God's Answers

Man's Questions

"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." Matthew 3:2

A Biblical Theology of Repentance

metanoe'w  metanoeo (3340)

(This word study is in process.) 

Matthew 3:2. 1Now in those days John the Baptist came*, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, 2Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 

John was commanding the people of Israel continually to be changing their minds in view of the fact that the kingdom of the heavens had drawn near to them in a spatial sense. Presumably, if the kingdom of the heavens was near his Judean listeners, the King of the kingdom was also near. Matthew (Matt. 3:3) identified John as the one Isaiah the prophet referred to in Isaiah 40:3, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready the way of the LORD, make His paths straight.’” Whether or not John’s listeners made this connection is uncertain, but certainly Matthew did. In any event, many people in Judea were deeply moved by John’s message, and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, openly confessing their sins (Matt. 3:6).

Changing their minds (metanoeo) in preparation for the kingdom that had approached them from the heavens included first, anticipation of the King, second, spiritual cleansing to qualify for participation in His kingdom. It is worth noting that John perceived that many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism were insincere. He called them a “brood of vipers,” and wondered who had secretly warned them to flee from the coming wrath! He commanded them to bear fruit worthy of a change of mind (metanoia, 3341). [As it turned out, most of these Pharisees and Sadducees were unregenerate, as their subsequent rejection and crucifixion of Jesus demonstrated.] He warned them not to reply upon the fact that they were physical descendants of Abraham, for judgment was already approaching! (Matt. 3:7-10). Moreover, he warned of One mightier than he who was coming. The mightier One would baptize with superior baptisms, that of the Holy Spirit and of fire. His Spirit-baptism would place respondents (wheat) in God’s granary of salvation, but His fire-baptism would burn rejecters (chaff) with unquenchable fire, a tacit reference to gehenna (hell) (Matt. 3:11-12)!

Matthew 4:17. 17From that time Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 

It should be observed that, since giving an account of John’s baptism and preaching at the Jordan, Matthew recorded four other note-worthy events: (1) Jesus had also come to be baptized by John in order “to fulfill all righteousness.” At the same time, God had anointed Him with His Spirit, thus denoting Jesus not only as His Beloved Son, but as His Messianic, Davidic King (Matt. 3:13-17). (2) Jesus successfully passed His Spirit-induced temptation by Satan during a forty-day fast in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11). (3) John had been arrested and was removed from his preaching ministry (Matt. 4:12). (4) Jesus left Judea and moved to Galilee (Matt. 4:12-16), settling in Capernaum, by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali. This, Matthew recorded, was deliberate, and fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 9:1-2, in which the prophet had predicted a glorious future for the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, near the sea, Galilee of the Gentiles. Isaiah, interpreted by Matthew, had accurately predicted the region of Messiah’s ministry (Matt. 4:12-15) and the impact of Messiah’s ministry – glory (Isa. 9:1) and the dawning of great light for those sitting in darkness and the shadow of death (Isa. 9:2; Matt. 4:16). It was from that point and with that background that Jesus began to announce and to command, “Have a change of mind, because the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near (to you in the Person and Presence of the King!) (Matt. 4:17).

So in context, the change of mind Jesus commanded (metanoeo) had to do with perceiving the glorious dawning of new light for those who had previously experienced contempt (Isa. 9:1), and who were presently sitting in darkness and the shadow of death. So the change of mind Jesus was promoting covered three factors: (a) The kingdom from the heavens had drawn near to them; (b) they should respond appropriately to the King (obviously Himself); and (c) His presence heralded and constituted the dawn of a great light of life for them, for they were experiencing death! It should be noted that, though Jesus would later certainly talk about sin (see Matt. 5-7), this initial change of mind does not mention sin.

Matthew 11:20-21. 20Then He began to denounce the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent21“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 

Unfortunately, we English speakers are so conditioned to connect sin with the word repent that we assume Jesus condemned Chorazin and Bethsaida because they did not repent of their various sins. But I do not believe that is primarily what Jesus had in mind. Much time has elapsed during Jesus’ ministry as recorded in Matt. 4-11. It is true that Jesus certainly emphasized the appropriate behavior necessary to participate in the kingdom of the heavens (Matt. 5-7). But Matthew summarized Jesus’ ministry in brief statements such as those found in Matthew 4:22-25; 8:16-17; 9:35-38; 10:1-8; 11:1; 11:2-6. It is clear that through His ministry, Jesus was searching for those who would recognize Him as the Messiah He was, accepting Him by faith. 

Most egregious in their rejection of Him were the Pharisees and other leaders, who not only rejected Him as the Messiah, but stated that He cast out demons by the power of Satan (Matt. 9:34; 10:25; 12:22-32). It would appear that Jesus pronounced woe upon Chorazin and Bethsaida because, despite all the miracles performed among them, they still did not believe He was the Messiah! From this they needed to change their mind. Had Jesus performed these miracles in the Gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon, they would have changed their mind about him in sackcloth and ashes long ago. In other words, the people of the Gentile cities would have been appalled at their neglect of Jesus and would have placed their confidence in Him as the King!

Matthew 12:41. 41“The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here." 

A superficial assessment might lead one to conclude that metanoeo has to do with a change of mind about evil. And a good case can be made for that conclusion. When Jonah had cried out that the city of Nineveh would be overthrown in forty days, the king of Nineveh issued a proclamation that included the following words,

8“But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands. 9Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish” (Jonah 3:8-9). 

But that is not the end of the story, either in the book of Jonah or in the gospel of Matthew. After Jonah cried out, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4), the text reads immediately, 5Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them” (Jonah 3:5). So we can conclude two things from the account in Jonah: (1) The people changed their minds about continuing in their “evil way” and “violence” because they believed in God. (2) The people changed their minds about their “evil way” and “violence” because they believed in Jonah. Let’s see if anything of the kind exists in Matt. 12.

In the extended context of Matt. 12, (a) “the Pharisees” accused Jesus’ disciples of breaking the Sabbath by picking heads of grain, shelling them by hand, and then eating them as they passed through a field (Matt. 12:1-8). (b) Jesus left and entered their synagogue, apparently on the Sabbath. Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on there on the Sabbath. But the Pharisees left, seeking a way to kill Jesus (Matt. 12:9-14). (c) Jesus healed a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute. The amazed crowds were all but willing to assign to Jesus Messianic status. Unable to deny the factuality of the miraculous sign, the Pharisees, however, completely distorted the miracle. They asserted, apparently not in Jesus’ presence, that he was able to cast out demons only by the power of Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons. Jesus, aware of their thoughts, pointed out the absurdity of their illogic, and then concluded that they had committed the unpardonable sin by attributing Jesus’ power source to the devil instead of to the Holy Spirit (Matt. 12:22-32). They would be judged by their words (Matt. 12:33-37).

Unbelievably, some of the scribes and Pharisees then requested a sign from Jesus! The immediate context of Matthew 12:41 reads as follows (Matt. 12:38-42):

38Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.” 39But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; 40for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41“The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. 42The Queen of the South will rise up with this generation at the judgment and will condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.

The scribes and Pharisees were requesting a miraculous sign presumably sufficient enough to induce them to believe in Jesus as their Messiah. But in view of their complete rejection of Him, Jesus refused any signs for “an evil and adulterous generation” except for the sign of His burial and subsequent resurrection – which He called the sign of the prophet Jonah. The people of Nineveh had changed their mind about God and Jonah, and had believed both, responding by changing their mind and behavior about their sins. The Queen of the South came from afar because she gave credence to the wisdom of Solomon. But both the people of Nineveh and the Queen of the South would stand in judgment upon Israel and her leaders because someone far greater than either Jonah or Solomon had come, but they had not believed He was the Messiah! They had totally rejected Him, (and in fact, would conspire to crucify Him)!

So though in a narrower context, the change of mind of the people of Nineveh incorporated a change of mind about sin, the larger context was about faith in the prophet and faith in God. Jesus implied that the people of Israel needed to change their mind. About what? About Him! They needed to trust in Him – to acknowledge Him as their Messiah. This they were, for the most part, totally unwilling to do.

Mark 1:15.  14 Now after John had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, 15 and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel." (Mark 1:14-15)

There are several things worth noting about the beginning paragraphs of Mark's narrative of the Good News. (1) He began his account, "The beginning of the Good News (Genitive Neuter Singular of the noun euaggélion, 2098) of Jesus Christ [Son of God]" (Mark 1:1, JTB translation, following UBS4 text). (2) Mark quoted both from Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3 to demonstrate that John the Baptist was the prophesied messenger who would prepare the way for the Messiah (Mark 1:2-3). (3) John, the one baptizing, came into the wilderness and was announcing a baptism of "change of mind" (metánoia, 3341) for the purpose of symbolizing the forgiveness of sins (hamartía, 266) (Mark 1:4). (4) People from Judea and Jerusalem were going out to him confessing their sins
(hamartía, 266) (Mark 1:5). (5) After John had been arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing the Good News of God (Mark 1:14), and saying that the time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God has drawn near (chronologically and spatially, in the presence of the Divinely-anointed King). He said, "Be changing your mind (2nd Person Plural Present Active Imperative of the verb metanoéō, 3340), and be believing in the Good News!" (Dative Neuter Singular of the noun euaggélion, 2098) (Mark 1:15, author's literal translation).

Conclusions: (1) Without a doubt repenting (changing one's mind) in these opening paragraphs of Mark's narrative includes confessing one's sins and being forgiven for one's sins. (2) Baptism was designed to symbolize a change of mind about sins and an identification with the coming One who would baptize with the Spirit, a far mightier agent than mere water (Mark 1:7-8). Baptism could not induce repentance any more than circumcision could automatically secure a circumcised heart under the Old Covenant. (3) A change of mind about one's sins is necessary (Mark 1:15), but insufficient. It is necessary also to be believing in the Good News (Mark 1:15) from God (Mark 1:14) about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God (Mark 1:1).

Mark 6:12. They went out and preached that men should repent.

Luke 10:13. Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had been performed in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes.

Luke 11:32. The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.

Luke 13:3. 1 Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 And Jesus said to them, "Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? 3 "I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. (Luke 13:1-3)

Luke 13:5. 4 "Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? 5 "I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." (Luke 13:4-5)

Luke 15:7. "I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance."

Luke 15:10.  "In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."

Luke 16:30. "But he said, 'No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!'

Luke 17:3-4. 3 "Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. 4 "And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, 'I repent,' forgive him."

Acts 2:38. Peter said to them, "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Acts 3:19. 17 "And now, brethren, I know that you acted in ignorance, just as your rulers did also. 18 "But the things which God announced beforehand by the mouth of all the prophets, that His Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled. 19 "Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord; 20 and that He may send Jesus, the Christ appointed for you, 21 whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time. (Acts 3:17-21)

Acts 8:22. "Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you.

Acts 17:30. "Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, (Acts 17:30)

Acts 26:20. 19 "So, King Agrippa, I did not prove disobedient to the heavenly vision, 20 but kept declaring both to those of Damascus first, and also at Jerusalem and then throughout all the region of Judea, and even to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance. (Acts 26:19-20)

2 Corinthians 12:21. I am afraid that when I come again my God may humiliate me before you, and I may mourn over many of those who have sinned in the past and not repented of the impurity, immorality and sensuality which they have practiced.

Revelation 2:5. ~'Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent.

Revelation 2:16. ~'Therefore repent; or else I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth.

Revelation 2:21-22.  20 ~'But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. 21  ~'I gave her time to repent, and she does not want to repent of her immorality. 22 ~'Behold, I will throw her on a bed of sickness, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of her deeds. (Revelation 2:20-22)

Revelation 3:3. ~'So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you.

Revelation 3:19. ~'Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent.

Revelation 9:20-21. 20 The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands, so as not to worship demons, and the idols of gold and of silver and of brass and of stone and of wood, which can neither see nor hear nor walk; 21 and they did not repent of their murders nor of their sorceries nor of their immorality nor of their thefts. (Revelation 9:20-21)

Revelation 16:9. 8 The fourth angel poured out his bowl upon the sun, and it was given to it to scorch men with fire. 9 Men were scorched with fierce heat; and they blasphemed the name of God who has the power over these plagues, and they did not repent so as to give Him glory. (Revelation 16:8-9)

Revelation 16:11. 10 Then the fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom became darkened; and they gnawed their tongues because of pain, 11 and they blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores; and they did not repent of their deeds. (Revelation 16:10-11)


(Scripture quotation taken from the NASB.)

First partial posting April 15, 2011

Last updated November 23, 2016

Background and Button Image Credit

Search WordExplain.com here.