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Acts 3:19 (ESV)

19 Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out...

According to Dr. Charles P. Bayliss of Dallas Theological Seminary in an article published in the Michigan Theological Journal (Repentance in Acts in Light of Deutronomy 30), the "turn back" or "return" relates directly to Deuteronomy 30:6.

Dr. Bayliss, speaking of Acts 3:19:

29 The word for repent is metanoeo. The word for return is epistrepho. There are differences between New Testament scholars on the different emphasis of these words, since they are to some degree synonymous. According to The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, (s.v. "metanoeo"), metanoeo became synonymous with yashuwb of the Old Testament during the intertestamental period. Epistrepho, however, is the actual word used in the Septuagint in Deuteronomy 30. It is this author's opinion that Peter was insuring that they knew he was referring to Deuteronomy 30:1-6, by using epistrepho of the LXX in addition to the common metanoeo. Refer to Acts 28:27 where Paul quotes Isaiah 6:10. There he uses the LXX epistrepho for the Hebrew shuwb.

If this reference is correct, to what was Peter telling them to return?

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Two Bible versions insert an object to which one turns in their interpretive translations: NIV & NRSV both have, "Repent and turn to God …". "to God" is not in the Greek text.

The question places too much focus on the word "epistrepho" - to turn about. It does not necessarily mean "return" - BDAG lists four primary meanings.

However, the best is to see the word in context and it occurs in an especially significant phrase: "metanoesata kai epistrepsata", which could be translated, "change your mind and turn about". This is a strengthened form of both words and has the idiomatic meaning of, "have a complete change of heart and change direction" (from the evil/sinful ways described in the previous verses.)

Of the 36 times that this verb "epistrepho" is used in the NT, when the sense is a spiritual change of direction or conversion, the change is always toward "the Lord" or toward "God" after tuning away from sins or satan. Specifically: Luke 1:16, Acts 9:35, 11:21, 14:15, 15:19, 36, 26:18, 20, 2 Cor 3:16, 1 Thess 1:9. Thus, the interpretive translations of NIV and NRSV have some justification, especially in Acts.

The point of this part of Peter's speech is not so much to what we turn (which appears obvious in view of the above), but why! Three reasons are given:

  • So that your sins may be blotted out
  • So that times of refreshing may come from the Lord
  • So that Messiah (ie, Jesus) may be sent

These reasons are respectively personal, societal, and cosmic in their dimensions. But that is a discussion for another time.

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Recall that both Acts and the Gospel of Luke were written by Luke the physician. In Luke 1:16, it is written,

16 And he shall turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.

ΙϚʹ καὶ πολλοὺς τῶν υἱῶν Ἰσραὴλ ἐπιστρέψει ἐπὶ κύριον τὸν θεὸν αὐτῶν TR, 1550

Likewise, in the following verses those who repent turn to the Lord God:

  • Acts 11:21

And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned (ἐπέστρεψεν) to the Lord.

  • Acts 14:15

And saying, “Sirs, why do you do these things? We are also men of like passions with you, and preach to you that you should turn (ἐπιστρέφειν) from these vanities to the living God, who made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are therein.

  • Acts 15:19

Wherefore my sentence is that we do not trouble those who from among the Gentiles are turned (ἐπιστρέφουσιν) to God.

In Acts 26:18, the people open their eyes and “turn (ἐπιστρέψαι) from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive the forgiveness of sins...” Turning to God is repeated often in the other books as well.1


Footnotes

1 2 Cor. 3:16; 1 Thes. 1:9; 1 Pet. 2:25

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Acts 3:19 "Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out". To what are we supposed to “return”?

Mat 18:3 (NIV) And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

I think that Jesus, in Matthew 18:3, is telling us that we are supposed to return to childish innocence, and to a dependence on a higher power.

Gal 4:6 (ABPE) "But because you are children, God has sent The Spirit of his Son into your hearts, who cries, “Father, our Father”.

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If a person is following a Godless way of life then he/she should turn back to God, or return to how God purposed it to be in the first place.

Malachi 3:7 . . .Return to me, and I will return to you,”. . .

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Acts 3:19 appears to be alluding to Deuteronomy 30:1 and Deuteronomy 30:1 appears to be predicting Acts 3:19. But let's not miss the forest for the trees.

First of all, the question asks, "To what are we to return" but "we" are not in the equation. He is speaking to Jews, not to Christians:

[Act 3:12 KJV] 12 And when Peter saw [it], he answered unto the people, Ye men of Israel, why marvel ye at this? or why look ye so earnestly on us, as though by our own power or holiness we had made this man to walk?

So he elaborates on their denial of the Lord's anointed one:

[Act 3:13-18 KJV] 13 The God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, the God of our fathers, hath glorified his Son Jesus; whom ye delivered up, and denied him in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let [him] go. 14 But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you; 15 And killed the Prince of life, whom God hath raised from the dead; whereof we are witnesses. 16 And his name through faith in his name hath made this man strong, whom ye see and know: yea, the faith which is by him hath given him this perfect soundness in the presence of you all. 17 And now, brethren, I wot that through ignorance ye did [it], as [did] also your rulers. 18 But those things, which God before had shewed by the mouth of all his prophets, that Christ should suffer, he hath so fulfilled.

So when he says "Repent ye therefore" he is saying, "I just showed you how guilty you are of rejecting your messiah, so now you need to do the opposite...":

KJV Acts 3:19 Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord;

But this is all pre-Pauline. God had not yet revealed to Paul the seven secrets and the gospel of the grace of God. He is referring to the time of the Jews' visitation. It seems to me that a visitation is a targeted judgment. There was a day coming very shortly (70AD) when:

KJV Matthew 3:12 “His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

The temple would be city would be destroyed, including the temple. A third of the Jews of Jerusalem were killed, while the Christians obediently fled the city and survived.

So it would be in the judgment of that day that it would be decided by judgment who would enter the kingdom of God and who would be incinerated.

The "times of refreshing" refer to the bliss of the messianic age and the revitalization of all things.

In the Pauline dispensation (the current age) once someone believes they are immediately translated into God's kingdom:

KJV Colossians 1:13 Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son:

Sin is immediately forgiven and not counted hence.

In summary, the Jews were being called upon to turn from their rejection of their messiah to embracing him.

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  • Nice job in seeing the connection to Deuteronomy 30 and that Peter was talking to Jews exclusively; right on. That is an important fact when trying to understand repentance. Now if you go to Acts chapter 10:34-44, Peter talking to the gentiles, he does not reference "repent" and/or "return" for these are Jewish concepts. There would be nothing for the gentiles to return to. Peter only instructs the gentiles to believe and while he was speaking, the Holy Ghost fell. The Bayliss article explains the differences between Peter's Acts 3 and Acts 10 speeches in more detail. – alb Nov 10 '18 at 21:33
  • Yes, the NT covers the last days of Judaism per se and the birth of the Pauline "new man" (the body of Christ) and they overlap in time and location! Peter dominates the first part of Acts and disappears in the second while Paul completely dominates the second half. So it is critical to know in which context you are reading. – Ruminator Nov 10 '18 at 21:47
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Acts 3:19 (NASB)

19 Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord;

Peter in Acts 3:19, was calling the Jews to repent (change their mind about God) and also to “return” to a covenant relationship with the Lord. This covenant relationship is the one spoken about in Deuteronomy 30:1-6. In that passage of scripture, God promised to unilaterally circumcise the heart of Israel and then “credit” them with obeying everything He had commanded. This was completely free from any effort on the part of Israel for God alone would bring about a change within the heart of Israel.

It is this “return” the bible calls “repentance”.

Dr. Bayliss, of Dallas Theological Seminary (in an article published in the Michigan Theological Journal), explains:

“Moses stood on the edge of the promised land and gave four sermons to the Israelites as they were about to enter the land. Deuteronomy is the record of these exhortations. Even though Israel had yet to enter the land, failure was already assured (29:22- 30:1; 31:16-21,29; 32:35). But Moses also prophesied that the nation Israel would return to God from that failure. In 30:6 Moses stated that when they returned God would circumcise their heart (give them the New Covenant). To what were they to return? Obviously, they were to return to God, but more specifically they were to return to covenant relationship.4 How were they to return? The Deuteronomy text indicated this clearly. They were to believe from their hearts. Early in Deuteronomy (6:5), Moses had stated that obedience and the covenant relationship came from the heart, not from external acts. In 30:10 he explained how they were to turn to Him, ". . . if you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and soul.”5 Unfortunately the Israelite had a heart no different from the one he had received from Adam. He would surely disobey, because he would fail to believe in his heart. God indicated that without a new heart ("the Lord has not given you a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear," 29:4) Israel would fail to continue a covenant relationship with Him. In chapters 28 and 29, Moses had outlined the blessings and the cursings which would fall on the nation for their obedience or disobedience. Following the list of curses which would surely afflict the unbelieving Israelites, Moses began the description of the "return" (30:1).

"So it shall become when all of these things have come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you, and you call them to mind in all nations where the LORD your God has banished you, and you return to the LORD your God."

Then Moses continued with an explanation of means of the return. and obey Him with all your heart and soul according to all that I command you today.

Then God would bring Israel back from captivity to the promised land (30:3-5), and would restore their fruitfulness. In 30:6 Moses spoke of a change that would insure their continued obedience. "Moreover the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your seed, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all you r soul, in order that you may live . . . And you shall again obey the LORD, and observe all His commandments which I command you today."

The phrase "the LORD your God will circumcise your heart" introduced the New Covenant. The New Covenant was a change which God would enact within man, as opposed to a change which man would accomplish on his own.6 Ezekiel 36 and Jeremiah 31 expanded Deuteronomy 30:6 further. Thus Moses' final sermon to the nation prophesied a time when Israel would return to covenant relationship, and God would change their hearts. It was one of the earliest, most specific references to the New Covenant. It is this return that is called "repentance."7

Notes:

4 The term for "return" is the root shuwb. For a discussion on the covenant implications of the word see R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke, eds., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), S.v. "shuwb." While the term is used in the general sense of "turn," "return," or "change direction," when used by the prophets in a covenantal context it indicates a "return” to the covenant relationship. Also see William L. Holladay, The Root Subh In the Old Testament (Lelden: E.J.Brill, 1958),116-157.

5 This was the problem with the Israelites (and the New Testament Pharisees). If They concerned themselves with external acts and did not obey God from a changed heart. External acts should have come from a love of God. The nature of the word "return" is a general word. The specifics of "how" are always to be gained from the context. The instructions on "how" are never far away. It is a general term similar to our word "convert." One may convert in many ways. He may convert to Judaism, Catholicism, Mormonism or he may simply convert a car from gasoline to natural gas. The word itself does not explain how. It must be gained from other passages.

6 The Old Covenant was a test of man's ability to change his own heart. He was exhorted to "circumcise his heart" (Deut. 10:16; Jer. 4:4), but he could not. The Old Testament records that failure. It is only in the New Covenant that God changes man's old heart (cf. Col. 2:11; Rom. 2:29).

7 There is not space in this article to delve into the use of the words for "repentance" in the Old Testament. The major word for repentance in the Old Testament was yashuwb. Throughout the Old Testament the prophets would refer to this passage and call Israel back to covenant relationship by "returning." The reader is referred to the article by Gerhard Kittel, ed. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 1971), s.v "metanoeo." The point is made that metanoeo became a synonym for the Hebrew yashuwb during the intertestamental period (p. 991), and thus in the New Testament became interchangeable. One must be careful, however, not to insist that every use of the word metanoeo or yashuwb was a reference to covenant return. The word may be used simply as "to return" as Abraham's promise to "return" to his servants after sacrificing (Genesis 22:5). Other references indicate a "change of mind." However, the emphasis of this article is to note that the references in Acts (2:38, 3:19, 11:18) are speaking about a historical instruction, that of "returning" to covenant relationship.”

Repentance in Acts in Light of Deuteronomy 30.

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