Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Wrong Word

Sometimes we’ve just plain got the wrong word in our Bibles.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I know translators are highly skilled people. In almost every case when it was first translated it was the right word. It was clearly understood by its audience. It was the best English equivalent in its generation for a particular Greek or Hebrew expression.

But languages evolve. Meanings morph. Sometimes they even reverse themselves. Words that worked in one generation no longer transmit the intended message without causing confusion, eroding our ability to grasp what the writers of the word of God were trying to tell us. More than a few beloved expressions hang on well past their expiry dates.

My candidate of choice? The word “grace”.

You Can’t Change THAT!

“What?” you say, making wet spluttering sounds and sending drops of tea flying across the room. “What’s wrong with GRACE? I’ve been hearing it all my life! I mean, ‘Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’. You can’t change THAT, you heretic.”

Maybe not. But let me walk you through why the word no longer works as well as it might.

What does “grace” mean today to the man or woman on the street? Well, let’s ask the online dictionary that pops up when we Google the expression, which is how 95% of everyone younger than you and me looks up anything they don’t understand.

Elegance, Courtesy, Politeness

First and most common definition in the entire English language:

1. simple elegance or refinement of movement.
“she moved through the water with effortless grace”
synonyms: elegance, poise, gracefulness, finesse

Um … not helping, is it? This is so self-evidently NOT the concept the writers of the New Testament have in view that it’s not worth pursuing further. So how about this instead, since we’re going from top to bottom?

· courteous goodwill.
“at least he has the grace to admit his debt to her”
synonyms: courtesy, decency, (good) manners, politeness, decorum, respect, tact

Nope, not even close. Next!

· an attractively polite manner of behaving.
“she has all the social graces”

Huh. Okay. Looks to me like none of these meanings so far would substitute nicely into a description of Jesus Christ as God’s agent of grace and truth. Elegance? Refinement? Courtesy? Politeness?

How about none of the above?

Unmerited Favor

Okay, so let’s try the religious dictionary definition:

2. In Christian belief, the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.

Well, that certainly works in a number of verses, including John 1:17, but it doesn’t remotely cover all the bases.

The acronym G-R-A-C-E, God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense, was often batted around when I was growing up, but that’s not so much a real definition as a rather limited theological memory aid.

There are more definitions for “grace” but it doesn’t seem there exists a current English word that has a one-for-one correspondence to the Greek charis, which might explain why the more modern translations are using an increasing number of different words to translate it. More importantly, the more obscure English uses are unfamiliar to a huge chunk of the younger population, meaning that “grace” is no longer the most useful English word to transmit the real meaning of the expression used by the Lord Jesus and his apostles.

“They’ll learn like we did,” grumble the die-hards. Maybe. If they stay around long enough. And one or two might if we’re lucky.

Grace and Truth

Charis, as it turns out, comes from another Greek word, chairĊ, meaning to “rejoice”. If we were to be really literal about it, charis is something that gives the recipient cause to rejoice. Or at least potential cause to rejoice, human agency being what it is.

Where the emphasis is on the person communicating or conveying charis, the best English translation in most cases would today be “favor”, and it is absolutely true that in the case of the favor from God we have received in Christ, it is indeed both free and unmerited.

Where the emphasis is on the thing received, the best equivalent is probably “gift” or “benefit”.

So when we say that grace and truth came through Jesus Christ, we are saying, “The favor of God toward mankind was displayed in the person of Jesus Christ without compromise”, or something like that. We are not suggesting the Lord Jesus was perpetually polite, though on occasion he may have been that too.

On other occasions he wasn’t polite at all, and we can surely multiply examples.

God’s Favor on Display

But whether he was or wasn’t courteous in any given situation, it was God’s favor toward man that was always on display in his words and actions. It was God’s favor he displayed when he looked at one young man, loved him, and set him a task he knew was impossible for him. It was God’s favor he displayed when he told his disciple to put his sword back into his place, and that the twelve legions of angels that would otherwise have rushed to his aid were being held back at his request. It was God’s favor he displayed when he pronounced seven woes on unbelieving Pharisees to give them yet another opportunity to repent, just as Paul later tells the Romans that he made a big public deal of his ministry to the Gentiles in order to make his fellow Jews jealous and thus save some of them.

You want to talk about an undeserved favor! But do you think the Jews he intentionally inflamed thought he was being gracious in the sense we use it? I kinda doubt it.

Healing after healing. God’s favor. Driving out demons. God’s favor.

Then, after Jesus rose from the dead, he declared God’s favor to the world had been extended indefinitely.

Oh, don’t worry. A day will come when the Lord Jesus will judge the world in righteousness. On that day, it will not be God’s favor he is displaying.

The Content, Not the Manner

The “favor”, you see (or the “grace”, as we have it traditionally), is not in his manner of speaking but in the content of that speech. It was not that he said things nicely, but that the things he said conveyed that God had granted his undeserving people an opportunity for repentance and salvation through faith. This is where the modern English meaning of “grace” lets us down because it is almost always concerned with the method of delivery rather than the message itself.

To illustrate, when Jesus was rejected in Nazareth, we are first told, “All spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious [charis] words [logos] that were coming from his mouth.” The ESV may be a modern translation, but it uses “gracious” here for charis notwithstanding the potential confusion it might cause.

But it was not that Jesus spoke with especial delicacy, poise or courtesy. That is not the issue. Rather, as Luke tells us, “He proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor.” THAT was the charis to which Luke refers, not the way Jesus delivered the message.

In fact, we have no evidence at all from any of the gospel writers that the Lord changed his tone markedly when he went on to indicate that God’s blessing was now to be extended to the Gentiles in a series of statements that provoked the hometown crowd to attempt to hurl him off a convenient cliff. He may have said those words as calmly and resolutely as he quoted Isaiah, and that’s exactly how I picture it.

His words were still absolutely favorable, in that God had also granted the people of Nazareth opportunity to repent and be saved, but today we can hardly refer to them as “gracious” when the word has assumed other meanings for so many in our audiences.

Always Gracious

So, let us be practical here. When dealing with “outsiders”, Paul tells the Colossians, in essence, to speak the way Jesus spoke in Nazareth:

“Let your speech [logos] always be gracious [‘in charis mode’, we might say], seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”

All the same linguistic elements are here in Colossians as are found in Luke. It is not the manner of our speech but our message — our logos — that is to be characterized by “favor”, and I suspect it’s divine favor he means, not simple human goodwill. This is not mere decorum. Paul is not telling the Colossians to be respectful*. They are to speak like Jesus, who nearly got himself thrown over a cliff.

We proclaim the day of the Lord’s favor because it is a limited-time offer. The day of vengeance of our God is coming, and the Lord Jesus rarely left that fact out of his “gracious” messages.

I think Paul is saying that the theme of our message is always to be the favor of God in Christ toward mankind, modified by whatever emphasis is required to address the particular needs and circumstances of the recipient, “so that you may know how you ought to answer each person”.

And that’s why sometimes we need to make the effort to reharmonize our message with the language of first century believers, rather than letting the present conventions of a secondary language color our interpretations.

* Peter makes reference to “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). Here the context is an encounter with someone who inquires about “the hope that is in you” in the course of persecuting you. The word he uses for “respect” is different: it’s phobos, often translated either “terror” or “reverence”. The purpose of the “gentleness and fear” is to maintain a good conscience before God, as opposed to lashing back at those who are doing the persecuting and compromising what the Holy Spirit is doing through you.

1 comment :

  1. I consider this a very important post, Tom. I hope everybody will read it.