Let me mention a couple of topics that are going to become very important in Matthew’s gospel and in the whole New Testament. One of the problems we have when we study a book like this is that we, as students of the word of God, because we are so smart and we’ve had such a vast background, we slap on to the scriptures what we heard; our own system of theology. It depends on our background and what we’ve heard and what we’ve read and who we chatted with; we already have preconceived ideas, and we come to the Bible, and make the Bible fit our system. It would be neat if God could set us free, so that we could come objectively to the word of God. I don’t believe it’s possible. I don’t think anyone can come without any preconceived ideas. We all have our little systems, our own charts and little lines that we follow. To be completely free from, that would be good, but I don’t think that is possible. I hope that the Lord gives us as much deliverance as we are able to take, so that we can be objective as we come to these things.
My first preliminary observation is in chapter 3:2, “Repent.” Matthew lays great stress on repentance. Of course this is the first time you have it in the New Testament, and it becomes increasingly important on how it’s going to be developed throughout the New Testament. John begins his ministry with the word “repent”. The Lord Jesus teaches to repent. The disciples are told to preach repentance and forgiveness of sin. When you come to the word “repent” you come to a little bit of a problem. Once again, I have to keep confessing that I’m not a student of the Greek. I hope I’m doing my homework in English, so I can share with you some of the gems from the Greek. As you know, the Bible was translated from another language. It wasn’t written in English. The New Testament was written in Greek.
Greek is a very full language, and that is why it was chosen. It’s a very wonderful language and a very rich language. There are words in the Greek that don’t appear in English. There is no translation in English. There are tenses in the Greek; it’s not just past, present and future. They have some other weird tenses; eras tense and some tenses we’ve never heard of. When you try to translate that into English, very often you miss a lot in the translation. God chose the Greek because it was the most perfect language, and He wanted to give all the different shades of His wonderful Person, and all of the wonderful colored aspects of His own glory. Greek, being a full language and a perfect language, is why He chose it. It would be wonderful if we all knew Greek, and could read in the Greek, and think in the Greek, and understand in the Greek. But if you have to translate it into another language, sometimes you lose something.
In the Greek there are at least three different words for love, but when you translate it into English you only have one word; love. So every time you see it, it says, “love”. You don’t know the different shades that Jesus had in mind when He used a different Greek word, because you only have one word when you read it. So, unless you can have the translation or some Bible helps or somebody has told you about it, you’ll just see “love”, and you’ll think it’s the love that you know about in your own language.
My son John being deaf speaks another language. It’s a brand new language. We had to learn another language; a sign language. But it’s just like German or French or Spanish or Chinese. It’s a language. One thing about the sign language is that it’s poverty stricken. It doesn’t have many words. For example the word “tired” is like this. The word “weary”, now watch the difference, is like this. And the word “fatigued” is like this. And the word “worn out” is like this. And the word haggard is like “this”. And the word “exhausted” is like this. And the word “spent” is like this. And the word “drowsy” is like this. For those listening by tape, it’s all the same word. But you know there is a difference in the English between being weary and being fatigued and being drawn out and being bedraggled. There are differences, but not to them. When they see the word, it’s one word. You are going to “toil” and you are going to “work” and you are going to “labor” is all the same. That’s the problem you have with the English to the Greek.
Having given that as background, let’s get back to our word. Repent is like that. The word “repent”, according to Webster, means to feel regret, contrition or compunction for what one has done or admitted to doing. In other words it means to be very sorry that you blew it. There is a Greek word like that. It means the same thing; to feel regret, contrition or compunction for what one has done or failed to do.
I’m going to ask you to turn to Matthew 27:3-4. In that passage Judas repented himself. If you have the New American Standard they put in “felt remorse”. They are trying to get the fine difference but the KJV translates it “repent”. The Greek word is exactly that. That’s what Judas did. Judas did our English word “repent”. That’s exactly what Judas did. He felt awfully sorry. He felt pain inside, and he felt badly that he did it. He repented. That’s our English word “repent”. The problem is when John preached repentance, he didn’t use that word. He used a different word altogether, and we don’t have an English word that goes along with it. We just say “repent”. He preached, “Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand.” When you read “repent” you think English and, “Oh yeah, he felt sorry for his sins,” etc. John the Baptizer was teaching to repent. Was he calling the people to do what Judas did? You know better than that. He didn’t use the same word. The English is the same, but in the Greek it’s a different word, and we don’t have an English word that corresponds with it. It’s the word “metanoeite”. You’ve probably heard that repentance means to “change the mind”. Well that’s because half of the word has to do with the intellect, and it means “to change it around”.
Let me try to make it as simple as possible. The English word “repent” means “to grieve over sin”. The Greek word “repent” means to abandon your sin. It has nothing to do about how you feel about it. It means “to quit”. That’s the Greek word “repent”. It means to change your mind. It’s a mental attitude. It’s a direction. It’s an act of your will, and there is no English word that conveys that. When John preached “repent”, he meant “about face”, “turn around”, and “change your attitude toward sin”. Because of the English word “repent”, the word “penance” has slipped into the church and into the people of God, because they say, “That means penance.” But it’s a million light years between what John said when he said “repent”, and the word “penance”.
I feel strongly about this because the Greek kind of repentance is going to take up an awful lot of the rest of Matthew. Matthew is going to be preaching on this, and we better get that word down. Most repentance needs to be repented of. The Apostle Paul said that, and I didn’t say it. The Apostle Paul said that in 2 Corinthians 7:10, “The sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance that needs not be repented of.” The New American Standard says, “Produces a repentance that needs no regret.” That’s the idea; a repentance that you don’t have to repent of—leading to salvation. Then he tells about the other kind. He says, “The sorrow of the world produces death.” Isn’t that amazing? The repentance of the world, the kind Judas had, the kind that is in Webster’s, produces death. It does nothing for your soul, and does nothing for your spirit. The English word “repent” has no place in the Bible. It doesn’t fit. This is a different word.
There are some who teach that if you teach repentance, then you are teaching law, and you are teaching works, and you are telling people to do something. The Greek word “repent” is exactly what Isaiah preached in Isaiah 55:7, “Let the wicked man forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return to the Lord.” It’s leaving sin. It’s an attitude and a direction of heart. It’s a matter of the will. Let me put it in these words and say, “God will never repent for us but He stands ready to make our repentance real.” Do you follow that? God won’t repent for you but He guarantees the reality of your repentance if you want it. You must choose to forsake sin, and then He’ll enable you to do it. Many Christians have never repented, and they’ve never chosen to forsake sin. What a contradiction in the lives of God’s people. They are mocking God, and they are deceiving themselves. They pray, “Lord, deliver me,” and then they go out and indulge in the very thing that inflames the corruption. They are mocking God, and are deceiving themselves. Those are lying prayers, and they will never be answered. Crying over your sin is not repentance. Judas did that. It’s not that. The church needs repentance badly.
Listen to some of the things the Lord said to the church of Ephesus. Revelation 2:5, “Repent; and do the deeds you did at first, or else I’m coming, and I will take your candlestick out of its place, unless you repent.” To the church at Pergamum, Revelations 2:16, “Repent; for I’m coming to you quickly, and I’ll make war with you with the sword of my mouth.” To the church at Thyatira, Revelations 2:21-22, “I gave you time to repent, and she did not want to repent.” See, there is the act of the will. You’ve got to want to. She did not want to repent of her immorality. “Behold I’ll cast her into a bed of sickness, and those who commit adultery with her in the great tribulation, unless they repent. And I will kill her children with pestilence, and all the churches will know that I am He that searches the minds and the hearts, and I’ll give to each one of you according to your deeds.” To the church at Sardis, Revelation 3:2-3, “Wake up! Strengthen the things that remain which were about to die, for I found your deeds incomplete in the sight of God. Remember therefore, be mindful for what you have heard. Keep it and repent. If you’ll not wake up I’ll come like a thief, and you will not know what hour I am coming.” To the church at Laodicea chapter 3:19, “Those whom I love I refine and discipline. Be zealous therefore and repent. He who has an ear to hear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” To the churches He is saying, “Repent.”
Repentance is not a feeling you have after you’ve sinned. It’s a decision that you make. It’s an act of the will to stop sinning. It’s saying, “No.” Someone says, “Boy, I tell you, I sinned against God and I felt so rotten. I just wept and wept and cried my eyes out.” Well, praise, God. There’s a place for that. It’s not repentance. It might be a contrite and broken spirit and a broken heart. Praise God for that! Just don’t call it “repentance”. It’s not repentance. You can cry your eyes out, and you can cry yourself inside out, it has nothing to do with repentance. You say, “Yeah, but after I drained myself, and wept, and was broken, I claimed from God a full forgiveness, and now I’m living in the sunshine of His love.” Well, Hallelujah! Amen! I believe in that kind of grace. It restores, and it lifts up, and it draws you back into His smile. You still haven’t repented. It has nothing to do with how rotten you feel about your sin, how broken you are, how sad you are because you grieved God, or how you messed up, and how much you claim forgiveness. That is not repentance.
From time to time I repent as far as eating is concerned, and I choose to diet. In most cases when I diet it’s because my wife is nagging the daylights out of me, and I don’t really diet because I haven’t set my heart to it. She set her heart to it, but I haven’t set my heart to it, so it doesn’t work. Now and then I’ll cut back and all, but when she’s not looking I’m going to cheat. But there comes a time every now and then when I decide that I’ve had enough, as I did this last Thanksgiving, of all times to do it. Her folks just made all kinds of goodies and sweets. I was not tempted to eat those. I made up my mind. I repented as far a food was concerned, and I set my mind against it. That’s what repentance is.
I don’t want to judge because we can’t see any hearts, but from the outside some of the most immoral, loose, slipshod, irreverent people I know are those who claim victory in Christ and claim to be walking in grace, in fellowship with God, and resting in the Lord. They are the ones who condemn the legalists claiming, “We don’t live under law but under grace.” Where is the fear of God? Where is the awe of God and where is reverence and where is holiness? The kind of repentance that John preached that is impaled in that Greek word is an integral part of grace. Jesus said, “Except we repent, He’ll remove our candlestick.”
Let’s say that we commit a gross sin. I’m going to use one that, as far as I know, doesn’t apply to anyone here, so nobody thinks I’m picking on them. As far as I know you are all free from embezzlement, stealing from your employer, or just stealing in general. Let’s say that the Holy Spirit convicts you of that sin, and sends a shaft of conviction through your soul, so that you are broken and are weeping and you have a contrite heart. God shows you the ugliness and the exceeding sinfulness of that thing, and you come before God and weep and cry and are sorry that you dishonored God, and you are sorry that you shamed the people of God and your family. You repent of that thing, and you are smitten and feel a deep remorse.
Let’s say that because of the grace of God you have been allowed to understand the message of the finished work, and you understand a little bit about the great mercy of God and the pardon of God, and you embrace a full, complete pardon for your sin. You are completely cleansed, and you see all of your sin under the blood. It’s true that Satan will still try to nag you and condemn you, and the world is going to try to condemn you, and in many cases Christians will try to condemn you. But in your heart you know that there is no condemnation and that those who are in Christ Jesus have received God’s forgiveness and cleansing and are clean and washed and purged and pure and holy and sanctified and forgiven. The fallen snow couldn’t be more white than your heart is white. You are an Almighty white before the eyes of a thrice holy God. You have wept over your sins and have claimed a full forgiveness. You can do that, and it has nothing to do with repentance.
Repentance has to do with changing your mind. And in many cases it’s a cold, deliberate act of the will, “I choose against this. I set my face against it.” There may not be any tears, and there may not be any emotion, and there might not be any feeling. This is what is so tragic. Many times we sin, and we feel rotten because we’ve sinned, and we feel polluted and dirty and corrupt from the inside, and we’ve embraced God in His great forgiveness, and we think we’ve repented. We haven’t repented. It has nothing to do with repentance. That’s why the message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” is so powerful. It’s the barb in the message of the grace of God. The message of grace has a barb in it, and without having that you may go out and embezzle again tomorrow or next week or next month or next year. You haven’t set your heart against it. That’s what repentance is. It’s changing your mind. Just trust the Lord to work that in your heart.
My heart is so grieved. In one case, a drunkard came to me and said, “I’m going to keep on drinking until God delivers me.” God is not going to deliver him. He can cry out forever. You are not going to be delivered from your habits by continuing in your habits and crying out for deliverance. You never will. It’s not possible.
The pervert is not going to be delivered while he gluts himself in filthy books and stories, and then cries out, “Oh Lord, I’m trusting you to deliver me and change my mind.” It will never happen. Put those books down. Don’t go to those filthy places. You can’t continue to indulge in sin and call on the name of a holy God. You can’t do it. You are mocking Him, and it’s hypocrisy. We need repentance. The church of God needs repentance. Isaiah 55:7 is not just the old covenant, “Let the wicked man forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return to the Lord and He’ll have compassion to you and to our God, for He’ll abundantly pardon.” That’s also the new covenant. The message of repentance makes the difference between an “easy believism” and the grace of God which teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires, and to live sensibly, righteously and Godly in the present age.
Matthew lays great stress on repentance. John preached repentance. The church needs repentance. It needs it badly. It’s not being preached, and one reason it’s not being preached is because the English has no word for it. When we lost the word “repentance” in the translation, we lost a great deal of the message of God. The church today according to A. W. Tozer is so watered down that if it were medicine it wouldn’t help anybody, and if it were poison it wouldn’t hurt anybody. I think he is right.