In a culture obsessed with the need to affirm and to be affirmed—especially for thoughts and expressions that seem to contradict rationality—it might be jarring to discover that the first word Jesus speaks in his public ministry is not one of acceptance or affirmation, but one that challenges everything we think we know, and calls for a deep conversion: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:17). Repentance is the first public proclamation of Jesus. In the original Greek of the New Testament, the word is metanoiete (meh-tah-noy-’ēh-teh), which is not an invitation to “come as you are.” The invitation is rather to step away from our preferences—to repent and to turn away from those things—beyond our sin and shame, beyond the things that tie us down and keep us from living in freedom (Gal 5:1) and abundance (John 10:10). How can this one word mean all of that? In this post, we’ll unpack the call of metanoiete, break down what it means, and discover what is a suitable response to God’s invitation.
What is metanoia?
The word metanoia, often translated “repentance,” is formed by combining two smaller Greek words: meta (beyond); and nous (mind or spirit). Together, they form the verb (metanoeō), which means something like “go beyond the mind that you have.” From its Latin cognate (pœnitentiam) and through the Old French (repentir), it often comes into our English Bibles as “repent.” But English-based conceptions of “repent” may not capture the fulness of metanoia, which also includes the broader theme of conversion. Bishop Robert Barron addresses this very issue:
The English word “repent” has a moralizing overtone, suggesting a change in behavior or action, whereas Jesus’ term seems to be hinting at a change at a far more fundamental level of one’s being. Jesus urges his listeners to change their way of knowing, their way of perceiving and grasping reality, their perspective, their mode of seeing. What Jesus implies is this: the new state of affairs has arrived, the divine and human have met, but the way you customarily see is going to blind you to this novelty. . . Minds, eyes, ears, senses, perceptions—all have to be opened up, turned around, revitalized. Metanoia, soul transformation, is Jesus’ first recommendation.1
The full scope of Jesus’ call now begins to come into focus. The kingdom of heaven has arrived, and it is nothing like any kingdom the world could ever offer. The kingdoms of the world are measured in power, strength, and size. The kingdom of heaven will be measured in poverty, meekness, and humility (see Matt 5:2-11). Perhaps the most scandalous difference is that whereas the kingdoms of the world are manifested in their geographical territories, the kingdom of heaven finds its fullest expression not in a place, but in a person. All of this requires a completely new way of conceiving—metanoia. It is on this basis that Jesus launches his public ministry. Neither he nor his kingdom could be fully understood through previously constructed frameworks. As Barron rightly puts it, a “new state of affairs has arrived.”
A Call of Continuity: Jesus and John the Baptist
Though this new state of affairs that Jesus announces is entirely new, it is also, paradoxically, a timeless message. This public proclamation of Jesus [“Repent, for ... ”] is not the first time we find this phrase in the Gospel. Before Jesus famously uttered these words in Matthew 4:17, his forerunner and cousin, John the Baptist, preached the same message by the Jordan River: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2). The fact that Jesus echoed this call verbatim upon the arrest of John should not be overlooked. What John began, Jesus would bring to fulfillment. The message of the baptizer was not replaced by Jesus so much as it was handed over to Jesus so to bring it to its fullest maturity.
A brief side point is worth considering here. In the Gospel of Matthew, John the Baptist calls for metanoia, not only in his role as the last prophet, an individual, but also as a representative—an incarnation, if you will—of the entire Old Testament that lay open before him. Whose voice was it that cried in the wilderness, preparing the way for the Christ? Surely it was John—yet also it was the collective voice of the Old Testament, embodied in John, crying out, pointing us to the One it had been revealing all along.
In a later scene in Matthew, John would send word via his disciples to Jesus, asking him if he was indeed the long-awaited Messiah (see Matt 11:2-6). Notice how Jesus responded to the inquiry. Rather than speaking in terms of something entirely new or without precedent, he instead confirmed these hopes in the language of Old Testament prophecy, drawing especially from the prophet Isaiah. On one hand, John the Baptist prepared the way for the incarnation of something entirely new—God made flesh. On the other hand, John was preaching a timeless message, disclosing the same Lord who had been tenderly speaking for centuries through the common, inspired voice of the Old Testament.
In this light, John’s call to “repent” in Matthew 3 is a breathtaking synthesis of the law and the prophets. It takes on the ‘metanoietic’ flavor of the Old Testament, calling his audience to go out, beyond their current frame of mind. God had called Abram to go out from his homeland to a land flowing with milk and honey. He would also ask him to go beyond his way of conceiving how he could ever have a child in his old age; to go beyond his way of thinking (metanoia) and trust in God’s promise. As the Lord declared through Isaiah, “[M]y thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Isa 55:8).
Now, a new way is being prepared in the wilderness (cf. Matt 3:3; cf. Isa 40:3), a way for the Lord himself to come and bring the message of ‘repentance’ to fulfilment. A new way of thinking would be necessary to understand his teachings and miracles; a new mode of understanding would be necessary to see his Passion, Death, and Resurrection as the greatest achievement in human history. Metanoia, “soul transformation,” must always accompany the gospel, as it is the only way of unlocking its full potential and depth. Thus, since the very inception of the church, metanoia has remained at the center of her life and preaching.
Jesus, Repentance, and the Church
We often refer to Pentecost as the birthday of the Church, since it was the moment in which the mystical body of Christ was born within the community of the apostles in the upper room (see Acts 2:1-4f). Upon receiving the gift of the Spirit and being mystically knit to Christ their head, the apostles, represented by Peter, went out to preach to the pilgrims who were gathered in Jerusalem. Peter’s preaching was so striking, that the listeners were “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37). Moved by the message of the gospel and their witness to the risen Christ, they were compelled to ask Peter: “what shall we do?” (2:37). Peter responds with a message that should sound quite familiar: “Repent [Greek: metanoēsate] and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (2:38).
Like John and Jesus before him, Peter called for conversion as a response to the new state of affairs. The message presented by the Old Testament, represented by John, and placed in the hands of Jesus, is now placed into the hands of the Church. Notice also what follows Peter’s call to conversion: in fulfilment of John’s message, the only appropriate response to metanoia is baptism. Only through the waters of sanctifying grace can one experience the true soul-transformation that metanoia demands. Conversion is not something that can be achieved through self-reliance. In fact, that is the very thing that metanoia is trying to disrupt. Through baptism—and thus through the sacramental economy as a whole—we ‘go out’ of self to allow room for Jesus to ‘come in’. This is the essence of true conversion, a step away from sin and selfishness, and a step toward grace and healing. All of this is necessary if one is truly to comprehend and be transformed by the saving message of the gospel.
Through his many patriarchs and prophets, God continually called his chosen ones to go beyond the confines of self in order to participate in his way of living (cf. Lev 19:2). To be God’s chosen people is to be holy, and in some sense removed and different from a world otherwise consumed with itself.
At the banks of the Jordan River, John the Baptist takes up this call. Later, Jesus does likewise, constantly calling his disciples to deeper ways of understanding. Animated by the Holy Spirit, the Church preaches the same message. Repentance, conversion—metanoia—stands at the heart of the Christian journey. It is our beginning (baptism, cf. Acts 2:38), our middle (transformation, cf. Rom 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18), and our end (deification, cf. 2 Pet 1:4). So let us ask the Lord this day—and each day after—where, when, and how he is calling us to go beyond ourselves to experience the conversion, the soul transformation, that he longs to perform in us.
Robert Barron, And Now I See: A Theology of Transformation (Park Ridge, IL: Word on Fire Academic, 2021), xiv-xv.