Word Study #153 — The “Unconditional” Fantasy

July 31, 2012

One of the least substantiated statements of modern “teaching” or “preaching”, whether the perpetrators represent themselves as “evangelical”/ “fundamental”/ “conservative”, or as “welcoming”/ “accepting”/ “liberal”, is their frequent reference to God’s “unconditional love” or “unconditional grace”.  Neither of these phrases, nor the word “unconditional” itself, appears anywhere in the New Testament text.  A careful search of Scripture, both Old Testament and New Testament, for even just the genesis of the idea, reveals that there is no such thing.

Now, it is certainly true that nowhere are we told that it is necessary for a person to attain some exalted level of ‘holiness”, moral or ethical perfection, or anything else, in order to be eligible to answer Jesus’ call.  But that realization must never obscure the condition that the call must be answered – the invitation “Follow me” does come with  required “RSVP” attached – in order for that gracious offer to take effect!  And this has always been the case.

The idea of “conditional statements” is not theological nor philosophical.  A conditional statement is neither more nor less than a grammatical construction, most easily recognized as two clauses, one of which is introduced by “if” (ei, ean), and the other – at least implicitly: it is sometimes omitted in English translations – by “then” (an).  The mood and tense of the verbs in the statements give an indication of the expected likelihood (or not) of the “condition” being fulfilled. (For a more complete discussion, please see a Greek grammar. Robertson and Marshall are both good.)

For example, contrast Jesus’ two statements in John 8.  To the Pharisees (Jn.8:42), he retorts, “IF God were your father, (then) you would love me”.  Both clauses are in the imperfect tense, implying that neither is the case.  To his followers (Jn.8:31), he asserts, “IF you continue (present tense) in my word, (then) you will be (future) my disciples.”  Here, both are considered plausible.
If the consequence is negative, the particle me is used rather than the more common ou, in which case, in translation, the conditional clause would be introduced by “unless” (Mt.13:20) “Unless the Lord had shortened the time ….”

The principle that must be understood is that a conditional statement has nothing whatever to do with the reliability of the individual making it, or with arbitrary orders issued to underlings (“Shape up or else!”).  A conditional sentence or clause is neither an immutable promise nor a dire threat.  It is simply a statement of the way things are: cause and effect, evidence or action and results.  It described the circumstances under which something will be true, or realized.

As noted before, I cannot speak to Hebrew grammar, but the idea seems similar under the old covenant as well.  Deuteronomy 29 and 30, along with many other pentateuch passages, outline very carefully that a choice must be made.  See especially Dt.30:15-20.  The frequently repeated admonition to “choose life!” is strong evidence that choices have consequences, for good or ill.

Jesus also required a choice – a choice evidenced by both attitude and behavior.  Although this idea is present in the synoptics, it is most vividly evident in the gospel of John.  A few examples follow:
Mt.6:14,15 – “IF you take away [forgive] their transgressions for people, your heavenly father will also take them away from you all.” (followed by, IF you don’t, he won’t.)
Jn.7:17 – “IF anyone wants to do his will, he will know —”
Jn.8:51 – “IF anyone keeps my word, he will not see death forever.”
Jn.11:40 – “IF you are faithful, you will see the glory of God.”
Jn.14:23 – “IF anyone loves me, he will keep my word.”
Jn.15:14 – “You are my friends IF you continue doing as I am instructing you.”
Please note that although all these statements are conditional in form and intent, there is no hint of compulsion!  The tone is, “IF this is what you want, here is the way to realize it.”

Stephen’s sermon in Ac.7 delineated the history of people’s refusal to observe the condition that obedience was an integral and necessary element of their being “chosen”.
Later, a false condition was imposed by the group who were insisting upon a prior conversion to Judaism (Ac.15:1), which condition was promptly repudiated by the Jerusalem Council in their letter (v.29), “IF you keep yourselves from these things (the accouterments of idolatry), you will do well.”
That this sort of statement is not  confined to “religious”  settings is evident in the words of the town clerk to the mob in Ephesus, (Ac.19:39), “IF you all have some other dispute, let it be settled in a legal assembly!”

The epistles are also peppered with conditional statements:
Rom.6:8 – “IF then we died with Christ, we are trusting that we will also live together with him.”
Rom.6:16 – “IF you present yourselves to someone as slaves, for obedience, you are slaves to whomever you obey!”
I Cor.15: 12-19 – the whole paragraph about the resurrection.
Gal.5:18 – “IF you are being led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”
Col.3:1 – “IF you all were resurrected with Christ, keep seeking what is above …”

All of the messages to the churches quoted in  Rv. 2 and 3, likewise, make use of “unless”, or something similar, indicating the conditional nature of the admonitions, the observance of which will definitely influence the outcome of each situation.

There are also many clauses introduced by “so that”, “in order that”, “because”, and other particles that imply purpose.  Purpose is completely different from a conditional situation.  Purpose indicates God’s (or anyone else’s) intention, while a conditional statement asserts that if the condition is not met, the main premise will not take effect.

As I have consistently done elsewhere in these studies, I seriously invite any of you to correct any errors here.  But please remember to do so by referencing specific, coherent New Testament passages, and not by simply waving “doctrinal” flags.

May we all exert our efforts, accurately to represent the gracious welcome offered by the Lord Jesus, to all who choose to respond in faithfulness!

May we, in the process, avoid cheapening his offer by pretending that there are no conditions involved.

Let us rather acknowledge and observe his conditions, gratefully and faithfully loving, serving, and following his instructions!

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Word Study #152 — Singing and Dancing

July 24, 2012

This study arose when someone posed a question regarding the lexical inclusion of the idea of “dance” in the words translated “rejoice” (#93). I am not a student of Hebrew, so I will not presume to comment on that language. However, I was able to find no such reference in any of the Greek lexicons, so I can say with confidence that it is not the case in any of the New Testament writings.

In fact, orcheomai, “to dance” , appears only four times in the entirety of the New Testament text: two of which describe Salome’s (probably lewd) performance before Herod (Mt.14:6, Mk.6:22), and the other two in the complaint of the children playing in the marketplace (Mt.11:7 and Lk.7:22).

Choros, (English cognate, “chorus”), a noun referring to either a company of singers and dancers, or to the dance itself, occurs only once (Lk.15:25), at the party celebrating the return of the prodigal son.

Both words are more common in the LXX, used multiple times in the celebrations at the return of the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem, the worship of foreign gods (including the golden calf), or celebrating the destruction of the Pharaoh’s army, among others. Clearly a cultural expression, it is not clear whether dancing was indigenous to the Hebrew people, or adopted from neighbors. Historians represent it as an integral part of pagan religious rites, especially fertility rituals. There is nothing inherently “wrong” in the use of cultural expressions in worship, as long as they follow the Acts 15 injunction to avoid anything connected with idolatry. Dancing, per se, is neither advocated nor forbidden in the Biblical text, and probably must be evaluated in context.

Singing, on the other hand, is advocated in both the LXX and New Testament texts, represented by four different words, which are not always easily distinguishable.

Ado, the most “generic”, applies to all vocal sounds, whether human, animal, or avian, or even the sound of the wind. It may refer to a song or chant, usually in praise or celebration of either a deity or a person. In the LXX, especially in Ezra and Nehemiah, it seems to have denoted a class or order of functionaries in the tabernacle/temple, along with priests and Levites, which included both men and women who were assigned to the duty of singing praises to God. Ado was also used of songs or chants designed to celebrate or to teach about historic events.

Frequently used in combination with ado was psallo, which usually referred to instrumental music, either alone or as an accompaniment to a song of praise or history.

Humneo / humnos, classically, would have described epic recitations, repeated through many generations, honoring a specific hero, deity, or historic occasion. It is also used as a title for many of the psalms that have a historical theme.

All of these words carry over into the New Testament, although their use is not frequent. Jesus and his disciples “sang a hymn” at the conclusion of their Passover supper together (Mt.26:30, Mk,14:26), as did Paul and Silas (Ac.16:25) in the prison at Philippi. These, and the Old Testament quote from Ps.22:22 in Heb.2:12, use humneo.

The singing of “new songs” around the throne in Rv.5:19, 14:3, 15:3, uses ado, as huge crowds proclaim the praises of the Lamb, whereas psallo describes praises to God in Rom.15:9 (quoted from II Sam.22:50). Paul speaks of singing both “with the spirit”(probably a reference to the use of unlearned tongues) and “with the understanding” in the company of the Christian brotherhood (I Cor.14:15), and James (5:13) considers this an appropriate expression of joyfulness.

Most instructive of all, however, is Paul’s advice in Eph.5:19 and Col.3:16, where all three terms are used together, as he urges the brethren to “talk to each other in psalmois (psalms) and humnois (hymns) and odais pneumatikais (spiritual songs), adontes and psallontes (singing with and without instrumental accompaniment), TO THE LORD” (Eph.5) and in Colossians, of teaching and admonishing each other with the same categories of musical expression.

Both of these instructions are significant, and should have a much greater effect than is common, upon the music used in a gathering of the Lord’s people. Remember that the vocabulary comes out of a context of songs of praise honoring either human heroes or pagan gods. Both the Ephesian and Colossian churches were of Gentile background. Consequently, the admonition that singing be directed to the Lord is crucial. All honor and praise belongs to him!

Note also that there is no mention of anything like the self-centered “I, me, my” or one’s personal ecstasy or despair, that has come to dominate so much of so-called “Christian” or “gospel” music. Sometimes this is cast as a groveling “confession”, and others as triumphant boasting. And if you can’t discern whether the singer is focused on the Lord or on his/her girl/boyfriend, there is a serious problem. Look again at the songs of praise around the throne! They are totally occupied with the glory of the King!

Secondly, music in the brotherhood (Col.3:16) is for the purpose of teaching (#47) and admonishing (#116) each other, and as such needs to be carefully vetted for compatibility with what Jesus actually said, advocated, and taught! There is an incredible collection of both new and old “hymns” and “praise songs” that promote “teaching” that is lamentably foreign to the true gospel (#67) message. It is not at all rare that I find it necessary to refrain from singing all or part of a “hymn” for that reason.

It is the “word / message of Christ” (#66) that must be the absolute standard for our musical choices!

Brother Paul’s conclusion (Col.3:17) is probably the safest guide, whether for “song and dance” or for all of life:

“And everything – whatever you do – in word or deed, (do) everything in the name (#24) of the Lord Jesus, (continually) giving thanks to God the Father through him!”

Evaluate every activity by this yardstick, and we won’t go far wrong.


Word Study #151 — Atonement

July 21, 2012

As noted previously, I make an earnest effort to respond to requests for word studies. This becomes difficult, however, when the suggested words occur seldom, or not at all, in the New Testament text. And, hard as it may be for those who promote “doctrines” to believe, this is the case with one of their favorite “passwords”, “atonement.”
Even in their traditionally beloved KJV, the term “atonement” appears only one single time – Rom.5:11 – where it represents katallage, which is more commonly rendered “reconciliation” (#69). Katallage also appears only once in the LXX – Is.9:5 – where it speaks of restitution for “things acquired by deceit”.

Another word family, hilaskomai (v.), hilasmos (n.), and hilasterion (combined with “place”), appearing in the New Testament only twice in each form, was used frequently in pagan writings of attempts to appease offended deities, but was never used by Jesus, or by any of the gospel writers, except as the verb appears in the publican’s plea for mercy (Lk.18:13), and the Heb.2:17 description of the duty of the high priest under the old (failed) system. The noun is seen only in I Jn.2:2 and 4:10, where it is traditionally translated “propitiation,” and the compound form in Rom.3:25 and Heb.9:5, referring to the “place of mercy” described among the tabernacle/temple furnishings in the LXX (Ex.25:16-21, 31;17, 35:11, 38:5-8) and the institution – and subsequent re-institution – of the ceremonial Day of Atonement (Lv.16:2-15, Ezek.43:14-20). The LXX uses the noun (7x) and verb (10x) forms primarily in reference to mercy or forgiveness begged of God – more in line with the pagan usage. Even so, only twice (Num.5:8 and Ezk.44:27) is there an accompanying reference to the killing of an animal sacrifice – once a ram, and once a goat.

So how did this come to be such a central theme in what passes for “Christian teaching”, when Jesus never made any reference to it?
How did it become identified with Jesus’ death, when that took place at the time of Passover – a festival of freedom and deliverance from bondage – and NOT on the Day of Atonement, with its focus on the problem of “sins”?
How can “theologians” cherry-pick a few “verses” from Hebrews describing the old ways, with which to embroider their theories, and ignore the over-arching message of that entire epistle, that the old system was a complete failure?

The Day of Atonement does appear once (Lv.25:9) prescribed as the introduction to the Year of Jubilee, which Jesus announced as the permanent condition in his Kingdom (Lk.4:18-19). Notice that this announcement was at the beginning, not the end, of his ministry.
I have never heard that connection addressed. I wonder if perhaps that “introduction to the Jubilee” idea was behind the content of the “repentance” (#6) message of John the Baptist, as Jesus’ fore-runner? It would fit his messages better than those of Jesus, and would blend well with Jesus’ statement (Lk.16:16) that “the law and the prophets (were in effect) until John. Since then, the Kingdom of God is being proclaimed!”

In the absence of any evidence that Jesus himself ever viewed his purpose (#23) or activity as being connected with “atonement” – whether the pagan concept of appeasement of an angry deity, attempted restitution for offenses, or punishment for unnamed “sins” – I can only conclude that this is another case where “doctrines” were invented – and their acceptance mandated – to enhance the power of an emerging hierarchy over unwitting subordinates.

I prefer to follow King Jesus into the Kingdom he has prepared for all of us who answer his call!