We were always told that there are no stupid questions, just stupid answers. Some people push the boundaries of that statement, but I still believe it holds true.
Christianity is a religion premised upon the existence of objective truth. Not only does truth exist, but truth is most clearly articulated to us in the person of Jesus Christ. We can actually point to truth.
And in an age when biblical literacy is low, there is a deep desire for the most basic truths. Christians don't shy away from big questions of existence precisely because we value truth so highly, even if the answers trouble us and our delicate dispositions.
As much as we want truth, sometimes we rail against it because of how much it troubles us. Or, we rework truth to make it more palatable to the zeitgeist (which guarantees backfire). Or worse yet, we use our words as misdirection for what we really believe or to mask the fact that we don't know what we believe.
in John 18, Pontius Pilate asks Jesus, "What is truth?" Actually, Jesus gets asked four questions in this passage.
So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world--to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”
After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him. But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover. So do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a robber. (John 18:33-38)
Jesus is arrested in Gethsemane, is brought in front of the high priest and his crew, and he's questioned about his disciples and what he taught them. Jesus knows he's there under false pretenses, so he keeps asking for evidence of their charges. They've got nothing.
Jews weren't allowed to sentence anyone to the death penalty as long as the land was occupied by Rome. Jewish leaders had to convince Rome that Jesus was a threat so that Rome would kill him, instead. Hence why the Jews take Jesus to Pilate, the Roman governor.
Even Pilate recognizes that there isn't a coherent story here. All they have against Jesus is a bunch of ad hominem attacks. When Pilate asks for more clarity on their charges, all they can muster is, "If he didn't do anything bad, we couldn't have brought him here" (v. 30). If anyone ever says, "Just trust me," don't trust that person.
Pilate wants them to judge Jesus by their own laws since he's broken no Roman laws. But they're so adamant they want him dead that they keep pressing the issue. So Pilate asks the first question:
"Are you the king of the Jews?"
To Pilate's credit, he didn't cave too early to the Jewish leaders' demands and place him in the boo-box immediately. He had enough wherewithal to get some clear answers.
But this is the question, isn't it? This is the hinge on which the door swings, right? Who is Jesus? It's easy to write him off as a man of history who got swept up in a revolutionary time period. It's easy to think that his followers thought differently about Jesus than what Jesus thought of himself and made too much of him.
But unlike the Jewish leaders, we have to honestly asses who Jesus said he was based on what actually happened.
Jesus responds to Pilate's question with a question. "Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?" Everyone eventually has to answer this question. Is Pilate asking on his behalf or on behalf of Jesus' captors?
Jesus knew himself to be a king, but a very particular kind of king. He was not the revolutionary warlord or military strategist bent on taking Jerusalem back from Rome (at least not in the way many wanted him to; he will do that one day).
Jesus wants Pilate to answer for himself. Because the truth requires an individual response from each of us. Everyone is required to give an account. Jesus is drawing the truth out of Pilate.
Like Pilate, we will all be held to account for our answer to this question. And whether or not we answer it today, we will answer the question someday. We're all called to faith and repentance today.
If Jesus is not the king of the Jews, he's not at all who he claimed to be. And if he is the king of the Jews, then he's the rightful king and heir of the whole world, destined before the foundation of the world.
God has sent us into the world to tell people that Jesus is in fact the king of the Jews. When we make that bold claim, we are simultaneously begging people: "Be reconciled to God" (2 Corinthians 5:20).
Jesus is the cosmic King who reconciles us to the eternal Father. Pilate didn't know all that he was asking when he questioned Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?"
He is the king of the Jews with authority over all of creation, imploring us, "Be reconciled to God."
Next week, we'll look at the second question, "Why should I care about Jesus?"
In 1991, William J. Chamberlain published a book called “Catalogue of English Bible Translations: A Classified Bibliography of Versions and Editions Including Books, Parts, and Old and New Testament Apocrypha and Apocryphal Books.” Now I know what you’re thinking; your mother read that to you as a child, so what’s the sense talking in about it even more?
Just in case you weren’t read that book while you drifted off to sleep in your childhood bed, let me tell you that it’s almost 1,000 pages. There are 151 categories of English Bibles listed. Some are well-known translations (at least by the early 1990’s), and some are one-off, privately owned works. But the point stands—there is an “embarrassment of riches” when it comes to the availability of the Bible when it comes to the English-speaking world.
What I want to do today is to think through with you how to make the best use of the riches of English Bible translations. This is a practical post on the things everyone should know about Bible translations.
Read the Preface or Website
The best thing you can do is to read the Preface to 4, 5, or 6 of the more well-known translations today. If you don’t have ready access to a few translations, you can find the same information on their websites. Check out the NIV, ESV, NASB, NKJV, NLT, and even the KJV.
In the Preface or relevant section on their website, you’ll find a section on “translation philosophy.” It’s here that the translators will give you an overview of why they made the decisions that they did. They’ll explain the translation of specific (or controversial) words. They’ll explain conventional approaches to translation, such as the name for God, or how “Lord” gets translated depending on where it falls in the Old or New Testament.
The Greek word doulos could be translated 3 ways into English, depending on the context. It literally means “slave,” but doulos could mean someone owned as property, someone working off a debt through years of free labor, or something reflecting more of an employment situation like a servant. There is also the theological implication that Paul says we are doulos to Christ. Context makes the difference, and the various translations will make different choices. Reading the translation philosophy makes a big difference in how you interpret a passage.
When selecting a translation, there is some wisdom in simply selecting one and sticking with it. I was recently speaking with a friend who teaches a foreign language. In her continuing education, she takes classes where the lectures, books, and discussion are completely in the foreign language. She’s studying esoteric things like the usage of third-person-plural in 3 different nations. By all accounts, she’s an expert. What’s interesting is that she mentioned how she still thinks in English. She can speak and read all day in a foreign language, but her mind operates in her native language.
Something similar is at work in Bible translation. As you grow accustomed to a translation, it’ll inform the way you think. You’ll memorize passages in that translation. You’ll use the word choices that translation does. If you’re doing some hardcore studying of a passage or book, then having 2 or 3 translations might be some help. But in your ordinary reading, I’d recommend sticking with the one you have (or at least sticking with the one you choose).
Printed vs. Digital
I have the Bible on all my mobile devices. It’s super handy to have some notes and the Bible side-by-side on the screen of an iPad. If I need reminded of a passage quickly, having it on my phone is great. But there’s some good to come from regular use of a printed Bible.
There are four general categories of printed Bibles: reading, footnoted, cross reference, and study Bibles. All of them have their benefits.
Reading Bibles are usually just the text of the Bible with no extra notes. Some of them don’t even include chapter and verse markings. These are helpful for really soaking in the Word of God without any distractions.
Footnoted Bibles have some basic notes on the pages. I recommend footnotes because translators can include simple explanations in real time. For instance, a word-for-word translation of an idiom in Hebrew might be nonsense in English (do you think an Israelite in the time of Moses would understand what “out of left field” means?). A translation team might leave the word-for-word phrase in the text but include a footnote of its meaning. Or, for example, if a translation always uses the different versions of “slave” for doulos based on context, they might include a footnote reminding you of what they said in the preface. Or, a footnote might show the range of meaning of a Hebrew or Greek word to help clarify how it's used in context.
Cross reference Bibles are essentially footnoted Bibles, but to varying degrees they will include other passages in the footnotes that speak to the same idea noted in the text. For instance, if a passage is speaking about the covenant made with David, the footnoted cross references will list out for you many, if not all, of the other places the covenant with David is mentioned, both Old and New Testament.
Study Bibles are great for a little extra explanation of what’s going on in the text. Some are just detailed footnotes, some include articles, and some include explanations of certain doctrines. Some might be written entirely by one person, and some might be written by a team of people. No one is an expert on the entire Bible, so I generally recommend a study Bible written by a team of people.
It’s worth noting, very briefly, some of the major differences between the most popular translations out today.
Some translations aim toward a “word-for-word,” or formal, style. For example, if the Greek sentence has 12 words, the translators will try to make sure the English sentence has 12 words in the same order. The problem is that word order means far less in Greek than it does in English. Sometimes, changing the word order is what makes the English sentence make sense.
The opening prayer of Ephesians 1, in Greek, has over 200 words. That’s…1 sentence. That’s nearly impossible to communicate in English, though it’s possible in Greek. Even if word-for-word translators try to keep it one sentence, they necessarily have to add punctuation that’s not there in the Greek to follow English conventions as best they can. The philosophy behind these translations is to let Bible teachers and preachers interpret the difficult passages for you. While there’s some wisdom in that, ordinary people need to read the Bible, too.
Some translators choose a “thought-for-thought,” or dynamic, style. Basically, they prioritize the conventions, grammar, and idioms of English over those of Hebrew and Greek. They will switch out phrases that would be meaningless to English speakers with those that are close in meaning. They will break long sentences down into more conventional lengths for English. This philosophy will naturally be a little more interpretive than a “word-for-word” approach. But with a good Bible with footnotes, much of the threat of pre-digested interpretation is staved off.
“Word-for-word” and “thought-for-thought” translation is a continuum. No translation is purely one or the other. For example, the NASB is often propped up as the gold standard of formal, or word-for-word, translation. However, Greek convention would permit using the present-tense of a verb when retelling a story that took place in the past. It was a way of bringing the reader into the story. However, this would also mean that present-tense and past-tense would be mixed when telling a story. Mixing verb tenses is a big no-no in English. The NASB changes present-tense to past-tense in these instances so the English makes sense. And to indicate when they do that, they italicize those verbs. Every translation makes those kinds of concessions.
All this is to say that no one has an excuse for not reading their Bible regularly. Don’t have one? The church will get you one. Do you have several? Pick one and start. There has never been a better time to be alive when it comes to translation choice.
Take up, and read!
Check out the translation philosophies below.
KJV (it may look funny, but it’s linked from Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary)
Today we close out our look at James 3 and how the Christian must control his or her tongue. James has used a couple of illustrations, and he closes with another grouping of imagery to make a similar point: the tongue should not be used to speak good and evil, blessing and cursing.
James writes in 3:9-12, "With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water."
First, fresh water and saltwater cannot exist together in the same spring. One will take over the other. And both have good uses. Different kinds of fish live in both kinds of water. But they cannot coexist. Brackish water exists, the mixture of fresh and saltwater, but it’s usually considered a waste product and not natural.
Second, fig trees develop figs…and that’s it. Fig trees don’t make olives, apples, or grapes. And each kind of tree takes different kind of care. The point is that you can expect certain trees to give you their respective fruits.
The metaphor is clear: when people praise God and curse each other, it’s incongruous. It's a square peg in a round hole.
Certain kinds of language cannot (or should not) coexist with other kinds of language. We’re not just talking about swear words and the like. But do you speak kindly to someone’s face and dog them to other people? Do you know that what you know is gossip, and still you share it to those who don’t need to know? Do you praise God for an hour on Sundays but don’t consider his ways throughout the week?
What about unverified information? What about things that undermine your witness? Do you sow seeds of doubt while praising the God of truth?
It’s worth noting that the unforgivable sin is a sin of the tongue. In Mark 3:28-29, Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”
This is more dangerous than sexual immorality, marital fidelity, economic honesty, greed, covetousness, etc. If you break the first commandment, you'll break the rest. How we speak of God matters more than all these things. If we blaspheme the Spirit of God, we are rejecting the mercy of God and denying the Spirit’s work, which is to apply salvation to us that was bought and paid for by the Son. Can you imagine a greater sin?
Keep in mind the importance of little things: the bridle that guides a horse, the rudder that steers the ship, and the spark that sets a wildfire. To let any of those things loose with unchecked power will result in uncontrollable damage. The horse will buck its rider, the ship will run aground, and the fire will destroy a forest.
But using those things in their proper way, for their intended purpose, results in control, stability and peace. Horses are enjoyed for leisure and labor, boats are used for comfort and commerce, and fires can give you a warm shower and cook your dinner.
Horses can be tamed, boats can be repaired, and fires can be put out. But how much more difficult is it to undo a careless word? Or a blasphemous word against God?
It is better to not say anything and be misunderstood than to say what you mean and to be proven an immature Christian.
The apostle James warns us about the power of our words. Our tongue, James says, has an outsized impact relative to its size. Because of that, our thoughts and words should be kept in reserve unless necessary. He has compared our tongues to a bit that controls a horse or a rudder that controls a boat. A bit or rudder looks almost insignificant, but they actually determine the direction of the beast or boat.
James then compares our words or our tongues to something far more destructive: a wildfire. In James 3:5b-5, he writes, "How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell."
Wildfires are well known today and in the ancient world. Just in the past several years, California and Australia have seen dozens of lives lost and billions of dollars in damage. The ancient world had horrific wildfires, as well. Virgil and Homer, Ancient Greek poets, both wrote about wildfires as poetic devices to illustrate massive destruction. Even today, sometimes the best we can do is simply manage the destruction. We can't stop it. So it is with the tongue.
Now James is focused on the destructive power of our words. It's not a new biblical idea. Again, the Proverbs speak to this.
"A worthless man plots evil, and his speech is like a scorching fire." Proverbs 16:27.
"As charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife." Proverbs 26:20-21.
He says the tongue is a "world of unrighteousness." Biblically, the "world" is the system that's opposed to God. James has picked up on this at a few points. In 1:27, we're told to keep ourselves unstained by the world. In 4:4, we're told that alliance with the world is being an enemy with God. James' point is that the tongue is the clearest representative of an evil, fallen world.
So many of our problems are rooted in the fact that we say things we shouldn't, or we say them in a way that undermines what we mean. We would rather be right and start a fight than wait to say what needs to be said at the right time. This, says James, is why the tongue is "set on fire from hell."
Hell is the old English world put in place for Gehenna in the Scriptures. It was the place of pagan sacrifices that had been turned into a garbage dump where the fire never stopped during. It became the image of eternal punishment.
Here's the point: an undisciplined tongue is more aligned with hell than a righteous God.
James then writes, "For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison" (3:7-8).
In relation to all other species, humans are distinct. God made us in his image and gave us the creation mandate in Genesis 1:27. But here's the irony: all of the animals have been domesticated and tamed. At the very least, we understand how to manage the animals, whether it's bringing them into our homes or keep our distance from them.
And yet, we can't tame our own tongues. "No human being can tame the tongue." Now clearly, he's overstating the fact, because he's actually writing to implore us to do just that. But there is always more room for greater maturity in the discipline of our tongues.
Like a restless, unstable animal, the tongue must be bridled to be controlled. And if we're not extremely careful with our words, we speak out of both sides of our mouths.
James the writes, "With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so" (3:9-10).
The worth of every male and female, regardless of age or stage of life, social status, economic worth, education, physical or mental ability, is made in God's image. That fact surpasses all of those other things by an immeasurable degree.
Praise and cursing supports that idea that many Christians are hypocrites. We say one thing and do another. So, it behooves us to speak the truth in a winsome way and to live a life in concert with the truth. No one should be able to look at what we say and what we do and think we're two different people.
Next week, we'll close out our look at James 3 with yet another illustration about the tongue's power.