Recently my friend Shaun asked me a question about the meaning of a couple of Greek words—and his question was such a good one that I decided to answer it with a blog post. Here’s what Shaun texted me:
μετανοέω [metanoeō] means, repent, or turn around. The same word used in Acts 2:38 is used in Acts 3:19 and is followed by ἐπιστρέφω [epistrephō], which means “turn around.” I know the KJV translates it as “converted.” What’s the gist of the word ἐπιστρέφω?
I think I understand why my friend is curious about these two Greek words. Many times I have heard people explain repentance as “turning around and heading in a new direction.” And so, if μετανοέω means “turn around,” and ἐπιστρέφω means “turn around,” what is the difference between these two terms? As my friend points out, both of these words occur in Acts 3:19
Repent ye [μετανοέω] therefore, and be converted [ἐπιστρέφω], that your sins may be blotted out
If both of these words mean “turn around,” wouldn’t this verse be saying something like “Turn around, and turn around…”? How redundant is that! I can see why my friend is curious about these two words. Let me see if I can provide some clarification.
Firstly, the Greek word μετανοέω [metanoeō] does mean “to repent,” but it does not mean “to turn around.” If you study the Bible, “repentance” and “turning around” are often associated with one another (Jer 31:19, Eze 14:6, 18:30, Luke 17:4). And it is true—when we repent, we are turning to God and turning away from sin. But the Greek word μετανοέω does not carry any connotations of turning around. The implications of this Greek term are more mental—about what goes on in the mind of the person repenting.
Thayer’s lexicon defines μετανοέω as “to change one’s mind, i. e. to repent…to change one’s mind for the better, heartily to amend with abhorrence of one’s past sins.” Etymologically speaking, μετανοέω is a compound of νοέω [noeō], which means “to understand, to ponder, to think about,” and μετα [meta], which means “with”: μετανοέω means “to understand with, to use the mind with.” When we repent, we are using our mind to realize that we have done wrong, to hate/regret our sin, and to change our mind for the better. The Greek word μετα-νοέω is a lot like our English word con-science: both terms imply “with knowledge.”
[A commenter below has provided another etymology for μετανοέω which strikes me as better than the one I’ve provided here, and as something I need to look into further. Check out this comment when you conclude the article.]
Secondly, Shaun is right that ἐπιστρέφω [epistrephō] does mean “to turn around” (Matt 9:22, Mark 5:30, 8:33) or “to turn toward” (Luke 1:16-17). But it can also mean “to return, to come back again” (Matt 10:13, 12:44, Luke 8:55). Just like μετανοέω has a mental connotation, ἐπιστρέφω has a spacial connotation. Etymologically speaking, ἐπιστρέφω is a compound of στρέφω “to turn” and ἐπι “to, toward.” The term ἐπι-στρέφω is much like our English word con-vert: to be turned toward. “Convert” is actually one of the ways that the KJV renders this Greek verb (Matt 13:15, Mark 4:12, Jh 4:20, Acts 28:27).
Acts 3:19 is not the only verse where μετανοέω and ἐπιστρέφω occur together. This pair also occurs in Acts 26:20 where Scripture says that the Gentiles
should repent [μετανοέω] and turn to [ἐπιστρέφω] God, and do works meet for repentance.
Really, these two verbs work together to express the fulness of what it means to be sanctified from sin. If we repent only with our mind, James 2:26 tells us that “faith without works is dead.” But on the other hand, if we only turn away from sin in our actions but we still have an evil heart, Romans 1:32 says that God will not only judge the ones doing sinful things, but also those who “have pleasure in them that do them.”
Studying the definitions of words can be an interesting academic pursuit; but allow me to make this personal. My friend Shawn, who inspired this post, is right with the Lord; but let me speak directly to you, dear reader.
If you have sin in your life—I urge you to repent with your mind and turn with your actions. Ask God to help you to turn from your sin; ask him to help you hate your sin so much that you cannot help but turn from it. Ask God to really and truly convert your heart—to turn it toward him—and to renew your mind.
I do not condemn you for your struggle: we all have one. And God is gracious to forgive. But I beg you, before you stand before God, turn and repent. And if you need someone to help you be saved, please obey Acts 2:38 and reach out to me so that I can connect you with a church/pastor in your area.