his own torment, that the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers. Here, another sin of the rich man and his brothers is revealed by Abraham—they do not listen to Moses and the prophets. In their self-indulgence, they will not listen to God. But the summation of the law of God is “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-40). Their self-indulgence ignored the first commandment; their indifference ignored the second. Such people will not be persuaded, even though one should rise from the dead.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Drought, National Sin and National Repentance: Both Sin and Repentance Start with the Church

Two days ago, my friend David Epps of Topeka wrote in an e-mail he sent to me (and to his mailing list):

If you haven't already, start praying about this in your church, your home group, your prayer circle, and your personal prayer times. Call regional prayer meetings. In the Bible, drought is always associated with judgment when God's people have drifted away from Him. He is calling us back to Him. It's not just our nation that has strayed, it's the American Church.

What will it take for the Lord to get our attention? More earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, economic hardship, terrorism, and political upheaval? More drought?

In his e-mail, Pastor Epps provides links to some very convincing online resources about the extent of the drought in the U.S. For instance, there is a map prepared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and posted on the Drought Monitor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln that shows quite graphically that two-thirds of the country, including all of the major corn and soybean producing areas, are suffering drought conditions presently. In many of these areas, the drought is moderate to extreme or even “exceptional.” (Topeka itself, where Pastor Epps and I live, is in an “extreme” drought area that has a lot of crops burning up). On the other hand, the 12-Week Animation on the same site shows how drought has spread over the center of the country in the last 3 months—an image that is really quite convincing that a hand larger than our own is at work. Finally, the “Objective short term drought indicator” gives some approximation of how little the drought is likely to respond to a few short-term showers in various locations. A longer-term increase in precipitation is needed—and seems unlikely to come quickly enough to prevent massive crop failure this year, as Jason Samenow notes in a Washington Post blog entry. This will be felt as higher prices for the affluent, and famine for the poor in America this fall and beyond, though how effectively we will be able to keep the plight of the poor in this famine hidden, quiet and non-violent remains to be seen. (Times were already hard, and much of the world seems to be rioting right now.) This fact pattern certainly has the same appearance as many of the Biblical examples of God’s judgment of His people.

In support of his statement, Pastor Epps also quotes the following well-known verse, which is commonly glibly quoted to ask for attendance at prayer meetings and Christian political “events,” then ignored in its other details:

“When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place. (2 Chronicles 7:13-15)

I note that this verse is often used to promote political “events” among Christians in the U.S. to highlight Pastor Epps’ insight into the real problem. He is not calling for anything political. He recognizes that the problem isn’t political, and won’t be fixed by political action to wipe out what Christians perceive as social evils. Instead, the problem originates with sin in the Church. In reaching the conclusion that the nation’s economic problems actually originate in the Church, Pastor Epps is in agreement with my article “A warning concerning idolatry,” which I posted in October 2000 and which has, unfortunately, never in the intervening years been shown wrong.

However, my pastor friend has suggested only a part part of the solution. He wants churches to call prayer meetings. But if all we do is have prayer meetings, all we will have done is to hold some more religious “events.” Instead, we need to pay attention to all of the instructions of 2 Chronicles 7:14-15. God didn’t just tell Israel to respond to drought, famine and plague with prayer. He also told them to humble themselves, to seek God’s face, and to repent--to “turn from their wicked ways.”

Humility is necessary because it is the contrary of the underlying attitude of sin: pride and self-sufficiency. This comes in several forms. There is the pride that boasts of what I have and what I have accomplished, not recognizing—or outright rejecting—that it is God who gave it to me. Rom. 1:20-24, 28; I John 2:16. There is the pride, like that the tempter induced in Adam and Eve, which says I know better than God how to run my own life. This pride leads to individual self-sufficiency: if I make my own decisions, ignoring God, that makes me like God, a god unto myself. See, Gen. 3:4-6. The closing stanza of William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus” perfectly epitomizes this attitude: “It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” Finally, when people living in individual self-sufficient pride recognize that they are, individually, not sufficient, instead of returning to God as their source, the tendency is to partially substitute collective self-sufficiency for individual self-sufficiency. This is the “Doctrine of Babel” of which I have previously written. As a larger culture, we still believe ourselves collectively capable of building towers to heaven—whether through science, through our governmental and corporate institutions, or simply through our collective cultural expressions of defiance—to bring God down. On the other hand, while the American Church is not in outward and active defiance of God, as a group we still tend to trust in our collective institutions—government, corporations, private charities and religious organizations—to meet our needs. We tend to look to these institutions first, rather than to God. This is pride. It needs to be counteracted with humility.

Humility, thus, leads directly to turning to God. The Thessalonians, Paul wrote, “turned from idols to serve the living and true God.” I Thess. 1:9. To be effective, these two must occur simultaneously. We must turn from our idols—ultimately, worship and service of ourselves and our institutions—and simultaneously turn to service of the true God. This is the only course that avoids judgment. As I have explained elsewhere, God is light, and if we are walking away from Him in service of ourselves, we are walking in darkness. Stumbling into judgment is the expected result of walking in darkness; indeed it can be said that our blindness while walking in the darkness is the beginning of our judgment. If we turn around, and start walking in God’s light, we will then begin to see clearly our way out of judgment. But if we turn around, and start walking in God’s way, in the light, our behavior will change. This is repentance.

Repentance addresses the sins that keep us from God. But what are the sins of the Church? Surprisingly, the primary sins of the Church which are both causes and symptoms of God’s judgment, are not, as some may think, a lack of religious works, the abortion rate in our (no longer Christian) culture, tolerance of homosexuality, declining church attendance, inadequate church offerings, or the failure of our organized political action to maintain control of our government. Rather, the primary sins of which the Church must repent involve greed and its glorification in Christian circles, arrogance and its glorification in Christian circles, the abandonment of truth in favor of comfortable lies (yes, even in the Church), our robbery and mistreatment of each other, our approval in practice of lying, slander and gossip (what are we saying about our political leaders?), and our indifference toward the poor. I posted some years ago a fairly exhaustive set of quotations from Old Testament prophecies that show that God judged his people Israel for exactly these things—they abandoned Him, exalted themselves (through various idols), and started to mistreat and oppress each other. (See, “Prophecies for America”). We have no reason to expect that God will treat America better than His own chosen nation, when God’s people in America (the church) are involved in or approve and glorify the same things that brought judgment to Israel.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

“Unless You Repent, You Will All Perish,” the Parable of the Spared Fig Tree, and the problem of evil in Luke 13:1-9

In this passage, Jesus provides a response to the problem of evil—“if God is just, why is there so much senseless suffering in the world?” But the response he provides is not an intellectually satisfying answer to the “why?” question about God. Instead, it is a provocative answer that points back at the questioner. The response is, “trust God and work on yourself!” Look at the sin in your own life, repent, and bring forth fruit worthy of repentance.

Jesus uses the word “repent,” in the strong sense, twice in responding to a question about apparently senseless, violent death in Luke 13:1-5:

1 Now there were some present at the same time who told him about the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered such things? 3 I tell you, no, but unless you repent (metanoēte), you will all perish in the same way. 4 Or those eighteen, on whom the tower in Siloam fell, and killed them; do you think that they were worse offenders than all the men who dwell in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no, but, unless you repent (metanoēte), you will all perish in the same way.”

This passage reports Jesus’ response to what was, apparently, a report of a current event reported by some members of the crowd that had gathered around him. No commentator I have consulted has been able to identify any specific event recorded in other sources that involved murder of worshipers in the Temple by order of the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate during the likely time of Jesus’ ministry. There were recorded instances of murder in the Temple prior to Jesus’ ministry, some commentators suggesting the Galileans in view here may have been the followers of Judas of Galilee, a rebel who met his end at the hands of the Romans (though not Pilate, who was not yet in office) in 6 A.D. (See Acts 5:37). However, all commentators appear to agree that ordering the murder of a group of Galileans in the Temple, while offering sacrifices, on the vaguest suspicion of sedition, is consistent with what is known of Pilate’s character. Thus, most commentators state that, although there is no other record of this particular incident outside the New Testament, it likely occurred. This leaves the question of why these interlocutors brought the incident to Jesus’ attention.

There are at least two possibilities. The incident may have been brought to Jesus attention for political motives, by his enemies, in an attempt to induce him to denounce Pilate and Roman rule (something they attempted frequently). On the other hand, the incident may also have been raised to embarrass Jesus by presenting him the essentially unanswerable question of the reason for individual human suffering in a context in which he would be forced to say that worshippers—people doing the right thing—died in such a horrible way because of the extremity of their sins. Surely Jesus would have to say one of these things or the other—either the deaths were an example of the injustice of Pilate and Roman rule, or they were an example of God’s justice because the deceased Galileans were great sinners.

But Jesus avoided this trap by pointing at the sins of those who brought the story to his attention. From the Galileans’ violent and apparently unjust deaths, no conclusions may be drawn about how bad their sins were compared to those of others. They were sinners, and the wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23). But those who raised the issue were also sinners, and also due to receive the wages of their sin. So comparing sins and asking whose sins are “worse” makes no sense in this context. Jesus therefore denied that the Galileans who were killed with their sacrifices were greater sinners than Galileans who survived that day. The real message of the incident, and of Jesus’ teaching about it, is that the only hope is repentance. “Unless you repent, you will all perish in the same way”—that is, senselessly, meaninglessly, as the reward of your sins. Because the sins of the Galileans, and of Jesus’ hearers, is directly in view in this story, it is clear that the “repentance” of which Jesus speaks is a turning from sin.


Jesus then amplified his point by recounting the story of a group of people in Jerusalem who died suddenly and apparently randomly in an accident, when the Tower of Siloam—which was apparently a tower on the city wall near the Pool of Siloam—fell on them. No other ancient source records this particular accident. Jesus apparently refers to it to move the discussion away from meaningless deaths that have a political cause to meaningless deaths that have no apparent cause other than perhaps the wrath of God. Several commentators, in fact, point out that a tower is a place people would go to feel safe! So, in this instance, what these 18 people trusted to bring them safety unexpectedly killed them instead.

However, Jesus’ point about the fatalities at the Tower of Siloam is the same point he made about the Galileans Pilate killed in the Temple. The accident at the Tower of Siloam didn’t kill these people because they were the worst sinners in Jerusalem. It killed them merely because they were sinners, like everyone else in Jerusalem and like all of Jesus’ audience. We need not look beyond sin, beyond our own sinfulness, for an explanation of death, whether it comes “normally” or in some particularly gruesome way. The only hope lies in repentance. “Unless you repent, you will all perish in the same way”—meaninglessly, senselessly.

Jesus then illustrated his point, and shifted the focus more securely to the lives of those raising the question, by telling a parable:

6 He spoke this parable. “A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it, and found none. 7 He said to the vine dresser, ‘Behold, these three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and found none. Cut it down. Why does it waste the soil?’ 8 He answered, ‘Lord, leave it alone this year also, until I dig around it, and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit, fine; but if not, after that, you can cut it down.’”

Luke 13:6-9 (WEB).

The point of this parable, in the context of the question implicitly raised in verse 1 and answered in verses 2 through 5, is that, far from being arbitrary and vengeful, God is patient. The tree here may represent either the individual questioning God, or the nation Israel—there are commentators on both sides of this question. However, I think it most consistent with the sense of verses 1 through 5 to understand the tree here as an individual before God. This usage would also be consistent with John the Baptist’s usage of the metaphor of the “trees” in his warning to the crowd in Matthew 3:7-10 and Luke 3:7-10. In that warning, explained more fully in a previous posting on John the Baptist’s message of repentance, John warns the people that “the axe lies at the root of the trees” and “every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down.” (Matt. 3:9 & 10). This is entirely consistent with Jesus’ illustration in the passage here before us—in which the owner wants to cut down the fig tree. (Luke 13:7). Indeed, the owner wants to cut down the fig tree in this passage for the same reason John said the axe was already at the root of the trees—this tree, like the trees in John’s metaphor, is unfruitful. (Compare verse 7 with Matt. 3:8). Because the point of Jesus’ parable is that God is merciful and patient with us, the gardener requests, and the master grants, the tree one more year, during which time the tree is to be fertilized and given every opportunity to produce fruit. For the tree in Jesus’ parable, the repentance spoken of in verses 3 and 5 of the larger passage is to be shown by fruit bearing.

Jesus’ parable in Luke 13 doesn’t identify the “fruit,” showing repentance, which will have to be seen on the tree if it is to be spared. That was not the point of the parable. However, John the Baptist had already identified the required fruit, the “fruit worthy of repentance” (Matt. 3:8), in his preaching using the metaphor of the trees. In John’s preaching, that “fruit” was clearly changes ethical behavior, beginning to treat each other with love and true justice, renouncing greed. (See Luke 3:10-13). The fruit of repentance involves a radical change in behavior.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Joy in Heaven over One Sinner Repenting: The Lost Sheep, Lost Coin and Lost Son in Luke 15

Luke chapter 15 begins by telling us that many tax collectors and sinners were coming to hear Jesus, and that the scribes and Pharisees complained that Jesus not only received these “sinners,” but even ate with them. Luke then records Jesus’ response to this criticism, in the form of three parables—the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost (or, more popularly, “prodigal”) son. Jesus’ explanation of the first two parables contains forms of the stronger word for “repent,” in a context which makes its behavioral connotation obvious. Further, while the parable of the lost son does not use any repentance words, it illustrates the concept of repentance.

Jesus taught the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin as follows:

Which of you men, if you had one hundred sheep, and lost one of them, wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one that was lost, until he found it? 5 When he has found it, he carries it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 When he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ 7 I tell you that even so there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents (metanoounti), than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance (metanoias). 8 Or what woman, if she had ten drachma coins, if she lost one drachma coin, wouldn’t light a lamp, sweep the house, and seek diligently until she found it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the drachma which I had lost.’ 10 Even so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner repenting (metanoounti).

Luke 15:4b-10

Jesus does not deny the sinfulness of the tax collectors and sinners with whom he was criticized for associating. He asserts that they are “lost,” like the sheep and the coin, and need repentance. To this point, at least, Jesus agrees with the diagnosis of the scribes and Pharisees—the people he associated with were sinners and needed to change their lives!

However, Jesus’ remedy for the situation is different than that of the Scribes and Pharisees. The religious leaders felt that those they saw as trapped in sin were accursed, beyond the possibility of repentance, and must be avoided by the righteous lest they spread their contagion. By contrast, Jesus sought sinners. He begins his explanation of this with the two parables quoted above. A shepherd would not simply abandon sheep that strayed. Their wandering off would not make them any less his sheep. Instead, a shepherd would search for the lost sheep until he found it. Speaking with the hyperbole common in his parables, Jesus insists that a shepherd who had 100 sheep, but lost one, would leave the 99 that remained in the flock to look for the one that strayed, until he found it. His purpose, obviously, would be to bring the sheep back from straying and restore it to the flock. And when he found the sheep, he would throw a party, rejoicing over finding the one lost sheep. In the same way, Jesus says, there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people who believe they need no repentance. This shows both the value God places on individual sinners, and the value that God places on individual sinners recognizing their need of repentance (in contrast to the Pharisees, who did not).

The second parable in this group focuses on the value of individual sinners to God. The picture is of a poor woman who only has a few coins and loses one of them. Once again, the story contains hyperbole--the woman not only sweeps the house and searches for the coin diligently: when she finds it, she throws a party! This is how Heaven rejoices when one sinner turns to God.

It should be clear that neither of these parables would make any sense if the sinner, when found, did not change his way. Why would a shepherd rejoice over finding a lost sheep, if, after it was found, the sheep did not return to the flock but remained astray? Why would a woman who has lost a coin rejoice over finding it, if it refused to be picked up from off the floor and placed with her other coins? Why would God rejoice over “finding” a sinner, if the sinner he found remained bound by his sins, unable to join God’s flock? Thus, in both of these parables, Jesus uses “repentance” words derived from metanoio to describe the change in the “found” sinner that makes Heaven rejoice. It is precisely this metanioa that the self-righteous Pharisee cannot show, because he doesn’t think he needs it.

Although Jesus’ next parable in the Luke context, that of the lost (or prodigal) son, does not use any repentance words, it contrasts the concepts of repentance and self-righteousness quite clearly. The younger son is a picture of a defiant sinner, such as the sinners with whom Jesus was accused of associating. He demands his inheritance while his father is still living, demands his freedom, and departs from his father’s house to go to a far country. In the far country, he squandered his inheritance--as, in fact, we all do--and came to a point in his life at which he was in great need, feeding pigs (remember that Jesus’ audience was Jewish!) for a foreigner, so hungry that he wished he could eat the pigs’ food. The point the Pharisees did not understand, however, is this: even when the lost son departed, fell into the depths of degradation, and was “lost” and “dead” to his father, he was still a son. His father still knew where he was, and was watching for him to come home. Then the son came to himself, recognized how much better it was at home, and repented. Although Jesus doesn’t use the word “repent” here, the principle of repentance is present--what made restoration possible was that the younger son changed his course, that is, he got up on his feet and started walking toward home, where the previous course of his life had been away from home. When the father saw him coming, he did something very undignified in that culture--he ran to meet his son and welcome him back into the family. So Jesus sought out sinners because the Father Himself runs to welcome them when they repent and return to Him!

Jesus also contrasts the younger son, whose sin was outwardly gross, but who recognized his need to change course and return home, to the older son, who never physically left home and who did what his father told him to do, but who left his father in heart. Much as the Pharisees objected to Jesus’ acceptance of “tax collectors and sinners,” the older son objected when the father welcomed the rebellious younger son home. Like his father, the older son knew where his wayward brother had been, and that he had squandered his father’s possessions on harlots. The older son believed his father’s love and favor had to be earned, and believed that his younger brother’s behavior should earn his father’s rejection and contempt, regardless of his apparent repentance. Like the Pharisees, he lacked his father’s heart and was angry when he accepted his wayward son back home in spite of his open sins. Although this parable doesn’t use repentance words, it certainly does illustrate God’s response to our repentance (starting to return home to Him), particularly when placed in the same context as the lost sheep and lost coin parables.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Mysterious Case of the Disappearing Repentance, Luke 5:32 vs. Matthew 9:13

In every English translation of which I am aware, Luke 5:27-32 reads something like this:

27 After these things he went out, and saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the tax office, and said to him, “Follow me!” 28 He left everything, and rose up and followed him. 29 Levi made a great feast for him in his house. There was a great crowd of tax collectors and others who were reclining with them. 30 Their scribes and the Pharisees murmured against his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with the tax collectors and sinners?” 31 Jesus answered them, “Those who are healthy have no need for a physician, but those who are sick do. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

Luke 5:27-32 (WEB). All Greek texts of which I am aware also agree in their inclusion of the last two words, eis metanoian, “to repentance.” This is, again, repentance in the strong sense of changed life and behavior.

The mystery arises because an important group of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament—those commonly called the Alexandrian texttype because of their common origin in copies made by scribes in Egypt (primarily Alexandria)—omit the words eis metanoian from Jesus’ statement in the parallel text in Matthew 9:13. Most of the modern English translations of Matthew 9:9-13 follow the Alexandrian texts and read somewhat like the NIV:

9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up abd followed him. 10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners.’” 12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Matthew 9:9-13 (NIV). The whole concept of repentance is mysteriously missing from this report of what Jesus said on this occasion.

However, not all Greek texts, and not all English translations, omit the concept of repentance from the passage in Matthew. The KJV, for example, renders Matthew 9:13 as follows: “But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” On this point, the KJV follows an early scholarly New Testament text that relied upon multiple ancient manuscripts, Stephanus’ 1550 revision of Erasmus’ Textus Receptus. Both Erasmus and Stephanus compiled Greek texts that were in the Byzantine texttype tradition rather than the Alexandrian text tradition (a tradition which had not yet been discovered in Europe in the Sixteenth Century). Matthew 9:13 in Stephanus’ text ends with the words eis metanoian.

However, more recent scholars find the Textus Receptus to be unreliable, both because of the very limited number of ancient texts available to Erasmus and Stephanus and because of transcriptional errors and back translations from the Latin Vulgate introduced by Erasmus and not corrected by Stephanus. Therefore, no modern translation I am aware of follows the Textus Receptus exclusively.

This does not imply, however, that no modern scholarly Greek text contains the words eis metanioan in Matthew 9:13, or that no modern English translation of the verse contains the words “to repentance.” In the world of modern scholarly compilations of the Greek New Testament, those scholars who favor the Alexandrian texts over the Byzantine texts generally omit repentance from Matthew 9:13, whereas those that favor the Byzantine texts (of which texts now many more are known than in Erasmus’ day) generally include it. Professor Robinson has stated the case for giving priority to the larger and historically deeper set of manuscripts that constitute the Byzantine textform in the lengthy Appendix to his 2005 compilation of the Greek New Testament (1). Besides the Robinson and Pierpont Greek New Testament edition, the words eis metanioan are also found in Matthew 9:13 in the 1894 Scrivener Greek text, and the words “to repentance” are found in the English renderings in the 1901 American Standard Version and the World English Bible. I personally believe the Byzantine texts correctly included repentance in Matthew 9:13, and this not just because of my respect for the late Bill Pierpont (who was my first Greek teacher). I will explain.

There is no evidence that Jesus called Matthew away from his tax booth, and dined at his house that day, on more than one occasion. Indeed, it would appear quite unlikely that he did so. Thus, Matthew 9:9-13 and Luke 5:25-32 describe the same incident.

There is no question that the description of this incident in Luke attributes to Jesus the statement that he did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. All Greek texts and English translations of the Luke passage make the objective of Jesus’ call to sinners the repentance of those sinners. This is in keeping with the meaning of the entire passage. Jesus had initiated this chain of events by calling Levi (Matthew) away from his tax booth to follow him. Levi had demonstrated his repentance by immediately leaving his business and following Jesus. Levi never looked back—he continued to follow Jesus and became one of the twelve disciples into which Jesus poured his life over the next few years. But, immediately after he was called, Levi invited Jesus, his other disciples, and Levi’s own tax collector and “sinner” friends, to a dinner with Jesus.

During this dinner at Levi’s house, some Pharisees insinuated to Jesus’ disciples that their Master was doing wrong when he associated with these blatant “sinners.” Jesus took this opportunity to contrast the Pharisees with the “sinners” to whom he was ministering at the dinner. The Pharisees believed they were spiritually “healthy,” not sinners but zealous for the Law (compare the description the Apostle Paul, an ex-Pharisee, gives of himself in Philippians 3:4-6). The believed they had no need of any physician to heal their spiritual condition, and had nothing of which to repent. By contrast, the need of the tax collectors and “sinners” for repentance was obvious. Jesus came to bring healing to those who knew they had a need. This healing started with their repentance.

While it is clear that Jesus’ words in Luke’s account include “to repentance,” it is not as clear that Matthew’s account contains these words. Some texts contain the words, others don’t . Assuming the underlying historicity of the accounts, there are, speaking broadly, only four possible ways this could have happened:

1. Jesus perhaps responded to the same objection to his keeping of bad company twice during the meal at Matthew’s house, once in the form reported in Luke, the other time as reported in the Alexandrian texts of Matthew.

2. Jesus only responded once, and his actual saying included the words “to repentance,” as reported in Luke, but Matthew omitted these words to emphasize a different aspect of the saying than Luke emphasized. In this case, the occurrence of the words in some Greek texts of Matthew would, once again, have to be explained by the activity of Byzantine redactors.

3. Jesus only responded once, and his actual saying on this occasion did not include the words “to repentance” at all. Luke added them for reasons of his own, and scribes or, more correctly, redactors (if this hypothesis is true) in the Byzantine text tradition added them to some texts of Matthew to make the text harmonize with Luke.

4. Jesus only responded once, using the words “to repentance” as reported in Luke and in most Byzantine texts of Matthew. The Alexandrian texts of Matthew omitted these words either as the result of a deliberate redaction or, more likely, a scribal error early in the transmission of the Egyptian exemplars.

I will admit that the first two possibilities cannot be entirely excluded. Jesus may have answered the same objection twice during the same meal, and have given a somewhat different answer both times. Further, Matthew and Luke were writing to different constituencies—Matthew mostly to Jewish believers, Luke to Gentiles—and certainly had different emphases. Even if the words “to repentance” are included in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ remarks, those remarks differ from Luke’s account in that Matthew’s account of Jesus’ words includes an allusion to Hosea that is not included in Luke’s account at all (“but go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”) Matthew 6:13a, compare Hosea 6:6. An allusion to a Hebrew prophet would be lost on Luke’s Gentile audience, but is exactly what Jesus likely would have used to explain himself to Jewish leaders (and to the Jews in Matthew’s audience as well).

The problem is that the difference in emphasis between these two Evangelists does not explain the omission of the words “to repentance” from Matthew’s account of this incident. If Jesus’ declaration that his purpose in associating with and calling sinners is to bring them to repentance has a natural place in this context, it is in Matthew’s account, written for Jewish consumption. In preaching to Jews, Jewish believers would certainly want to be able to reassure their hearers that a significant purpose of the Gospel, now extended to gentiles and “sinners,” is to bring them out of their sin. If the message of repentance is going to be de-emphasized, one would expect to see this in Luke, written to Gentiles. But, assuming Matthew’s text originally did not include the words “to repentance,” exactly the opposite pattern is seen. Matthew de-emphasizes repentance for the Jews, and Luke emphasizes it for the Gentiles!

Moreover, Matthew’s inclusion of Jesus’ allusion to Hosea 6:6 in Matthew 9:13a does not support the removal of the words “to repentance” later in the verse. The message of the verse before is the same in Matthew and in Luke: it is those who know they have a need who need a doctor. Matthew then places an emphasis on mercy—because sinners need healing, going to them to call them is an act of mercy, which is what God desires. Then, the message of Matthew 9:13b is also parallel to that of Luke 5:32, I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. The reason emphasized for this call in Luke is the sinners’ need itself, in Matthew it is mercy (which Jesus tells the Pharisees to emulate). But in both cases Jesus call to sinners meets them where their need is—at the point of their sin. In both cases it is necessarily a call to repent. Thus, Jesus’ slightly different emphasis in Matthew 9:13a does not explain the absence of the words “to repentance” in 9:13b.

The third possible reason for the difference—i.e, that Luke deliberately added to Jesus’ words—accuses Luke of dishonesty and can be disregarded.

That leaves the fourth possibility as the most likely: the autograph of Matthew included the words translated “to repentance” in Matthew 9:13, but they were subsequently lost from the Alexandrian text tradition through scribal error or (less likely) deliberate alteration. Jesus actually said on this occasion that he had not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.


(1) Robinson, Maurice A., “Appendix: The Case for Byzantine Priority,” in Maurice A. Robinson and William G. Pierpont, The New Testament in the Original Greek: Byzantine Textform (Scarborough, MA: Chilton Book Publishing 2005), 533-586.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Disciples also Preached Repentance, Mark 6:12 compared to Luke 9:2 and 6.

When Jesus sent out the Twelve in pairs to preach ahead of him, Mark reports that He gave them these instructions:

He commanded them that they should take nothing for their journey, except a staff only: no bread, no wallet, no money in their purse, 9 but to wear sandals, and not put on two tunics. 10 He said to them, “Wherever you enter into a house, stay there until you depart from there. 11 Whoever will not receive you nor hear you, as you depart from there, shake off the dust that is under your feet for a testimony against them. Assuredly, I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city!”

Mark 6:8-11 (WEB).

Luke’s account of the same instructions on the same occasion adds only that Jesus “sent them out to preach the Kingdom of God, and to heal the sick.” Luke 6:2.

As a result of these instructions, Mark records that “They went out and preached that people should repent (metanoōsin).” Mark 6:12. Luke records that, as a result of Jesus’ instructions, the Disciples “departed, and went throughout the villages, preaching the Good News, and healing everywhere.” Thus, the Gospel (the Good News), the Kingdom of God, and repentance were all associated with each other in the Disciples’ preaching, just as they were in Jesus’ teaching (as set forth in the last posting). The Good News was still that the Kingdom of God had come near, and that the people needed to repent, in the strong sense of changing their behavior to conform to the Kingdom.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Repentance in Jesus’ Early Message, Matthew 4:17-22 and Mark 1:14-20

It will be recalled from an earlier posting that John the Baptist preached a repentance that was directly tied to the coming of the Kingdom and that demanded action, not just assent. Starting with his baptism, Jesus preached a similar repentance:

17 From that time, Jesus began to preach, and to say, “Repent [metanoiete]! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” 18 Walking by the sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers: Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew, his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. 19 He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers for men.” 20 They immediately left their nets and followed him. 21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets. He called them. 22 They immediately left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Matthew 4:17-22 (WEB).

Jesus declared to His hearers that the Kingdom of Heaven had approached them—the Greek here translated “is at hand” is really a single word, the verb eggizō (to approach, draw near, impend)in the aorist tense, a tense which ordinarily refers to completed past action. Jesus was not saying the Kingdom would soon come, in the future. His choice of tense declared the Kingdom had already drawn near to his hearers. The obvious interpretation of this is that Jesus brought the Kingdom with him, so that it drew near when they heard his words. Because the Kingdom was standing right next to them, he commanded his hearers to “repent!” Here, he used the stronger verb for repent, metanoeō, a verb which also carries an implication of actions corresponding to a changed course, as I have previously shown.

However, the context in Matthew 4 does not stop there. While preaching this message, Jesus starts to call disciples individually. He calls Simon Peter and Andrew to follow him, and they demonstrate their repentance by immediately leaving their own business and following Jesus. He then sees James and John, and they immediately left their boat and their father and followed him. When the Kingdom stood next to them, and called, they followed.

Mark gives a similar account of Jesus message, but adds a few words that clarify Jesus’ point that the time had arrived:

14 Now after John was taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Good News of the Kingdom of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand! Repent, and believe in the Good News.” 16 Passing along by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. 17 Jesus said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you into fishers for men.” 18 Immediately they left their nets, and followed him. 19 Going on a little further from there, he saw James the son of Zebedee, and John, his brother, who were also in the boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them, and they left their father, Zebedee, in the boat with the hired servants, and went after him.

Mark 1:14-22 (WEB).

Jesus came preaching the “good news” (euaggelion, also translated “Gospel”) of the Kingdom of God. He said that this good news was that his hearers did not have to wait any longer for the Kingdom, because the time was filled full (peplērōtai), completed, and the Kingdom of God had already approached them (again using the aorist of eggizō). Their commanded response to the near approach of the Kingdom was this: repent (again, metanoiete) and believe the good news. Jesus does not say their response to the Kingdom should be to repent by believing the good news. Jesus does not here teach that repentance consists of changing one’s mind about dogma, and is complete when the appropriate statement of faith is made. Instead, the two are presented separately—because the Kingdom has come near, we should both change our behavior (repent) and believe that the Kingdom is with us in Jesus.

Again, as in Matthew, the proclamation of the Gospel of the Kingdom, with its call to repent, leads to the calling of the first disciples, who willingly follow Jesus.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Judas Iscariot: Remorse too Late in Matthew 27:3-5

The distinction between remorse and true repentance—in both the Greek and the English—is illustrated by the actions of Judas Iscariot. It will be recalled that Judas, a disciple of Jesus and the treasurer of Jesus’ band of disciples, had come to be in the habit of embezzling from the ministry’s money bag. (John 12:6) When a woman came and anointed Jesus with a costly perfume, instead of selling it and giving the money to the disciples (thus allowing him to steal some of it), and Jesus commended her instead of rebuking her as Judas expected, Judas became disillusioned with Jesus, went to the Jewish authorities and arranged to betray Jesus to them for 30 pieces of silver. (Matt. 26:6-15) However, Judas appears to have done this under the unrealistic expectation that the authorities would punish Jesus, but let him live. Of course, as we now know, this was never the Jewish authorities’ plan. (See, John 11:45-53) They tried Jesus summarily, found him worthy of death, and hastily obtained the permission of the Roman governor to crucify him. (Matt. 26:57-67 & 27:11-26)

It is between the trial of Jesus before the Jewish Sanhedrin and his trial before the Roman governor that Judas’ remorse enters the record:

3 Then Judas, who betrayed him, when he saw that Jesus was condemned, felt remorse [metamelētheis], and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, 4 saying, “I have sinned in that I betrayed innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? You see to it.” 5 He threw down the pieces of silver in the sanctuary, and departed. He went away and hanged himself.

(Matthew 27:3-5 (WEB), bracketed Greek transliteration added)

Judas felt true remorse. The English says this, in every translation I know of, and so does the Greek, using the weaker verb for a change of mind or feelings, metamelomai, as explained in the previous post “Repentance: Definition of Terms.” Judas was truly sorry that his actions had bad consequences. He had obviously not intended his deal with the authorities to lead to Jesus’ death. So, when it appeared that Jesus was going to die, he went back to the authorities to try to reverse the bargain. He said he had betrayed innocent blood—which was true enough, but was confessed to the wrong person. He tried to give back the 30 pieces of silver. Of course, the authorities, who actually wanted Jesus dead, would have none of it. Judas’ remorse over getting caught came too late. Jesus had to die.

Judas’ remorse also had the wrong effect on Judas. He had been led by his greed to steal from the bag. He had then been angered when denied another opportunity to steal, and had been led by his greed and anger to sell Jesus. If he had felt remorse at any time before he betrayed Jesus, and had allowed that remorse to become true repentance, turning back to the Jesus he had rejected to serve his own greed, he could have been restored. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, restoration would likely have become possible again, had Judas waited for it. Instead, however, Judas first tried to fix the consequences of his sin—without returning to the Savior and obeying Him. When he saw that his own efforts to rectify the consequences of his sin had failed, he hanged himself.

“For godly sorrow works repentance to salvation, which brings no regret. But the sorrow of the world works death.” (2 Cor. 7:10)

Monday, May 14, 2012

Unrepentance and the judgment spoken against Chorazin and Bethsaida in Matthew 11:20-22

When Jesus spoke judgment against the towns of Chorazin and Bethsaida in Galilee in Matthew 11:20-22, he may have come as close as the New Testament ever comes to using the verb metanoeō to mean a mere change of belief with no corresponding actions. Matthew 11:20-22(WEB) reads:

20 Then he began to denounce the cities in which most of his mighty works had been done, because they didn’t repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon which were done in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.”

The words of these verses on their face associate repentance with two conventional symbolic actions that openly demonstrated repentance—wearing sackcloth and sitting in ashes. However, because these acts are symbolic, if left by themselves, they might signify merely a showing of remorse, not a change of life course.

The context clarifies this issue. In the immediately preceding portion of the chapter, Jesus had identified John the Baptist as the greatest of the previous prophets—one who was a prophet and more than a prophet, the prophesied return of Elijah, the one who prepared the way before Jesus. Matt. 11:9-11, 14. It will be recalled from an earlier post that John baptized the people as a sign of their repentance, and that the repentance John preached was all about a changed way of life. In this context, Jesus also states enigmatically that “he who is least in the kingdom of Heaven is greater than” John (v. 11b), the apparent explanation being that the days of John only initiated the advance of the kingdom of Heaven, but did not see that kingdom come; from his days forward there has been a struggle for the kingdom. (v. 12). Recall, also, my previous observation that a “kingdom” is a realm in which a king is obeyed, so in connecting both John’s ministry and the warfare of his contemporary situation to the struggle for the kingdom of Heaven, Jesus clearly implies that what both he and John had been doing had a behavioral component—it was a struggle for submission to the King of Heaven. Although there are several competing readings of verse 12 reflected in the various English translations—some emphasizing a personal struggle to come into submission, and others a struggle to bring others into submission—all of them involve a struggle (it is inescapable from the language used).

Jesus then reproves the crowd that followed him for their refusal to believe either John or himself, preferring instead to believe that their own way of life was acceptable and that John and Jesus were defective because they behaved differently:

“But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces, who call to their companions 17 and say, ‘We played the flute for you, and you didn’t dance. We mourned for you, and you didn’t lament.’ 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is justified by her children.”

It is immediately after this reproof that Jesus contrasts the Jewish cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida to the Gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon, saying that, whereas Chorazin and Bethsaida rejected his words as those of a friend of “sinners,” if he had been sent to Tyre and Sidon they would have repented! In context, going back to the previous discussion of John and the Kingdom of Heaven, the “repentance” here in view must be viewed as the same repentance preached by John, and by Jesus—a change of life toward submission to the King. This is further emphasized by Jesus’ next contrast—between Capernaum and Sodom:

You, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, you will go down to Hades. For if the mighty works had been done in Sodom which were done in you, it would have remained until this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom, on the day of judgment, than for you.”

Clearly, Sodom was judged because of the behavior of her people. God told Abraham that He would destroy Sodom because the “sin” that they had “done” cried out to Him. Genesis 19:20-21. In discussing the rescue of Lot from Sodom, Peter clarifies that God made Sodom an example of the end of those who live in an ungodly way, and further that what distressed righteous Lot about them was their filthy and lawless deeds. 2 Peter 2:6-8. Jude identifies the sin for which Sodom was destroyed as sexual immorality and perversion, Jude 1:7, as the dialogue in Genesis 1:1-13 also suggests.

Yet Jesus contrasts Capernaum with Sodom—saying that, if He had been sent to Sodom and done His miracles there, Sodom would still exist, obviously because she would have changed the wicked behavior that cried out to God. Capernaum, by contrast, had rejected His words. This certainly does imply that, if Capernaum had accepted Jesus’ words, its people would have changed their behavior.

Note that I've made a major revision to my web page "Notes on the King of Babylon, the Peace of Jerusalem, and the Restoration of Egypt and Assyria," including the addition of extensive sections of related web resources and academic citations.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Repentance of the Ninevites and Unrepentance of Israel in Matthew 12:41

My plan for the next few months is to write a series of (generally) short pieces on each of the instances in which the words “repent,” “repentance,” or their variants are used in the New Testament, showing the behavioral contents of these words. I will start with instances in Matthew, taking one passage per entry, not necessarily in the order they appear in Matthew. I will then move on to Mark, and so forth throughout the New Testament.

In this entry, I will consider Matthew 12:41

The men of Nineveh will stand up in the judgment with this generation, and will condemn it, for they repented (metenoēsan) at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, someone greater than Jonah is here.

In this verse, the word “repented” is an instance of the stronger verb for the concept, metanoeō, which implies a major change in behavior, as discussed in a previous posting. Yet no specific behavioral change on the part of the Ninevites is mentioned in this verse or its immediate context. However, Jesus’ reference to the Ninevites’ repentance is associated with a specific historical event, recorded in the book of the prophet Jonah, which was familiar to his hearers. The book of Jonah certainly records a major change in the Ninevites’ behavior when they heard the prophet’s prediction of their destruction:

5 The people of Nineveh believed God; and they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from their greatest even to their least. 6 The news reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and took off his royal robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 He made a proclamation and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, “Let neither man nor animal, herd nor flock, taste anything; let them not feed, nor drink water; 8 but let them be covered with sackcloth, both man and animal, and let them cry mightily to God. Yes, let them turn everyone from his evil way, and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who knows whether God will not turn and relent, and turn away from his fierce anger, so that we might not perish?” 10 God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way. God relented of the disaster which he said he would do to them, and he didn’t do it.

Jonah 3:5-10 (WEB).

The repentance recorded by Jonah was so complete that God delayed by over a hundred years the announced destruction of Nineveh! And it involved more than a ritual show of humility before God (fasting, sackcloth and ashes), as important as that was. It required the Ninevites to turn from their evil ways, and from the violence that was in their hands.

In its context in Matthew, the verse contrasts the Ninevites’ repentance with the unrepentance of the scribes and Pharisees who came to challenge Jesus. The scribes and Pharisees had asked Jesus for a sign that would demonstrate his authority. (Matt. 12:38). Jesus’ answer was that they would be given no sign except the sign of the prophet Jonah, who was three days and three nights in the belly of a fish. In the same way, Jesus said, he would be three days and nights in the heart of the earth (Matt. 12:39-40)—predicting his death and resurrection.

Matthew 12:41 appears at this point in the context. Jesus tells the scribes and Pharisees that the men of violent, pagan Nineveh will be able to accuse the religious leaders of Israel in the day of judgment, because when Jonah preached to them they repented, sought the true God, and put the evil deeds and violence out of their hands. By contrast, when the scribes and Pharisees heard the preaching of Jesus—one greater than Jonah—they would not listen.