Tuesday, February 08, 2022

Doesn’t Always Mean What We Think It Means (8)

Compare the usage of the word “condemn” in the following two passages:

“See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death.”

“But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.”

Assuming you are familiar with both verses in their original contexts, you will probably agree with me that the word is being used to describe two distinct degrees of hazard, one considerably more severe than the other.

11. Condemn

Two Men Who Stood Condemned

Now, I don’t want to suggest for a moment that the error made by Cephas (Peter) was a trivial one. He had been eating with Gentiles for some time, probably ever since falling into a trance and receiving a vision from God as detailed in Acts 10. However, in Antioch, under the scrutiny of Jews he knew were associated with the circumcision party, he reverted to what we could legitimately refer to as racist behavior. He stopped eating with Gentile Christians rather than offend his fellow Jews. Paul writes that Peter “stood condemned”.

Mind you, nobody was about to hang him on a cross for it. He was in Syria, not Judea. And even in places where the Jewish religious leaders were better able to flex their muscles, Kevin MacDonald points out that the first century penalty for a Jew who married a Gentile was limited to flagellation. Eating with Gentiles, while unacceptable to devout adherents of Judaism and legalistically-minded Jewish Christians, was considerably less offensive than intermarriage.

So while many of our English translations use the word “condemn” in both situations, what was at stake for Peter in Galatians was not at all what was at stake for the Lord Jesus in Matthew’s gospel. That should be fairly obvious.

Lost in Translation

In fact, translators of most of our modern English Bibles, including the NIV, NASB and ESV, have blurred the distinction between two Greek words which are not precisely synonymous. (The KJV and NKJV have not, as a few of our readers will no doubt enthusiastically point out.)

The word used in Matthew is katakrinō, which almost exclusively refers to the verdict of a court, either earthly or heavenly. Sodom and Gomorrah were condemned, writes Peter. “Whoever does not believe will be condemned,” says the Lord Jesus at the end of Mark’s gospel. On the other hand, the word used by Paul in Galatians is kataginōskō, which means to find fault with. In addition to an observable difference in degree of severity, we might note that the first word can describe either the charge or the sentence, while the second has more to do with the accusation. In other words, you would probably rather be subjected to the latter than the former.

Paul is saying that Peter had put himself in a position that was indefensible. He had opened himself up to legitimate criticism of his conduct. It still remained to be firmly established whether he was indeed a dyed-in-the-wool hypocrite, but the evidence was, as they say today, “concerning”.

A Distinction with a Difference

Does such a fine distinction matter much? Well, knowing these two words are not precisely synonymous in the original may help us better understand what is being taught in a few familiar New Testament passages.

For example, John writes:

“By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God.”

Now, John is warning of the danger of inconsistency. He wants his readers to love one another “in deed and in truth”, not simply to make affectionate noises at each other. In fact, the situation is similar to the one in which Peter found himself in Antioch: he was making the right noises about being “all one in Christ”, but his actions gave the lie to his words and left him open to a bad conscience and inconsistent testimony. Likewise, here John says, “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?”

Now, John is not arguing that believers who behave inconsistently are in danger of the fires of hell, but rather that they are in danger of losing their confidence before God. The very fact that our consciences are triggered by our own inadequate expressions of love is evidence that we belong to God. But we will not much enjoy that relationship if we fail to express God’s love to those around us. Hence John says, in effect, “Behave consistently with what you are.”

So “condemn” in this context seems to me a strong word. We might more accurately say, “when our hearts tell us we are in the wrong”. I think that’s the sense of it.

A Hard and Impenitent Man

On the other hand, there are passages like this one in Romans:

“In passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.”

Here I think the situation is much more serious, and the use of katakrinō reflects that. Paul is not speaking about a Christian acting inconsistently, but about the unregenerate man who expects to establish his righteousness before God on the basis of his own behavior, which he subjectively deems to be superior to that of others. This man’s whole works-based view of salvation is a problem. He has yet to repent, and is not a believer at all. He has a “hard and impenitent heart” and is “storing up wrath” for himself on the day of wrath. This is not a saved man, and the language in the passage establishes that.

In this case, “condemn” is the best possible translation. The man is passing sentence on himself.

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