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It's All Greek to Me
~ What Were the Scripture Writers Really Saying? ~
“Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying...” (Matthew 5:1-2, NIV). As cited more clearly in other texts, it seems Jesus was avoiding the crowds here as well. Today, our professors stand before their students. In Jesus’ day, a rabbi or teacher would sit, and this would signal to his students that truths were about to be taught.
The truths, in this event, are well known as “The Beatitudes.” In translation, they are comforting. The commentaries on them have been somewhat superficial. Some of the “Blessed are they...” statements seem too trite for a Master Teacher and the Incarnate Christ to utter, such as “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” That isn’t much better than the greeting cards that say things like, “The sun is still shining above every storm.”
Some are out of harmony with the context of full Scripture and Gospel teachings. For example, to become a “son [daughter] of God” is clearly through rebirth in His Spirit, a matter of redemptive grace through the atonement of Christ, an unearned and unmerited gift. So how is it that “peacemakers” will earn the blessing of being “called sons of God”? Or how is it that those who are “persecuted because of righteousness” get a ticket into heaven? Haven’t many atheists and Christ-denying people been persecuted due to their solidarity with righteous causes and people?
Whenever I get confused about the record of Christ’s teachings, I found it best to not quibble with others or in my own mind with the translated rendition. Translations are not Spirit-inspired. The apostle Matthew was there at Jesus’ feet. He made the original record. When I checked out his rendition for myself, I was awed by my trite and superficial understanding, overwhelmed by the ramifications of the mystical wisdom imbedded in the original Greek, and upset that I didn’t study this sooner although we all have the resources available, at least those of us who live in technologically saturated nations.
Let’s look at the first beatitude recorded in Matthew 5:3. I must “romanize” the Greek words into the English alphabet, of course. For starters, “blessed” was translated from “makarios” which is a long form of the poetic word “makar” meaning “supremely fortunate.” The “poor” is from “ptochos” literally meaning a cringing beggar. This is a different image in contrast to a person who has little. “In spirit,” as in “poor in spirit,” comes from “pneuma” or “a blast of breath of air.” Pneuma is a consistent metaphor of the Holy Spirit throughout Scripture.
Ok, so far we have something like, “Supremely fortunate are those beggars cringing for a blast of the divine breath air.” Who among us are identifying with that image right now? How many of us can say, “Yes, that describes me”? If you can, then “supremely fortunate” (blessed) are you.
But why? This gets very interesting. “For” or “because” (depending on your translation version) comes from the Greek “hoti” which is a grammatical conjunction that connotes a result. The “they” in “theirs” is “autos,” from the particle “au” which is a pronoun describing a self or selves. The literal English would be, “because or as a result of them.” What’s the result? “Is the kingdom of the heavens.” “Is” translates from “esti” (third person singular) meaning “exists”. “Kingdom” is from “basileia” or “royal realm.” “Heavens” from “ouranos” literally meaning the sky as the abode of God with the implication of happiness, eternity, power, love.
Scripture, for example Psalm 139, is clear that the abode of God is everywhere, that all of creation and beyond cannot contain Him. “If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in hell, you are there.” But the “royal realm” or “basileia” is the abode of God that we share and to which we are destined by grace.
So now, we have: “Supremely fortunate are those beggars cringing for a blast of the divine breath air; the royal realm of God’s abode results from and exists for them.” I suggest the “them” is spoken of in Hebrews 12 as the “great cloud of witnesses” and “the communion of saints.”
That “God’s abode,” the heavens, exists as a result of the cringing beggars for His blast of divine breath makes sense. Since God doesn’t need an “abode” to house Himself, the heavens are a result of the “autos” who beg and cringe to share His breath. Indeed, Jesus announced “I am going there to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2).
How far and deeply more revealing are Matthew’s original recordings than, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”! Yet, I know for certain, there are more profound depths of understanding yet to be explored prayerfully.
So what about those “peacemakers” who “will be called sons of God”? Matthew wrote “eirenopoios” which means “pacificatory” or “subjectively peaceable.” If you, in your heart, subjectively (as opposed to objectively, in your intellect) are “peaceable,” “supremely fortunate (blessed)” are you! The modern culture seeks peace through political correctness...let’s keep the peace by not offending anyone. Objectively we can call a blind person “sight challenged” but subjectively, we know blindness or a handicap (oops, I should say a physical challenge) when we see it and even more when we experience it.
So why the blessing? You have a kinship (Greek: “huios”) with the heart of God and you will be “called” or “kaleo” which means a calling aloud. It doesn’t seem that Matthew is quoting Jesus as saying peacemakers will be called sons of God, a problem we dealt with earlier. Jesus is saying those sharing a kinship with God through their heartful peacemaking way of living will be called loudly by God. Called to do what or to be what? Does that matter? What a blessing, what a supreme fortune, to be personally called upon by God for any reason! A scary thing, though. Prophets were always called. Isaiah said, “Here I am! Choose me” and Jonah said, “Here I go! Find somebody else.” And James reminds us that a prophet, using the great prophet Elijah as an example, “was a man just like us” (5:17).
How about the blessing on those who mourn? The English translation “will be comforted” comes from the Greek, “parakaleo” meaning “to call near or be invoked.” Those who grieve in the spirit will be called and invoked by God into His presence. Now that’s a better definition of “comforted”! Even more blessed if we heed His call and invocation and respond!
And the “pure in heart” who “will see God”? The Greek word translated as “pure” is “katharos” which is the basis for the English term “catharsis” or cleansing, cleaning out of junk. “Heart” was from “kardia” (English “cardiac”) meaning our thoughts and emotions. Those who have cleaned their thoughts and emotions “will see God.” “Will see” comes from “optanomai” (from where our English “ophthalmologist” derives) which is a long form of “optomai” meaning “to gaze at something remarkable, an earnest, intense, continued inspection, in contrast to casual, passive or voluntary vision.” This is something we can gaze upon here on earth as well as in the heavens. The Scriptures are quite clear on how to clean our thoughts and emotions. Why hesitate?! Divine optanomai awaits!
And the blessing upon “those who are persecuted because of righteousness”? The Greek translated into “being persecuted” is “dioko” which is a prolonged, causative form of the primary verb “dio,” meaning to be in flight from or pursuit from. Thus persecuted because of what? “Righteousness” came from the Greek “dikaiosune” meaning “equity of character or action and justification.” Such “justification” is a product of grace and the redemptive work of Christ, for we certainly cannot “justify” ourselves. It is the experience of all in pursuit of salvation, of the narrow road, of “justification by faith,” of ongoing conversion and sanctification that follows, in one term, “righteousness” (“not of ourselves, but of God”), to encounter “dioko” or flight from that which impedes our spiritual growth. The apostle Paul wrote quite definitively on this flight from “the flesh” and evil. This insight from the original writings of Matthew casts a far superior and personal picture of “persecution because of righteousness” than our prevalent images of somebody sitting in jail because of a “righteous” and “moral” stand he or she took in the name of a cause, even one in the name of Christ.
What about all this? Is this translation better than that of the saints and scholars upon whom I rely? By no means. It is largely a matter of marketing. For example, the Amplified Bible version is the most true to the original languages, but even that version must take liberties. The Amplified Bible is not used in public readings because it is laborious, yet the most accurate. If it were to expound on every word in the original languages, it would be much too ponderous to cover the costs of publication. Only biblical scholars would use it, and, as it stands, these scholars don’t need it because they have the original texts available, as we all do.
Then we are confronted with the emotional loyalty to certain translations. Some denominations accept nothing other than the King James version of 1611 as “gospel” though its translation scholarship is in question, which I can document. The New International Version (NIV) is teased by some denominations as being the “Nearly Inspired Version.” As I compare it to the original languages, I am persuaded to continue using it as my main quoted version in these Reflections, as you undoubtedly noticed. But you also noticed how I put that version, among all others, aside in this Reflection. They pale as colorless as the face of the blood-drained dead in the light of the resplendent depths of the original languages.
How about “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled”? The Greek behind “hunger” is “peinao,” craving due to famish. “Thirst” from “dipsao” or literal and figurative famish for water. Are you famished for “dikaiosume”? The justification that comes from God alone? Blessed, supremely fortunate on a continuing basis are you! For you will be “filled”...actually, “chortazo” or gorged. Your “chortazo” will be in proportion to your “peinao.” How famished, to the point of fainting from “peinao” or hunger, are we for the “dikaiosume” or justification of God? Supremely and eternally fortunate are those who are! They will be gorged with dikaiosume.
“For because of them, the kingdom of heaven exists.”
Education by indoctrination involves the repeating of doctrines without critical thinking or discourse until the person adopts them as truth without understanding why they may or may not be true. If they aren’t true, he now believes in and is guided by falsehood. If they are true, he is deprived of the riches of wisdom because he doesn’t know why. That’s one of the reasons Jesus did not teach by indoctrination, an example not always followed by His followers today.
For years I repeated to others, and myself, “Narrow is the gate and constricted is the way that leads to life” (Matthew 7:14). Then I paused and asked myself, “What’s going on here?” Although the walled cities of Jesus’ time had “gates,” the metaphor of a gate is most likely based on corrals in pastures. The animals (Jesus most likely had sheep in mind, as this was the prevalent metaphor) needed to leave through the gate into grazing and watering areas, their source of life. A good shepherd, and Jesus is the Good Shepherd, would take care to make sure the gate is wide enough for even the fattest sheep to pass through easily and the road (path) to the grazing grounds was clear and easily navigable.
So how is it that the gate and way for us humans is described as of inferior design and maintenance than that human shepherds and cattle raisers would provide for animals? The delightful and useful understanding rests in the language in which Jesus’ instruction was originally recorded. The Greek word, “stenos,” was translated as “narrow.” Fair enough, but “stenos” also communicates to the Greek reader and listener why the gate is narrow: from obstacles around it. It isn’t narrow by design.
In my countryside wanderings, I encountered gates to pastures on abandoned farms. Through lack of use, stones, weeds, saplings and other things obstructed many of the gates so that they could be forced open only enough for me to squeeze through sideways. The old cattle paths into the pastures were also constricted and faded, often covered over with briars. These were not clean jogging trails!
Jesus said the way (recorded as “hodos” or the means) is “thlibo” meaning crowded or thronged with trouble, suffering, challenge. I think of that when I recall hiking across those abandoned pastures. It’s also an apt description of the means to life, to living fully. So it’s written, “Few are those who find it.” But “find” was translated from “heurisko” meaning “will see or perceive.” Many stand looking out over the gate surrounded by obstacles that make it a narrow squeeze and difficult walk, never able to (or wanting to) perceive the means to life.
Some of these obstacles to perception are described in Jesus’ parable of the seed sower. “Still others, like seed sown among the thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful” (Mark 4:18-19, NIV). As Jesus said about the gate, the means (the word, or the Word, Himself) is constricted by choking with troubles, sufferings, distractions.
In John 14:6, Jesus uses the same word, recorded in the Greek as "hodos", or "way and means" to describe Himself. He declared “I [ego, me] am [eimi, am, have been, will be] the way [hodos, means], the truth and the life. No one comes [erchomai, enters, grows] to [pros, toward the destination of] the Father, except through [dia, channel or action of] Me [emou, my being]. Christianity is often accused of being non-inclusive or unrespectful of “other ways” to God promulgated by other religious traditions. The manner in which Jesus’ declaration was originally recorded rather describes the relational interconnectivity of the Father and the Father- Incarnate, the Son. Jesus is simply saying one cannot be separated from the other as a matter of plain reality, just a body cannot be separated from air and live. That’s just how it is regardless of human philosophy, religious tradition or political correctness. We mean no offense or arrogance to anyone.
The instruction, “Ask and it will be given; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7) generates many interesting notions from the “prosperity gospel” preaching to the “name-it-and-claim-it” prayer tactics. Ask anything? Seek what? Examining how Matthew recorded this saves us a lot of foolish speculation as we bicker over English words that don’t quite mean what he wrote or what Christ said.
“Aiteite [Call for, crave, implore] kai [the manifested result] didomi [will be brought forth]. Zeteo [endeavor and quest in a worshipful way] kai [the result] heurisko [you will perceive]. Krouo [persistently knock or rap] anoigo [it will open up].” Yes, the worshipful questing caller perceives and attains; the persistent knocking opens it. “As it is written: ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him' – but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:9-10). I guess that rules out the “ask, seek and knock” application to winning lotteries and big job promotions.
In the unaccented, Romanized to our alphabet, Greek rendition, Matthew 7:7 reads: “Aiteite kai dotheesetai humin. Zeeteite kai heureesete. Krouete kai anoigeesetai humin.” These sacred words, this holy declaration, is impregnated with divine wisdom far exceeding what is merely pointed to in our reader-friendly English translations.
The gate isn’t narrow and difficult to squeeze through by some sort of malicious design. The road or path isn’t constricted by obstacles to make traveling the road to green pastures and living water more challenging or difficult to perceive to give us a hard time. God isn’t the source of those obstacles nor is He the reason why we can’t get that gate to open up a little wider. God is the source, and Christ is the way and means, of the redemptive grace that enables those on a worshipful quest to pass through the gate, down the path, into His presence, the fullness of life never-ending.
But we are not talking about Indiana Jones and his Quest for the Holy Grail. The quest is in being led, not in blazing the way, by the only One who is able to lead. “The Lord is my shepherd...he leads me...he restores my soul. He guides me...for his name’s sake [not for mine].” The psalmist also declares, “It is you, O Lord, who has accomplished all that I have done.” That, though paradoxically to some, includes asking, seeking and knocking, and squeezing through that narrow gate.
Just before His crucifixion, Jesus explained to His disciples, “Yet many things I have to tell you, but not you are able to carry now” (John 16:12). This simplistic word-for-word rendition sounds like a foreign national trying his best to express himself in a language whose precise word-meanings and grammar are not familiar. Those fluent in English get the gist of what he is saying and understand enough to respond in some way. It must be remembered, though, we are only getting the gist or approximation of what is being said. We then tell ourselves, “I understand he is saying, ‘Yet, there are many things I have to tell you, but they are more than you can take right now.’”
The apostle John, inspired by the Holy Spirit (as obvious by his letters and his book of Revelation), heard Jesus say what he chose to express in the Greek, “echo” for “I have.” “Echo” doesn’t mean “I have” in the sense of “I have to tell you something important.” It means “I hold in my possession and ability.” John used the word, “lego” which doesn’t quite mean “tell” but rather to “lay forth, in front of you, for your possession.” John recorded Christ as saying that what He holds in possession to lay forth in front of His followers for their possession they couldn’t yet “bastazo” or lift and sustain its lifting. He didn’t mean, “You can’t bear what I have yet to tell you,” as in “bearing challenging news.”
John recorded Christ declaring something like, “There is yet to come, many things I hold in my possession and ability to lay forth to you for your possession, but you are not able, on your own, to lift, keep lifted and take possession of them right now.”
John 3:16 is a familiar and frequently quoted verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (NIV). That love was expressed in the Greek as “agape”, the love that has no boundaries and no conditions. But what does God love in that manner? John used the word “kosmos”, the orderly arrangement and creation of all, including all inhabitants. He was not speaking of the “earth,” as in Genesis 1, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” The Hebrew word used was “’erets” or “a land.” John described God’s love as extending through the entire cosmos and all life. Indeed, Paul wrote even “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by the will of the one who subject it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:19-22, NIV).
Psalm 145:9 declares, “The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made” (NIV). The “Lord” (when written in small capital letters in English) is “Yahweh”, (Romanized, “Yhovah”, pronounced “yeh-ho-va”), or the Self-Existent and Eternal. He is “towb” or “good in the widest possible sense” to “kol” or the whole, excluding none. He has mercy or compassion, “racham”, as in cherishing the baby in a womb, on all His works or making, “ma’aseh”, all His actions, transactions and products (as in creative poetry.) John 3:16 echoes this splendor of ardor.
And who is the “whoever”? It is “pas”, meaning all, any, every, the whole! “Believes” is a misleading translation of “pisteuo” or “exercising faith and entrusting one’s being.” Since pisteuo is usually translated as “believes,” the conjunction “in” or “on” had to be used instead of the recorded word “eis” meaning into. The magnificence of John 3:16 isn’t “Believe in Christ then you’ll be saved” as though it was a contract and a sequential thing. Rather, John is writing, quoting Jesus, “All, everyone, anyone, exercising faith and the entrusting of one’s being into Christ will not ‘perish’ or apollumi [fully destroyed].” “Believing in” something or someone indicates an ongoing separation, as “I am here, believing in that or him over there.” “Exercising faith and trust into” something or someone necessitates an abandonment of oneself for a “leaping” (hence “leap of faith”) into the other.
That requires grace, and is grace. So the apostle Peter wrote, “Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10, NIV). This is a peculiar reminder, subject to vigorous debate in evangelical circles. It helps to note that “calling” was translated from “klesis” meaning “the invitation,” and “election” (“choice” in some translations) from “ekloge” meaning “divine selection.” To be invited is certainly a divine selection. The end of the Revelation, the end of the entire biblical cannon, announces this invitation and selection: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ and let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life” (Revelation 22:17, NIV). And Peter urges us to do this eagerly! “You will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:11, NIV).
This “making sure” circles back to the verses following the famous passage of John 3:16. “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19, NIV). Most translations express “This is the judgment” but the NIV has it right. The word John used was “krisis” meaning decision or a verdict of justice. (The English word, “crises”, derives from krisis as a crises calls for a decision.)
Some criticize the Scriptures for being sexist while others protest gender-neutral translations. “If it says ‘men’ God meant it.” John, however, wrote “anthropos” loved darkness (from which the English “anthropology” comes.) The Greek reader understood this as “human beings” or “humankind”. Let’s hold the translators responsible for being sexist, not God.
Male or female, most of us exclude ourselves from the category of those “who love darkness because their deeds are evil.” But John actually wrote “sotkos” which means shadiness and obscurity, not darkness. (In 2 Peter 2:4, Peter used the word “zophos” for the “darkness” of “Tartarus,” the deepest abyss of Hades. Zophos means “gloom as shrouding like a cloud.”)
What is translated as “evil” came from “poneros” which indicates a composite of hurt, dereliction, malice, disease, calamity. How many of us can claim no guilt in ever practicing skotos, of never hiding in the shadows and obscurities of our philosophies and opinions, of even some of our religious practices, all of which would burn into ash in the exposure to Christ’s light? How many of our “ergon” or deeds, efforts, actions, work, are motivated by poneros or moral dereliction or malice under the clothing of righteousness, national pride, loyalty to emotionally generated causes that define other humans as evil and meriting annihilation, of even the uncharitable exclusions and condemnations of others in the name of Christ?
“But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God” (John 3:21, NIV). That is the way to “make your invitation and divine selection certain.” Living by the truth (“I am the Truth”) and coming into the light of He who is the Truth is an ongoing process and growth. This last quoted verse is the end of the recorded summary of Jesus’ instruction to a Pharisee, Nicodemus, who had approached Him under the cover of darkness. The first recorded statement from Jesus to this man living in the “shadows and obscurities” was “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3, NIV). That’s where we must begin, as a newly born baby, ever growing from there.
The English language has the expression, “At the crack of dawn.” I’m glad it really isn’t quite like that. Going from darkness into sudden bright light is a shock to the senses and takes some recovery time. I love how it’s done in creation. There’s a gentle, gradual shift from the obscurities of dark shadiness to the clarity of pure light. It’s gentle and gradual enough to allow a meditative observation of the process. Watching the morning light slowly wash away the shadows of the night allows us to pray contemplatively through the process, and enter “eis” – into – that process. “And we have the word of the prophets made very certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19, NIV).
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
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Spiritual Resourse Services © November 28, 2003
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