Word Study #203 — “Constrained” – “Straitened” – stressed-out?

Here’s another one that started at church, folks.
(Incidentally, I give thanks for – and wish for all of you – the delight and challenge of an interactive group of the Lord’s people! It’s priceless!)

Our brother Jim was recently brave enough to suggest that, contrary to the stereotypical image of Jesus floating through life on some sort of ethereal cloud, untroubled by the vicissitudes to which we mere mortals are subject, the encounter described toward the end of Luke 12 reveals very real stress – perhaps even frustration – when the people he was training to carry on his ministry just plain didn’t “get it”.
Maybe there’s still hope for the rest of us after all? He didn’t give up on them!

The image in question springs from the use of the seldom-appearing verb, sunecho, and its middle and passive form, sunechomai. The etymology is not much help here: a combination of the preposition “sun” – “with, or together”, and the very common verb “echo” – “to have, or to hold”. Likewise, its translations, in most standard works, are many and varied.
It appears in the New Testament only 13 times, only three of which (those referring to illness) are uniformly treated. Active forms of the verb refer to a city under siege (Lk.19:43), a crowd jostling together (Lk.8:45), Paul being overworked (Ac.18:5), Stephen’s accusers “stopping up” their ears (Ac.7:57), the guards “holding” Jesus after his arrest (Lk.22:63), and (the only positive use) I Cor.5:14, where Paul explains that it is the love of Christ that “constrains” (requires?) his people to replicate his attitudes and behavior. These are the only uses of the active form of the verb.
Passive voice usage refers three times to illness (Mt.4:24 and its parallel Lk.4:38 referring to Peter’s mother in law, and Ac.28:8 to Publius’ father), once (Phil. 1:23) of a difficult decision, once of great fear (Lk.8:37), and the reference with which we began, Lk.12:50, which doesn’t really match any of the others.

Classical writers were no more consistent in their usage. L/S lists for active forms: “to hold or secure, enclose or compass, to close one’s ears or mouth, to prevent a group from dispersing, to preserve or maintain, to keep on (as a storm or flood)”; and passive forms “the conduct of government, to keep together in friendship, to engage in close combat, to keep a state from falling apart, to detain or sequester”, and at least that many more!

There is another term, stenochoreomai, (middle voice), even less frequently used in the New Testament, which, along with its noun and active verb forms, appears only seven times, and is usually translated in a manner indicating extreme distress or anguish, most often connected with persecution. These are found in Rom.2:9 and 8:35; I Cor. 4:8, 6:12 (twice), and 12:10. Notice that no use of this term occurs in the gospel accounts. It is mentioned here only to illustrate that had such an implication been intended, these different and unambiguous words would surely have been chosen.

No, if Jesus is frustrated, it is not the frustration of a helpless victim. He clearly knows what is coming, and is committed to its fulfillment. It’s the “in between” that causes stress – as is so often the case for us.

We are not told whether all of the discourses in Luke 12 are part of a single encounter, or if, as Luke suggests in his introductory passage (1:1-4), they have been simply compiled as a collection of memories gleaned from the reports of disciples who were there. This might be likely, as the individual accounts do not seem to be very connected.
The reference in 12:50 is unique among all the other New Testament references to baptism. Since Jesus had already submitted to baptism at the hands of his cousin John, it has usually been assumed that in this instance, he was referring to his imminent death (and consequent defeat of death). This is a plausible, although not proven, assumption. The immediately following discussion of the divisions caused by commitment to him would seem to point in that direction, although its connection to the end of the chapter is somewhat obscure.

So where does this leave us?

Is the inclusion of this statement intended to reassure us that, as the writer to the Hebrews put it (4:15), “he (Jesus) was tested in every way just as we are”, even to the point of frustration when things weren’t moving along as they “should” – or as he wished they would?
Is it a challenge to his listeners to “get off the fence” and make a firm commitment to the Kingdom and its Sovereign, fully aware of its divisive consequences?

Or do you see something else in this encounter?
Your insight (as long as it is derived from the New Testament), is most welcome!

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4 Responses to Word Study #203 — “Constrained” – “Straitened” – stressed-out?

  1. Carol Osgrove says:

    I am new to your website, and wanted to leave a comment. My daughter actually found your website while studying and paraphrasing through Romans 5. She was researching a word and found your site. We both love to study the origins and meanings of words. I don’t think she’d mind if I shared her email and excitement at finding your site:

    Hi Mom,
    I found this fascinating word study site. I am still pondering how suffering produces perseverance in Romans 5. Produces is the word katerzomai. it is the prefix kata which means under or the cause of (as in catastophe, catalyst and cataclysmic) combined with ergazoma which means work or do. I got to wondering why didn’t he just use ergazomai. So I googled ergazomai vs katergazomai.
    This website popped up. https://pioneernt.wordpress.com/indexes/index/ Whoever this amazing person is, they do a fabulous job linguistically explaining the nuanced use of different words in the Bible. In the instance of katergazomai, it is used in Rom. 5 because it means essentially earn, achieve or conquer. Suffering achieves perseverance. It is word study #39 Works. I’ve whiled away my afternoon reading this word study index. Have fun!

    I am so excited to find your site and others who love word studies. The Lord speaks to me as I focus on Him. I like to say, “I KNOW the secret.” It’s John 17:3 and it’s knowing Him by journaling, pondering and meditating upon His word. I write letters to Him and He writes back to me. It’s thrilling to hear His voice. And to think you’ve been at it so long and wondered if there were more folks out there who loved to study in that way. The answer is a huge Yes!!

    By the way, I am in Fallbrook, CA, and my daughter is in Wasilla, AK.

    Thank you so much, and abundant blessings,
    Carol

  2. Greg says:

    Thanks for this blog post. I’ve never commented before, but love reading the different ‘takes’ that come from your study and the verbal intercourse you obviously have with others.

    I don’t know about stress. Frustration seems to show through in Jesus as he interacts with his disciples in several places, with the religious leaders of his day and, occasionally, with everyday people such as those mourning the death of the young girl that Jesus raised from the dead.

    I just wanted to toss my opinion of what Jesus is saying in this text into the mix. Of the various shades of meaning sunecho has, I lean toward ‘constrained’ in this text simply because of the context. Jesus says that he has come to bring fire upon the world. The fire of the Holy Spirit’s coming or the eventual fire of wrath and judgement? I tend to lean toward the Holy Spirit, but it doesn’t really matter to the meaning of the word.

    Something is standing in the way – in between – Jesus and what he has come to do: The baptism he speaks of. Mark 10:38 (“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”) leads me to believe that the baptism he is referring to is his death, burial and resurrection. Romans 6:3-4 comes to mind.

    Jesus is constrained – held back – from completing his purpose until this time. He can only hint at the coming covenant of grace through faith as he walks among the people still in bondage to the Law. He can only point towards the New Covenant, but he is constrained until he offers himself as the perfect sacrifice, defeats death and brings freedom to those who will believe in him.

    Just my two bits worth…

  3. ruthpmartin says:

    Much of what you say sounds plausible. Thank you for sharing your perspective. The only place I would urge caution is the “perfect sacrifice” part. Jesus never said that. He never used the term “sacrifice” in reference to himself. Check it out in the Gospels.

  4. Greg says:

    Thanks for that info. Funny how terms from childhood Sunday School stick with you.

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