November 23, 2014

Greek words and the mind of Christ

In the past four weeks, I’ve learned that Greek verb tenses are not about the time an action takes place as it is in our English past, present and future. In Greek, a verb tense is more about the type of action taking place. That is, it can be continuous or ongoing, or undefined without any indication of time, or perfect, which means a past action with a present effect. Some of these verb forms have no English equivalent.

Another peculiarity is that English has definite articles, such as ‘the’ as well as indefinite articles such as ‘an’ but Greek has only definite articles and no indefinite articles. If you see them in an English Bible, they were added by the translators so the text makes sense to the readers.

These are two of many peculiarities that challenge those who interpret the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Learning such things has given me a great deal of respect for those who translate anything from one language into another. I’ve learn that most of our Bibles are reliable too, even though there are differences in the way they are worded.

Yet even more amazing is that no one needs to be a Greek scholar to understand Scripture. If my heart is open to God, I can hear Him speak to me, sometimes in comfort, and sometimes painfully loud and clear. Looking closely at the language might clarify small mistakes in interpretation, but no amount of close looking will change the Word of God. He knows how to use it, English, Greek or any other language, to get my attention.

Today, He gave me a bit of a shake with these very familiar verses . . . “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” (1 John 2:15–17)

This passage uses a Greek word “agape” for love throughout these verses. Many Christians think this is a special word reserved for the love of God, and that any sinful affection could not be described with that word. However, this is not true. Here agape is both positive and negative.

My Greek dictionary says that “agape” means to have a sincere appreciation or high regard for someone or something. We can love God, other Christians, family and friends with this love that is from God, but that same high regard can also flow out of a strong desire to have what belongs to someone else, or to engage in an activity which is morally wrong. Obviously God’s love is not at the root of covetousness or immorality. Instead, that forbidden love comes from the world even though it is uses the same word.

To add to the confusion, in these verses the “world” is not the orb we call ‘earth’ – but this word refers to “the system of practices and standards associated with secular society without reference to any demands or requirements of God.”

As I wrestled with the use of the same word to describe a good thing and a forbidden thing, another thought popped into my head: we do this all the time in English. We say, “I love chocolate” and “I love orange” and “I love the movies” and “I love my mother” using the same word for all, but the love we have for cookies, or horses, or reading, is not the same as our love for a child, or a dear friend. When we talk like that, the normal way that others understand what we mean by ‘love’ is by the context in which it is said.

That is exactly another thing that I’ve learned about Greek; the most important way to know what a word means is by its context. Look carefully at how it is being used.
It would be helpful if we made a distinction concerning the various things we love, perhaps using words such as: like, care for, am fond of, and so on, but we do not. Neither did the writer of 1 John. In fact, John is known for using synonyms and regardless of his reasons for writing that way, he got my attention. I need to think carefully about the loves he describes in this passage.

I clearly understand what God is saying. Some of the people that I say I love, I do not love at all. My love is about what I get out of it, and that is how the world loves. God’s love is not at all like that. His version of “agape” is always about what He can put into it, and how He can be a blessing to those He loves.

If that were not clear enough, the Lord also says that my selfish loves are “passing away.” My Greek dictionary says, “to go out of existence — to cease to exist, to pass away, to cease.” It will not last; it cannot last.

At that, one would expect the next line to read, “but the love of God abides forever,” but it doesn’t. In another twist of words, the text says, “but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” Ouch.

Greek has been filling my head with grammar terms and complex definitions, but these plain words from God are pushing them aside and telling me again how to think with the mind of Christ and how to love others.

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