What are words for?

Beginning Greek

Berea fancied himself a budding Bible student. He enjoyed listening to the technicalities of a deep expository sermon. He shared his hopes with his grandfather who, being an avid puzzle builder and Sudoku solver, asked him what he would need to begin this venture.

“Well, I would need a Greek New Testament and grammar book, a notebook and some flash cards for vocabulary words.”

“When you find what you need, just let me know and I will take care of the purchases.”

Berea recalled that he had come across a Greek New Testament in a used book store in town one day whilst perusing for Calvin and Hobbes tomes. Having returned to ensure it remained unsold, he told his grandfather who made good on his word and procured the United Bible Societies text with dictionary. Berea liked this one much more than the one he saw his pastor use whose book only had a paper binding. This one was had a plastic cover which gave him more a sense of nostalgia.

So, where to begin? He first memorized the Greek alphabet and to his amazement he learned that the English word alphabet was a contraction of the first two Greek letters alpha and beta. Word origins tickled his fancy, too. He was always curios about from where idioms and colloquialisms originated. As sometimes was the case when studying other subjects, Berea made himself a mnemonic diddy he thought quite clever:

Alpha, beta, gamma, delta; say that again and I’m gonna belt ya!

Epsilon, zeta, eta, theta; wouldn’t wanna meet Darth Veta!

Iota, kappa, lamda, mu; now you can sing along too!

Nu, xi, omicron, pi; you’re the apple of my eye!

Rho, sigma, tau, upsilon; I don’t know what rhymes with upsilon!

Phi, xi, psi, omega; learn this song and you’ll never be a begga!

Berea often visited one of his church’s members in the local nursing home about his endeavors. On his most recent visit Granny Smith told him of her interest in angels since she was a child and he told her he would make that his first word-study. It seemed to fall nicely in line with his etymological leanings as well. He soon discovered a new word for himself: transliteration. Angel it turns out is not an English word for the Greek aggelos, but simply an adapted phonetic spelling of the Greek into English. The double “gg” in Greek contract to form the sound “ng” rendering ἄγγελος (ahn-ge-loss) into “angel” (eighn-jel). Berea knew his Granny Smith would find this very interesting. (Which she did.)

You say angels, I say messengers

What Berea also found interesting was the conflict of interest he felt was at stake. Transliterating a word from Greek to English only seemed to add one more step to the process of exegesis.

“God bless you.”

“Huh? No, Granny, exegesis is the discipline of establishing what the Bible means by what it says.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Well, what the Bible says and what the Bible means by what it says are not the same thing.”

“Can you give me an example?”

“Sure. While I was studying the word ἄγγελος I looked up a number of verses that contained the word. Remember I told you that the word’s precise meaning is messenger? Well, that is the translation from Greek to English of the word; so, the English word for ἄγγελος is messenger. So, every time the Greek word ἄγγελος is translated, it ought to read messenger. For instance, Mark 1 quotes from the prophet Malachi where the expectation of a new messenger from God originates. When the Greek translates the Hebrew word messenger it uses ἄγγελος.

“That seems pretty straight-forward.”

“Sometimes, yes. But remember I also told you that in places where ἄγγελος is translated angel it is because the messenger is believed to be an actual “angel.” So, we’ve now moved from simple translation to interpretation.

“I don’t get it.”

“Ok. Think about Mary and Joseph’s finding out about Mary’s pregnancy. Who came to them and announced what God was doing?”
“Gabriel the angel.”

“Yes and no. Strictly speaking it was Gabriel the messenger. Instead of translating the Greek and allowing the reader to determine what kind of messenger Gabriel was, the translators interpreted for us what they think the Bible meant by ἄγγελος. Interpreting the Bible means the reader is supposed to determine what the Bible means by messenger, whether it is human or heavenly. In this passage the issue is not very dire. But the effect is that whenever one reads angel he doesn’t readily think of a human messenger, but a spirit being with wings and a halo.”

“So, is there a place where this translation has more weight to it?”
“Yes. There is a section of scripture where I think it is a mistake to translate ἄγγελος

as angel rather than messenger. In the first chapter of Revelation, we read

In his right hand he held seven stars….He placed his right hand on me and said, …the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches…

So, what do you think angels means here?”

“Well, like you said. When I hear the word angel I think of a spirit being.”

“Yes, and unfortunately, I think this is not the meaning of the passage. That’s where I get my turn-of-phrase all translation is interpretation. Instead of translating the word for us and allowing us to determine its meaning, the translators overstep their bounds and with their transliteration interpret for us what they think the word refers to. So, we end up talking about what it means for a church to have its own angel. We end up wondering, further, whether or not this is what it means for present-day churches as well.”

“So what you are saying is that in English from the Greek, the sentence ought to read the seven stars are the messengers of the seven churches? And that from there the reader is supposed to determine who the messengers are?”

“Right. So if our translations read messengers, of whom might you think?”

“Well, if there is a messenger of a church, I guess I would think it would be the one who speaks to the church.”

“Ok. So, you can see that the word can refer either to a human messenger or an “angelic” one and the context ought to lead the reader in the right direction. In this case, what I would like to see it this. ἄγγελος means messenger; that’s not it’s nuance or connotation, that is what it means. I’d like to see a translation where we read much of what the Bible itself says, with the reader being influenced by the context alone and regarding this word; messenger should be the translation in every place.

“And so we are back where we started when you said there is a difference between what the Bible says and what it means by what it says. You are saying that the way translations go, I have been programmed to interpret a passage not by the scriptures alone, but with a little help from my friends.

“Right. I am of the mind that much of what we believe the Bible to mean has been influenced by the translations we use. Now, that’s not to say that our translations are wrong; taking one language into another is a challenge and so there has to be a bit of nuance when choosing this way of speaking over that. I just happen to think that the reader is robbed of spiritual, mental, and biblical exercise when he is told what a passage means by the translation. And sometimes, I think the choice of translating a word or phrase a certain way can be entirely wrong.”

“Like “the angels of the churches?”

“Yes. I think it was a poor choice to transliterate the Greek there. But hold on, I just had an epiphone.”


“Thanks. No, really. I just thought of another word that I have come across that has given me pause to think. Am I boring you with this? We can stop if you’d like.”

“No. I don’t mind. In fact, I am interested in your next revelation.”

What in the world?

“Funny you should say that. I am fully convinced that translation is important; so much so, that I would say the authors of scripture chose their words intentionally and with great care. What I think this entails is the reality that if an author of scripture could say something one way and he chooses to say it another, then there is a reason for that choice and we need to understand it. So, my next word study involved the word world.

“Oh, I remember Pastor Meyers talking about that word once. He said the Greek word for world is where we get our word for cosmetics. I always found that interesting.”

“I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, huh? And do you remember what the Greek word was?”

“I believe he said it was kos…something or other. He also said its where we get our word cosmic.

“That’s right. The Greek word is κόσμος and it basically means “harmonious arrangement” but its nuance can refer to the inhabitants of the world. So, what do you think of when you hear or come across that word in the Bible? Like John 3:16, “For God so loved the world…”

“Oh, that’s one of my favorites. Reminds me that God’s salvation is bigger than just me; that God loves everyone.”

“Well, we can discuss that one later, but notice how you are interpreting the word world. How did you interpret it? Did you interpret it literally? As in God loves the physical orb upon which we live? Because if we do that, then all it means is that God loves the ground, water, and molten magma at the earth’s core.”

“Oh! So you want me to see that the Bible says world, but what does that mean?”

“Exactly. So does world mean this physical orb or does it mean the “people” on it? And does that meaning carry over into every other time it is used?”

“Can you think of another place where the Bible uses the word world but does not mean any of the above?”

“I can. Does this sound familiar to you? Do not love the world nor the things of the world?

“Yes, that’s in I John.”

“Right. So let’s put our thinking caps on and ask What do most people think this passage means by world?”

“Well, if I am most people, I have always been taught that it means just, the world, the things of the world that are against God’s ways. Like it says in the next verse, for all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the father, but is from the world which is passing away…”

“Well, look who knows so much!”

“So are you going to tell me that world does not mean world there?”

“Yes. I could be wrong but I believe that to be consistent with the whole New Testament’s message, world in that context (and even in John 1) means the apostate nation of Israel.”

“What do you mean by John 1?”

“In John 1 we read this:

In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God; he was in the beginning with God and nothing came into being that has been… He was in the world and though the world was made through him it did not know him. He came to his own and his own did not receive him.

So, to make a long story short: there is a parallel idea here between world and “his own” so that they are the same reference. You might switch them up if you like: he was among his own and though he made his own they did not know him. He came to the world and the world did not receive him.

“Wow. That totally changes the meaning of the word! Which rocks my world! Ha! Get it?”

“Please don’t do that again, Granny. It’s weird. But yeah. So, here’s a bit more of my point. I believe the whole New Testament is about the end of the Old Covenant with Israel and the beginning of the New Covenant with the church (which is actually another word study I looked into). So, going back to I John, if the world is the apostate world of Judaism, that is the conflict about which John is writing. Most if not all the NT authors are arguing against Judaism and turning to Christianity and that is what John is talking about.”

But that’s only ½ of what I wanted to show you.”

“Oh? What’s the other half?”

“The word world that we looked at is what cosmos means and so I have no quibbles with that translation. But there is another Greek word that is translated world in certain places that ends up making interpretation confusing.”

“You said, ‘In certain places.’ “

“Yes. The word I am talking about is οἰκουμένη and it means “inhabited land.” When Jesus was born, in order to tax his empire, Caesar Augustus took a census of the οἰκουμένη and in my Bible it doesn’t say “world” it says inhabited earth. But in many other places it is translated world. I find this irresponsible and inexplicably unconscionable on the part of the translators because they are imposing their interpretation of the word and not simply translating it. I mean, why do that in Luke 4 but not in Matthew 24? I believe they do not do so because of their commitment to a theological system that has predisposed them to reading the Bible a certain way.”

“And you think I have been taught to read the Bible with the same view point because of how my pastor has taught me?”

“Well, in a way, yes I do.”

“Hmmmm. I am inclined to be persuaded by your argument and I’d like to hear more.”

All translation is interpretation

“Before we do that Granny Smith, let me restate a bit of my point. What I would like to see is this. Translations need to do less interpretation of texts and more straight translation. They need to expose the reader to what the words are, not what they are for. That is our job. They should give us a sentence (the what) without giving us the why (the meaning). Nuance and connotation are a part of interpretation rather than strictly translation. So, I say, give me the word and let me interpret its meaning.”

“So, what is our next stop, Captain Kirk of the Scripture Trekkies?”

“Hmmmmmm. Well, there is a word that I have come across that is not consistently translated in my opinion and the significance of this word is very great. Let me start by saying that in every concordance and lexicon I have consulted—even the dictionary in my Greek NT—the very first definition of the word is the same, but in every translation of the word, the nuance has been given to the reader and in many places it is not consistent. What this means is this. If I were a budding Bible student studying the Greek, I would be led by all the major study helps to conclude that the first meaning of the word is what the word itself means.

“The word in Greek is μέλλω and it is a verb. As far as I can tell its primary meaning is to be about to do something or by implication to intend to do something. But it is a funny word because in English about to is more strictly an adverb–something that modifies a noun while in Greek it is an actual verb. But were we to translate it always as about to it would sound funny in English. Take this passage in Acts for instance,

Ἡμεῖς δὲ προελθόντες ἐπὶ τὸ πλοῖον ἀνήχθημεν ἐπὶ τὴν Aσσον, ἐκεῖθεν μέλλοντες ἀναλαμβάνειν τὸν Παῦλον, οὕτως γὰρ διατεταγμένος ἦν μέλλων αὐτὸς πεζεύειν.

But we, going ahead to the ship, set sail for Asson, from there abouting to take Paul also, for  he was, having arranged thus, himself abouting to go by foot.

But, if I am to stick by my guns and say that the responsibility of the translator is to give the meaning of the word and not its nuanced interpretation, then every time this word occurs…”

“It has to be about to.


“Ok, so? What’s the problem?”

“If I am right, everything we thought we knew about the New Testament is about to change. But let me ask you to assist me here. Let me show you demonstrably what I have found and you tell me what you think. To begin with, let’s say that I only have my UBS text and the Editrice Pontinfico Inistituto Biblico…


“Oh, you’re funny. So here we go! First is the UBS dictionary:

  1. Pg. 113 of the dictionary under the word μέλλω (following an infinitive)is
      1. Be going to
      2. Be about to
      3. Intend to
      4. Must
      5. Be destined
  2. Second, from the EPIB under List of words occurring more than 60 times in the NewTestament, pg xxxii, μέλλω with an infinitive
      1. Be about to
      2. Be destined to
      3. Intend to remain
      4. stay

Now, since I do not have access to anything else, I do some work on the web and find these lexical helps. First is

  1. Thayer
      1. Be about
      2. On the point of suffering
      3. To intend or have in mind
  2. Strong

to intend to, that is, be about to be, do, or suffer something (of persons or things, especially events; in the sense of purpose, duty, necessity, probability, possibility, or hesitation): – about, after that, be (almost), (that which is, things, + which was for) to come, intend, was to (be), mean, mind, be at the point, (be) ready, + return, shall (begin), (which, that) should (after, afterward, hereafter) tarry, which was for, will, would, be yet.

  1. Louw-Nida


be about to

Free your mind

“So, what do you think?”

“Well, based on what you’ve said heretofore, I’d say you would want to hear this. A word has one primary meaning and it is that meaning which the translation ought to convey. Once we know what the word means however, we need to interpret it within the context of the passage. So, for instance: what does world in John 3:16 mean? What does inhabited earth in Luke 4:5 mean? Right?”

“So far, so good. What I would add is this. A word’s meaning is not necessarily also its nuance or denotation, or to say it another way, interpreting the intended nuance of the author’s intention is not necessarily synonymous with the word’s meaning.

“Ok. So, what’s so special about this word? You said everything would change. I am dying to know what would change.”

“Ok. Let me begin by asking you what you believe the Bible teaches about when Jesus will return.”

“Well, I’ve always been taught that Jesus could come back at any time and that when he does, all of the prophecies about the last judgement and the tribulation and the end of the world will be fulfilled. Does that sound right?”

“It doesn’t have to sound right; I just want to know what you believe about it all.”
“Well, I guess that’s what I believe.”

“Are you ready for this? I used to believe what you just described…”

“Used to? What do you mean?”

“What I mean is I no longer believe Jesus will return at any moment, but that his future return is perhaps 1000s of years in the future. What I mean is I no longer believe that the tribulation is future. What I mean is I no longer believe that what Jesus described as the sun, moon, and stars coming undone has anything whatsoever to do with our future. It has already happened.”

“So, you believe the resurrection has already happened and that Jesus is not coming back?”

“In a way, yes; and, in a way no. Now, I do not have all the answers to this new way of seeing things, but what I do have is just about as wild as if the Matrix were real. Everything is about to change. Freeing your mind from the misguided way of seeing the Bible will take some time and you will very often feel like Neo retching from the stress of understanding that what he thought was real is not.

“Now, most people are hesitant to go where I am going to show you, but I think it’s the right way. Let me now show you a bit more by putting together what we have seen above for you.”

Choosing the red pill or the blue

“The verb μέλλω means “about to” and within the New Testament it is linked with a coming judgement that many people think refers to something that is still future and sometimes that combination also happens with the Greek noun οἰκουμένη. Let me say it this way by quoting from what Luke records in the Acts. When Paul was preaching to the Athenians in the areopagus he said something profound. Let me quote from the New American Standard and then my translation.

“First, because he has fixed a day when he will judge the world in righteousness through a man whom he appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising him from the dead.

Now mine, because he has fixed a day in which he is about to judge the inhabited earth in righteousness by a man whom he appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising him from the dead. What is the difference between the two translations?”

“Well, the first one seems to imply what I believe will happen at the end of time and the second one, yours, seems to imply that the judgement is sooner, but I’m not sure what to understand by inhabited earth because it could still mean the whole world. But that’s not what you believe?”

“No, that’s not what I believe and it would take a really long time to show you why that is, but let me just say this. I believe οἰκουμένη is best understood within the first century’s context and that it ought to be interpreted as empire or that inhabited earth is meant to be understood that way because of its use in Luke 4 when Caesar Augustus taxed his οἰκουμένη. Remember, Luke could have used cosmos, but he didn’t. He chose a different word for a reason.”

“But what does it mean that God is about to judge the οἰκουμένη?”

“Remember that I said that it would take a long time to explain that? Let me say that the Old Testament is full of passages wherein God judges all the nations based upon their relationship to Israel—how they treated God’s people. The term οἰκουμένη has to be interpreted theologically and theologically this term refers to the system of government established by God during the exile. It is in the book of Daniel where God introduces a new world to his people—a world wherein they are under the rule of the nations. But it is a world wherein God’s people are housed much like they were when the temple was intact.”

“I am not following you.”

“Ok. Remember Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the statue?”

“Yes. Each portion of the statue referred to a different period of time when other nations would be in power, right?”

“Right. But how do you interpret what the Bible says about the parts of the statue? What does each element mean?”

“Hmmmmm. You are really trying my retention of the sermons I have heard about this, but from what I can recall I think that each element represents the quality of each government. One was gold; another was silver; another bronze and the other terracotta. I was always told that each was different because each is of a different value, so it moves from the best to the least. Am I right?”

“Yes. I was taught that as well.”

“But you don’t believe that anymore?”

“No. It seems best to me to be as theologically consistent as possible, so that the Bible uses symbols consistently leading the reader to understand one passage based on another.”

“Ok. I follow you.”

“So, can you think of anywhere in the Bible where we read about gold, silver, and bronze?

“Well, the only place I can recall that combination is in the tabernacle and temple.”

“Exactamundo! That is exactly where I think we ought to go when interpreting this dream. So, what now?”

“I’m not sure. Can’t you just say what you think and I’ll go from there?”

“Sure. The tabernacle was God’s presence with his people. It was proof that God dwelt in the midst of his people. The statue was made up of the same materials and each material represented a different kingdom in the future. God was telling his people that the new tabernacle would be the ruling nations. God would still be with his people even though they were out of the land and his presence would be with them even though they were under the control of Gentile nations. See, most people think that Rome was the enemy of Israel in the New Testament.”

“But it wasn’t?”

“No. Rome wasn ‘t the enemy. Israel was her own worst enemy because she was bucking the system that God established back in Daniel. And Jeremiah rebuked the leaders of Israel warning them to pray for the peace of the nation which ruled over them. He didn’t want them to rebel against Rome. Think about this. Whom did Rome persecute in the Acts?”

“Well, I want to say the church, but I can guess you would say no.”

“Right. Consistently in Acts we see Rome punishing the Jews who rejected Paul’s message. You see, God set up a newer version of the Abrahamic covenant in the exile. The Gospel message in the exile was: those who bless you I will bless; those who curse you I will curse. There were consecutive emperors who blessed Israel and there were some who cursed them. I believe Nebuchadnezzar, Darius (who was Esther’s husband, Ahasuerus, the Great King), and Cyrus were converted Gentiles. As long as the ruling empire favoured God’s people, all was well. When the new covenant comes along, so does a new people.”

“So, you don’t believe the Jews are God’s people any longer?”

“No, I don’t. And neither does the Bible.”

“But what about what Paul says when he says that someday the Jews will become jealous to the point of turning to the gospel?”

“I believe that already happened. When Paul wrote that he was still in the infant stage of the church and through his ministry he was looking to make the Jews jealous now to seek God through Jesus alone. Today’s Jews are nowhere near what the Jews were in the decades following Jesus and they are not jealous of us as they were in the beginning of the church. In fact, there is no longer Jew or Gentile. The new man is christian. There is too much at stake not to say this. To assert that the Jews will one day again be the people of God is to deny Christ himself. To assert that someday in the future the Jews will once again be God’s people is to completely deny the whole New Testament. Just read (at least) Hebrews, Galatians, and Revelation.”

“But isn’t Revelation about the end of the world?”

“It is, but not the end of the world as we know it. Consistently in Revelation, οἰκουμένη is used in relation to the war which the kings wage against the church (Rev. 16:14). And in the beginning of the Revelation, Jesus warns one of the churches about an about to coming hour of testing upon the whole οἰκουμένη. “

“So that leads me to a question.”


“What does that mean? What does the οἰκουμένη have to do with being tested or judged?”

“Ah. Very good, young Skywalker. Ask the right question you have. Remember that the theology of the Bible is just as (if not more) important as the translation. The New Testament is not only about Jesus putting an end to the sacrificial system and dying for the sins of man. It’s also about the end of the οἰκουμένη and the end of old heavens and the earth. It’s also, then, about the new heavens and earth one in which there is a new world order with a new emperor on the throne. The old οἰκουμένη is judged by her response to the gospel (Matthew 25) and this is what Paul and Silas were singing in prison and what Paul preaches to Felix and to Festus and Agrippa .”

“But aren’t the new heavens and earth about eternity?”

“Most people think so, but the immediate reference is to the new world Jesus institutes. The original term “new heavens and earth” (which John uses in Revelation) is a reference to Israel from Isaiah 65, not a literal new heavens and earth. Here’s the passage the way I see it.

“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; And the former things will not be remembered or come to mind. “But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create; For behold, I create Jerusalem for rejoicing And her people for gladness.

There are many parallelisms in this passage. Note their symmetry here:

A Because the former troubles are forgotten, and because they are hidden from My sight!

B “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth;

A’ And the former things will not be remembered or come to mind.

C “But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create;

B’ For behold, I create Jerusalem

C’ for rejoicing and her people for gladness.

Note primarily, what God creates: he says he creates a new heavens and earth. Is this literal? No. Why should the reader draw this conclusion? He must draw another conclusion based on the clear parallel God himself makes: God calls the city Jerusalem the new heavens and earth. The parallel is clear and not forced. God says, “I create new heavens and a new earth…be glad and rejoice I create Jerusalem for rejoicing…and gladness.” Israel is to expect a make over, a renewal by the grace of God. God’s calling Jerusalem “new heavens and earth” is a politically symbolic reference going all the way back to Genesis 1, 7-9, and 37.

This hermeneutic must not be rejected out of hand and yet that is what many indeed do. Many reject this interpretation for fear of its precluding a more full future fulfillment when Jesus returns at the close of the final festal age. But this need not be the case. It need not be the case that one reject this symbolic interpretation for fear that it means losing a future fulfillment at some remote time.

As was stated above, some reject this hermeneutic because of its application to the words of Jesus in the Revelation when he talks about the new heavens and earth in the latter part of the vision (ch.21). It is my presupposition that the Revelation is the judgement of God against Israel as a body politic for her adultery against her covenant Master and murder his Messiah (Psalm 2). Adultery because she rejected the new Bridegroom (Matt. 25) and murder because she persecuted the new Bride (Matt. 23-25; Acts; Hebrews; the Epistles). Further, when Jesus talks about the new heavens and earth, he is talking about a new body politic (Matt.28.18)—a new bride, a new city (Rev 21, 22).

Following the structure seen before in Isaiah, note the parallels here in Revelation:

Rev. 20:11

Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them.

Rev. 21:1

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer a sea.

The association to make here is connected to Isaiah. Jerusalem is the former heavens and earth which is fleeing from the presence of God and which passes away like an old garment (Psalm 102). The new heavens and earth which are created is seen in the following verses. Note the parallels made between the Bride and the City as they are one and the same. The Bride is the City and were Paul to have written a commentary here he would say and the City is the Body and who is the Body and Bride and City of Christ but his people, the Church, the New Israel.”

Whew! Now, that was a mouthful! You’ve given me enough to chew on for quite a while. And look at the time! It’s going to be a night of fits and starts. I’ll probably dream about this!”

Good night, Granny Smith. I look forward to our next get-together.”

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