James on participating in the divine nature

I’m going to start leading our small group Bible study through a series on the Letter of James tonight. The thing I am most excited about is that this small group has become increasingly open to dig deeply into the Scriptures and into the dark places of our souls. We seem more willing to share with one another about the things we are struggling with and to keep one another accountable in our walk of faith. That’s what James is all about.

Since we didn’t decide until yesterday that we would be doing this study, I gave them a quick reading assignment to prepare: James 1:1-2 and 5:19-20. James is written to the twelve tribes living in the Diaspora. The people of God who have been scattered. By the end of the letter it is clear that this is no mere geographical designation. It is written to brothers and sisters who have wandered off the path of truth. And it is written to brothers and sisters who are in such a relationship with God that they can be His instruments to steer their wayward family members back onto the path of life.

Peter talks about participating in the divine nature through the promises of God (2 Peter 1:4), and James has his own message along these lines. In the beginning of the letter, James lays out a contrast between our own evil desires that lead to death (James 1:14-15) and the desire of our heavenly Father to give us new birth through his word of truth (James 1:17-18). This divine word is the only thing that can truly inspire us with godly wisdom, save us from the filth around us, and give abundant life to our mortal souls.

By the end of the letter, James presents a picture of the church accomplishing through prayer what only God can do: healing the sick, forgiveness of sins, stopping the rain and making it rain again (James 5:15-18). When we come alongside a wandering brother or sister in Christ and turn them back to God, we participate in the nature of God by saving others from death and covering over a multitude of sins (James 5:19-20). Surely, the prayer of a righteous person is very powerful since it is God who makes it effective (James 5:16).

May we each not forsake our first love (Revelation 2:4). May the love of God well up within us and overflow to all those around us.

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Non-imperatives in Romans 12:9-13.

Why can’t we translate the non-imperative clauses in Romans 12:9-13 as something other than imperatives? I don’t see any reason why not. In fact, I believe that translating these non-imperative forms as commands puts too much emphasis on our human effort that just isn’t in the text at this point. The introduction of 14 commands in this passage also has the effect of hiding the more relevant theme that must be continuing in this passage of the Spirit’s control of our minds (cf. Rom. 8:4ff; 12:2,6). The tension within the ethics of the New Testament is that we are frequently commanded to do what we are only able to do through the gift of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The pages of the New Testament do also give plain descriptions of what Spirit-regenerated life looks like, and these should not all be reduced to the rhetoric of direct instructions.

Understood descriptively, vv. 9-13 offer a detailed picture of what love looks like after the preceding discussion of gifts (analagous to 1 Cor. 12-13). It is not a series of orders, but it would have been heard as an attractive description of what love does. Certainly this should motivate us to those actions, but the real power behind any of these loving behaviors is the control of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. These aren’t just mitigated commands. The expository nature of the text leaves more room for figuring in the role of the Spirit.

The real difficulty is how to translate this passage into English when there are some surprising subject-verb agreement features of the Greek text that can’t be automatically carried over into English. The first phrase says “Love (singular) [is] unhypocritical (singular),” but the following supporting phrases are all plural verbal participles (e.g. “abhorring (plural) evil, clinging (plural) to the good…”).

I think the main reason all our English translations go the way of expressing all 14 of these clauses as commands where there isn’t a single imperative verb is this: in trying to do justice to the apparent discrepancy of the lack of number agreement between the first singular clause and the following plural participles, making them all commands apparently solves this problem in English.  By supplying an implied command (“let be”) for the first clause (“let love be unhypocritical”), there is no longer any lack of agreement between the subject of the first clause and the assumed plural “you” subject of all the following participles. The subject now is always ‘you’.

The big problem, however, is that the grammatical subject of this whole paragraph is ‘love’. The traditional English solution loses that and shifts the entire focus to ‘you’. A second person plural subject is not expressed in any form in any of these 14 clauses in vv. 9-13 (nor in the previous 5 verses).

A better understanding of the apparent mismatch in the Greek subject-verb agreement of vs. 9 is that Greek normally allows the semantics of the situation to dictate the forms of the subject and verb. This is regularly seen in various disagreements for person and number when there are compound subjects, and for a variety of semantic reasons (see my summary of the issues here). In Rom. 12:9 the disagreement comes about because the true initial subject of the paragraph is the singular notion of love, but Paul is talking about love that is expressed by the multiple members of the body of Christ. The mismatch in number agreement happens when the singular abstract concept of ‘love’ is introduced and then described by participles that are plural due to the multiple agents in view.

Here’s my first attempt at a translation. Notice that the first command does not occur until vs. 14…

9 Love is unhypocritical: it is people abhorring evil, clinging to the good, 10 affectionate to one another with brotherly love, leading the way in showing honor to one another, 11 not shrunk back in eagerness, boiling over in the Spirit, serving the Lord, 12 rejoicing in hope, enduring suffering, persevering in prayer, 13 sharing their possessions for the needs of the saints, pursuing love between strangers. 14 Bless the ones pursuing you; bless and do not curse.

After translating this passage to more carefully reflect what is happening in the original text, a few things stand out that are not so apparent when all the dependent clauses are translated as separate commands…

The single sentence that includes vv. 9-13 starts off with the broad thematic content of the paragraph, namely, that love is unhypocritical. This theme is illustrated by a broad movement in the following participles from showing love to the brothers in the community who are called saints to a love that endures suffering and is sought after even between strangers.

The transition from the string of participial and adjective phrases in vv. 9-13 to the commands in vs. 14 is marked by the double use of DIWKW ‘pursue’ in vs. 13 in the sense of ‘hospitality’ (or more literally “pursuing love between strangers”) and in vs. 14 in the sense of “bless the ones pursuing (i.e. persecuting) you.”

Understood as a description rather than a series of commands, it also becomes more reasonable to understand the TW PNEUMATI as “the Spirit” rather than as the human spirit that one can manipulate. And that, I believe, is the whole point of Paul using participles in this paragraph rather than imperative verbs. It’s the Spirit’s work, first of all, before it is our own.

Blessing and Cursing our Brothers

Dr. Ben Witherington III, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, has issued a corrective for Wiley Drake, the California pastor who has called his congregation to pray curses on those who have opposed his combined religious and political activites. Witherington gives us a more appropriate hermeneutic for understanding human curses found in the Bible…

His supposed Biblical precedent for this is the imprecatory psalms of David. I don’t know what seminary this pastor went to, but boy has he misunderstood those psalms. They don’t reveal the will of God in such matters, rather they shed God’s light of truth on what is in the wicked heart of human beings, including in David’s heart, that old murderer and adulterer.

Witherington continued to point out Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings in the New Testament (Matthew 5.44; Romans 12.14) about loving our enemies, blessing them, praying for them, and NOT cursing them.

This is a good reminder to me. I have recently considered the appropriateness of following in the footsteps of Elijah and calling down fire from heaven. Seriously, when my house and my family are threatened, my first inclination—even my second, third, and fourth—is to respond in kind. And I don’t mean kindly, but in the same kind of way, but perhaps worse. After all, I’ve got God on my side, and I could show them what power really is, right? But when the disciples considered doing this, Jesus rebuked them because that was not the right spirit…

When His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.”

Luke 9.54-56

One response to the Witherington’s post raised the issue of God’s purposes in OT curses…

What is the best way to view these psalms of cursing? I have been reading Christopher Wright’s book Mission in the OT and as I read the post I was reminded of the Abrahamic promise that God would curse those who curse Abraham’s descendants. I wonder if some of these psalms are outworkings of this promise. Of course, it should always be kept in mind that the central purpose of the covenant with Abraham was to bless the nations with the knowledge of God.

I appreciate Witherington’s follow-up comments, especially since he brings James into the mix…

I think actually Luther had a very good point when he said that in the prophets God speaks to us, but in the psalms we speak to God, and what is in and on our hearts is truly and truthfully revealed. How then are such psalms God’s Word? The answer is not difficult– they show God holding up a mirror to us so we will see our own hearts and what is in them– ranging from praise to cursing. As James once said– blessing and cursing should not be coming out of the same human mouth or heart for that matter.

I love this illustration of God’s word being like a mirror so that we can see our own hearts. The last devotion I gave in the Greek course this week was from 2 Corinthians 3.18…

Beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, we are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.

Even though mirrors normally just show us the reality of what we look like (imperfections and all), when we look at God’s word as a mirror, or when we look at our Lord Jesus as a mirror, God uses the mirror to actually change us. We are transformed so that the glory in the image of Jesus is reflected back into us. We become like Jesus. His desires become our desires.

What is so interesting to me about the comparison between the comments of Jesus and James in Matthew 5.44 and James 3.1-12 is that they both have the spiritual status of the Christ-follower in mind, not primarily that of the enemy. Thus, not only does Jesus say to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” in Matthew 5.44, the next clause says, “so that you may become sons of your father in heaven.” While we are urged to pray for our persecutors, the issue in focus in Matthew 5 is our own standing before the Father who acts graciously to both the just and the unjust. I’m surprised that the text doesn’t urge prayer so that ‘your enemies’ can come into relationship with the Father. Instead, it says so that YOU may become sons of your father. Perhaps that’s what Pastor Wiley Drake should be concerned about.

And what about Christians who follow Jesus’ ethics? Has Pastor Drake in some way become our enemy? How should we respond to him and about him? Let’s hope we reflect our Father’s character.

By the way, the follow-up comments to Ben Witherington’s post includes an interesting translation-related question regarding the Arabic name for God, Allah. Arabic Christians and Muslims worship a God named Allah. But the Muslim Allah is the God of jihad and curses, and the Christian Allah is the God of blessing and love for one’s enemies.

Luther and Hafemann on Studying Greek

When I first found out that I would be teaching the introductory New Testament Greek course to national Bible translators and pastors in Papua New Guinea this month, I had to write my former Greek teacher, Scott Hafemann, right away. He was the first one who ever thought I would be doing this. Back when I was taking his classes for the Wheaton College Graduate School in 1998-99, I knew I was studying Greek so I could be a better qualified advisor to national Bible translators. But he was confident that I would be training mother tongue translators to use the Greek text for themselves.

So when I wrote to Scott with the news, he immediately made available to me the CD for his soon-to-be-released online course for distance learning through the Semlink Office at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

In the first lesson on the CD, Hafemann reminded me of a quote from Martin Luther that he had recited for us in class in 1999. Luther talks about how important the study of Greek is…

Insofar as we love the gospel, to that same extent, let us study the ancient tongues. And let us notice that without the knowledge of languages we can scarcely preserve the gospel. Languages are the sheath which hides the sword of the Spirit, they are the chest in which this jewel is enclosed, the goblet holding this draught. Where the languages are studied, the proclamation will be fresh and powerful, the scriptures will be searched, and the faith will be constantly rediscovered through ever new words and deeds.

I explained Luther’s images of the sheath, the chest, and the goblet so that my English-as-a-second-language students could fully grasp the word pictures. Papua New Guineans frequently use ‘tok piksa’ in their daily conversations. Judging from the nods and groans that accompanied the teaching, I believe Luther’s message spoke powerfully to the students. One student even came and asked for the quote after class. He got the following quote from Hafemann as a bonus.

Echoing Luther in his online course, Hafemann states:

Our study of the Greek language is not an end in itself, but we study Greek for the sake of knowing scripture, and we know scripture for the sake of understanding God’s self-revelation to us, and we want to understand God’s self-revelation to us that we might live in relationship with him. So Greek for the sake of scripture, scripture for the sake of knowing the Lord, and knowing the Lord for the sake of living in relationship with him. Greek and the gospel: inextricably linked…

It’s a spiritual discipline. Learning Greek is not simply an academic exercise. It’s a calling and it’s a privilege. It is a spiritual exercise like any other spiritual exercise, whether it’s prayer, fasting, worship. I would like you to think about Greek as loving the Lord with your mind in the same way that you engage in loving the Lord with your heart and your soul and your strength in all the other pursuits of your life.

That is what I am asking my Greek students to do here in PNG. Throughout the 6 hours that we have together each day, we intersperse the lectures and group activities with prayer, singing, Christian greetings, and lessons from God’s word that illustrate the Greek material. They are used to hearing explanations of God’s word through two or three subsequent translations, and they said “maybe something has gone missing.” So they are motivated to learn Greek so they can really hear God’s message to them and live in relationship with him.

Learning Greek is a Spiritual Discipline

My passion for Greek was ignited in 1998 when I started graduate school at Wheaton College and took classes from Dr. Scott Hafemann. His teaching was a model for academic rigor that is not divorced from a life of faith lived in service for others. His challenge was that the study of Greek not simply be an academic exercise, but a spiritual discipline in which we love God with our minds (cf. Mark 12.30). This was a challenge I needed to hear.

So, this is how I seek to teach my intensive introductory New Testament Greek course to Papua New Guineans this month. One of the things we are doing as we learn Greek is to learn Greek scripture songs.

We started with the alphabet. In Revelation 1.8 we read that “Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the one who was, and is, and is to come, the ruler over all things.” So Jesus used the Greek alphabet to explain his sovereignty. He is ruler of all. And that means he is ruler over this Greek course. An intensive NT Greek course that meets for 6 hours a day for 6 weeks is difficult! But Jesus is ruler of this course as well.

So the first song we learned goes like this:

Alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon,
Zeta, eta, theta, iota,
Kappa, lambda, mu, nu, xi, omicron,
Pi, rho, sigma, tau, upsilon,
Phi, chi, psi, omega,
Ἰησοῦς ἐστίν τὸ Ἄλφα καὶ τὸ Ὦ
(Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega)

It sure is pretty powerful to hear a room full of Papua New Guineans belting this out full voice on the first day of class. Although it seems a little bit like 1st grade with the alphabet in big letters up on the wall across the length of the room, it’s not just an academic exercise. Even the foundational lesson on the alphabet is a spiritual discipline of singing praise to Jesus as Lord.

Teaching New Testament Greek – Guiding Principles

Tomorrow I start teaching New Testament Greek to 19 national translators and pastors in Papua New Guinea. Here are the guiding principles that I included in the syllabus:

  1. The study of New Testament Greek is a spiritual discipline. We learn Greek in order to know and understand the New Testament scriptures better. We study the scriptures in order to know God more. Therefore, the study of Greek is one way that we love God with our mind.
  2. The study of New Testament Greek is a tool for ministry. We learn Greek not simply for our own good, but to love and serve others. The New Testament was written in Koine Greek. Koine means ‘common’ – it was the language of the common people. We learn Koine Greek not to raise ourselves up above others, but to become better equipped to communicate God’s message to all people.
  3. The study of New Testament Greek is foundational for independent exegesis of New Testament texts. We learn Greek not to strengthen our own biased interpretations of the text, but to better understand the range of possible and probable meanings that can be derived from the language used. Therefore, the study of the Greek language goes hand in hand with understanding general principles of interpretation.
  4. The study of New Testament Greek is inseparable from our knowledge of other languages. Knowledge of other languages aids the student in learning Greek by recognizing the similarities and differences between languages. Such cross-linguistic comparison also aids the student in communicating the meaning of Greek texts into other languages, whether that communication occurs in oral or written explanation or in translation.
  5. The study of New Testament Greek is necessary for understanding secondary literature about the New Testament. In order to follow the discussion in commentaries, theologies, and translation helps, one must be familiar with the patterns of Greek language and standard grammatical terminology. Even if a student is not able to master the Greek language, familiarity with the standard terminology will be helpful in using exegetical resources and translation helps.
  6. The study of New Testament Greek is a valuable discipline to pursue in a pattern of continued lifelong learning. In a 6 week course, one can only be introduced to the Greek language. However, skills and resources that will help the student to continue making progress in the study of Greek will be introduced. Self-discipline is key to the ongoing learning process.

Love God and Others: ΑΓΑΠΗΣΕΙΣ

The blog title ΑΓΑΠΗΣΕΙΣ is the Greek word for “you will love.” It’s the word used in the Greek New Testament (e.g. Mark 12.30) when referencing the Hebrew confession of faith—the Shema’—in Deuteronomy 6.4-5. I have chosen ΑΓΑΠΗΣΕΙΣ as the title of this blog because its double use in Mark 12.30-31 summarizes what this blog is about:

  • knowing God’s word
  • in order to love God
  • and love others

In Mark 12.29-31, Jesus anwers the question, “What is the greatest commandment?” He responds by quoting the Shema’ from Deuteronomy 6.4 that pious Jews would have confessed every morning and evening:

Hear, oh Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one.

Jesus continues from Deuteronomy 6.5:

And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.

While the Hebrew only has a tripartite division of the person, Jesus adds the ‘mind’ as a fourth aspect with which to love God. The meaning is the same: love God with all of who you are.

In Mark 12.31 Jesus continues with the second greatest commandment:

The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.

This blog is devoted to the interpretation of scripture in order to love God and love others. Some of my primary interests to be included in this blog are…

  • biblical exegesis
  • biblical theology
  • use of OT in the NT
  • Greek language
  • Hebrew language
  • Bible translation
  • linguistics
  • discourse analysis
  • cognitive semantics
  • the Letter of James
  • textual criticism
  • teaching
  • preaching

Many of my interests are quite academic in nature, yet I do not wish to live in my own little world of books and research. I want to pursue these interests in such a way that I love God with all of who I am and also love others more than myself. Thus, in this blog I wish to love God and others by sharing my everyday thoughts concerning the above disciplines.