Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.
That declaration by Jesus, in varying forms, echoes throughout the Gospels. It heralds the advent of a new kind of kingdom and, by implication, the arrival of a new kind of king, one from heaven no less. The saying is tinged with a kind of existential urgency: this new kingdom will bring about more than a shift in administration, a switching of national flags, or a change in taxation policies. It is something that will affect you—your identity, your purpose, your very being, in fact. It is a new reality that demands repentance from you.
Why? Of course, in the context of the gospels, the meaning of the saying is clear enough. Put in the simplest terms possible: Jesus, our savior from sin, has come. Now is the time to repent from our sins and turn to Him.
But the saying itself contains clues as to its deeper meaning. Often, these words of Jesus are read in an apocalyptic context, in the sense of an impending event: Get ready because the kingdom of heaven is on its way and is close by even now as we speak. But there is another way to understand this notion of nearness, one that is entirely consonant with the original Greek text (here I am relying on the instance of this saying as it appears in Matthew 3:2).
Something can be near to us not only in time, but also in space. In this sense, the kingdom of heaven has already arrived: it is close by. Now, if one of us today heard that an otherworldly paradise had been set up somewhere nearby on earth, the first question we’d have is: How do I get there?
With this alternative way of reading the nearness of heaven in mind, the first part of the saying makes more sense. How do we enter into heaven? Repent from sin!
Now we must ask: what does repentance really mean in the first place? Again, we can recite the answer from what we know of the gospels, but the original text offers us new meaning for this, one of the most familiar words in our vocabulary of faith. In turning back to the Greek, we encounter a word that is most unfamiliar to our English ears: metanoeó (which is often cited in its noun form as metanoia).
This word is almost always translated as repentance in English Bibles (or as penance in the Douay-Rheims version). This is not a wrong translation but it’s a great example of how much can be lost—sometimes unavoidably—in translation. A perhaps better way of translating metanoia would be: convert. Convert for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! Certainly the two translations are harmonious: repentance, after all, is usually an essential first step of conversion.
But even rendering it as conversion doesn’t quite do justice to the full meaning of metanoia. The first step towards unlocking its deeper meaning is to break the word up into its component parts: metanoia is actually a combination of two Greek words: meta- and noeō.
Meta- is a familiar Greek prefix to us. We recognize it in words like metaphor, metaphysics, and metanarrative. In ancient Greek, it means with, after, behind, according to Strong’s Concordance. It also had the meaning of beyond.
As a prefix, meta- thus has a wide range of meanings. The word can be quite malleable. For example, in the word metaphysics, meta- has both a simple and a deeper meaning. On a basic level, meta- denotes the fact that Aristotle’s treatise, the Metaphysics, came after his Physics, according to Merriam-Webster’s definition. But, today, metaphysics typically refers to matters that are beyond the natural world we observe around us. Metaphysics asks questions like: What is the ultimate nature of reality? Do we have souls? Is there life after death?
The other part of metanoia comes from the word noeō, which means to perceive with the mind, to understand, to have understanding and to think upon, heed, ponder, consider, according to Strong’s Concordance.
When these two parts—meta- and noeō—were put together in ancient Greece they came to assume the meaning of changing one’s mind, opinion, or purpose. This meaning hinges on meta- in the sense of after. If we think after that often leads to a change in our mind. If I decide to go out for a drive in a snowstorm but after that original decision I think further upon it, I am likely going to recognize it was a poor decision and change my mind.
But we could also read meta- in the sense of beyond. When we have that meaning in mind, metanoia, in the context of the gospel, assumes a really radical new sense. We could define it—as Fr. Robert Barron does—as going beyond the mind that you have. Or, put another way, we could read it as to think beyond.
Now, is this not what we are called to do in conversion? Christ indeed calls us to think beyond our normal ways of thinking. How else can we understand a God who became fully man—without losing any of His divinity? Or comprehend the resurrection of the body and a life hereafter? Or the sublime reality of the Trinity? We can only even begin to understand these truths by thinking beyond ourselves.
This brings us back to the saying of Jesus: Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.
How do we enter a place where we have never been? Metanoia indeed seems an essential first step—a change in our whole way of thinking that takes us beyond the world around us.
As St. John of the Cross put it in his mystical treatise, the Ascent of Mount Carmel:
To come to the knowledge you have not
You must go by a way in which you know not. …
To come to be what you are not
You must go by a way in which you are not.