Matthew 4:17 is the nucleus of Jesus’s life and ministry. “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near,” is the essence of Jesus’s work on the earth. Everything we see in the Gospels flows from it. Therefore, it is essential that we understand what Jesus means in those first few words recorded in Matthew.
I’ll preface this by admitting that the word “repentance” has a lot of baggage associated with it. The word has been damaged in our culture and is in great need of explanation so that we can understand it correctly. Repentance is the absolute first step to salvation – it is imperative that we understand it well and can explain it to others.
Let us first examine what repentance is not.
When we proclaim the Good News, we want people to repent. However, getting people to repent is not us trying to convict other people of their sins so that they will turn to Jesus for forgiveness. Convicting people of their sins is Holy Spirit’s job (see John 16). A great many saints have taken this approach through the years and God, in His mercy, has allowed it to be fruitful. Even still, I do not think this is the most effective means of advancing the Gospel.
I’d like to go on to explain what repentance is by comparing and contrasting two Greek words, metanoia and paranoia.
Paranoia is a word we are familiar with in English. It describes a disease wherein someone is absolutely consumed with thoughts of other people, specifically, that other people are out to “get them” or do them harm. This is exactly what the word paranoia means in Greek – para means “alongside” or “beside” and noia is the word for “thinking” or “mind.” So, paranoia has a double meaning – it can mean “outside your mind” (meaning madness), or it can mean “thinking about the people beside you.” Paranoia is literally the fear of man, being consumed with thinking about the people around you and what they are thinking about you. Paranoia is a disease of the enemy that steals, kills and destroys a sound mind.
Metanoia is commonly translated as repent, which is really unfortunate because that isn’t anything like what the word means in Greek. If you think about it, re means “to do again” and pent is from the word penitent which means “feeling or expressing sorrow for sin.” So repent literally means “to feel sorry and do penance over (and over) again.” Yuck. But it helps explain why we evangelize the way we do. We’re trying to get people to feel sorry for their sins.
Contrast that with the actual Greek word metanoia. Meta can mean “to change” or “above” and noia once again means “mind” or “thinking.” So metanoia also has two meanings – “to change your mind/thinking” or “to think about the things above,” meaning God. If paranoia is being concerned with what other people think of you, metanoia is being concerned with what God thinks of you.
So, what does Jesus mean when he says, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near”? I think what he means is this: “The Kingdom of Heaven, God’s reign and rule, has come near to you. I’ve proved it by healing the sick, casting out demons and even raising the dead. God is real, and He is coming as a King to overthrow His enemies and establish His Kingdom on the earth. How are you going to live in response to what you have seen and heard? Are you on God’s side or not? I am the Way, the Truth and the Life – I am God’s terms of peace. If you will submit to me as your Lord and Savior I will spare you from the wrath that is soon to come on the earth. If you don’t, them you stand condemned already as those that have rebelled against God and rejected His terms of peace.”
The sentence I highlighted above, “How are you going to live in response to what you have seen and heard”, is what I understand Jesus to mean with the word metanoia. Repentance can only happen when we have been confronted with the Superior Reality of God’s Kingdom. When we see God’s Kingdom triumph over the kingdom of this world through signs, wonders, miracles, love, mercy and forgiveness then we have a choice to make – will we align with Immanuel (the God in our midst) or will we continue our allegiance to the Prince of this world through unbelief, skepticism, cynicism, fear, revenge and unforgiveness? While metanoia is oftentimes accompanied by remorse over sin (Acts 2:37), it isn’t always (see Acts 10).
To clarify, I don’t want to do away with the English understanding of repentance, that is, “to feel sorry for our sins.” As Disciples of King Jesus growing in holiness, we will experience sorrow for our sins. We will grieve how we have hurt God’s heart through willful disobedience and we will ache over how we have caused pain to those we love when we act contrary to our true nature. What I am trying to make clear is that, as it pertains to Evangelism, we are required to confront people with the Reality of God’s Kingdom in such a way that it gets them to think about God. And if we can get them to ask questions like “What does God think about me? Are we on good terms? Were Jesus to come back right now and establish the Kingdom, would I be on the winning side or losing side?” so much the better.
I long for the Church to reclaim metanoia. I long for us to look for ways to change people’s hearts and minds by demonstrating the true Gospel of Grace. I long to see Disciples of Jesus carry His Presence in such a powerful way that whenever we walk into a room, we can truthfully say, “the Kingdom of Heaven has come near to you.”
I believe that day is coming. I believe it is promised to us in the Scriptures. My prayer is that I will live to see it, even pastor a group of people who will be the living embodiment of the “greater things.” Amen, let it indeed be so!