Reason #58

Anyone who has followed me for very long knows that I would love to see more youth pastors who put more effort into studying the Bible. Specifically, I’d like to see more youth pastors who use the Hebrew and Greek they (might have) learned in seminary. To that end, I present reason number fifty-eight that youth pastors ought to learn and do everything they can to retain an intermediate knowledge of the biblical languages.

I recently attended a Christian event where a speaker gave a gospel presentation. This talk was standard evangelical fare, though I was pleased that the speaker placed a high emphasis on people living out faith. Nevertheless, the Scripture text that the speaker used was–of course–John 3.16. There is a bitter irony in the fact that this verse, one of the most well-known in the New Testament, is also one of the most commonly misrepresented.

The speaker placed particular emphasis on the word “so,” going as far as having the audience hold out the word for thirty seconds (“Soooooooooo…”). The speaker then explained that this verse shows how much God loves us. He loves us to such an extent that he sent his son. The problem is that the verse doesn’t say that. The Greek of the first phrase reads:

Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον
NIV: For God so loved the world
ESV: For God so loved the world
KJV: For God so loved the world
MSG: This is how much God loved the world

Looking at the English it’s easy to see how our speaker made his blunder. We tend to use the English word “so” in exactly the manner the speaker suggested it was used in John 3.16. But the Bible wasn’t written in English. The Greek word, οὕτως doesn’t mean “to great extent,” but rather “in this manner, thusly.” On the one hand, most translators deserve some of the blame, because they retain a wording that obfuscates what the verse is actually saying. This is especially true of Eugene Peterson, who really makes matters worse here. At the same time, if the speaker had bothered to consult a commentary before giving his gospel presentation he probably wouldn’t have blundered.

Does it matter how we understand “so,” in this verse? Absolutely. The crux of the verse isn’t about how much God loves the world, but in what manner he chose to express that love: by sending his son. Among modern English translations the NET Bible does the best job.

For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. John 3.16

In addition, the οὕτως in verse sixteen pretty obviously recalls the wording of verse fourteen. The Son of Man must be lifted up in the manner that the bronze serpent was. A couple verses later God loved the world in this manner: he gave his son (who happens to be the one who will be lifted up in a manner like the bronze serpent).

I could spend more time talking about how knowing Greek or Hebrew helps one to see a variety of connections within or between texts that is impossible in English, but that’s not precisely my point at present. My point is that as youth ministers, we ought to expect better of ourselves than to commit blunders that a first year Greek student should be able to avoid.

Reason #58 for youth pastors to learn Hebrew and Greek: avoiding blunders that detract from what Scripture says.

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