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A Repentance that Isn’t Repentance At All



As I prepare to portray Judas on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday at two churches, I am struck again by the King James translation of Matthew 27:3-4: “Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood” (italics mine).

It seems to many that Judas did all the right things. He felt remorse for his betrayal of Jesus. He confessed his sin to the priests. The Bible even says “he repented himself,” and repentance is a good thing, right?

Not in this case.

Matthew used the word metamelomai to designate the “repentance” of Judas.  As you might guess, metamelomai gave rise to the English word, metamorphosis, which is defined as a “change in form or nature.” It seems, at least on the surface, that Judas really repented because he changed his mind about what he had done. He even returned the thirty silver pieces, tossing the blood money at the feet of the priests with whom he struck his notorious deal.

There is another word in the Greek New Testament that also means “repentance.” Metanoia is the term, and its significance cuts much deeper than metamelomai. The latter carries emotional meaning, whereas the former denotes a complete recalibration of mind and attitude, resulting in permament visible transformation. Picture a rash sea captain headed toward a massive rock. His sailors warn him of the impending danger but the foolish commander sails right into the obstacle anyway, crushing the vessel. As he and the crew bob up and down in the waves, the captain sincerely says, “I feel terrible about what I just did. I’m so sorry, fellows.” That is metamelomai. Let’s say the captain survived to take command of another ship and the same situation arose. What if he listened to his crew this time and wisely altered course before he hit the rock? Then he would be in the grip of metanoia.  Volition is the key here–not mere emotion.

Judas had an emotional reaction to his betrayal: all well and good if his remorseful feelings pushed him outwardly to the Source of forgiveness and not back on himself. Perhaps Judas was on Paul’s mind when he penned this verse from II Corinthians 7: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” The Message Version of the Bible puts it in a way that we might understand better: “Distress that drives us to God…turns us around. It gets us back in the way of salvation. We never regret that kind of pain. But those who let distress drive them away from God are full of regrets, end up on a deathbed of regrets.”

Don’t be Judas and let despair drive you to death. When the Enemy blows your boat toward the rocks of destruction, set your sails toward another Rock, the Refuge that the Psalmist declared is “higher than I” (Ps 61:2). True repentance will give you rest on the eternal Rock while you repair your boat and live to sail another day.

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