|A387 : by Tony Garland
[This is a transcript of a videoa in which I respond on this topic.]
It's been a while since I've made a video but recently I was involved corresponding with somebody who wrote to our website spiritandtruth.org and they had a question about how to interpret a particular passage along with their idea about what the suggested meaning was.
A Frequent Error in Interpretation
And in the interactions that went back and forth I pointed out an error which I see frequently. An error in their approach which I see frequently: in this case using the subtleties of meaning of Greek words to overthrow the clear contextual indicators that are in the passage. So in other words, diving deeper into the original language and then coming up with a result that essentially contradicts what the context of the passage is suggesting.
So what I want to talk about is this idea about well when that happens when you're sitting at the feet of a teacher who appeals to Greek, for example, or Hebrew . . . original languages and they put a lot of emphasis on subtle shades of meaning of different words and in the process they come up with a result which seems somewhat contradictory to the context of the passage. What do you do with that? I mean as the average person coming to sit at the feet of a teacher you're assuming that they know what they're talking about. I mean they're resorting to the original languages and maybe you don't know much about the original languages and they seem to know more. Indeed, the original languages are important and you can derive some great insight from the original languages, but it's also an area fraught with difficulties and problems especially for people who have some exposure to the original languages, but have not really formally studied them. We'll get into why that is and see an example of that here.
so when you're in a situation like that — you have a teacher they're teaching you some passage, but the context of the passage seems pretty clearly to be different than the conclusion that they're getting to looking at the Greek. That's a big yellow flag and so I want to talk about about that today. And one of the things I want to point out as I start is that this particular student was responding, well they're not a student, they're correspondent to our website but they're responding and in the back and forth that went on I could tell from how they were approaching things that they didn't have formal education in Greek or much education in Greek. So I asked about that and sure enough they didn't. But what's interesting is in our response back and forth that didn't stop this individual from feeling free to correct me on numerous points about the use of Greek. Now I'm no Greek expert but I do have a doctorate in Theology and I did go to Seminary for a few years to learn a lot of different things, but I have to say that probably self-study is great but why did I go to Seminary? And and I have to say if I had to iron it down to a single thing it was that I wanted to be able to use the original languages in a manner that's worthy and careful and and I wanted to understand them enough to feel like I had some basis for knowing how to use them and, in particular, avoiding common errors. I could self-study on a lot of different things but frankly, the discipline to plow through learning Hebrew and Greek alphabets and verb tenses and all the conjugations and different things — I don't know that I have the discipline, even as an engineer, to really break through that all on my own so I decided I'd go to Seminary to learn that.
But what's interesting is, I have three years of background in Hebrew and Greek and yet that doesn't cause this person any pause in trying to educate me about Greek and Hebrew even though they've never had any formal education in Greek. So in the response, attempting to correct what I was trying to correct them on, they provided a second example of the same error that I had pointed out in their original approach: they were making an interpretive error in the original passage and I pointed out this issue — we're going to talk about today. They responded back by giving me an example from another passage which makes the exact same error in fact it's even clearer and so I want to look at that today. It's a great illustration of this mistake.
So here's here's what they wrote To Me in our interchange and bear with me as I read this, it’s a little bit lengthy response. And and then we'll discuss it. So they said . . .
. . . some people misinterpret Matthew 24:39-40, where the Bible talks about people in Noah's day eating and drinking until the flood came and took them away, as being a passage about judgment. But in the next verse it says two men will be in the field one will be taken in another left. Because verse 39 says the flood took the unbelievers away, many people hastily conclude that those who are taken in verse 40 must also be unbelievers who are taken in judgment. But this interpretation is wrong and [here's the key and what we're going to look at] this interpretation is wrong because the Greek word used for “took” in verse 39 is different from the Greek word used for taken in verse 40. The Greek word for take in verse 40 is the word used for taking someone to be with you as when a man takes a bride to be with him. The concept of unbelievers being taken in judgment is present in verse 39 but that concept cannot be automatically imported to verse 40 without taking into consideration the specific Greek words used in these two verses. The taken in verse 39 refers to being taken in judgment whereas to take in verse 40 is a reference to being taken in the rapture the only way to distinguish between these two types of take is to look at the specific Greek words used. [And then his conclusion. . .] Words matter!
Well, words do matter, but context matters more which we'll look at. So one of the things you run into with this sort of approach is sometimes they'll resort to Greek, especially teachers who are called as teachers in the body of Christ, and I'll do this at at times. I mean you've seen me talk about the Greek too, but when you go to the Greek the question then is How is the Greek being handled? Because it's easy to mishandle it. Like in this particular case this person has responded telling me that there's two different words for Greek there or for take there — which I'm well aware of, I'm pretty well aware of this passage right? And it sounds pretty scholarly, when people go to the Greek it sounds scholarly and it sounds determinative. I mean, how could you argue with someone looking at the original languages? They're looking at the details, they're looking at shades of meaning and various lexicons and it seems like a surgical approach to analyzing the original language.
All is well and good, such as it is, but the problem is it's not just an issue of going to the Greek. It's what are you doing with the Greek? And what I want to talk about here is a common problem I've seen and I have seen this, this is just super-widespread among beginners in Greek, but I've also seen it with some people who know Greek pretty well so it's a definite problem.
The Importance of Context
And the problem here is ignoring the importance of context. And those of you've followed me for some time or listened to other videos or heard me or listen to The Q and A, there's a phrase I use over and over and over. And one of the reasons I use it over and over and over is because people ignore it over and over and over. And that phrase is context is King!
What do I mean by that? Well I don't mean that context is the only thing you look at. What I do mean though is that context is the primary thing you look at to determine the meaning of a passage and you most certainly, if you have strong contextual indicators — and you don't always have that sometimes the context doesn't really help you in the question you're trying to answer — but when the context has strong determinative indicators, you don't allow it to be overthrown by appeals to little subtleties in the Greek. And this passage before us is a great example of this case where the passage has what I see to be four really strong contextual indicators. Each one is a pretty strong indicator. Taken as a whole, the four of them — I think it's overwhelmingly determinative that this passage is a Second Coming passage, not a Rapture passage.
Contextual Clues for Matthew 24:39-40
So what can we determine about the meaning from the context of this particular passage? This is the one we're talking about is in Matthew and Matthew 24:39-40.
So first off, when we look at the context of the passage, what is the main topic that Jesus is teaching on in that Passage? How many of you would say Second Coming? Yeah, Jesus is talking about the Second Coming. Okay, well that's one contextual indicator . . . put that on the shelf: it's a piece of evidence.
And now if we look at the next contextual indicator, Jesus is giving us an analogy between the time near the second coming and the flood and the analogy he's saying is the passage is constructed in such a way that there's a parallel between those taken. Even the person asking this question can see that there's a parallel and the parallel is that the flood came and took them away and then two will be in a particular place — there's various places given and it says one will be taken and the other left — so clearly the parallel grammatically in the passage at just reading it in normal language in English. The parallel is that the people taken in the flood are being compared to the people taken in this setting. So there's a strong inference that wherever these people are that are taken in this passage — which is yet to take place in the future — they're going to be taken like those at the flood. So that's another, that's the second contextual indicator: the fact that Jesus has made a parallel between being taken in the flood and these people being taken. That's another piece of evidence. So that's the second contextual indicator — piece of evidence we put on the shelf as we're interpreting this passage.
So the third one is a pretty strong one. The third . . . I think the third and the fourth are are pretty strong too and the third one is his Apostles listening to him don't quite understand what he's talking about and they ask this priceless question: where? Where Lord, where are they taken Lord? And Jesus gives what might seem like an enigmatic response. So [in] the parallel passage in Luke 17:37, you see that they asked this question right in connection with the giving of this teaching. And so in Luke 17:37, they say, Where Lord? And Jesus responds: Wherever the body is there the eagles will be gathered.
So what do we do with that? Well there's a big temptation to go spiritual with that, right? Well it must be talking about the body, well the body of Christ maybe, and the eagles will be gathered together: maybe that's talking about believers who can ascend in Christ. And maybe we should spiritualize that. But I would say, let's hold off on that and gather some more evidence. So if we read the passage that we're talking about Matthew 24:39 and 40, and we back up a little bit, and we go to Matthew 24:27- 28. We see the same phrase used by Jesus in the Luke passage. Remember in Luke he says, Wherever the body is, there the eagles will be gathered? Well look at his use of that same phrase in Matthew 24:27-28.
For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the son of man be. For wherever the carcass is there the eagles will be gathered together.
Well there's some pretty heavy clues there. We're very close to the same context here and we see Jesus talking about the coming of the son of man. That's not the rapture that's the Second Coming — just like the overall context of the passage.
And he says wherever, there's a different word here — it's a different translation in the new King James here because they pretty much understand what he's saying there — it's not just the body it's a dead body — a carcass. So wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together. Why would eagles gather around a dead body. Well they're birds of prey and, aside from the fact that they're birds of prey, they're pretty much scavengers they'll pretty much eat anything that's dead.
So when we look at what Jesus says there we don't just have those two phrases hanging in mid-air. As is often the case with things Jesus says, when Jesus says things that are slightly puzzling like how often should I forgive my brother? Seventy times seven, right? That's a little bit enigmatic. But the answer to understanding it better is in the Old Testament. Jesus is assuming we have a handle on the Old Testament.
And let me read this passage in Job 39 verse 27 . . . and I ask you: does this sound at all similar? Maybe that Jesus is making a clear allusion to this passage in Job (Job 39:27)?
Does the eagle Mount up at your command and make its nest on high? On the rocks it dwells and resides on that crag of the rock and the stronghold. From there it spies out the prey. His eyes observe from afar its young ones suck up blood. And where the slain are, there it is.
Wow, that's a pretty tight parallel to what Jesus did say: where the young ones suck up blood where the slain are. That's where it is — the eagle or the vulture. It's a bird of prey Jesus is alluding to [in] job 39 verse 29. And we see very clearly there it's about eagles spying out prey and young ones sucking up blood. It's not a good picture wherever these people are taken you don't want to be taken there!
And, of course, this isn't just hanging in thin air: this is a major theme throughout scripture of birds of prey eating upon the dead that have been judged by God. And of course in Revelation 19, which happens to be a Second Coming passage, what do we see in Revelation 19 17 and 18?
Then I saw an angel standing in the sun. And he cried with a loud voice saying to all the birds that fly in the midst of the heaven, “Come and gather together for the supper of the great God.
It's a meal being put on by God almighty . . . that you may eat the Flesh of Kings. the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men the flesh of horses and those who sit on them and the flesh of all the peoples, free and slave, both small and great.
This is exactly what happens at the Second Coming of Christ. Okay, so there's a very strong third contextual indicator: looking at when they asked Jesus in the parallel passage in Luke, where are they taken? Jesus says where the body is, there the eagles will be gathered and we found, looking back up a little in Matthew, we see him use the same phrase clearly connected with the Second Coming, not the rapture. And then when we go looking in the Old Testament we find the exact same teaching in Job it's almost word-for-word the way it's phrased — the same point being made there. And if that wasn't enough, Revelation 19, which is the second coming, that's exactly what happens at the Second Coming. So there's a third contextual indicator now that we're going to set aside as evidence and we have one more still left.
And that is: what is a major theme of the second coming? And this is one where we just . . . I'm not going to go to specific passages but I think it's pretty clear. There's an overwhelming number of passages that one of the major themes of the second coming is the removal of unbelievers from the earth. When it talks about the righteous will inherit the earth, this is the point at which that happens and so Jesus and angelic helpers go throughout the Earth and they Purge out the weird fish caught in the net . . . and all the bad things and they basically are preparing for the millennial Kingdom. At the beginning of the millennial Kingdom only believers will be alive on the earth. So again, if it the Second Coming which we're looking at, strong evidence then. What happens at the second coming? There's a removal. And who is removed? Is it believers or is it unbelievers? And where are they taken?
If you look in Matthew 25 at the at the judgment that happens there . . . all the nations, the sheep and goat judgment, the goats are dispatched. They're removed.
So we've got four strong contextual indicators that this is a second passage. A second coming passage has nothing to do with the rapture. The first one is that it's in the midst of a passage about the second coming. The second one is that the way take is used in the parallelism that Jesus puts forth infers that those taken in the flood are like those taken at this time and they're taken in judgment: they're killed. The third one is when they ask, hey, where Lord?, the answer that Jesus gives is a phrase he uses also in Matthew 24 that's connected with the Second Coming and we saw in the Book of Job it clearly is talking about birds of prey like eagles or vultures uh feasting on the dead. [The fourth one, which I forgot to mention a second time in the video, is the Second Coming theme of the removal of unbelievers prior to the millennial kingdom.]
Words or Context - Which is More Important?
So what is the issue here? The issue here is this use of looking at the fact that took is two different words [in the Greek] in two different closely-related sentences, and then necessarily concluding that the took is different in those two situations. And also allowing that subtle difference to overthrow a lot of evidence to the contrary, right? And that's my point here is like, it's not good enough to be smart to be a teacher, it's not good enough to want to follow Christ and have zeal, it's not good enough to have studied: there's also this issue of wisdom balance and care in handling the scripture and you can't be myopic. You can't look at one issue and allow it to overthrow every other issue that speaks on that passage. You have to look at all the evidence, like a good detective, and you have to weigh it and you have to weigh its importance,
And what I'm trying to say here is Greek subtleties can be important for sure, in passages, but when you're trying to determine, like in a case like this, some major thing like, Is this a Rapture passage or a second coming passage?, the difference in the subtleties between the words in Greek for take in two sentences is not strong evidence against the overwhelming evidence in the context. And that's why I said context is king!
You can't just throw context out by appealing to the fact that there's two different Greek words and this is most often exhibited by what I would call teenagers in Greek. What's a teenager in Greek? Well what's a teenager? well teenagers are going through this amazing time where they're transformed from children into adults right? And it's a super interesting time to be around people in that phase. But one of the things that they're known for, and we were known for when we were a teenager, right?, is they are overconfident about what they think they know. And they don't know what they don't know? And boy, it can take a lot of patience to be around teenagers!
For one, mom and dad — who used to be really smart — have gotten dumber and dumber as the teenager has gotten older. And in the midst of their teens, at the height of this transition, mom and dad are as dumb as they're ever going to get! Fortunately, Mom and Dad get smarter again later.
And so what you see here is these teenagers in Greek have . . . are growing getting some exposure in Greek. And so they're learning some aspects of it and they're attempting to seemingly lead others into a deeper understanding — to unlock things that you just can't see in the English. But this is fool's gold, this is often fool's gold.
And so there's this whole issue where when you ask somebody what is Koine Greek? What is the biblical Greek? And there was a time some Scholars thought it was a special Holy Ghost language. Some sort of precision language that allowed the Holy Ghost to express deeper truths. But it's Koine Greek. What's Koine? Well that's the word for fellowship or common and it's basically a working man's Greek, [as spoken by] the guy on the street. Biblical Greek is just a language . . . it's just a language.
Okay, it's an important language, but it's just a language. And so I want to give you a little bit of an example of where some of this goes astray.
Semantic Range and Semantic Overlap
I'm going to appeal to an English equivalent.
So suppose, one morning, I tell my wife: Well, honey, I'm going to take out the garbage. I'm going to take out the garbage. And I'll take it out after breakfast. Then, later in the day, she asks: Well, did you take out the garbage? Did you take out the garbage? And I respond: Yes I carried out the garbage.
Okay, so then the question comes up, in our course of household conversation here, did I purposely choose two different words to communicate an important shade in meaning? Or was I just speaking naturally, and I used a word with semantic overlap in the course of typical conversation?
So what is semantic overlap? I'm going to appeal to a low-tech teaching-aid here: a piece of paper with a diagram. This is what many of you have seen in school or different places. It's called a Venn diagram: it's two circles with an intersection and each circle represents the range of meaning that a particular term can have. That's what we would call semantic range. Semantic means meaning, range just talks about the limits of what a word can mean. So semantic meaning here has to do with the meanings of two words: take and carry.
There are places where you would use the word carry where the word take won't fit. And there's places where you use the word take where the word carry won't fit. But notice an important aspect of this diagram: the shaded part, where they overlap. In that shaded area, I could use take or I could use carry and I might have the exact same meaning in what I'm talking about.
In one case, I'm taking, it doesn't say how I'm taking and the other case, I'm carrying which says more than taking. Not only am I taking it, I'm carrying it. But my point is, I might use take in one sentence and carry in another and I'm not teaching some important subtle difference about my meaning! All I'm doing is using language normally.
So there's semantic overlap overlap and meaning and when we're looking at different Greek words in a passage we have to be very careful about this whole idea about semantic overlap. If we're pouring a lot of emphasis on the fact that they're two different words then we need to be very careful, because we do that all the time in our writing and our speaking: we use two different words when we mean the same thing. Just because they're different words does not mean they carry different meaning in this particular context in use and that's where I come back to this phrase, context is king!
It's how the author uses the term that determines its meaning.
Lexicons Derive from the Context
If you look at the various Greek lexicons, they didn't come from outer-space. It's not like these people sat down and wrote, well this word has to mean this, and then we go to the Lexicon to figure out what the passage is saying. No, the lexicons came from context!
Lexicons are word studies where people have studied both the biblical Koine Greek, they've studied the Greek of the Septuagint, and they've studied a secular Greek outside of those biblical sources, and they've looked at how terms are used. And who is it that determines how the terms are used? The author, the author!
These these are not words floating around in the atmosphere that have been predefined to have a certain meaning. Language is fluid and meaning comes primarily from the author, not from the word. So the lexicons are dependent on the meaning given by the authors. In all these passages that they study, the lexicons sit upon context — they're based on context and that's why I always say context is king.
When there's clear contextual indicators, you just can't go off and overthrow that by looking at the fact that there's a different word. For example, if I was in the conversation I just posited with my wife, about the garbage. What would I think about someone years later analyzing that conversation and concluding that I meant two very different things by my choice of words. I would go, Wait a minute, I just chose a little different word!
How do people generally communicate meaning? If you're writing a letter or talking to someone on the phone how do you communicate meaning? Do you use subtle distinctions between word choices? Maybe in a legal document or maybe in a an academic discussion. But in general conversation, no, you're going to use the surrounding context to establish what you mean by what you said.
So this touches on something that D.A Carson addresses in his book, Exegetical Fallacies. This particular book is well worth reading because what it touches on — and it doesn't matter what level of Greek you're at — you're going to run into some of these. There's times where I've crossed some of these. Sometimes because I made a mistake. Other times because I disagree, in a particular passage, with his conclusion. But he's smart so you try to be careful about it — he's got way more background than I do. The point about this book is, it talks about pitfalls, common pitfalls that people fall into when they're using the Greek. And the less time you've had as a teacher — and exposure to the original languages — the more likely you're going to fall into one of these pitfalls.
Some of the pitfalls that he has in here — and notice the first the very first chapter. He has an introduction, then right in the very first chapter what do you suppose the topic is? It's word study fallacies. That's exactly what we're talking about: people looking at individual words and coming to conclusions based on those words: word study fallacies. And in point number nine of chapter one he has a section entitled Section 9. Problems surrounding synonyms: field of word meaning and semantic overlap. Well that's the Venn diagram I just had up: it's those meanings two words take and carry that are synonyms or in the case of the Greek words in this passage those two words that are translated in English take. They're synonyms. That means they can have the same meaning or they're similar meaning so synonyms. The question there is the field of word meaning, he says, or the range I'm calling it. The range and that's in that Venn diagram: it's how big is that circle around that word for all the different meanings it can have?
And then there's this idea section 12 of chapter one, Unwarranted restriction of the semantic field, and that's kind of what's going on here. The [correspondent] is saying, well the words for for took or taken are different in these two verses and therefore they have to mean different things. They have they have different meanings and that's an unwarranted restriction on the semantic field of those two words. In fact, they can have the exact same meaning in those two passages and they can just be a variation in how the author is speaking or writing.
The Importance of Perspective
So as we as we wind down, let's keep our perspective on the importance of our original language in determining the meaning of a passage. Don't misunderstand me to be sitting here saying original language is not important. I would not have spent years in seminary and a lot of years since then trying to maintain my Greek and Hebrew with Daily Dose of Greekb and Daily Dose of Hebrewc. I would not be reading sections of Greek and Hebrew on a daily basis and also still trying to keep and learn more about this if I didn't think it was an important tool. In fact, I would dare say, I wouldn't have gone to Seminary. I was an older person when I came to Christ. Not that old, but 34. Going back to school: that's a big choice. The primary reason I went there is for original languages. So I'm a big believer in original languages, but we need to be realistic about original languages.
Do we have to have expert knowledge in Greek in order to be confident in the meaning of scripture? Well, there's some passages that are very subtle where it's helpful for sure — to avoid misinterpreting. But I would say, no, we don't. Otherwise, we're in big trouble because the autographs — the originals — were not given in every language of the world.
If you understand translation you know that every translator is a traitor. translate you're a traitor and there's a there's a there's a a phrase about that but basically the idea Because of semantic range and semantic overlap it's impossible to translate one-to-one, exactly, from one language to a target language, without introducing ambiguity. Because the word in the source language has a certain semantic range and the word in the target language has a semantic range or range of meaning and the two are never perfectly aligned. So, as soon as you take a single word from one language and you put it out into another language you've introduced possible ambiguity in the range of meaning of that term.
If God was going to avoid that, if He felt that that was a requirement for understanding the scriptures properly, then he would have to produce a autograph in every language, every human language. Otherwise, somebody in some language is going to have an excuse on the day of judgment, raise their hand and say, Look, in our language, it was ambiguous!
And, by the way, not everybody in the world through all history has been an expert on Greek and Hebrew and those guys who are experts on Greek they're not generally experts on Hebrew and vice versa. So what do you do about that? I mean if you're an expert in Greek and you feel like you have a good handle on the New Testament, what do you do when you go to the Old Testament? well maybe I'll go over to the Septuagint, the Greek version. But what about the guy who's expert in Hebrew and when he goes to the New Testament? What in the world does he do?
All that to say: that original language can be very helpful. It's important especially for people who are in key teaching roles, like pastors. But you need to use it with wisdom and you don't want to lose sight of the practical aspects of language. Language is very earthy and it's not some precise technical — I'm an engineer by training too — and you can't take engineering principles and just import them into language. Language is just much more of a dynamic thing that reflects The Human Condition.
Teachers must be Learners!
In closing, I wondered whether I should touch on this? I'm going to touch on it. As I get older, I get less and less hesitant to point out some things that I think are are issues in our day.
Students, Christian students — and some of them are adults some of them are younger — today's students: it's really frustrating for teachers to interact with them. They lack discipline. They lack humility. They're full of hubris, and they often haven't done serious time in the scriptures. But they're fine with throwing off correction and instruction from people who God has brought along to help them. Instead, they're going to hold their position and debate you on certain issues and they assume that they can bypass formal education without missing out on anything.
Well I know, in today's situation, it's not as obvious: the cost benefit of formal education. But I would suggest, when it comes to Greek and Hebrew, there's a big difference between being able to dabble in it and doing Strong's numbers, doing a few word studies, and looking things up in a lexicon versus truly having a deeper exposure. If nothing else, the deeper exposure to Greek brings you over that teenager curve because it brings you from thinking you know things to showing you that you're just a baby in this: you don't use this language every day and you don't live in this culture (and the culture was thousands of years ago). The more you learn about it, the more you realize wow you've got to be careful about the assumptions you make.
But these students, they bypass all that. They're not ready to listen or be corrected and they're very ready to correct their teachers.
So here's one thing I would say: if you think you're called as a teacher in the body of Christ and there's someone who is older or has more exposure or is a resource God's brought. I would say, be careful. Think about it and listen to what they have to say. Because what you will find often is, if you engage a teacher like that, and exchange goes back and forth — and these email exchanges are very time consuming, much more time consuming than live interaction — but if you have an exchange or two and then you send something else to the teacher and you're really persisting in what you want to hold to and then the teacher leaves you to yourself.
That's what I end up doing time-and-time-again on the website, interacting with people, because many times they're not truly asking questions. They're trying to twist my view to theirs and other times, where they are seeking help and I try to point out some of these things, they just go right by it and I come to the conclusion that the effort I'm putting into into these subtleties and expressing this stuff is largely wasted. So I just check out. I mean it's not the greatest thing, but when people are unteachable, we're not called to continue to beat our head on the wall and try to teach them.
So those are things to consider.