What are Matthew’s main themes throughout his Gospel? What ideas was he really trying to communicate to his readers? Is it Jesus as Messiah? King of Israel? Son of God? What about repentance? Could repentance be a major theme? Jesus opens his public ministry with the command, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:17), yet as a theme in Matthew, repentance (µετάνοια, metanoia) has not been studied by scholars. In his revised and published dissertation, ChoongJae Lee—who earned his PhD under Jonathan Pennington, a Matthean scholar, and is currently an adjunct professor at MBTS—explores how repentance fits in the Gospel of Matthew and shows how it is a major theme. Like a pinch of leaven, repentance pervades Matthew’s Gospel.
Both John the Baptist and Jesus begin their ministries with the exact same phrase, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2; 4:17). Lee writes that “[t]he lexical idea of µετανοέω and µετάνοια involves a change of mind (or heart, will, thinking) and behavior, and so in turn of one’s whole being and life” (3). The opening commands of turning/repenting is revealed fully throughout the rest of Matthew’s Gospel in different ways.
What is repentance? There is a negative and positive side to it. This doesn’t mean that there is a bad side and a good side, but rather that on the one hand you stop doing something, and on the other hand you begin doing something. Lee writes that in repentance there is “not only an negative aspect of being sorry and stopping a sin but also a positive aspect of reorienting one’s whole being and life toward Jesus Christ” (5). If “repent” is the first word Jesus said when he began his ministry, the the Gospel of Matthew needs to flesh out what it looks like to repent. Lee moves at John the Baptist’s teaching in 3:1-12 before examining the five blocks of teaching in Matthew: the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5–7), sending out the twelve disciples (Matt 10), the eight parables in Matthew 13, the teaching about the church community (Matt 18), and Jesus’ woes on the Pharisees and the judgment to come (Matt 23-25).
Matthew emphasizes righteousness (3:15; 6:1; 21:32), doing good works (5:16), doing the will of God (7:21; 12:50), and changing one’s heart and mind (5:28; 9:4; 13:19) as ways that outwardly express repentance and the fruits worthy of repentance (3:8). That repentance is important is seen in what both John and Jesus say after “Repent….for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Jesus spoke often about ideas such as entering the kingdom of heaven (5:20; 18:3), eternal life (7:14; 19:7), and the judgment of hell (3:10–12; 5:22; 10:28).
After chapter one’s introduction, chapters two and three survey the history of research and the lexical meaning of µετανοέω and µετάνοια. Chapter four looks at John the Baptist’s teaching and shows how John’s ministry recalls the last verses of Malachi (4:5–6) who prophesies the return of Elijah (who is John the Baptist), who’s ministry would “turn the hearts of children to God to avoid judgment” (49). John emphasizes the importance of not only repentance, but repentance to Jesus, the one who, by bringing the Holy Spirit, saves the faithful who repent and punishes with fire the wicked and unrepentant.
Before getting into Matthew’s five teaching discourses, chapter five examines repentance as seen in Matthew’s discipleship, the Great Commission, and Jesus’ teaching on included Gentiles. Right after Jesus commands repentance (4:17), he calls his disciples (4:18–23) showing the importance of turning to follow Jesus. As well, repentance is seen (though not explicitly expressed) at the end of Matthew in the Great commission (28:19–20). The disciples are to make disciples, which, as seen in 4:18–23, means turning from your old lifestyle, putting away sin, and following Jesus. Chapter six looks at repentance in Matthew’s teachings on righteousness and salvation. When one turns to Jesus, they should seek the “higher righteousness,” a righteousness that “involves one’s heart and deeds in contrast to the legalistic Pharisees and scribes, and results in doing the will of God” (105). These two chapters were also one chapter in Lee’s dissertation, but now they have been split according to their themes and slightly condensed.
Chapters seven through eleven examine the five blocks of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew (as mentioned above). The Sermon on the Mount continues John the Baptist’s teaching on repentance, doing God’s will, seeking his kingdom first, and keeping to the heart-teaching of the law and the prophets. Matthew 10’s instructions to go out into the world to offer repentance is instruction for the postresurrection church. The church today should hear this chapter as an explicit command. Jesus’ call for repentance is handed over to us. Jesus’ parables in Matthew 13 elaborate on what it looks like for the repentant person to live according to God’s will. For example, in both the parable of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price, the person sells everything to buy the land and the pearl (which also “involves the suffering of selling everything your have”) (186). Like the disciples who left everything to follow Jesus, so we repent and turn away from our old lives to seek that which has the highest value, eternal treasure in heaven and not things on earth that rust and fade away.
In Matthew 18, we come to God as children, as humble servants to God. We also need to make sure not to cause those little ones to stumble. The church is to lead sinners to repent, not reject them and cast them away. Whoever sins will be forgiven by the forgiving Lord if they repent. Matthew 23–25 shows what happens to those servants who are not humble, not very servant-like, and who don’t repent of their wickedness. The scribes, Pharisees, and religious leaders who do not repent are castigated and rebuked by Jesus. They pride themselves on their reputation and high status and put burdens on the small and the weak. Worst of all, they reject Jesus and his teaching. Being prepared for Jesus’ return requires life-long repentance and humble servanthood. Chapter twelve is the conclusion summarizing the book.
This is a book that I hope will cause you to pick up a pen and make marks in your Bible. Lee’s insights are wonderful. His thesis that repentance is a major theme in Matthew is strengthened by showing how it pervades each of Matthew’s five discourses. While not everyone will want to read a revised dissertation, this is a really helpful book for scholars, pastors, teachers, and nerds like me. Lee has done a great service helping me to see how Matthew is tied together through the theme of repentance, how we should live out repentance—turning away from sin and turning to Jesus daily, and what the fruits of repentance look like.
- Author: ChoongJae Lee
- Paperback: 258 pages
- Publisher: Wipf and Stock (April 13, 2020)
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