Word Study #27 — Hear / Listen / Obey

December 23, 2009

Is there a parent walking the earth, who hasn’t confronted squabbling kids with an annoyed “DID YOU HEAR ME?!!”  The question is not one of auditory acuity, although the sullen teenager’s “I heard you!” may try to confine it to that assumption.
We deeply value a companion who “really listens”.  And yet, when we’ve tried multiple times without success, to get Johnny or Susie to pick up their belongings, “LISTEN!” does not demand merely attention, but obedience.

All of these and more are encompassed in the use of the word akouo.  They always were.  Although akouo is the source from which our English word, “acoustics”  (which concerns primarily the transmission of sound waves) is derived, the classical writers also used it in a much wider variety of situations. The primary uses listed in the Oxford lexicon are:
— to hear: a sound, a message, or a reputation
–to pay attention, to respond to being called or summoned
— to hear and understand; to be the pupil of a teacher
Traditional English translators, for the most part, took no account of this breadth, using “understand” only once, and noted the expectation of response or obedience not at all, in the 415 uses of akouo in the New Testament, although 6 times they did substitute “hearken” where there was unmistakable “pay attention” flavor.

Although some clues can be found in the tenses of any imperative uses – i.e.,  an aorist could lean toward “sit up and take notice” and a present toward “keep on listening”, one must tread carefully here, since there is no definitive lexical or grammatical way to determine without question which aspect of the word was intended.  In examining the context in which the word appears, however, we must bear in mind that “Hear!” or “Listen!” refers to much more than simply bouncing sound waves onto eardrums.

The word “listen” actually does not occur at all in traditional translations.  “Obey” is only used when akouo appears with the prefix hup- (hupakouo), in which case it is the only appropriate choice.  However, obedience is certainly implied in a number of Jesus’ statements, as evidenced by the other verbs that are paired with akouo:
— Mt.7:24-26 – hear and do
— Mt.15:10 – hear and understand
— Lk.11:28 – hear and keep
— Jn.5:24 – hear and believe / become faithful
— Jn.5:25 – hear and live
— Jn.10 – hear and follow
His explanations of the Parable of the Sower/Seed (Mt.13:19-23 and parallels) focuses on people’s response to what they hear, as do his instructions to the disciples when they were sent out (Mt.10:14 and parallels).
Diakouo appears once (Ac.23:35) in the context of a court trial, in a usage similar to the more common diakrino (see W.S. #9), the implication being a careful examination.
Eisakouo (5 uses) has more of an implication of listening to a prayer (Zachariah and Cornelius), as does epakouo.  Please see the list of prepositions often used as prefixes in the Appendix to Translation Notes, for the meanings they can contribute.
In the Synoptic Gospels, slightly more than half of the occurrences of akouo refer simply to being made aware of information.  The balance shifts in John, especially when he is quoting Jesus.  Most of the Epistles speak mainly of hearing and listening or responding to information.  There are, however, several notable exceptions.
In addition to the prefixed form, eisakouo, the unaltered form is also used of prayer that is “heard” /answered  (Jn.9:27, Jn.11:41-42, and I Jn 5:14-15.)
The use of akouo in admonitions to heed the word of the prophets (Lk.16:29,31; Mt.13:13-15 and parallels) certainly implies obedience.

The flavor of teaching/learning shows up in Mark’s comment (4:33) that Jesus spoke to his disciples “as they were able to hear (absorb?) it”.  In his discourse in Jn.15:15 Jesus tells the disciples “Everything I heard from my Father, I made known to you,” and later, speaking of the Holy Spirit’s ministry to them (Jn.16:13), “He will not speak on his own, but whatever he hears, he will say.”

That people who gathered to “hear” Jesus teaching probably could have been sorted into several categories, is evident in his frequent repetition of “The one who has ears to hear, had better listen / pay attention!” (This is often cast as a third person imperative:  please see that form explained in the Appendix.)  A similar intent may exist in the “voice out of the cloud” quoted in all the Synoptic Transfiguration accounts (Mt.17:3, Mk.9:7, Lk.9:35), “Listen to him!”  Coming as it does right after Peter’s grandiose offer to build a memorial, it could even be read as “Shut up and pay attention!”

Jesus may also be intending such a nuanced understanding of akouo when he warns, “Take heed how (pos) you hear!” (Lk.8:18, KJV).  Since it immediately follows the parable of the Sower, the response to what one hears is clearly in view.  The parallel in Mk.4:24 (also KJV), “Take heed what (ti) you hear” (neither manuscript cites any textual variants) seems more likely to be calling for discernment as to what is worthy of one’s attention.  Both are legitimate concerns.

So this is one of those word studies that does NOT end up with neat categories or explanations.  Its value is rather to make us aware of greater breadth of meaning than we may assume in casual reading, and hopefully to encourage us to be selective in our hearing / listening, but to recognize also a call for response.

May we do so in faithfulness!

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Word Study #26 — “Truth”

December 15, 2009

“Truth” – aletheia is one of the words which, although already richly diverse in its classical usage, took on a whole new dimension in the New Testament.  Jesus’ use of the term in one of his “I AM” statements – Jn.14:6 — is as unique in literature as he himself is unique among people.  So as we pursue Pilate’s (probably cynical) question, “What is truth?” (Jn.18:38), it must be with the realization that, ever since Jesus walked the earth,  “truth” is no longer only a “what?”, but a “who?”, and one’s answer to that question determines the entire direction of his life.

The classical writers parallel many modern understandings of “truth”:
— honesty; the opposite of lying, falsehood, or pretense
— genuine, as opposed to artificial;  correct, as opposed to mistaken
— frankness or candidness in persons, as opposed to hypocrisy
–reality, as opposed to mere imitation, or, as in Plato, the “form” rather than a “shadow”
These are reflected in some of the New Testament uses of “truth” as well: in the idea of being “without deception” (Mt.22:16, Mk.12:14, Jn.4:23-24, Jn.8:40-46), or specifically “not lying or pretending” (Lk.4:25, 22:59, Mk.5:33, 12:32, Jn16:7, Rom.9:1, II Cor.7:14, 12:6, Phil.1:18,) among others.

But in the New Testament, as Bauer’s lexicon notes, “Truth has a strongly practical side, which expresses itself in [behavior].”  Truth is something you DO, not a theoretical statement of intellectual conclusions.  John, in particular, writes of “obeying the truth” or “walking in the truth” (Jn.3:31, I Jn.1:6, II Jn 4, III Jn.3-4), as do Paul (Rom.2:8, II Cor.3:8, Gal.2:14, 3:1, 5:7), James (5:19), and Peter (I Pet.1:22).  This list can be expanded even more when one keeps in mind that pisteuo, traditionally translated “believe”, actually means “be/become faithful to” (see Word Study #1).

When the New Testament writers speak of “becoming faithful to the truth,”(traditional versions say “believing”) (I Thess.2:13, I Tim.4:3, II Tim.3:7), or “knowing (Col.1:6) the truth” (Paul uses epiginosko here – a strongly experiential form of “knowing”(as does the writer to the Hebrews in 10:26)—they are not referring to any sort of intellectual assent to a list of propositions, but to a chosen way of life!
I Jn.3:18 is especially interesting in this regard, as he admonishes his readers, “Dear children, let’s don’t love in theory [word] or in talk, but in action and truth!”

Also of interest are the instances where “truth” is paired with a noun in the genitive case.  Remember that although the most common use of the genitive is to indicate possession, it may also refer to a source (“coming from”) or the content (“made of”, “consisting of”).  Paul speaks of “the truth of Christ” (II Cor.11:10) or “of God” (Rom.1:25, 3:7), very likely an indication of source, and “of the Gospel (Gal.2:5) most likely content.   Turning the cases around, John refers to the “spirit of truth” (Jn.15:26, 16:3, I Jn.4:6), and Paul to “the word of truth” (IICor.6:7, Eph.1:13, Col.1:5, II Tim.2:15) , more likely to be a possessive genitive.  These come into sharper focus in the light of Jesus’ statements:
–“I AM …the truth” (Jn.14:6)
— “Thy word is truth” (Jn.17:17) (Remember that John had introduced Jesus himself as “the Word” – Jn.1:1)
— and John’s reminder, “The spirit is truth” (I Jn.5:6).
These three are the only references that seem to make any effort to actually define the term.

Truth is also presented as an active force in human affairs:
–Jesus’ statement, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (Jn.8:32)
–Jesus’ prayer, “Set them apart [make them holy] by [in] the truth” (Jn.17:17)
–James 1:18, where it is represented to be the agent of our birth into the family of God.

None of this should be seen as an attempt to minimize the understanding of “truth” as the absolute honesty and transparency, in both life and speech, expected of all God’s people.  That is basic to all the citations here.

Warnings about opposition to the truth, or refusal to be obedient to it/him, (Rom.1:18, 1:25, 2:8; Gal.2:14, 3:1, 5:7; II Thess.2:10, 2:12; I Tim.6:5, II Tim.2:18, 3:8, 4:4, Tit.1:14, I Jn.1:6, 1:8,2:4) are in no case concerned about the intricate details debated during centuries of theological speculation by hierarchical councils of various descriptions.  They are concerned with the behavior of those claiming to represent the Lord Jesus.

The same One who explained to Pilate that the purpose of his coming was to “bear witness to the Truth” (Jn.18:37), had earlier proclaimed himself to be the very personification of Truth! (14:6). What clearer synopsis, or identification, could there be, than “Everyone who is from [or, belongs to] the truth, listens to [obeys] my voice” (18:37)?  The Way, the Truth, and the Life, are all about the Lord Jesus!

They all simply refer us back to the same question invoked in several of our earlier studies:
Who’s calling the shots?
Who is in charge?
Who is your King?


Word Study #25 — “Gifts”

December 3, 2009

In a well-intentioned, but misguided effort to boost the “involvement” of congregational members long reduced to mere spectator roles, countless institutional “churches” have jumped on the bandwagon of “Gift Discovery” campaigns.  A closer examination of their queries of “What are you good at?”, or, worse, “What are you passionate about?” (“empowering people for serious encounter with the Biblical text” is seldom an acceptable answer!), reveals that what they really mean is, “Which already-highly-defined slot in our corporate structure are you willing and able to occupy?” – an exercise that has absolutely no connection to the New Testament concept of the “gifts of God.”

The English word “gift” has been chosen as the translation for no fewer than nine different words in the Greek text.  These can be loosely grouped into three categories:
1.  “cosmic” gifts – dorea, dorema, dosis, classically representing a “bounty” from a king or other superior, a legacy, or a privilege granted
2.  “material” gifts – doron, anathema, doma, classically applied to fees, bribes, votive offerings, or simple presents of any kind
3.  “spiritual enablements” – charisma, charis, merismos, reference to graciousness, usually of a god.
None of these refers to learned skills or innate talents.  Skills and talents are certainly also given by God, and should definitely be used in his service, but they are not “gifts” in the New Testament sense of the word.

We will examine the most frequently used word in each of these categories, in an effort to sort out the diverse implications of the terms.  Please try to remember, these are not simply different ways of saying “gift”.  They are different words, and not one single concept.  It may be helpful to consider, in each case,

1. Who is the giver?
2.  Who is the recipient?
3.  What, exactly, is the gift, or for what purpose is it given?

Dorea is exclusively applied to the overwhelming gift of God to mankind:  his life (Heb.6:4), his Son (Jn.4:10), his Holy Spirit (most of the rest.)  Deliverance from death (Rom.5:15), and the privilege to participate in God’s own justice (5:17) are also included.  No person is capable of giving these:  see Ac.8:20, where Simon the magician is harshly judged for presuming that he could purchase the power to do so.  Dorea is frequently paired with charis – in which case it is translated “gracious gift” or “gift of grace.”  It may enable human generosity (II Cor.9:15) or service (Eph.3:17), but the source is clearly in God, and the result is the gracious inclusion of people in his glorious life.

Doron, on the other hand, except for one anomaly in Eph.2:8, is the province of mortals.  It speaks of people giving presents to other people (Mt.2:11, Rev.11:10), and of people making offerings, usually at the temple (Mt.5:23-24, 8:14, 15:5, 23:18-19, Lk.21:1, and Heb.5:1, 8:3, 8:4, and 9:9).  In both cases, the “gifts” are material things, or money.  The recipients, too, are human: either individuals, or the temple hierarchy.

While both of the words above occur in the Old Testament (LXX), charisma does not.  It is a strictly New Testament word, that appears only after Pentecost!  More specific than dorea, it nevertheless consistently comes from God (mostly the Holy Spirit), although on occasion it was mediated by a person or group (II Cor.1:11, I Tim.4:14, II Tim.1:6).   Paul is careful to avoid taking credit for charisma (Rom.1:11-12), where he is quick to clarify his desire “that I may share with you all some spiritual gift for your strengthening” by adding “to be mutually encouraged among you all by means of one another’s faithfulness.”

The vast majority of charisma references relate to the formation and function of committed disciples as the Body of Christ (see Citizens of the Kingdom, chapter 7).  Rom.12:6 is the first specific reference to “gifts” in the Body, but 12:3-8 elaborates on the subject, as does the rest of the chapter.  Here we meet the concept that “spiritual gifts” are intended to be the equipment needed for the mutuality that is essential to a faithful Body.  I Cor.1:7 affirms that they assure the full provision for faithful activity, and I Cor.12:4-31 is the most complete treatise on the subject.  Diversity of empowerment and function is emphasized.  Service is the goal (5 and 6).  “The manifestation of the Spirit is given, by means of each one, for everyone’s benefit” (v.7).  These dative cases, traditionally interpreted as indirect objects (“to each one”), given the contextual emphasis on mutuality, are much more likely to intend datives of agency or means (see the section on this passage in Translation Notes, and “Uses of Cases” in the Appendix).  The Holy Spirit is the giver, the recipient is either the body of believers or a person in need; the individual is the agent or means by which the necessary enablement (gift) is delivered – a sort of a “postal service.”

I Peter 4:10 (actually, also v.11) echoes the same concern:  “Just as each one of you has received a spiritual gift, serve each other with it, as good trustees of the many-faceted grace of God.”

Notice again, that none of these “gifts” is a learned ability or natural talent, but the supernatural provision of God for the need at hand.
In no case are “gifts” represented as “diplomas” for having achieved a certain level of “saintliness”, or titles of honor (which Jesus had forbidden).
In no case are they the possession of any individual – and certainly not a permanent possession.  They seem to be distributed almost at random, as needed (I Cor.12:11), and a perusal of the Acts account indicates that different folks may be called upon for different tasks at different times.  The Spirit seems to use whoever is available!

The gifts of God are many and varied, but their purpose is one: to create (by means of dorea) and then to empower and manage (by distribution of charismata) a people who, together, can function as the Body of Christ in the world, “continuing the work of Jesus.”
The responsibility – and the privilege – are enormous.  But so is the provision.
May we respond in faithfulness!