What’s Up With the Word “Teacher”?

One of the verses in the gospels that puzzles me is in Matthew 23. Here, Jesus instructs His disciples not to call anyone Rabbi, Father, or Teacher. However, Paul later refers to people as teachers in his epistles. I don’t think he would have so blatantly contradicted a command straight from Jesus (that is, I think, one of the chief principals to keep in mind when trying to interpret Paul’s writings). Maybe Paul knew something about this instruction that isn’t readily apparent to us. Let’s start by looking at the context for Jesus’s remarks.

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The experts in the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. Therefore pay attention to what they tell you and do it. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy loads, hard to carry, and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing even to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by people, for they make their phylacteries wide and their tassels long. They love the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues and elaborate greetings in the marketplaces, and to have people call them ‘Rabbi.’ But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher and you are all brothers. And call no one your ‘father’ on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant.  And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

Matthew 23:1-12, NET

Reading this, we see the context is instructing us to avoide self-exaltation and not take on yourself titles/honors meant for God the Father and Jesus Christ alone. You are not to be called Rabbi (G4461, rhabbi, the Hebrew word used to refer to Jewish teachers) because Jesus is our Teacher (G2519, kathegetes, master, guide, teacher). You’re not to be called Father (G3962, pater, male ancestor, originator) because God is our Father (this would likely be an interesting study as well, but today we’ll just focus on “teacher”). Then the next verse warns against being called Teacher (kathegetes) again. Finally, this conversation wraps up with a warning against pride and an instruction to humble the self and serve.

Image of two people across from each other at a table with books, overlaid with text from 2 Timothy 2:24-25, NET version:  “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth”
Image by Claudine Chaussé from Lightstock

What Type of Teacher Ought You To Be?

Matthew 23 is the only place the word kathegetes appears in scripture. Rabbi doesn’t appear outside the gospel accounts. When we see other writers talking about teachers in the New Testament church, they use a different word. It seems that the New Testament writers were careful about this warning not to be called “rabbi” or “teacher” even though that’s not apparent in the English translations.

The word Paul uses for “teacher” is didaskalos (G1320). It’s a more widely used, general term for “instructor, master, teacher” (Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary, entry G2519). While it is listed as a synonym for kathegetes, that word for teacher, master, or guide seems to have more to do with authority; Zodhiates also lists kathegetes as a synonym for lord, master, and overseer (entry G2519).

Both didaskalos and kathegetes are used as a synonym/translation for rhabbi (didaskalos in John 1:38 and kathegetes in Matt. 23:8) (Zodhiates entry G4461). It may be that using “rabbi” as a general Hebrew word for teacher is okay in modern use because it could be synonymous with either of these Greek words. However, Spiros Zodhiates thinks the didaskalos teacher would more commonly be seen in the NT times as an equivalent role to Jewish scribes, who are “acquainted with and interpreters of God’s salvation.” He also considers pastors a sub-set of teachers, and says that teaching can be a gift or an office within the church (entry G1320).

Didaskalos is a role linked with apostles, prophets, pastors, and other roles in the church (Acts 13:1; 1 Cor. 12:28-29; Eph. 4:11; 1 Tim. 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:11). Hebrews implies that all mature Christians should be teachers, though James warns it’s a great deal of responsibility and is paired with stricter judgement (Heb. 5:12; James 3:1). There’s also a very specific focus to this version of teacher and related roles, which links back to Jesus’s warning.

And he himself gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God—a mature person, attaining to the measure of Christ’s full stature

Ephesians 4:11-13, NET

Remember that when Jesus warned not to be called teachers (kathegetes), it was in the context of not exalting the self or taking His titles for yourself. Here, the role of teachers (didaskalos) has to do with serving and building up the whole body/church. I think that Jesus’s warning in Matthew 23 and the choice of NT writers to use didaskalos to describe their roles has to do with the way authority is supposed to work in the church of God.

Image of an open Bible with the blog's title text and the words, Why does Paul talk about the role of "teachers" in the church when Jesus said not to be called "teacher"?
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A dispute also started among them over which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. So Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ Not so with you; instead the one who is greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is seated at the table, or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is seated at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”

Luke 22:24-27, NET

Jesus didn’t want His followers lording it over people the way that the corrupt Jewish religious authorities did. That’s the main point in Matthew 23–their teachings were solid when they came from the Law of God, but many of the scribes, experts in the law, and Pharisees had a heart issue. They were not right with God and kept the letter rather than the spirit of the law (see the rest of Matt. 23). In contrast, teachers under the authority of Jesus serve the people they teach with humility.

We don’t have different words for “teacher” with different nuances of meaning in our English translations of the Bible. But I think we all have enough experience with people to know the difference between teachers who want recognition and power, and teachers who want their students to learn and thrive. We don’t need to obsess about not calling someone “teacher” (particularly since English doesn’t have two words like we saw in Greek), but we do need to be careful which teachers we listen to and even more careful about the types of teachers we are.

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Relational Investment In The New Covenant

It’s amazing how much you notice the reciprocal nature of God’s relationships with people once you start looking for it. I noticed this when I first read Brent Schmidt’s book Relational Grace, and I’m noticing it even more now that I’m reading his follow-up book, Relational Faith. In both these books, Schmidt explains the context for the Greek words charis (grace) and pistis (faith) are relational and reciprocal; they were connected to patron-client relationships, where a more powerful patron creates a covenant relationship with a client who owes them ongoing loyalty in response to their faithfulness and gracious gifts.

Schmidt writes, “in the first century, pistis implied active loyalty, trust, hope, knowledge, and persuasion in the patron-client relationship or within the new covenant brought about through Christ’s Atonement” (Relational Faith, p. 11). Similarly, everyone knew “receiving charis implied entering into reciprocal covenantal relationships” (Relational Grace, p. 63).

So, I’ve been thinking about faith as active trust and the centrality of reciprocal relationship as we went into the Passover this past week. I also took my Tree of Life translation as the Bible I’d be following along with during the Passover service. And I noticed some interesting things. For one, this Messianic translation uses “trust” instead of the more typical “belief” when translating John 14:1. Second (and this is what we’ll focus on today), the words of the New Covenant in John 13-17 have a lot of reciprocal language.

The Importance of Doing Loyal Things

For purposes of this discussion, I’m using “reciprocal” in the sense of “reciprocity.” Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines it as “mutual dependence, action, or influence” and ” a mutual exchange of privileges” (Reciprocity). This dictionary also points out that “Reciprocal and mutual share a good deal of meaning; the former may be defined as ‘shared, felt, or shown by both sides,’ and the latter as ‘shared in common'” (Reciprocal). So when we look at this idea in the Bible, we’re looking at places where God says, “Because I do ___, you respond like ___” or where His followers say something like, “It is right for us to do ___, because the Lord has graciously done ___.”

At Jesus’s last Passover on earth with His disciples, He instituted New Covenant symbols and traditions, including the foot washing. During the evening meal, Jesus got up and washed His disciples feet. Then, He told them to reciprocate by doing the same thing for other people.

 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you too ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example—you should do just as I have done for you. I tell you the solemn truth, the slave is not greater than his master, nor is the one who is sent as a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you understand these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

John 13:14-17, NET

The proper response to Jesus serving you is to go out and serve others. Then, when you understand and do the things He teaches, you’ll receive blessings. In sharp contrast stands Judas, who responded to His Master’s selfless service with betrayal. You might remember I’ve also been reading The Heliand, a Saxon retelling of the gospel account in the style of epic poetry like Beowulf. In this version, the disciples are cast as warrior-companions who owe fealty to their thane, the great king Jesus the Healer. Though we feel Judas’s betrayal deeply in modern translations, I think the Saxons might have understood even more deeply what it meant to a first-century Jewish, Greek, and Roman audience to break faith with someone who you’d bound yourself to in a covenant that should have been faithful and reciprocal.

Image of Bibles on a table overlaid with text from John 14:21, 23,  NET version:  “One who has my commandments and keeps them, that person is one who loves me. One who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him, and will reveal myself to him. ... If a man loves me, he will keep my word. My Father will love him, and we will come to him, and make our home with him.”
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More Reciprocal Instructions

In my church we often refer to the passage of scripture in John 13-17 as the words of the New Covenant. I encourage you to read through that section of scripture and look at how many times the “if you do this, I will do this” or “because I do this, you should do this” pattern repeats. I’ll just quote one of those passages here:

“You are clean already because of the word that I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me—and I in him—bears much fruit, because apart from me you can accomplish nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is thrown out like a branch, and dries up; and such branches are gathered up and thrown into the fire, and are burned up. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you want, and it will be done for you. My Father is honored by this, that you bear much fruit and show that you are my disciples.

 “Just as the Father has loved me, I have also loved you; remain in my love. If you obey my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete.  My commandment is this—to love one another just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this—that one lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.

John 15:3-14, NET

If we live in Jesus, He and His Father will live in us. Because they live in us, we’ll bear much fruit. When we bear fruit, it honors God. And so on. The New Covenant is a reciprocal relationship. Like any healthy relationship, there’s trust and reliance on each other to do things that build up the relationship. And as the far more powerful party in the covenant, God gives far more than we do. In John 13-17, Jesus promises to send the gift of the Holy Spirit. He assures those who are loyal to Him that His Father will hear and respond to their prayers. And the main thing He asks from us in return is love, loyalty and obedience. Over and over we read, “if you love me, keep my commandments,” including the one to love each other (John 13:34-35; 14:15, 21, 23; 15:17).

It’s really amazing to think about. God wants to have a real relationship with us. And not one that’s easily ended when someone decides it’s hard or not what they expected or they don’t “feel like it” anymore. He’s invested in us for the longest-term possible–eternity. He wants us to grow and thrive in this relationship, learning to be like Him since we’re becoming part of His family.

A Real, Mutually Invested Relationship

Image of two people holding hands with the blog's title text and the words  "God wants a real, lasting covenant relationship with us where the trust and investment go both ways."
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Now this is eternal life—that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent.

John 17:3, NET

Our eternal potential hinges on a meaningful, real, covenantal relationship with God the Father and Jesus the Messiah. We can learn more about the type of relationship they want to have with us by looking at the relationship they share.

Everything I have belongs to you, and everything you have belongs to me, and I have been glorified by them. I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them safe in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are one.

John 17:10-11, NET

We belong to God, and He gives us to Jesus, and Jesus leaves us safe with God, and they work together so we can be one as they are one. There’s a beautiful, seamless unity in their relationship and they want to welcome us into that oneness as well (John 17). It’s such an astonishing proposition that the apostle John was still marveling at it decades later.

See how glorious a love the Father has given us, that we should be called God’s children—and so we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know Him. Loved ones, now we are God’s children; and it has not yet been revealed what we will be. But we do know that when it’s revealed, we shall be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. Everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.

1 John 3:1-3, TLV

There are expectations connected to this covenant relationship, but they’re expectations that naturally flow from the type of connection we share with God our Father and Jesus our adopted elder brother and betrothed Husband. For example, I expect that my parents will continue loving me as their daughter; they expect I won’t do things to dishonor them or purposefully disgrace the family. My fiancé and I each expect the other to remain faithful to and invest in our relationship now and after we’re married. It’s very similar in our relationship with God–the trust and investment go both ways.

We know God the Father and Jesus Christ are invested in their relationships with people. They’ve “got skin in the game”–they made us in their own image, poured their time and energy into us, and Jesus even died for us. He talked about that at Passover, too: “No one has greater love than this—that one lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:13-14, NET). John brings this up again in his epistles as well, saying, “We have come to know love by this: that Jesus laid down his life for us; thus we ought to lay down our lives for our fellow Christians” (1 John 3:16, NET). There’s even a reciprocal aspect to Jesus’s sacrifice; we can’t pay Him back for such a gift, but there is a proper response we’re supposed to have when we recognize the love that motivated His sacrifice.

Featured image by Claudine Chaussé from Lightstock

Pre-Passover Perfection Ponderings

I didn’t write a blog post this week. Between the wonderful bridal shower my family and friends gave me last weekend, car repairs, and working on a Christian book review (which I’m excited to share with you, hopefully next week) I didn’t have time to do my typical type of bloggable Bible study.

I have, however, had time to ponder the idea of perfection. It was the topic of a the sermon I heard last Sabbath and it’s been on my mind off and on over the past few months as I thought about updating my old 2015 post “Growing To Perfection.” That was one of the most inspiring studies I ever did for me personally, and I decided to revisit the post this week and update it. And so for today, I invite you to click over to “Growing To Perfection.”

I pray you have a blessed and meaningful Passover! (It’s just a few days away if you’re reading this post the weekend it goes live.)

Are You Little In Your Own Eyes?

Did you ever wonder why Saul changed his name to Paul?

I often forget that there even was a name change until something reminds me; I’m so used to thinking of Paul the Apostle and author of about half the New Testament. The name change isn’t even made a big deal of in scripture (not like God renaming Abram to Abraham). We just find out about it in a parenthetical note in Acts 13:9 and he’s called Paul from then on.

One of the likely explanations for this name change is that he had two names. Saul is a Hebrew name, and he would have gone by that since we know how proud he was of his Jewish heritage. He was also a Roman citizen, though, and Paul could have been his Roman name. It would make sense for him to switch the name he used when he became the Apostle to the Gentiles (GotQuestions.org). That’s a perfectly reasonable answer and a very likely explanation. I wonder, though, if the name meanings might have played a role in Paul’s decision as well.

Saul, “Asked For”

There’s one other famous Saul in the Bible. Saul the son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin, was Israel’s first king. His name means “asked for” or “prayed for” (BehindTheName.com). It comes from the Hebrew word sha’al , which means “to ask” (Brown, Driver, Briggs dictionary entry on H7592). It’s actually the word used when Israel asked for a king and received Saul as their answer (1 Sam. 8:10; 12:17-19).

We don’t know if Saul/Paul’s parents named him after King Saul, but people must have noticed the connection. Saul/Paul was even from the same tribe as King Saul. He was trained by a respected rabbi and, as a Pharisee, would have been intimately familiar with the Old Testament (Acts 22:2-3; Phil. 3:4-6). He’d have had the whole Torah memorized and very likely the rest of the Old Testament as well (including the story of King Saul).

In the Old Testament, God hand-picked Saul to be the first king. At that time, Saul was a humble man. He protested the prophet Samuel’s special notice of him, saying, “Am I not a Benjamite, of the smallest of the tribes of Israel? And my family the least of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin? Why then do you speak to me like this?” (1 Sam. 9:21, WEB). When Israel came together to anoint him as king, Saul hid (1 Sam. 10:20-24). But his attitude changed over the years. He started acting presumptuously, taking it upon himself to make decisions contrary to God’s commands and acting as if he was in the right.

Then Samuel said to Saul, “Wait a minute! Let me tell you what the Lord said to me last night.” Saul said to him, “Tell me.” Samuel said, “Is it not true that when you were insignificant in your own eyes, you became head of the tribes of Israel? … Why haven’t you obeyed the Lord?” …

Then Samuel said,
“Does the Lord take pleasure in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as he does in obedience?
Certainly, obedience is better than sacrifice;
paying attention is better than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
and presumption is like the evil of idolatry.
Because you have rejected the Lord’s orders,
he has rejected you from being king.”

1 Samuel 15:16-17, 19, 22-23, NET

You can also translate the phrase “insignificant in your own eyes” as “little in your own sight.” I think that’s the key part here. When Saul was humble, he was also obedient. When he lost that perspective, then he started to disobey God and thinking he knew best. When Samuel confronted him, he protested, “But I have obeyed Yahweh’s voice” even with clear evidence to the contrary (1 Sam. 15:20, WEB). When he finally admitted he’d done wrong, he says, “I have sinned; yet please honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel” (1 Sam. 15:30, WEB). It seems clear his priorities were on doing what was right in his own eyes and gaining honor before the people he led rather than on following God.

From Little to Big, and Big to Little

What about the Saul who we now know as Paul? He was absolutely sure he was following God’s plan when he persecuted those new Christians. When confronted about it, he could have said, “But I have obeyed the Lord” and worried about holding onto the honors he got as a respected Pharisee. But he had a very different response than King Saul. Here’s how Paul describes his conversion to King Agrippa:

 “according to the strictest party of our religion, I lived as a Pharisee. And now I stand here on trial because of my hope in the promise made by God to our ancestors, a promise that our twelve tribes hope to attain as they earnestly serve God night and day. Concerning this hope the Jews are accusing me, Your Majesty! Why do you people think it is unbelievable that God raises the dead? Of course, I myself was convinced that it was necessary to do many things hostile to the name of Jesus the Nazarene. And that is what I did in Jerusalem: Not only did I lock up many of the saints in prisons by the authority I received from the chief priests, but I also cast my vote against them when they were sentenced to death. I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to force them to blaspheme. Because I was so furiously enraged at them, I went to persecute them even in foreign cities.

“While doing this very thing, as I was going to Damascus with authority and complete power from the chief priests, about noon along the road, Your Majesty, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining everywhere around me and those traveling with me. When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? You are hurting yourself by kicking against the goads.’ So I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord replied, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet, for I have appeared to you for this reason, to designate you in advance as a servant and witness to the things you have seen and to the things in which I will appear to you. …

“Therefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but I declared to those in Damascus first, and then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds consistent with repentance. … so I stand testifying to both small and great, saying nothing except what the prophets and Moses said was going to happen: that the Christ was to suffer and be the first to rise from the dead, to proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.”

Acts 26: 5-16, 19-20, 22-23, NET

Here’s the big difference between the two Sauls. Both thought they were doing the right thing. But when King Saul was told about his mistake, he protested and defended himself and worried about how people saw him. When Jesus showed up and told Saul he was persecuting the Messiah, Saul/Paul “was not disobedient to the heavenly vision” and immediately course-corrected. King Saul went from “little in his own eyes” to arrogant, while Paul went from arrogant to humble and obedient.

Paul, “Small”

The name Paul comes “From the Roman family name Paulus, which meant ‘small’ or ‘humble’ in Latin” (BehindTheName.com). This perfectly describes Saul/Paul after his conversion. He had always wanted to do God’s will, and when he found out he and God disagreed on what that should look like, he immediately and humbly changed to align with God’s will.

If someone thinks he has good reasons to put confidence in human credentials, I have more: I was circumcised on the eighth day, from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews. I lived according to the law as a Pharisee. In my zeal for God I persecuted the church. According to the righteousness stipulated in the law I was blameless. But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things—indeed, I regard them as dung!—that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness—a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness. My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already attained this—that is, I have not already been perfected—but I strive to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus also laid hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have attained this. Instead I am single-minded: Forgetting the things that are behind and reaching out for the things that are ahead, with this goal in mind, I strive toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 3:4-14, NET

This is one of my favorite passages from Paul’s letters. He has such a focused perspective on walking with Jesus and the value of his calling. Paul thought he was hot stuff once, but no more. He’s so humble he won’t even say he’s guaranteed a spot in the resurrection. He could boast about things if he wanted. “Am I not an apostle?” Paul reminds the Corinthians. “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (1 Cor. 9:1, NET). But instead, he focuses on how he can best serve Jesus and the church.

For since I am free from all I can make myself a slave to all, in order to gain even more people. To the Jews I became like a Jew to gain the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) to gain those under the law. To those free from the law I became like one free from the law (though I am not free from God’s law but under the law of Christ) to gain those free from the law. To the weak I became weak in order to gain the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I may save some.

I do all these things because of the gospel, so that I can be a participant in it.

Do you not know that all the runners in a stadium compete, but only one receives the prize? So run to win. Each competitor must exercise self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.

So I do not run uncertainly or box like one who hits only air. Instead I subdue my body and make it my slave, so that after preaching to others I myself will not be disqualified.

1 Corinthians 9:19-27, NET

Sorry about putting so many big long quotes in this post, but I think for this especially it helps to get Paul’s perspective in his own words. And it’s also good for us. After the passage I quoted in Philippians, Paul adds, “Be imitators of me, brothers and sisters, and watch carefully those who are living this way, just as you have us as an example” (Phil. 3:17, NET). We can learn from Paul’s example. We should be similarly humble, focused, and teachable. We should also examine ourselves and make sure we’re not making assumptions about what God wants us to do that don’t actually line up with His will and His word.

If you’re reading this the weekend it posts, we’re less than two weeks away from Passover. At this time of year, Paul warns us, “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself first, and in this way let him eat the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Cor. 11:27-28, NET). Self-examination is something we should do year-round (2 Cor. 13:5-6), but it’s particularly important now as we focus on making sure we’re coming before God in a worthy way.

Featured image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

A Closer Look at the Roles of Pastors and Shepherds

A few weeks ago, I started a study on sheep, lambs, and shepherds in the Bible. One of the most interesting things I came across was looking into the words for “shepherd” and “pastor” in both English and Hebrew. As I mentioned last week, I don’t usually spend time looking at English words since they’re a translation choice rather than something that gives insight into the original intent, but sometimes it’s interesting. For example, in the case of “pastor,” it’s curious to see how the meaning of the word has changed over the years in Western Christianity. That study made me want to look into the roles of shepherds/pastors a little bit more. I wanted to see how looking at the Greek could add to understanding this, and dig more into our modern ideas of what a shepherd or pastor does.

Pasturing the Flock

First, a quick recap of the shepherd study from a few weeks ago. In Hebrew, the word translated “shepherd” is connected to the words for pasture, tend, and graze (Theological Wordbook: Old Testament 852). The shepherd is one who makes sure the flocks are fed in good pastures. In English, the word “shepherd” comes from sheep+herd and it means someone who herds sheep (Online Etymology Dictionary). But the English word “pastor” comes from the same Latin root as “pasture” (Online Etymology Dictionary). So really, “pastor” might be a more exact translation of râ‛âh than “shepherd” is, though the way those English words are used today makes shepherd the less confusing choice. (Interestingly, râ‛âh is translated “pastors” eight times in the 1611 KJV translation of Jeremiah.)

What about in Greek? In the KJV, WEB, and NET translations, “shepherd” and the one use of “pastor” (Eph. 4:11) are both translated from poimēn (G4166). The verb form is poimainō (G4165) and it’s translated in KJV as “rule” or “feed” but in WEB and NET as “shepherd,” “tend,” or “rule.” The word simply means to care for flocks of all sorts; it’s more like “flock-tender” than “sheep-herder” (Zodhiates G4165). Also, there’s another specific word, boskō (G1006), for taking animals to a pasture to graze. Bosko represents feeding where poimaino “involves total care” (Zodhiates G1006).

We see both of those feeding and shepherding words in Jesus’s conversation with Peter at the end of John’s gospel. He told Peter, “feed my lambs,” “tend my sheep,” and “feed my sheep” (John 21:13-17, WEB). The word translated “tend” is poimainō and the one translated “feed” is boskō. In other words, Jesus is telling Peter that it’s his role to provide wholistic care for the flock and to specifically feed them and provide pasture. Later, Peter passed this instruction on to his “fellow elders,” telling them to feed or “shepherd the flock of God” (poimainō in this case) (1 Peter 5:1-3).

Feeding and Caring

The one time that translations like KJV and NET use the word “pastor” in the New Testament, it’s in Ephesians 4:11. Here, Paul is talking about unity in the body of Christ and the roles of people within His body. The WEB translation sticks with “shepherd” in this case, but let’s look at it in the NET.

He, the very one who descended, is also the one who ascended above all the heavens, in order to fill all things. And he himself gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God—a mature person, attaining to the measure of Christ’s full stature.

Ephesians 4:10-13, NET

Several translations see “pastors and teachers” as a linked concept. The freely paraphrased Voice and Message translations say “pastor-teachers,” while the Amplified Bible says “and some as pastors and teachers [to shepherd and guide and instruct].” Now, I’ll admit I resist this reading because I want pastors and teachers to be separate things (since I can call myself a teacher but not a pastor and I don’t want them to collapse into the same role), but that’s a selfish reason for preferring one translation over another so we’re going to push on with this study and see what we can learn.

Pastors take sheep to pasture. And since it’s translated from poimainō, it involves total care for the sheep. This does connect with “teacher” as a role when we think of the connection between God’s word and daily sustenance. For example, God wanted Israel to learn “that man does not live by bread only, but man lives by every word that proceeds out of Yahweh’s mouth” (Deut. 8:3, WEB). It’s such an important lesson that Jesus quotes it in His show-down with Satan (Matt 4:1-4; Luke 4:1-4).

Righteous Job “treasured up the words of his [God’s] mouth more than my necessary food” (Job 23:12, WEB). One Psalmist calls God’s words sweet like honey (Ps. 119:103, NET). The Lord says when His word can’t be found in a land, it’s like a famine (Amos 8:11-12). There’s even a fascinating connection for Ezekiel and John between eating words given by God and speaking prophecies (Eze. 2:8-3:4; Rev. 10:8-11). Also, when we’re properly feeding on the word of God, we can all become teachers.

For though you should in fact be teachers by this time, you need someone to teach you the beginning elements of God’s utterances. You have gone back to needing milk, not solid food. For everyone who lives on milk is inexperienced in the message of righteousness, because he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, whose perceptions are trained by practice to discern both good and evil.

Hebrews 5:12-14, NET

So if shepherding involves caring for the flock of God, including feeding them, and teaching involves sharing God’s words which are like food for our spiritual lives, then shepherding/pastoring and teaching are closely connected. They’re not exactly the same thing, but it would seem that a primary job for pastors is to feed the flock. That’s not a shocking revelation; most pastors in Christian churches today are also teachers. But maybe we don’t always think about feeding as the primary role of pastors.

The Importance of Feeding

There is a lengthy passage in Ezekiel 34, along with a shorter one in Jeremiah 23:1-8, where the Lord condemns ancient Israel’s leadership for not doing their job properly. They didn’t protect the flock from dangers. They focused on taking care of themselves rather than putting the flock first. And, perhaps the worst offense of all based on how many times God mentions it, is that they did not feed the sheep.

Yahweh’s word came to me, saying, “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy, and tell them, even the shepherds, ‘The Lord Yahweh says: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Shouldn’t the shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat. You clothe yourself with the wool. You kill the fatlings, but you don’t feed the sheep. …

“As I live,” says the Lord Yahweh, “surely because my sheep became a prey, and my sheep became food to all the animals of the field, because there was no shepherd, and my shepherds didn’t search for my sheep, but the shepherds fed themselves, and didn’t feed my sheep.” Therefore, you shepherds, hear Yahweh’s word: The Lord Yahweh says: “Behold, I am against the shepherds. I will require my sheep at their hand, and cause them to cease from feeding the sheep. The shepherds won’t feed themselves any more. I will deliver my sheep from their mouth, that they may not be food for them.”

“‘For the Lord Yahweh says: “Behold, I myself, even I, will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. … I will feed them with good pasture; and their fold will be on the mountains of the height of Israel. There they will lie down in a good fold. They will feed on fat pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will cause them to lie down,” says the Lord Yahweh. “I will seek that which was lost, and will bring back that which was driven away, and will bind up that which was broken, and will strengthen that which was sick; but I will destroy the fat and the strong. I will feed them in justice.”’

Ezekiel 34:1-3, 8-11, 14-16, WEB

In sharp contrast, we see Jesus coming as both the Good Shepherd (John 10) and the Bread of Life (John 6). As the Shepherd who guards the sheepfold, Jesus says, “I am the door. If anyone enters through me, he will be saved, and will come in and go out, and find pasture” (John 10:9, NET). Perhaps, knowing the important role of a shepherd in feeding His flock, some of those listening to Him would have thought back to the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, and what Jesus taught after that about true sustenance.

 “Do not work for the food that disappears, but for the food that remains to eternal life—the food which the Son of Man will give to you.” …

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. The one who comes to me will never go hungry, and the one who believes in me will never be thirsty.” …

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats from this bread he will live forever. The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” … Jesus said to them, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves. The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” …

 “The Spirit is the one who gives life; human nature is of no help! The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.”

John 6:27, 35, 51, 53-55, 63 NET

If you’re reading this article the weekend it posts, then Passover just over two weeks away. Eating Jesus’s “flesh” (unleavened bread) and “blood” (wine) is something we do on that day every year (Luke 22:15-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-25). But He’s also our sustenance year-round. We need to keep coming to Jesus to satisfy our spiritual hunger and thirst. We need to keep reading His words that are spirit and life. And if we’re someone with a teaching and/or pastoring/shepherding role, we need to make sure we’re sharing this spiritual food with others as well.

Recognizing Good Shepherds

As I already mentioned, I think I can call myself a teacher, but I’m definitely not a pastor. I went back and forth on actually writing this post because it really isn’t my role to tell pastors how to do their jobs. But I do think knowing something about what the Bible says about pastors/shepherds helps each of us as sheep.

First, we need to recognize that human shepherds are fallible. Jesus is the Chief Shepherd. He’s the one who supplies all our needs and who the Father has given has ultimate Authority over His flock. Jesus doesn’t approve of it when people He lets tend His sheep fail in their duties, and He doesn’t abandon the sheep to substandard care. If you’ve had bad experiences with church leadership, that doesn’t mean Jesus doesn’t care (see those verses we talked about in Ezekiel 34). Also, sometimes people who are overall good leaders need grace and forgiveness because they’re human too.

Second, knowing what we can expect from a human shepherd who’s following Jesus’s example helps us recognize if there’s a teacher or pastor that we shouldn’t be listening to. Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves. By their fruits you will know them” (Matt. 7:15-16, WEB). The same can likely be said of false shepherds. We’re to honor and respect those who serve in the church, but we’re also not supposed to follow them blindly if they’re going off after something other than the true Shepherd.

Finally, studying pastors and teachers reminds us that they do have a very important role in the church. There’s a tendency many of us have–especially if we’ve been burned by some of those wolves in sheep’s clothing–to be very skeptical of church leadership. We may think or act as if we’re the ones in charge and resist following someone’s leadership even if it’s a question of preference rather than something that’s actually, doctrinally important.

Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who labor among you and preside over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them most highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.

1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, NET

Remember, the peace that God expects among people in His church includes the church leadership. They’re not to “lord over” the flock (Matt. 20:25-26; 1 Pet. 5:2-4) but they do have roles of leadership and authority, and they deserve respect. Paul even says to give “double honor” to church elders if they “provide effective leadership,” especially when they “work hard in speaking and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17, NET). When things in the church are working the way God intends, then we all work together as a family with each part of the body filling different roles and some of those parts have more authority than others (all under the headship of Jesus, of course). We’re all learning submission and respect together, ultimately by submitting to Jesus’s leadership as the Good Shepherd.

Featured image by Pexels from Pixabay

Thoughts on Sharing the Gospel

I came down with a flu last week and just did not have the mental focus to do much of anything for the first few days. Which threw-off my typical Bible study routine and therefore my blog post plans. I did, however, feel good enough to read. As I perused my bookshelves, I realized I’d never actually read The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel translated by G. Ronald Murphy, which I’d been very excited about when I discovered it existed a few years ago.

The Heliand is an Old Saxon epic poem from the ninth-century A.D. The author is unknown, but based on clues in the text itself Murphey’s introduction suggests that we can assume the author thought a cultural translation of the gospel into a form Saxons could identify with would be a better conversion tool than Charlemagne’s forcible Christianization. This resulted in a gospel account that’s more of a retelling than a direct translation, with some interesting results.

For example, when Gabriel announces John the Baptist’s birth in The Heliand he says the All-Ruler sent him to say “your child will be a warrior-companion of the King of Heaven. He said that you and your wife should care for him well and bring him up on loyalty” (Song 2). Murphey’s footnote points out this is the “earliest known blending of Germanic warrior virtue with Christian religion,” and a likely origin for Medieval notions of knighthood.

In this version, all the disciples are called Christ’s warrior-companions. On the one hand, this is an inaccurate translation. It misses the Hebrew concept of a learner following a teacher and modeling his behavior. On the other hand, it’s not wrong to describe the original 12 disciples as “a picked group … for a special expedition or mission” (footnote on Song 14) or to say that we can also join Christ’s chosen warrior-companions. So maybe it’s not a mistranslation so much as a choice to emphasize a different Biblical aspect of following Jesus that will connect better with the audience. Then, after they’re interested in learning more, you could talk with them about what else it means to be a disciple.

What Makes A Good Translation?

As I think about The Heliand, I remember another book I read that talked about modern challenges with translating the Bible for some cultures today. There are still many languages in our modern world that don’t yet have a Bible translation. That’s something I don’t think we often think about as English-speaking Christians. The Bible has been available in English for over 400 years at this point and there are a dizzying array of translations available. At times, it can almost feel like the Bible has always been in English or has always been part of Western religious tradition.

I also get the sense from many American Christians that we expect what we read in our English Bibles to accurately reflect what’s in the Greek and Hebrew versions. I spend a lot of time looking at Greek and Hebrew words when I’m studying, so it always surprises me when I hear someone teaching from the Bible or writing an article about a Bible topic focus on one of the English words in a verse. For example, it might be helpful to know “disciple” comes from the Latin word for “learner” and it’s related to the word “discipline,” but the same link isn’t there between the Greek words manthanō and paideia so that tells us more about the translators than the New Testament writers.

Many of us opt for “literal” translations that are word-for-word, or as close to it as possible, like the New King James. “Dynamic” translations that aim to be thought-for-thought, like the New International Version, are also popular. The “free” or “paraphrase” translations like The Message are typically viewed with more suspicion (and rightly so, I think, since there’s more risk that the author’s opinion and modern culture will influence the text). (Click here for more on the different options with English translations.) However, despite the cautions with paraphrase translations, sometimes there might not be the option to translate word-for-word, or even thought-for-thought, depending on the language.

I think the other book I remember reading that talked about some of the challenges translating the Bible today was Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus by Lois Tverberg but I don’t remember for certain and I don’t have a copy here to check so I’ll need to reference it from memory.

In many cases, translators begin with the New Testament when translating since that seems like the most relevant for new Christians. That choice can, however, have some drawbacks. One of the stories I remember is that some well-meaning translators working on the gospel accounts left out all that boring genealogy information at the beginning. It wouldn’t mean anything to the people reading it anyway; they had never read a translation of the Old Testament in their language so they wouldn’t know who Abraham, David, and all those other people were. But then later, when the people they were working with found out about the genealogies, they said something like, “Oh! You mean Jesus was a real person? We thought he was made-up because he didn’t have a family.” In this case, the thing English-speaking readers thought was boring was essential for this non-Western audience. A literal translation was better.

The other story I remember involved the challenge of translating Paul’s letters into a language that didn’t have abstract nouns. How do you translate 1 Corinthians 13 into a language where love is always an action, not a concept to discuss? A direct translation is impossible; you’d have to paraphrase or introduce an entirely new concept to the target language. Obviously, it would be much easier to say, “when you’re loving, you’re also being patient and kind” than to try and explain abstract nouns. This is similar to what the author of The Heliand chose to do. He probably could have done a closer to literal translation from Greek into Old Saxon, but he evidently thought a paraphrase would make a whole lot more sense.

Cautions and Tips from the Word

When Jesus told His disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations,” He didn’t tell them precisely how they were to translate when “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20, NET). But we do know that when He filled those same disciples and others with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, “a crowd gathered and was in confusion, because each one heard them speaking in his own language” (Acts 2: 6, NET). God is perfectly fine with translations. And one of His most accomplished servants, Paul, modeled the importance of becoming relatable to people when preaching to them (1 Cor. 9:19-23).

Yet there are also cautions. James has this line, which ought to keep any of us teaching up at night: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1, NET). In addition, we have very strict cautions not to add to or take away from the things which God delivers to us (Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Rev. 22:18-19). In other words, don’t take out the “boring” or uncomfortable bits, and don’t add things to make it more palatable either.

There’s a difference, though, between adding/taking away and making strategic decisions on what to emphasize first. If you’re writing an epic to be sung in Saxon mead halls, it makes sense to emphasize the fact that God is a warrior before talking about Him as a shepherd. If you’re translating into a culture that’s collective and family-oriented, you focus on God’s work building His family before talking about an individual relationship with God (actually, this is probably an easier translation than making it clear to individualistic Western readers that God sees His church as a whole collective).

There’s a lot to think about when considering how to translate God’s word, how to use the translations we have, and how to share the gospel across cultures. It’s even an increasingly relevant concern right here in the United States, where we can no longer assume people we talk with have any background in Christianity. Maybe there’s something we can learn from The Heliand about how to talk with people who may only have seen Christianity as something hostile to them. Maybe considering how the Bible is translated and taught cross-culturally can help us figure out how to speak with people who don’t have Christian backgrounds in our own cultures.

I am finally feeling better, so hopefully we’ll be back to a more typical sort of blog post next week. I hope you got something out of my musings on The Heliand this week, thought. If it made you think of any stories you’ve heard or experiences you’ve had sharing the gospel cross-culturally, I’d love to hear them.

Featured image by Peter H from Pixabay

“Song” Recommendation: It’s not sung in this version, but the reading by Dr. Shell gives us an idea of what The Heliand sounded like.