In the Septuagint (or LXX, the Greek translation of the Old Testament), the word translated “repent” is almost always used to refer to God. Thus, the ESV translates “relent.” It often refers to God’s decision not to punish as he had threatened. Nearly the only use of the word with respect to humans is found in Jeremiah. And this, I believe, is the part of the story Peter was referencing when he urged his hearers to “repent.”
(Jer 7:5-7 ESV) 5 “For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, 6 if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever.”
Jeremiah promises Judah that God will not bring destruction on them (via Nebuchadnezzar) if they will engage in “social justice,” that is, be concerned about the sojourner (or “alien” or “stranger”), widows, and orphans, and if they’ll forsake idolatry and unjust violence.
(Jer 7:11 ESV) 11 “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the LORD.”
Jesus himself alludes to this passage when he cleansed the temple. You see, God knew that in about 40 years, the Romans would destroy Jerusalem just as Nebuchadnezzar had. Just as was true in Jeremiah’s day, the remedy is to “repent.” It’s all happening again. Peter is subtly but significantly drawing a parallel between Pentecost and Jeremiah’s day — either return to God, as revealed in Jesus, or else suffer the same fate as your ancestors.
(Jer 7:22-24 ESV) 22 “For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. 23 But this command I gave them: ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.’ 24 But they did not obey or incline their ear, but walked in their own counsels and the stubbornness of their evil hearts, and went backward and not forward.”
Through Jeremiah, God declares that the Law wasn’t so much about the sacrificial system, but about serving God only. The Jews, you see, upheld the sacrificial system scrupulously in Jeremiah’s day, just as they did in Peter’s day. It’s just that their loyalty wasn’t exclusively toward God. Ritual is meaningless if the people don’t share in God’s heart.
The Jews Peter preached to weren’t idolators in the same sense as the Jews to whom Jeremiah preached. But they worshiped false gods — the gods of nationalism, military might, racial superiority, and fear of earthly powers. It was, after all, fear of the Romans that moved many to beg for the crucifixion of Jesus.
(Jer 7:25-28 ESV) 25 “From the day that your fathers came out of the land of Egypt to this day, I have persistently sent all my servants the prophets to them, day after day. 26 Yet they did not listen to me or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck. They did worse than their fathers. 27 “So you shall speak all these words to them, but they will not listen to you. You shall call to them, but they will not answer you. 28 And you shall say to them, ‘This is the nation that did not obey the voice of the LORD their God, and did not accept discipline; truth has perished; it is cut off from their lips.”
God declares that the Jews have rejected prophet after prophet, and now they will suffer the consequence of their refusal! Peter thus recalls the same warning in remarkably parallel circumstances. Indeed, Peter is himself taking on the role of a prophet. Will the Jews reject him, too?
God then promises to create gehenna!
(Jer 7:32-33 ESV) 32 Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter; for they will bury in Topheth, because there is no room elsewhere. 33 And the dead bodies of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the beasts of the earth, and none will frighten them away.
Gehenna is the New Testament name for the Valley of the Son of Hinnom. And under Nebuchadnezzar, the bodies of the people of Jerusalem were piled high in gehenna.
(Jer 8:6 ESV) 6 “I have paid attention and listened, but they have not spoken rightly; no man relents of his evil, saying, ‘What have I done?’ Everyone turns to his own course, like a horse plunging headlong into battle.”
“Relent” is the rare Old Testament case where the Greek word translated “repent” in Acts 2:38 applies to someone other than God. And in Jeremiah, God mourns that the people do not “relent.”
God’s wrath is coming, bodies will be piled high in gehenna, and God will relent if his people will relent — that is, if they repent by forsaking idols and becoming concerned with the sojourner, the widow, and the orphan!
You see, Peter isn’t saying, “Come learn how to be good, moral people.” He’s saying, “God’s story has come full circle. Once again, we are in Jerusalem and God is pleading for repentance! Believe in and submit to Jesus, God’s King, and so enter God’s Kingdom, fleeing the earthly kingdom that God is intending to destroy.”
And the implication is surely that to “repent” means the same thing at Pentecost that it meant in Jeremiah’s time: return to God, forsake idols, become concerned with the widows, orphans, and sojourners, and stop pretending that merely getting the ritual right will please God.
However, of course, Peter wants more than a return to better understanding of Judaism; “repent” now also means “return to the true God who reveals himself through Jesus by submitting to Jesus as Lord.”
The argument from Jeremiah 7-8 is, I admit, a lot to read into Peter’s choice of “repent.” But I think it fits too well to have been far from his or his listeners’ minds. It’s an extraordinarily close parallel and a very unusual use of “repent” to an audience that grew up memorizing much of the Old Testament.
And it parallels the teaching of John the Baptist, which appears early in Luke.
(Luk 3:7-9 ESV) 7 He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 9 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
– compares well to –
(Jer 7:20 ESV) 20 “Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: behold, my anger and my wrath will be poured out on this place, upon man and beast, upon the trees of the field and the fruit of the ground; it will burn and not be quenched.”
I think Luke may well have intentionally paralleled John’s and Peter’s calls for repentance near the beginning of each of the two books he wrote to set a critical theme for the two books: this is Jeremiah 7 – 8 all over again!
And compare –
(Jer 7:29 ESV) 29 “‘Cut off your hair and cast it away; raise a lamentation on the bare heights, for the LORD has rejected and forsaken the generation of his wrath.’”
– to –
(Act 2:40 ESV) 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.”
You see, I’m not really as crazy as I might seem. Understand the story and the parallels just jump out at you. And the Jewish approach to scripture is all about types and parallels.
And so, you can see why the Jews were cut to the heart and begged, “What shall we do?” They’d seen this one before, and it didn’t turn out well for them at all!