Word Study #120 — Convert, Conversion

Here is another word, requested several times, of which the commonly understood meaning has departed markedly from its historical usage.  It needs to be studied in conjunction with “transformation” (#97) and “repentance” (#6). All three of these share more in common than is usually realized, and all imply deliberate alteration in one’s behavior, rather than simple assent to a set of theoretical propositions or “beliefs.”

Even in traditional English translations, epistrepho, the primary Greek word, out of 39 New Testament appearances, is rendered “convert” or “converted” only 7x.  It is much more  commonly (and correctly) translated “turn” (16x), “turn about”, “turn again” (4x each), “return” (8x), and “come” or “go again” once each.

Likewise, strepho, the same word, but without a prefix, is rendered “converted” only twice, and some form of “turn” 16x.

Obviously, the translators thought they were dealing with a different concept in those aberrations: but perhaps that was due to the theological understanding of their own era taking precedence over etymology.  This is not a rare occurrence.

Liddell / Scott lists 14 meanings for epistrepho.  Remember, they have compiled the ways that a word has been used historically.  By far the most common, as well as the earliest use, is simply “to turn around”.  This is followed by: to put an enemy to flight, to return, to turn towards, to turn one’s attention toward or pay attention to, to turn or convert from an error (to correct), to repent (exclusively LXX and NT), to cause to return, to curve or twist (as a path), to be distorted, crooked (of a tree), or curled (hair), to conduct oneself or behave in a particular way, (and as a participle) earnest or vehement.

The uses of strepho are even more varied, including: to cause to rotate on an axis, to overturn or upset, to plow, to sprain or dislocate a joint, to twist or torture, to plait (braid), to wrestle, to turn something over in one’s mind, to give back, (in alchemy) the transmutation of metals,  to turn to or from an object or person, the revolving or cycling of heavenly bodies, to turn or change.

Of New Testament usage, likewise, the vast majority, for both words, involves physically turning around or returning: Jesus, or someone else, “turned and said …” or “returned” to where they had been before.  As we consider the passages where this is not the case, please keep in mind that the idea of physical turning is the primary meaning.  This implies, as we saw in “repent”, a deliberate change of direction and/or attention.

The most frequent traditional use of “convert” or “be converted” for epistrepho (there are only 7) is in quoting the prophecy of Isaiah (6:9-10) regarding the deliberate choice of the Israelite people not to pay attention to God’s instructions:  Mt.13:15, Mk.4:12, Jn.12:40, Ac.28:27.  The others are Jesus’ instructions to Peter (Lk.22:32) that he should “strengthen his brethren” after recovering from his desertion; James urging his readers (5:19-20) to seek the restoration of one who falls into error; and Peter’s admonition to his listeners to “repent and be converted” (Ac.3:19) to remedy their distress at recognizing their rejection of Jesus as the Promised One.

The only appearance of the noun form, epistrophe, (Ac.15:3) celebrates the enrollment of Gentiles into the Kingdom.

There are nine instances where “turning to God”, whether applied to the people of  Israel (Lk.1:16,17) or to the Gentiles (Ac.9:35, 11:21, 14:15, 15:19, 26:20; II Cor.3:16, I Thes.1:9), is mentioned;  in each, a change of life / direction is clearly indicated, not merely an acknowledgment of some theoretical argument.  This is also the case in Ac.26:28, “turning from darkness to light”.

Turning can also go the wrong direction, as in Gal.4:9 and II Pet.2:21.

The uses of strepho (the same verb, but without a prefix), are even more heavily weighted in favor of physically turning around. The exceptions are Jesus’ declaration (Mt.18:2) that Kingdom membership requires “being converted” to the attitude of small children;  (Ac.7:39) the Israelites’ desire to return to Egypt; and (Ac.7:42) God’s consequent “giving them up”.

In view of this evidence, I am inclined to suggest that other contemporary uses of the term “convert” may be more accurate than  the usual “Christian” usage.  For example:

–        an engine may be “converted” to run on a different kind of fuel

–        a factory may be “converted” to make a different product

–        land may be “converted” to raise a different crop

–        zoning may be “converted” to allow different developmental use

I’m sure you could get any number of good illustrations from these and other such modern usages.

They all share the implication of tangible, observable change – none are restricted to theoretical constructs or opinions.

As we saw in the studies of faith / faithfulness (#1), repentance (#6),  life (#28), transformation (#97), and many others, “conversion” is a much more active concept, with more readily observable results, than is commonly supposed.
It might well be characterized as the process of “naturalization” into Kingdom citizenship, “with all the rights,  privileges, and responsibilities thereby incurred.”

It is the beginning of the life that the gracious King has designed and prepared for his people.

Thanks be to God!


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