Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Repentance, Changed Way of Life, and John’s Baptism

The first mention of baptism in the New Testament is found in Matthew’s account of the preaching and ministry of John the Baptist, Matthew 3:1-12, with a parallel account in Luke 3:3-14. The heart of John’s preaching according to Matthew was “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt. 3:3) (KJV). Here, I prefer the KJV because it properly reflects that John’s statement was a plural imperative, directed not just to individuals but also to the whole crowd that listened to him. I will explain the significance of this a bit later. Now, however, I would first point out that John’s words are an imperative. When John told the people to repent, this wasn’t a mere suggestion. It was a command. Moreover, the verb here translated “repent” was metanoeō, a verb which has in the NT a uniform connotation of changed behavior, not just remorse, as explained in the last entry in this blog.

In Matthew’s account, John explained the reason that the people needed to repent to be that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This is also the message Jesus preached early in his ministry: “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matt. 4:17 KJV). Without belaboring the point (as I do in my article on “God is King”), a “kingdom” is a realm that has a king. A “kingdom” is where a king is obeyed. John’s, and Jesus’, explanation of the need for repentance in terms of the nearness of a “kingdom,” thus, also clearly implies that repentance has a behavioral component (obedience to the King).

According to Luke, John preached “the baptism of repentance for remission of sins,” (Luke 3:3, WEB; KJV is similar). Although Luke doesn’t quote John’s command to “repent,” he summarizes that “repentance”--metanoia, a noun that also implies changed behavior—is critical to the remission of sins.

Next, it is important to see that changed behavior, demonstrating a changed way of life, is a major common thread between the two accounts of this event. Matthew 3:7-10 and Luke 3:7-10 are almost completely parallel, presenting this warning (quoting from Matthew):

You offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Therefore produce fruit worthy of repentance! 9 Don’t think to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I tell you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. 10 Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down, and cast into the fire.
Matthew 3:7b-10 (WEB).

These words are clearly calling for behavior—“fruit”—that shows repentance, and warning that those who remain without “good fruit” will be cut down. The only significant difference between the two accounts of these words is that, in Luke, Jesus is said to have addressed this warning to the whole crowd coming out to him to be baptized, whereas Matthew says it was addressed specifically to the Pharisees and Sadducees who came out to the place he was baptizing. However, the two accounts are not mutually exclusive, as John may have repeated himself (as teachers often do), addressing one instance of the warning to hypocrites who had only come out to spy on him (the Pharisees and Sadducees) and a second instance to the crowds who professed repentance, faith in his message and a desire to deal with their sins. To both groups, the warning was the same—if you come to God professing repentance, you must leave acting like it!

This point is made even plainer in Luke’s account of the exchange between John and various groups of common people who heard his message, understood him to be telling them to change their behavior, and asked him “What then must we do?” (Luke 3:10). John answered each group by telling them behaviors that had to change. He told everyone to stop being selfish and share their possessions with those in need. (Luke 3:11). He told the hated tax collectors who came to him, not that they had to leave their work, but that they must collect only what they were required to collect, and, thus, not to use their power to take advantage of people. (Luke 3:12). He told soldiers to be content with their wages and stop extorting money from the people through false accusations. (Luke 3:13). Each of these answers involved not only changes in behavior, but changes in the way the penitent treated other people. This is the focus of true repentance. True repentance may be an individual response, but it happens in community. This is why I prefer translations that accurately show that John’s (and Jesus’) command in Matthew is stated in the plural.

Historically, the clear behavioral aspect of the repentance John the Baptizer called for in Matthew 3 and Luke 3 has tended to become lost, obscured by arguments about whether John’s baptism was “in” water (immersion) or only “with” water (the preposition en can be translated both ways), and about whether baptism is only a demonstration of repentance and remission of sins or is a cause of remission (again, an ambiguous preposition is at fault). I won’t try to answer these divisive theological issues in this blog entry. I merely wish to point out that, no matter what position is taken on the divisive issues about baptism, both Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of John’s message clearly teach that repentance is necessary for forgiveness of sins, and that repentance involves a change of our behavior toward each other.