Reading the gospel in Greek helps redefine the meaning of repentance.
Have you ever noticed what are the first words spoken by Jesus in the Gospel of Mark? In his first chapter, Mark gives a summation of Jesus’ preaching in Galilee. It goes like this:
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” [Mark 1:14-15]
This is Jesus’ preaching in a sound bite version. It is one sentence. It is, however, a weighty sentence. Let me unpack it.
First, Jesus makes a theological assertion. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. The Greek word translated time is the word kairos. This Greek word denotes an appointed time, a deadline or a meeting date we might enter into an appointment calendar.
To understand what Jesus is saying we must also cast an eye back to the Old Testament. This time is the time of which the Hebrew prophets often spoke. It is the long-anticipated but also long-delayed time when God would come to deliver his people, to establish justice in the earth, to make unchallenged his sovereignty over the whole earth, and, finally, to usher in an era of universal peace and healing.
That time, Jesus says, has arrived at last. The kingship of God is about to be established fully. Its arrival is right on our doorstep. This would have been astoundingly good news (gospel) to the oppressed people of Galilee… as it continues to be for believers today.
But make no mistake about it. It is a theological claim, whether we believe it or not.
Ethics Follow the Theology
Then Jesus draws the implications for behavior that grow out of this claim. Repent, and believe the good news. Behavior follows upon the theology. (This, by the way, is the same pattern we find in the apostle Paul’s letters, where the first portion of his letters lays out Paul’s theology. In the second portion he draws out the implications of that theology for how Christians are to live. His Letter to the Romans is a classic example.)
Now here’s where knowing a little Greek starts to make things interesting. The Greek word translated repent is the Greek verb metanoeite. Most Bible translators translate it as repent, but I am not sure our common English understanding of repentance does justice to the Greek verb.
We today have this idea that repentance means primarily feeling remorse or contrition for our sins and failures and then resolving to change. Our classic image of repentance is one favored by Renaissance painters. It shows a disheveled Mary Magdalene weeping in front of a burning candle. Repentance for us, therefore, has a very strong emotional cast to it.
The root of metanoeite, however, does not have this strong emotional cast. More literally, it means to change one’s mind. It, therefore, has a more mental rather than emotional flavoring. What it refers to might be more accurately described as changing a mindset, or revising a particular way of looking at things.
What we are being asked to change is those customary ways we approach life, those deep-seated assumptions and convictions that govern our behavior. These assumptions and convictions may be deeply embedded in our psyche. They often come from childhood interpretations of our experiences. They become a part of our emotional make-up. But they are not ephemeral feelings in themselves. They are settled assumptions from which we approach life, react in our relationships, and determine how we will behave.
The Power of Mindsets
Repentance then is discarding or at least revising these settled assumptions in the light of the good news that the kingdom of God has come near. If we really believe this to be good news, it will shake up and transform how we see life and how we behave. We will come to look at life differently, to feel differently, and then to act differently.
In this respect, repentance may involve us in a dramatic change of direction in our life. That change may have strong emotional resonances. But it all begins with that change of mindset.
If this sounds unfamiliar, let me provide an example to clarify what I mean. In a segment of the British TV comedy Faulty Towers, Basil, the hotel owner, learns that a representative of the hotel industry will be visiting his hotel secretly and rating it.
Basil is consumed with frantic anxiety about this upcoming visit. He is determined that this secret inspector will be given a royal treatment while he is staying at the hotel. When a particular guest registers, Basil is convinced that he is the secret inspector. And so he fawns all over this guest, trying to anticipate his every need and whim and satisfying it. In the process Basil makes a fool of himself.
Of course this guest is not the secret inspector. Another guest is, but Basil brushes this other guest off and treats him rudely. Only at the end of the segment does Basil learn his mistake.
It makes for uproarious laughter, but the segment also shows the power of how our beliefs shape our behavior. Basil might have saved the day if he had been willing to question his basic assumptions about who was the inspector and who was not. If he had, his behavior might have dramatically changed, too.
If we believe life is a dog-eat-dog world, then we will live a life based upon one-up-man-ship, keeping a close eye on every opportunity to upend or do in our competitors. If we believe life is structured to beat us down, then we will approach most relationships with suspicion and fear. If, on the other hand, we believe that a loving God is our constant companion throughout our days, then we will approach life with far greater resilience.
Our mindset does indeed shape how we feel and how we act. And if we really believe the Christian gospel message that the kingdom of God has entered into our world through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, then we may need to engage in some serious change in our fundamental assumptions, convictions, and mindsets. That is repentance.
This insight gives rise to a new beatitude: Blessed are they who change their minds.
An Added Note:
Do not take what I have just written as my assuming such a transformation of our mindsets is an instantaneous experience for most of us. It is not. For most of us, it is a journey, a life-long journey. But that is the subject for another blog posting someday.