The word of the day is “turn.” We are now in the third week of the Paschal season. How has our life changed? Yes, the joy of Pascha has given us new hope, new inspiration, and new faith. Yet has that joy transformed our life? If not, then Pascha is just another turning of the wheel of the church seasons. Unless we make purposeful and permanent changes to the way we live, when next Lent comes, we will find ourselves in the same spiritual condition as we had last year.
In today’s reading of Acts 3:19-26, Peter concludes his sermon in Solomon’s Porch with the “words of life” that God has sent “His Servant Jesus” to “bless you in turning away everyone of you from your iniquities” (OSB vs. 26). Today, we study this verse more closely to find how we might be blessed by a way of turning around that is based on what we have just celebrated this Holy Week and Pascha.
Changing How We Think About Repentance
The grammar of our key verse can change how we think about repentance. We usually think that we are the agents who repent by changing our mind and heart. For our Lenten spiritual discipline that is the necessary emphasis. But this is the season of Pascha and the emphasis is on the divine power of the Crucifixion/Resurrection.
Therefore, the preposition “en” in Greek is the key to a Paschal approach to repentance. To explain, we note that the subject of the sentence is God and that He sent His Servant Jesus to bless the hearers of the Gospel of the Resurrection. How is this blessing given? It is “en,” that is, “in” or “by” (Strong’s 1722), turning away from your wickedness (Strong’s #4189, 267). The preposition “en” denotes the instrument or condition in which something is done. That is, through the “turning from iniquities,” God will bless. This “turning” is the means by which God will bestow the blessing that He promised to give in “Abraham’s seed,” that is, His descendants.
The Old Testament book of Lamentations reinforces this understanding. The King James Version puts it most poignantly, “Turn us back unto Thee, O Lord, and we shall be turned. Renew our days as of old…” (KJV Lamentations 5:21). Alternatively, The Orthodox Study Bible translates, “Turn us back to You, O Lord, and we shall be converted; Renew our days as before…” (OSB 5:21-22).
The Verb Found in Acts, Lamentations, and Deuteronomy
The word for “turn back” comes from the same verb stem in both Acts and the Septuagint version of Lamentations. In Acts, the term apostrephó is a form of the verb meaning “to turn away” or “to turn back” (Strong’s #655, 39). In the Septuagint version of Lamentations that word is epistrephón a form of the verb which means “to turn,” “to turn oneself around,” or “to be converted” (Lust, Eynikel, and Hauspie 2003, 235).
This finding points to the insight that it is the Lord’s action that turns the lives of His people around. How does He do this? The Book of Deuteronomy says, “Now it shall be when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I set before you, and you will reflect in your heart among the nations where the Lord your God scatters you, and you return to the Lord your God and obey His voice from your whole heart and from your whole soul, according to all I command you today, that the Lord will heal your sins, have mercy on you, and gather you again from all the nations where the Lord your God scattered you” (OSB Deuteronomy 30:1-3).
Pondering God’s Acts in History Can Move Us to Repentance
According to this important disclosure of how the Almighty acts in history, the agent that moves the people to repentance is the Creator. In summary, the Holy One of Israel acts both to curse and to bless. He curses when the people are disobedient and blesses when the people are faithful. Yet note that the curse is not for the purpose of punishment but to lead the people to repentance. Furthermore, the blessing is the healing of sins by forgiveness and the gathering of the people who were scattered because of their disobedience.
When we compare the word for “return” in the above passage from Deuteronomy 30 with the passage from Lamentations 5 and Acts 3, we find that all use a form of the same verb. The Orthodox Study Bible translated it as “turn back” in Acts and Lamentation. Thus, all have the same sense of “turning around.”
Further, note that the way that the people will turn around in Deuteronomy is that they will “reflect in their heart” (OSB Deuteronomy 30:1) on the Lord’s actions of cursing and blessing. The King James Version says that they “call [them] to mind” (KJV Deuteronomy 30:1), and The New International Version puts it “take them to heart” (NIV Deuteronomy 30:1). The Greek word in the Septuagint has the sense of “to receive,” “to accept,” or “to welcome” (Lust, Eynikel, and Hauspie 2003, 133-34). We might say “to take to oneself.”
In summary, when the people comprehend the acts of God in their history, then they are moved to turn around, turning back from their sins and turning to obedience to God.
Today we hear Peter urge his hearers to “turn back from their iniquities” (OSB vs. 26). Our word study of this verse suggests a way of turning around in our way of life, a way of repentance primarily based on God’s mighty works in history. The motivation and means for our change of life would be the contemplation of the acts of God for our salvation. The Paschal season is a good time for us to do this and to take everything that we have experienced in Lent, Holy Week, and Pascha to heart. Our goal would be to “realize” what the Lord has done for us. But to “realize” would mean understanding it with both the mind and the heart. But it would also involve putting the implications of this understanding into practical reality.
Considering God’s Works Prayerfully and Liturgically
In other words, we might reflect on the Lord’s saving acts and take them personally. For the Orthodox, as we have emphasized in other posts, the way to do this is prayerfully and liturgically. If we used the Paschal season to ponder the work of the Lord, we would be moved and inspired to turn away from our iniquities and failings. By the power of the Spirit, we would then be freed to turn to a life of following the Crucified and Risen Christ in all that we are and do.
Lust, Johan, Erick Eynikel, and Katrin Hauspie. 2003. Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint. Stuttgart, Germany: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft.