Word Study #66 — The Word

August 27, 2010

There are many instances in the New Testament where confusion has resulted from a single English word having been used to represent multiple Greek words (see explanation in “Helps for Word Study”), and it is necessary to separate the disparate concepts for accurate understanding. This, however, is one of the much less frequent places where nearly synonymous Greek words have often been artificially divided in order to bolster “theological” arguments. Careful perusal of a non-theological lexicon like the historic Oxford work of Liddell and Scott, as well as the actual context of the New Testament uses of rhema and logos, reveals more similarity than difference. The two words are even used interchangeably on occasion: compare Mt.26:75 and Mk.14:72, which use rhema, with Lk.22:61, where the description of the same event uses logos; and the representation as the agent of creation and of its preservation, where II Pet.3:5-7 uses logos, and Heb.11:3 and 13 uses rhema. Any separation of meanings, therefore, must be made with caution and humility, since the sense must be derived from the context: the difference is not lexical.

It is true, however, that rhema represents considerably less diversity than does logos. Rhema refers simply to “anything said or spoken, the subject of a speech or matter”, and grammatically, “a phrase as opposed to a single word, or the verb, or predicate, in a sentence.” Logos, on the other hand, may refer to “computation or accounting” (Mt.18:23 and 25:19, Lk.16:2, Heb.13:17, I Pet.4:5); to “explanation, legal principle, or the statement of a theory or argument” (Mt.10:13, 22:46; Mk.12:13, Ac.22:22, 18:15); “inward or overt debate, thinking, reasoning” (I Cor.1:17, 2:4, 2:13, 4:20); “a continuous statement or narrative” (all the references to “preaching the word”); “a divine utterance” (“word of God, words of Jesus”); and various other forms of speech, argument, and discussion.
You may notice that none of these definitions make any reference to anything written – only to speech.

In the New Testament, therefore, it is more fruitful to explore other questions. One’s understanding and attitude, for example, will vary according to whose “word” he encounters. This is expressed by the genitive case, which may indicate either possession or source. There are many places where logos refers simply to a statement or conversation of ordinary people (Mt.12:37, Mt.10:14, Lk.23:9, Ac.15;24, Mt.22:46, and many others.) At least 21 times, something is specifically labeled “the word of God”; 23 times “the word of the Lord, of Jesus, of the Lord Jesus Christ, of Christ.” or, when Jesus himself is speaking, “my word. Even more frequently, (45 x), the choice is simply “the word”, referencing some aspect of the message of Jesus, regardless of who was speaking it.

Another use of the same (genitive) form indicates not possession, not source, but the content of the “word”. Here again, both logos and rhema are used in this way, joined by “of:
– “the word of eternal life” (Jn.6:6)
– “the word of this life” (Ac.5:20, Phil.2:16, I Jn.1:1)
– “the word of truth” (Ac.26:25, II Cor.6:7, Eph.1:13, Col.1:5, II Tim.2:15, Jas.1:18)
– “the word of exhortation” (Ac.13:15, Heb.13:22)
– “the word of this salvation [rescue, safety]” (Ac.13:26)
– “the word of the prophets” (Ac.5;15), or “of prophecy” (II Pet.1:19, Rv.1:3)
– “the word of his grace” (Ac.20:32)
– “the word of promise” (Rom.9:9)
– “the word of wisdom, the word of knowledge” (Rom.12:8)
– “the word of reconciliation” (II Cor.5:19)
– “the word of faithfulness” (I Tim.4:6)
– “the word of righteousness / justice” (Heb.5:13)

A significant deviation in usage from the classical definitions occurs in another large group of references, all of which use logos. The word is also, in the words of Heb.4:12, “alive and powerful”! It is active:
– to heal (Mt.8:8) and to cast out evil spirits (Mt.8:16)
– to demonstrate the power and authority of Jesus (Lk.4:32,26)
– to pass judgment (Jn.12:47,48)
– to make disciples clean (Jn.15:3 – see previous post).
It “grew” and “multiplied (Ac.6:7, 12:24).
It was spread from the forming groups of disciples (I Thes.1:8), and was at work in their formation (2:13), able to “build them up” (Ac.20:32) and assure their inheritance.
It makes all foods holy (I Tim.4:5) and provides nourishment for faithful living (4:6).
It is the agent of new birth (Jas.1:18, I Pet.1:23), able to save and sustain those lives (Jas.1:21).
It was at work in the creation of all that exists (Heb.11:3), as well as its preservation (1:3).

Both rhema and logos are also used when the context is negative: “every idle word” (Mt.12:36) and the charges against Stephen (Ac.6:11,13) use rhema, while “speaking against Jesus” (Mt.12:32) and “those who corrupt the word” (II Cor.2:17) or handle it deceitfully (4:2) use logos. The words of such people can also have power (II Tim.2:17), “spreading like gangrene”, and any who ignore or distort the true word are to be avoided (I Tim.6:3 and I Thes.3:14). It was people who refused to hear the Father’s word (Jn.5:38) who failed to acknowledge and trust the Lord Jesus, and those in whom the word was not welcomed/received (Jn.8:37) who deliberately set out to destroy him.

By contrast, those who “hear / listen” (W.S.#27) and “accept” the word (Jn.12:47,48) are the ones who become faithful. These are admonished to remember, to be mindful of that word (II Pet.3:2, Jude 17), not to be ashamed of it (Mk.8:38), to “keep” it (Lk.11:28), and “continue in” it (Jn.8:34), with the result being the privilege to live in the freedom thereby engendered. Those who “received / welcomed” the word (Ac.2:41) were baptized as a testimony to their commitment (see chapter 10 of Citizens of the Kingdom). They are then urged to “encourage one another with these words” (I Thes.4:18), to “hold on to faithful words” (II Tim.1:13), and to handle the word correctly (II Tim.2:15), taking care that it not be discredited (Tit.2:5). James (1:22) is even more specific: hearing / listening is not enough: DOING the word is essential. John the elder agrees (I Jn.3:18) “Dear children, let’s don’t live in theory (logos) or in talk, but in action and truth!”

“And now, I turn you all over to the Lord, and to his word of grace [his gracious word], that can build you all up, and give (you) the inheritance among all those who have been made holy!”(Ac.20:32)
Everything he saysis useful for that!

Word Study #65 — Clean, Prune, Purify

August 23, 2010

Katharos (adj.) and its related words, kathairo and katharizo (verbs), and katharismos (noun), are as varied in classical usage as their English counterparts. Although there are many words which, to be properly understood, could be more accurately rendered by the use of a single, consistent translation (for example, see the discussion of “righteousness/justice” in W.S.#3), this is one where such an exercise would be extremely difficult. Some version of the concept of “cleanliness”, to be sure, is present in all of its manifestations, but I have not succeeded in finding a term that would fit for every occurrence.
Kathairo or kathaireo, the older form of the verb, for example, was used of “ridding a land of monsters and robbers, cleansing a wound, sifting or winnowing grain, pruning a tree, or performing religious purification rites” (L/S). The later form, katharizo, added “to clear ground of weeds, to cleanse (heal) from leprosy, or medical purgation.” The noun, katharismos, simply described the performance of any of these activities, and the adjective, katharos, the result of the process.

Perhaps a list of the adjectival uses of katharos, with illustrative New Testament references, would be helpful:
1. simple, physical cleanliness – Mt.23:25, Lk.11:39 (parallel passages regarding the washing of dishes), Mt.27:59 (“a clean linen cloth”), and similar in Rv.19:8, 19:14, and 15:6; and Heb.10:22 (“bodies washed with clean water”).
2. “without admixture” – [“pure”] – Mt.5:8, Tim.1:5, 3:9, II Tim.1:3, 2:22, I Pet.1:22, “a pure heart”; Rv.21:18,21, “pure gold”; and Rv.22:1, “pure water.”
3. “without debt, guilt, or liability” – Ac.18:6, 20:26 – Paul’s statement that he is no longer responsible for their response to his message.
4. “ritual or ceremonial purity” – Jn.3:25, Lk.2:22, Jn.2:6, Mk.7:19, Lk.11:41, Mk.1:44, Lk.5:14
5. “honest, correct, without blemish, sound, morally pure” – Jas.4:8, Tit.1:15, as well as parallels to the “ceremonial” kind listed above
6. “the healing of lepers” – Mt.8:3, 10:8, 11:5; Mk.1:42, Lk.4:27,7:22, 17:14,17.

Other uses are a bit harder to classify. Jesus, on occasion, deliberately blurred the line between physical cleanliness, ceremonial purity, and dedicated lives (Jn.13:10 – 11 and 15:3), as did the Holy Spirit’s instructions to Peter (Ac.10:15, 11:19). Especially in the upper room scene, Jesus’ intended meaning shifts sharply. And although the discourse on the Vine / branches is clearly an agricultural reference (see previous post), the implication of removing any hindrance to fruitfulness is clear. Similar admonitions are also seen in Heb.9:14, Ac.15:9, Titus 2:14, I Jn.1:9.
James 1:7 re-defines religious “purity” in very practical terms, and in no uncertain language.

This approach is at once more and less stringent than the “purification” demands of the Law. The advocates of the Law had compiled a handy check-list for assaying the ceremonial “purity” that they deemed requisite for proper worship. Jesus provided no such cut and dried convenience, but instead required – and offered – the total transformation of the focus of one’s life. Once this transformation is in progress (Lk.11:41, Jn.13:10), the practiced eye of the vine-dresser can readily make continual corrections to the health, direction, and growth of a branch. Notice that (Jn.15:2) it is the fruitful branches that receive this attention. Unfruitful ones are simply cut off and discarded. And it is not a condition of their becoming a part of the Vine, but of continuing in that condition, and of increasing their fruitfulness.

We should also take note of who is responsible for the pruning / cleansing / purification. We have already seen that the Father is designated as the vintner (Jn.15:1); however, in Eph.5:26, Paul speaks of the Lord Jesus himself “cleansing the church to make it his own”. In Jn.15:3, “the Word that I have spoken” is credited with rendering Jesus’ followers “clean”; and in II Cor.7:1 and James 4:8, the responsibility is placed squarely upon the shoulders of aspiring disciples themselves. Looks pretty much like a mutual effort.

Peter (I Pet.1:22) uses a different, less common word, hagnizo, which more commonly applies to “religious purity”, when he declares that his readers have accomplished this, “by obeying the truth.” It is well to remember that both “the word” (Jn.1:14) and “the truth” (Jn.14:6) (see W.S.#66) are also references to Jesus himself.

It remains for us to consider the discussions in the letter to the Hebrews, the understanding of which has been severely inhibited by the common practice of “proof-texters” lifting a few phrases entirely out of their context. For example, the frequently quoted phrase, (Heb. 1:3), “when he (Jesus) had made a cleansing of “sins” – (the word is hamartia, failures or shortcomings, and not paraptoma, transgressions – see W.S.#7) – if taken in its context of the statement of God’s earlier attempts to make his ways known, which did not work (v.1), looks entirely different, declaring that Jesus’ successful mission (v.2 and 3) was to remedy the shortcomings / failures of the old system! This contrast is the announced purpose of the entire treatise, and occurs like a refrain throughout.
Likewise, Heb.9:14, in the context of its entire paragraph, also highlights Jesus’ superiority over the former priesthood, and those who quote the end of 9:22 “without the pouring-out of blood, deliverance doesn’t happen”, totally ignore the beginning of the sentence, “According to the law…..” V.23, immediately following, continues the emphasis that a better way was needed – and provided! Remember that “blood” and “life” are frequently used synonymously. (see Citizens of the Kingdom, chapter 12.)

Finally, how can anyone be aware of the glorious expression of confidence in Heb.10:19-23, the assurance that “our hearts have been cleansed (perfect tense) (lit., “sprinkled”) from consciousness of evil, and our bodies have been washed (also perfect tense) with clean water” (perhaps a reference to baptism), and still submit meekly to a requirement that they “confess sinfulness” in every worship service, and in countless hymns? That simply doesn’t compute! The perfect tense expresses “a past action with present consequences”!
Paul had earlier written to Titus (1:!5), “Everything is clean, for clean people! But for the impure and unfaithful, nothing is clean: their mind and conscience has been polluted!”
For all who belong to Jesus, heart, mind, and conscience have been cleansed!
Accept the joyful admonition in Heb.10:23-24:
“Let’s hang on to our commitment to [acknowledgment of] our hope [expectation] without hesitation! For the One who made the promise is faithful! Let’s concentrate on prodding each other (with) love and good deeds!”
And whether in song or liturgy, give heed to the Spirit’s word to our brother Peter (Ac.10:15):
“What God has cleansed, don’t you call unclean!”

Word Study #64 — Bearing Fruit

August 17, 2010

Everybody knows what that means, right? To bear fruit is to reproduce!”
At least, that is the proclamation of some enthusiastic folks who feel a need to count “conversions”, to display them like scalps on a belt, and to put-down anyone who sports fewer “trophies”. This is another of many places where the “tune” would be mightily modulated by a serious look at the New Testament.

Yes, there are four possible places (Romans 1:13, Phil.1:22 – where it could just mean “useful”, and maybe Jn.4:36 and Col.1:6), where karpos, the most common word translated “fruit” might be referring to conversions (although probably not the “four-step” variety), out of 66 appearances of the noun form and 8 of the verb! Not quite an overwhelming percentage!
At least 35 – probably 38 – of the references are simply agricultural images, many of them in parables. Two refer to physical birth, and at least 18 to the expected behavior of followers of Jesus.

These harmonize well with the variety seen in classical usage. According to Liddell/Scott, in Homer, karpos referred exclusively to agricultural produce – the fruit of the earth.” Herodotus and Plato both spoke of wine as “the fruit of the vine”, and later writers used the word of any produce or crops. Xenophon used it of returns or profits on one’s work or investment. When describing the actions of persons, it signified reward, or the fulfillment of an oracle or prophecy. Bauer adds “result, outcome, advantage, gain, or product.”

Turning to the best authority of all, we should ask again, “What did Jesus say?”
He talked a lot about fruit (43 x) and harvests (20 x). Harvest, therizo, therismos, is a similar word, but generally confined to agricultural or seasonal ideas. Therizo is the only one used of “end times”.
All the synoptic gospels include the parables of the Sower (Mt.13:3-9 and 19-23, Mk.4:3-9 and 14-20, Luke 8:5-9 and 10-15) and the vineyard (Mt.21:34-43, Mk.12:1-12, Lk.20:9-16). The focus in the former, according to Jesus’ own explanation, concerns varied responses to the message of the Kingdom, while the latter explores the stewardship of its resources and the treatment of the King’s representatives.
Likewise, in pointing out that the value of a tree is judged by the quality of its produce (Mt.7:16-20, Lk.6:43-44), Jesus seems to assume that an observer can readily discern the quality of the fruit, and that no further elaboration is required.

He gives the most detailed teaching in Jn.15:1-17. Here, Jesus represents himself as the vine, the source of life and growth (1,4), and his followers as its branches (2-6). The Father himself does the pruning (katharizo, also rendered “cleansing”, which we will save for another post). If you have ever worked with grapevines, you know how technical this job is. One must recognize which buds are the fruiting ones, and take care not to remove too many, but also ensure that branches do not compete with one another for sunlight and room to grow! A good harvest requires an expert vintner.
Here, it is Jesus’ word (v.3) that governs the pruning. I think this is probably the reason for the slight digression (vv.9-15) in which he stresses the absolute necessity (5,7,10) of not only “remaining” (W.S.#58) tightly connected to him, but also of “following instructions” (10,12,14,17) (W.S.#55).

It is especially essential (see intro to PNT) here to distinguish between singular and plural forms of “you”. Most of this is a group assignment! (Branches, after all, are mostly attached to the vine by their attachment to other branches!) In the PNT text, plurals are identified by either “you all” or an italicized “you”. Huge errors occur when plurals are read as singular address.
There are also two grammatical constructions in this passage, both very easily identified, that are critical to understanding the message.
A clause indicating purpose is introduced by the particle, hina, “in order that” a desired result may occur. These are seen in
v.2, pruning is done in order that a branch may produce more fruit;
v.8, God’s purpose is “that you may bear much fruit, and become my disciples;”
v.11, “I have said these things in order that my joy may be in/among you all”;
v.16, “I chose (W.S.#56) you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, in order that whatever you all ask the Father in my name (W.S.#24), he may give you.”
v.17, “I am giving you these instructions so that you all may keep on loving each other.”

Other clauses are conditional, (regardless of modern rhetoric to the contrary). They are introduced by ei, or ean, both forms of “IF”, or, if negative, “unless”. They occur in:
v.4, “unless [if you don’t (ean me)] you all remain in [on] me”, you cannot bear fruit.
v.6 “unless someone remains in me, he is thrown out like a branch and is dried up”
v.7, “IF you all remain in me, and my messages remain in/among you, you all shall ask …”
v.10, “IF you all follow my instructions, you will remain in my love …”
v.14, “You all are my friends, IF you continue to do as I am instructing you.”
Additional conditional statements continue throughout the rest of the discourse.

It remained for faithful followers to elaborate on precise definitions of the “fruit” that was to be borne. Paul wrote to the Romans (6:21,22), contrasting the “fruit” [results] of their lives before and after commitment to Jesus and his Kingdom, and to the Galatians (5:19-23) and Ephesians (5:8-10) in the same vein. Characteristics of the new life mentioned in these include (Rom.) a life devoted to God [holiness], (Gal.) love, joy [rejoicing], peace, generosity of mind, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, (Eph.) goodness, justice, truth, and finding out what is pleasing to the Lord!
Changed lives had already been urged by John the Baptist (Mt.3:8 and Lk.3:8) when he demanded “fruit worthy of repentance” (W.S.#6) of his hearers.
Remember that “justice” is the lexical meaning of the word traditionally translated “righteousness” (W.S. #3), which endows its “fruit” (Phil.1:11, Heb.12:11, Jas.3:18) with a decidedly different “flavor”!
Twice (Phil.4:17 and Rom.15:28), the sharing of material gifts among brethren are termed “fruit.”
The letter to the Hebrews closes with a description of the appropriate offering [“sacrifice”] of praise to God as “the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (W.S. #24).

Paul’s admonition to the Colossian church (1:10) is a succinct summary: “behave in a manner worthy of the Lord, in order to please him fully, bearing fruit in every good deed, and continually growing in your acquaintance with God!”
Quite a contrast to “scalp-collecting”, bearing this sort of fruit is a worthy goal for us all!

Word Study #63 — Patience

August 10, 2010

References to patience in the New Testament are primarily representations of three word “families”, which, while quite different in “flavor”, are extremely difficult to separate in any definitive manner. “Easy” definitions do not hold up under closer scrutiny. The best we can do is to outline a “territory” covered by each word-grouping, recognizing that there will be overlap that escapes our best efforts. Frequently, two or more of these are found in the same sentence, so they are clearly not synonyms. Translators have almost randomly said “patience and longsuffering,” “endurance and patience,” “forbearance and longsuffering,” or some similar combination.

Makrothumeo (v.) and makrothumia (n.) are used 11 x and 13 x respectively. Liddell/Scott lists simply “to be longsuffering toward another, to persevere, to bear patiently.” Bauer adds “to delay” and “to be even-tempered”, upon which Thayer elaborates “to be patient in bearing the offenses of others, to be slow in avenging or punishing.” Peter (I Pet.3:20, II Pet.3:9, 3:15) and Paul (Rom.2:4 and 9:22) both ascribe this characteristic to God, but Paul also admonishes the brethren at Ephesus (4:2), Colosssae (1:11 and 3:12), and Thessalonica (I Thes.5:14) to exhibit the same attitude toward one another. He appears to be appealing for a generosity of spirit that teaches gently (II Tim.4:2) rather than imposing demands. Usually (not always) it is demonstrated by someone more mature in the Kingdom toward those less experienced. I have frequently used “generosity” or “generous-mindedness” to render these words, intending them as a description of attitude, not necessarily with material implications.

Hupomeno (v.) and hupomone (n.), used 17x and 32x respectively, on the other hand, deal primarily with one’s response to being abused. Thayer makes a helpful point in noting that the distinction is best seen where both words are used together, or in their opposites. Hupomeno / hupomone refer to “a temper which does not succumb under suffering,” whereas makrothumia is “self-restraint which does not hastily retaliate a wrong.” Hupomone is the opposite of cowardice or despondency, and makrothumia is the opposite of wrath or revenge.
Hupomone is the “patience” usually associated with those under persecution (Lk.21:19, Rom.5:3, 15:4 and 5; II Cor.6:4, Heb.10:36 and 12:1; and Rv.2:2,3,19; 3:10, 13:10,14:12), as is its verb equivalent (I Pet.2:20, Rom.12:12; Mt.10:22 and 24:13; Mk.13:13, Heb.10:32 and 12:7; I Tim.2:12).
Bauer, Thayer, and Trench all suggest that this describes a faithful response to unavoidable suffering, and consequently cannot apply to God: but that observation breaks down on the passages in Heb.12:2 and 3, which refer to Jesus, who said clearly that he could have called upon all the hosts of heaven to deliver him, had he so chosen.

Hupomone appears on many of the lists of virtues toward which the faithful are urged to strive – II Tim.3:10, I Tim.6:11, Rom.15:4,5; Col.1:11.
In order to maintain a distinction, I have usually used “endurance” for these words.
James complicates the situation by mixing the two concepts almost at random, using makrothumia in 5:7,8 and 5:10, but hupomone in 5:11 and 1:3,4. Perhaps this is deliberate: your suggestions of any possible pattern or reasoning are welcome!

Finally, we turn to anoche (only used twice) and anechomai (15x). The noun appears only in Romans 2:4 and 3:26, referring to the amazing kindness [forbearance] of God. The verb is variously rendered as “forbear” (Eph.4:2 and Col.3:13), “endure” (II Thes.1:4, II Tim.4:3), and “suffer” (Mt.17:17, Mk.9:19, Lk.9:41, I Cor.4:12, II Cor.11:19,20; Heb.13:22).
L/S notes that anoche classically referred to an armistice or truce, and Trench offers the reminder that a truce is only a temporary cessation of hostility. The word was also used of forbearance, or “bearing with” someone – in more contemporary parlance, “putting up with” difficult people or situations. This was frequently my translation choice. It is clearly the burden of Jesus’ exclamation to his disciples, “How long do I have to put up with this?!” (Parallel passages noted above in the synoptics), and Paul’s sarcastic statements to the Corinthians about their willingness to accept false teaching (II Cor.11:1,4,19,20), as well as Gallio’s to the Jews (Ac.18:14). These words may parallel the idea of “endurance,” but don’t seem to fit very well with “patience” – nor do the two uses of stego or the three of hupophero – both also rendered “endure” or “bear”.

All three categories seem to refer primarily to attitude, rather than to specifics of behavior. This is quite clear in Paul’s instructions to Timothy (II Tim.4:2), whom he sent as a “trouble-shooter” to fledgeling congregations on several occasions. “Administer discipline,” he tells his young deputy, “give rebukes, keep on coaching, with all generosity of mind (makrothumia) as you teach.” Makrothumia does not imply “anything goes” – it is simply the attitude with which instruction is to be given. Likewise, there is nothing in hupomone to imply that “patience” under persecution requires one to adopt “door-mat” status. The beleaguered folks who received the letter to the Hebrews were reminded (10:36),”You all have need of patience [endurance], in order that when [after] you have done God’s will, you may obtain the promise.” Don’t back down, but persist in faithfulness, willingly enduring whatever fall-out that produces.
And despite the somewhat negative flavor of the passages already quoted, there is no grudging condescension in anechomai. In Eph.4:2, it is used in combination with makrothumia – “with a generous attitude, putting up with each other in love.” In Col.3:13, it is paired with charizomai, “being gracious toward one another.” Although traditionally translated “forgive”, charizomai actually has the same stem as charis – “grace” (see W.S.#60).

We are instructed to forbear [put up with] one another’s immaturity and peculiarities, and to forgive [be gracious about] error or offense, but in both cases, patiently to “keep on coaching” (W.S.#53) the team toward greater faithfulness.
Discernment enabled by the Holy Spirit is often required, properly to identify and respond to the situation with which we are confronted.
We all have a lot to learn!

Word Study #62 — “The Nations”

August 3, 2010

“Nations”, as we think of them today – independent political entities – did not exist until relatively modern times. Modern usage has considered the term “nation” (a cohesive group, bound together by a common language, culture, and history) to be synonymous with “country” or “state” (a political entity defined by geographical boundaries, laws, and governance) – which, historically, it is not.
Old Testament references to “nations” and “kingdoms”, like those in Homer, usually referred to a single city and its environs, each with its own “king” (more like a warlord).
In the first century, virtually every “nation” in Europe, the middle east, and parts of Asia and Africa was dominated by Rome, as they had been earlier by Greece under Alexander, and earlier still by Persia, under Cyrus. None of these empires were ever termed “nations”. They were composed of many conquered nations.
The “nation” [ethnicity] with which one identified had little to do with political boundaries. The conquerors arranged and rearranged boundaries for their own convenience (much as they do today) with little regard for cultural, tribal, religious, or other loyalties. They appointed various levels of petty despots to do the local governing, with varying degrees of autonomy (and success). In the first century, some of these were Herod, Pilate, Claudius Lysius, Felix, and Festus. (You can fill in corresponding names for the 20th and 21st centuries!)
Jesus seems to have assumed this sort of structure in the parable (Lk.19:12-27) of the nobleman who traveled abroad “to receive a kingdom” and returned. This was probably a political grant from a higher potentate.

Liddell/Scott lists different categories of meanings for ethnos, the most common of the words rendered “nation..” (Other words rarely rendered “nation” are genea -1x– usually “generation” and genos -2 x– “kind, kindred, or offspring”.) The earliest, historically, represented “any body of people living together; a band of comrades; particular tribes, or even swarms or flocks of animals”! Later, implications of “foreign” or “barbaric” were added. In Athens, ethnos was applied to non-Athenian athletic clubs, and in the LXX, to non-Jews, and more generally, to people of a class or caste beneath one’s own, as well as to trade associations.
Consequently, a modern translation of ethnos as “nation” would be more accurately considered a cultural artifact of the time of translation, than a concept present in the original text. The common thread in many of these translations is the concept of “other”. It is mostly concerned with what a person is not, dividing “us” from “them”, and “in” from “out”. Of all the New Testament uses of the word, only ten refer to one’s own people. (Usually one’s own are called laos, “people”. Others are “ethnoi” – Gentiles, or nations). For Jews, the dichotomy was either ioudaioi, Jews, vs. hellen, Greeks; circumcision vs. uncircumcision, or laos, people, vs. ethnoi, nations or Gentiles.
For Greeks, it was hellen vs. barbaros (barbarians), a term which originally applied to anyone who did not speak Greek, but after Herodotus (4th century BC), acquired the connotation of “brutal” or “rude”, although it continued to be applied, often in a disparaging way, to any foreigner.
Hellen (Greek) is also used, although less frequently (only 26 times) in the New Testament, usually as a more specific term of ethnic identity than ethnos, which is arbitrarily rendered “nation” (64 x) or “Gentile” (93 x), and applied to anyone who was not a Jew. Five times it was traditionally translated “heathen” – Ac.4:25, II Cor. 11:26, Gal.1:16, 2:9, 3:8 . This is not a different word. The choice among the alternatives, “nations”, “Gentiles”, and “heathen”, by traditional translators, is completely arbitrary. The word in every instance is ethnos.

One outstanding feature of the New Testament appearances of ethnos is the frequency of its being paired with “all”, “every”, or “many” (31 x), from the charge to Abraham (Rom.14:17,18) to Jesus’ instructions to his original disciples (Mt.28:19, Mk.13:10, Lk.24:47), and the glorious scenes in Rev.5:9, 7:9, 10:11 and many more. This, along with Paul’s more specific descriptions (especially in Romans, Ephesians, and Colossians) reveals a massive paradigm shift! Ethnos is no longer a term of exclusion, but of gracious inclusion into the Kingdom – the people (laos) of God!

It took a while for those people to internalize the shift, and the writers are not shy about documenting their struggles. We don’t know whether the confrontation with Peter that Paul describes in Gal.2 was before or after the former’s experience with Cornelius (Ac.10) and/or the conference in Jerusalem (Ac.15), but rough spots are frankly acknowledged. Much of Paul’s correspondence with the group at Corinth involves clashes of backgrounds, as do Ephesians, Colossians, and many of his other letters. This may even show up in the vocabulary, since frequently, the term hellen is substituted for ethnos in settings that may have involved Gentile proselytes. Ac.14:1, 16:13, 17:4, 18:4 describe scenes in the synagogues of Iconium, Derbe, Thessalonica, and Corinth, and the crowd present at Pentecost (Ac.2:8-11) represented “many nations”. Might the shift in “label” have indicated that these folks, while not fully assimilated, were at least no longer considered rank outsiders?

But the objective was much higher than that. Jesus’ prayer for his people was that they all be as completely “one” as he was/is with the Father (Jn.17:21),and that prayer specifically included (v.20) “also those who are faithful to me because of their word”! This is the content of “God’s mystery” (W.S.#57) finally revealed to his people (Eph.3:3-9, Col.1:26-27, Rom.16:25-26). The “in” group has been re-defined: no longer identified by any ethnic identity, but by faithfulness to the King of Kings! And while the Law, the Prophets, and the Old Testament histories are full of admonitions to avoid those of alien”nations”, the New Testament is filled with celebration of their inclusion!

Despite his earlier hesitation. Brother Peter also finally got on board (I Pet.2:9-10). Writing (1:1) to “scattered refugees” (traditionally, “strangers”) who have been brought together by their adherence to the Lord Jesus, he encourages them to seek continually for greater faithfulness, reminding them, “You all are a chosen generation – a royal priesthood – a set-apart [holy] nation (ethnos) especially reserved for the purpose of sending out messages about the excellence of the one who called you out of darkness into his amazing light! Once, you were not (even) a people (laos), but now you are God’s people(laos)!” In v.11, he refers to them as “temporary residents and foreigners” in the world from which they came!

Paul writes in a similar vein to the brethren in Ephesus (2:11-22) of their transition from being rank outsiders (11 and 12), through the work of Christ (13-16) in creating one Body out of two people, and describing their present status (17-19) as “fellow citizens with God’s people” and members of his own household! This is an ongoing process for all concerned (20-22), as the whole group is built together “into a permanent dwelling-place for God”!
At least 54 of the 93 places where ethnos is traditionally translated “Gentiles” refer specifically to their inclusion in the people of God. In the Kingdom, “in” and “out” is completely independent of national origin. It depends entirely upon one’s loyalty to the King, which is expected to transcend – indeed, to replace – any and all other allegiances (W.S.#4).

In the middle of a section of detailed instructions for the interaction of the widely varied members of that Kingdom in Colosssae, Paul reminds them (Col.3:11-12) that not only do the former divisions no longer matter, but they have ceased to exist! They/we are now all “God’s chosen people (W.S.#56), holy [set-apart for him] and loved!” and charged with representing the grace and power that accomplished such a feat to the rest of the world.

May we learn to prove faithful to that assignment!