June 27, 2012

A goal or a command?

In Chinese (I hope this is correct), the word Xiang can mean at least four different things, depending on how it is pronounced. Xiang is: to miss, to think; to want; an elephant; to be like. These sentences could be translated as follows: Wo shi xiang xiang = I am like an elephant, or Wo xiang wo de xiao xiang = I miss my little elephant.
Translation is tough for those learning Chinese, but it is also difficult for those who work with Hebrew and Greek, the major languages of the Bible. For instance, this verse came up in my devotions today. In the English Standard Version (ESV), it says…
Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. (2 Corinthians 13:11)
In the older King James Version, the verse is translated:
Finally, brethren, farewell. Be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you.
In my mind, “Aim for restoration” does not convey the same thing as “Be perfect.” I wonder thane if whatever version I am reading could produce a flawed interpretation. Comparing what a word or a verse seems to mean with the rest of Scripture will help, but in this case, it seems better to get out a Greek dictionary. 

My first clue is that even though the KJV uses the phrase “be perfect” in several passages, the ESV indicates that the author may have intended something different from “right now be perfect.”

The author of today’s devotional used the KJV but he did not use a Greek dictionary. His explanation is helpful as he line ups perfection with reality this way…
Be perfect …. strikes us with despair…. we feel how far away we are from our own poor ideal…. how much further from God’s ideal. Be of good comfort…. is very different; (it) seems to say, ‘Do not fret; do not fear. If you are not what you would be, you must be thankful for what you are.’ ….How can these two be reconciled? It is only ….Jesus Christ that reconciles them. ….With the right hand of His righteousness He points us upward, and says, “Be perfect” (for) there is no resting-place short of that. Yet with the left hand of His love He….says, “Soul, be of good comfort; for that is what I came to do for you.”
On the other hand, the ESV does not offer what seems an impossible command. Instead, it says to aim for restoration. Restoration in English means a return of something to a former, original, normal, or unimpaired condition. My first thought for restoring is to bring back to what it once was, rather than the more biblical idea of restoring sinners to what they should be. To me, this word does not fit the rest of Scripture. It might even be more misleading than the ideal of being perfect. 

Yet as the KJV suggests, God always points me toward goals that seems impossible. He knows that I am not perfect and will not ever be perfect in this life. However, the rest of the passage offers comfort, even a description of the perfection that interests God, unity and peace. 

While the old King James version has its drawbacks, it almost always drives me to a Greek dictionary. I’m not an expert with that language, but do realize that the verb tenses have significance, and that many words have more than one meaning.

For me, the downside of “Be perfect” is either despair because of that high goal, or pride that pushes me to “try harder” which would not work and also lead to despair. The upside is that Christ is my perfection. He stands in the gap for me, obeying this impossible command as well as setting it up as a goal

God, I know You are not asking for perfection at this moment. This is a future possibility. For now, You have shown me that becoming like Christ (perfection) is a process that You and I are working on. One day I will be “perfectly complete” but for now, the goal rather than the command draws me forward.

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