Word Study #120 — Convert, Conversion

November 29, 2011

Here is another word, requested several times, of which the commonly understood meaning has departed markedly from its historical usage.  It needs to be studied in conjunction with “transformation” (#97) and “repentance” (#6). All three of these share more in common than is usually realized, and all imply deliberate alteration in one’s behavior, rather than simple assent to a set of theoretical propositions or “beliefs.”

Even in traditional English translations, epistrepho, the primary Greek word, out of 39 New Testament appearances, is rendered “convert” or “converted” only 7x.  It is much more  commonly (and correctly) translated “turn” (16x), “turn about”, “turn again” (4x each), “return” (8x), and “come” or “go again” once each.

Likewise, strepho, the same word, but without a prefix, is rendered “converted” only twice, and some form of “turn” 16x.

Obviously, the translators thought they were dealing with a different concept in those aberrations: but perhaps that was due to the theological understanding of their own era taking precedence over etymology.  This is not a rare occurrence.

Liddell / Scott lists 14 meanings for epistrepho.  Remember, they have compiled the ways that a word has been used historically.  By far the most common, as well as the earliest use, is simply “to turn around”.  This is followed by: to put an enemy to flight, to return, to turn towards, to turn one’s attention toward or pay attention to, to turn or convert from an error (to correct), to repent (exclusively LXX and NT), to cause to return, to curve or twist (as a path), to be distorted, crooked (of a tree), or curled (hair), to conduct oneself or behave in a particular way, (and as a participle) earnest or vehement.

The uses of strepho are even more varied, including: to cause to rotate on an axis, to overturn or upset, to plow, to sprain or dislocate a joint, to twist or torture, to plait (braid), to wrestle, to turn something over in one’s mind, to give back, (in alchemy) the transmutation of metals,  to turn to or from an object or person, the revolving or cycling of heavenly bodies, to turn or change.

Of New Testament usage, likewise, the vast majority, for both words, involves physically turning around or returning: Jesus, or someone else, “turned and said …” or “returned” to where they had been before.  As we consider the passages where this is not the case, please keep in mind that the idea of physical turning is the primary meaning.  This implies, as we saw in “repent”, a deliberate change of direction and/or attention.

The most frequent traditional use of “convert” or “be converted” for epistrepho (there are only 7) is in quoting the prophecy of Isaiah (6:9-10) regarding the deliberate choice of the Israelite people not to pay attention to God’s instructions:  Mt.13:15, Mk.4:12, Jn.12:40, Ac.28:27.  The others are Jesus’ instructions to Peter (Lk.22:32) that he should “strengthen his brethren” after recovering from his desertion; James urging his readers (5:19-20) to seek the restoration of one who falls into error; and Peter’s admonition to his listeners to “repent and be converted” (Ac.3:19) to remedy their distress at recognizing their rejection of Jesus as the Promised One.

The only appearance of the noun form, epistrophe, (Ac.15:3) celebrates the enrollment of Gentiles into the Kingdom.

There are nine instances where “turning to God”, whether applied to the people of  Israel (Lk.1:16,17) or to the Gentiles (Ac.9:35, 11:21, 14:15, 15:19, 26:20; II Cor.3:16, I Thes.1:9), is mentioned;  in each, a change of life / direction is clearly indicated, not merely an acknowledgment of some theoretical argument.  This is also the case in Ac.26:28, “turning from darkness to light”.

Turning can also go the wrong direction, as in Gal.4:9 and II Pet.2:21.

The uses of strepho (the same verb, but without a prefix), are even more heavily weighted in favor of physically turning around. The exceptions are Jesus’ declaration (Mt.18:2) that Kingdom membership requires “being converted” to the attitude of small children;  (Ac.7:39) the Israelites’ desire to return to Egypt; and (Ac.7:42) God’s consequent “giving them up”.

In view of this evidence, I am inclined to suggest that other contemporary uses of the term “convert” may be more accurate than  the usual “Christian” usage.  For example:

–        an engine may be “converted” to run on a different kind of fuel

–        a factory may be “converted” to make a different product

–        land may be “converted” to raise a different crop

–        zoning may be “converted” to allow different developmental use

I’m sure you could get any number of good illustrations from these and other such modern usages.

They all share the implication of tangible, observable change – none are restricted to theoretical constructs or opinions.

As we saw in the studies of faith / faithfulness (#1), repentance (#6),  life (#28), transformation (#97), and many others, “conversion” is a much more active concept, with more readily observable results, than is commonly supposed.
It might well be characterized as the process of “naturalization” into Kingdom citizenship, “with all the rights,  privileges, and responsibilities thereby incurred.”

It is the beginning of the life that the gracious King has designed and prepared for his people.

Thanks be to God!

Word Study #119 — It’s NOT about “after you die”!

November 15, 2011

Let’s get one thing straight from the beginning. Scripture is clear, and Jesus said plainly, that he desired (Jn.17:24), planned (Jn.6:39-40), and provided (Jn.14:1-4) for his people to share life with him – permanently. Paul (I Cor.15) even goes so far as to say that without the resurrection (#35), we might as well forget the whole thing (v.17-18)! Although he represents the resurrection of committed disciples to have taken place, symbolically and practically, at their conversion and baptism (Rom.6:1-9, Col.2:12), and asserts that their / our new life has already begun, he clearly expects something more (I Thes.4:13-18) when Jesus returns.

Huge amounts of ink have been spilled over when, exactly, that resurrection takes place. None of the references to it make any mention of “heaven”, as we have seen. Opposing “sides” have stockpiled their textual “weapons”, some to insist that it is all instantaneous at the moment of physical death (citing the thief on the cross), and others to maintain that those who have passed on are “asleep” (a common euphemism for death both in and out of Scripture) until the Lord’s return (as suggested in the I Thes.4 passage). This whole controversy strikes me as rather silly, since, if “time shall be no more” (Rv.10:6), the “timing” couldn’t possibly matter – or even be discernible!

When Jesus spoke of “eternal life” (W.S.#28), it was almost always in the present tense, and predicated, as in Jn.3:36, upon obedience and faithfulness to the Son of God, and not upon subscribing to any list of “doctrines”. Indeed, the tense is occasionally even perfect: Jn.5:24(the faithful person) “has passed from death into life”! John reiterates that statement in his first letter (3:14) – it must have made an impression on him!

Nevertheless, (physical) death was / is still a “fact of life”: it was for Jesus himself, and has been for even the most faithful of his people. Jesus is the only one who said anything about “where” he was “going” – and his statement was simply, “I am going to the Father” (Jn.14:12, 28; 16:28), or “to the one who sent me” (Jn.16:5). For Paul, (Phil.1:23) “to depart and be with Christ” was an attractive prospect. But notice that this is embedded in a much longer discourse about faithful living.

Most of the references to a person having died say no more than that: whether the person was faithful – like Simeon, (Lk.2:28), John the Baptist (Mt.14:10-11 and parallels), Stephen (Ac.7:54-56), Dorcas (Ac.9:36), and James (Ac.12:1) – or unfaithful – like both Herods (Mt.2:19, Ac.2:23), Ananias and Sapphira (Ac.5), and Judas (Mt.27:5) – or innocent, like the children of Bethlehem (Mt.2:18)– they just “died”. Please also refer to the previous post regarding the people who subsequently were raised. As noted there, there is no instance where they are said to have “gone” anywhere. The young man at Nain “sat up and talked” (Lk.7:15), Lazarus simply walked out of the tomb (Jn.11:44), and Dorcas “opened her eyes and sat up” (Ac.9:40). Luke (8:55) says that the little girl’s “spirit returned”, without saying from where. Jesus also committed his spirit to the Father at his death (Lk.23:45). Matthew (27:50) and Mark (15:36) speak of his having “released” his spirit, and John (19:30) says “yielded.” As he was stoned, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” (Ac.7:59). Please note that the word used in each case is pneuma – “spirit / breath” (W.S.#52)and not the pagan concept of “soul” psuche. (Refer to discussion in #28, “life”).

We have also treated the word aion, aionios in the study on “life” , and seen that its reference is virtually impossible to pin down. The easy cop-out, rendering it “eternity, eternal, or forever” simply does not work in many places. For example, do you really think Jesus intended to say that he would accompany his disciples (Mt.28:20) “to the end of eternity”? I don’t think so!
Jesus’ responses to people who asked him about “eternal life” – even if the questioner thought they were referring to an afterlife – were exquisitely practical – “Do this, and you will live / enter into life!” is the refrain. Like “entering the Kingdom”, (#19,20,21), this happens during one’s physical life on earth! And a more accurate (yes, “literal”) translation of Jesus’ statement in Jn.11:26, in answer to Martha’s postponement of resurrection until the “last day” (v.24), is “Everyone living, who is faithful to me, will not die forever!” If he had meant “never die”, he would have used oudepote, and not eis ton aiona. Millions of faithful people have died – but not forever!

The epistles, concerned as they are with the faithfulness of living brotherhoods, make rather few references to death, except to say that it is really not a problem. Although Paul, who was probably thoroughly tired of sitting in jail, writes to the Philippians that he’d really like to “depart the be with Christ” (1:23), which he calls “far preferable”, his focus is that “Christ be magnified in my body whether through life or through death” (v.21).
In other contexts, “death”or “dead” is used as a description of total alienation from God and his ways (Rom.6,7,8), of people’s condition before their commitment to Jesus’ Kingdom (Eph.2:1, 2:5, Col.2:13), of the expected complete abandonment of one’s former way of life (Rom.6:11, 8:10, Heb.6:1, 9:14), or as identification with Jesus in his death and resurrection life (Rom.6:1-13, 8:11, I Cor.15, Eph.5:14).
Since the epistles were frequently written in a context of extreme persecution, however, the reality of the constant threat of execution is not ignored. Jesus had given fair warning that the time would come when (Jn.16:2) “everyone who kills you will perceive that he is offering service to God!” Paul himself (Ac.9:1, 22:4) had shared that perception before he met Jesus! But in his new life, he expressed a new attitude in II Cor.1:9-10, and II Cor.4:11,12 is buttressed with v.16-18. John relays Jesus’ message in Rv.2:10 to beleaguered brethren,and Paul reassures the Roman church (8:38) that death does not have the last word.
I really believe the primary lesson here is that it’s not about what happens to ME, either before or after physical death. It’s about faithfully representing Jesus and his Kingdom, regardless of the consequences either now or later!

We can say this because there is yet another glorious truth, far too frequently neglected in what passes for “Christian teaching”. Paul refers to it in II Tim.1:10 – (Jesus) “DESTROYED death, bringing to light life and immortality through the Good News!” and I Cor.15:26 – “The last enemy to be destroyed is death!” “So then, if we are living, we are living for the Lord, and if we die, we are dying for the Lord. Whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord!” (Rom.14:8).
The situation is even more vividly described in Heb.2:14,15: through (his) death, (Jesus) once-and-for-all destroyed the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and rescued those who, by fear of death, were held in slavery all their lives! One who does not fear death, cannot be enslaved or otherwise coerced!
“He (Jesus) died on behalf of everyone, in order that those who are alive might no longer be living for themselves, but for the one who died and was raised on their behalf!” (II Cor.5:15).
Jesus himself said it most simply: “Because I am alive, you also will be alive!” (Jn.14:9)

Where? When?
Here is one follower of the Lord Jesus who really doesn’t care.
In the words of an old hymn, “It’s heaven to me, wherever I be, if he is there!”
And of that, his promise is certain.

Thanks be to God!

Word Study #118 — Heaven

November 13, 2011

OK, I might as well admit it at the beginning: I have procrastinated about this study, because I know it will rattle a lot of cages. Ask the average individual who has an “evangelical” bent, of whatever “flavor”, why a person should identify with / “believe in” Jesus, and you are likely to hear some variation on the theme, “in order to go to heaven when you die.” Search the New Testament, however, and you will fail to find a single reference to that objective. It simply isn’t there, folks.
Oh yes, I know that people have concocted elaborate collections of “proofs”, by combining poorly translated phrases gleaned from dissected bits of “verses” completely isolated from their contexts. Most of these owe their “success” (read, “believability”) to the mistaken notion that the “Kingdom of God” (Matthew calls it the Kingdom of heaven) is entirely a future phenomenon – an idea that we have shown to be in error in studies #19, 20, and 21.
A careful perusal of the word “heaven” itself results in a very different picture.

Ouranos, ( as well as its related words) is the only Greek word ever translated “heaven.” It is also rendered “sky” and “air”. These choices were made wholly at translators’ discretion: there is no guidance in the grammar or vocabulary to lead one way or another, except one’s perception of the context – (birds, for example, fly in the “air” – Mt.6:26). If one wishes to translate “literally”, therefore, he must concede that any of these three words is an equally legitimate choice, in every instance.

Historically, the primary meaning of ouranos, according to Liddell/Scott, was “the vault or firmament of heaven/sky, where the stars and other heavenly bodies are set”. It also included “the universe”, “climate”, or “anything shaped like the vault of heaven: a roof, ceiling, lid, tent, or pavilion” or even “the roof of one’s mouth, the palate”, as well as being considered the abode of the gods (but not of dead mortals, however illustrious or exemplary their earthly lives may have been.)

Many of these ideas appear in the New Testament. “Heaven” is a part of creation, along with the earth and the sea (Mk.13:27, Ac.2:5, 2:19, 4:24; Eph.1:10, 3:15; Col.1:16, 1:23; Rv.5:13, 10:6,14:7, 14:15). With them, it will eventually“pass away” (Mt.5:18, 24:35; Mk.13:31, Lk.16:17, 21:33; Rv.20:11).
It is where the stars are (Mt.24:29, Mk13:25, Heb.11:12, Rv.13:10, 9:1); the location of clouds (Mt.24:30, 26:64, Mk.14:62, Ac.1:11); where rain comes from (Lk.4:25, 17:29; Jas.5:18), and how one can predict the weather (Mt.16:2,3; Lk.12:56). It provides a metaphor for great distance or extent (“from one end of heaven to the other” Mt.24:31 and parallels), and “every nation under heaven” (Ac.2:5, Eph.3:15).

But the New Testament also expands the reference to include “the throne of God” (Mt.5:34, Ac.7:49), the dwelling of the Father (14x in Matthew alone), the “place” where both Jesus (Jn.3:13,6:38) and the Holy Spirit (I Pet.1:12) came from; where Jesus presently resides (Mk.16:19, Ac.3:21, 7:55, Heb.9:24, 12:25; I Pet.3:22), and from whence he is expected to return to earth (I Cor.15:47, Phil.3:20, I Thes.1:10, 4:16; II Thes.1:7).
Heaven is represented as the source of visions (Jn.1:32, Mt.3:16, Mk.1:10, Lk.3:22, Ac.2:2, 9:3, 22:6, 10:11, 11:5-10, II Cor.2:2, II Pet.1:18, and throughout the Revelation),
the source of the “assignments” of both John the Baptist and Jesus himself (Mt.21:25, Mk.11:30, Lk.20:4,5),
and also of “signs”, especially regarding the Lord’s identity (Mt.6:1, Mk.8:11, Lk.11:16) and his return (Lk.21:11, Mt.24:30).

It is the abode of some (not all) “messengers” (see reference to aggelos in “Helps for Word Study” lesson 3) – (Mt.18:10, 22:30; Mk.12:25,13:32; Lk.2:15, 22:43), and also of “powers”, both benign and malevolent (Mk.13:25, Lk.21:26).
The names of faithful disciples are recorded there (Lk.10:20, Heb.12:23).
“Rewards” – Lk.6:23,(W.S.#98) and “treasures” (Mt.6:20, 19:21, and parallels) are “on deposit” there.
Decisions regarding matters on earth (Mt.16:19, 18:18) are represented as being made “in heaven”.

Interestingly, however, the much quoted parable of the respective fates of the rich man and the beggar (Lk.16:19-31) does not employ the word ouranos at all, nor do the accounts of any of the individuals raised from death: Lazarus (Jn.11), the daughter of Jairus (Mk.5:35-43, Lk.8:49-56), the widow’s son (Lk.7:11-17), and Tabitha / Dorcas (Ac.9:36-42). None of these regaled their audiences with tales of “visits to heaven” or anything of the kind. We will look at the entirely separate issue of “death” in the next study.

The epistles, which we have referenced only briefly up to this point, reveal a slightly different perspective. Both Paul (Eph.4:10) and the writer of Hebrews (7:26) speak of Jesus’ exaltation “above” or “higher than” the heavens, and Paul details the obligation of all creatures “in heaven and on earth and under the earth” to worship at his feet (Phil.2:9).
Peter refers to the heavens, although “made” by the word of God (II Pet.3:5), “passing away” (3:7, 3:10), “being on fire” (3:12)– (Wait a minute!  that’s not where we’ve been told fire was!) — , and he looks forward, as does John, repeatedly in the Revelation, to “a new heaven and a new earth” (3:13), in which, at last, “justice will settle down to live”!
Our hope (Col.1:5), our Master (Eph.6:9, Col.4:1), the focus of our behavior (Phil.3:20), our destined “dwelling” (physical body?) (II Cor.5:2), our enduring – as opposed to confiscated – possessions (Heb.10:34), our inheritance (I Pet.1:4), are all presently “in heaven”, despite the surprising discovery that nothing is said about anybody but Jesus and the two “witnesses” / martyrs from Rev.11:12,13,15 actually “going there”! (Rom.10:6, Heb.9:24, 4:14).
In fact, Peter (Ac.2:34), Paul (Rom.10:6) and John (3:13) all assert that this is impossible for ordinary mortals!
Although in John’s visions recorded in the Revelation, there are numerous scenes of thousands “around the throne” singing praises, remember that neither the time, the individuals (except for their faithfulness), nor the geographical (or cosmological) location is specifically identified.
In the final scene, the New Jerusalem is seen “coming down from God out of heaven (Rev.21:2) after the introduction of the “new heaven and new earth.”

Stay tuned, and review the studies of the Kingdom (#19,20,21) and “Life” (#28) in preparation for an examination of the New Testament approach to the “destiny” of the faithful.