What is a Beatitude?

man jumping from a rock

The Beatitudes are the name given to the opening lines of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”, found in the Gospel of Matthew 5:3-12. They consist of 9 statements which all begin with the words “Blessed are…”

So what exactly is a “beatitude”?

Not the Be-Attitudes

One common explanation is that the beatitudes are the “be-attitudes”, i.e. “the attitudes you should be.”

Not only is this atrocious grammatically, it’s also incorrect linguistically.

The Happy Sayings

The word beatitude comes from the Latin word beati, which means “happy”, because in the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible, each of these sayings begins with the word, “Beati” or “Happy are…”

In the original Greek, each of these sayings begins with the word makarios, which also means “happy”.

The beatitudes, therefore, are not a laundry list of attitudes you need to muster up, rather they are a group of sayings, in which Jesus shows us the pathway to true happiness.

Blessed or Happy?

The English translators of the Bible chose to translate the word makarios as “blessed” instead of “happy”.

Other languages, however, retained the simple, straight-forward translation of makarios as “happy” – such as the other language I speak: Hungarian, which translates it as “boldog”, the regular word for “happy”, as opposed to the word “áldott” which means “blessed”. In Hungarian, the beatitudes are called “A Boldog Mondások”, literally “the happy sayings” – which is what beatitudes actually means.

Recently I was teaching at Ravencrest Bible College in Estes Park, and asked a student from Scandinavia how her Bible translated it, and sure enough, makarios was translated as a word meaning “happiness” rather than one referring to “blessedness”.

So, why did the English translators of the Bible translate makarios as “blessed” rather than as “happy”? Many people believe that it was because they felt that the word “happy” was too trite, and not religious enough. Some English translators have translated makarios as “happy” – such as the Good News Translation, but most have kept with the tradition of using “blessed” instead because it is so engrained in the English linguistic heritage.

However, I believe that translating makarios as “blessed”, something is lost in translation. The word “happy” has a different tone than the word “blessed”. After all, you can be blessed without being happy. Blessed doesn’t communicate elationit doesn’t evoke the image of a smile on your face and lightness in your heart!

When Jesus spoke these words, he was using a word that was common and relatable, and not a religious word: “happy”!

The Pathway to Happiness

The beatitudes would have been surprising to their original hearers! They would have caused people to do a double-take, and listen closely, perhaps wondering if maybe they had misunderstood Jesus in what he said!

Think about it:  “Oh how happy are the poor in spirit.”  “Oh how happy are you who weep.”

The first listeners would have said, Wait…what?! Poor people aren’t happy! People who weep are literally NOT happy!

It was a set-up, for Jesus to instruct them about his “upside-down kingdom”.

In the beatitudes, the “happy sayings”, Jesus is laying out the pathway to true and lasting happiness. Unlike what many people in the world popularly believe about how to attain happiness, Jesus shows us the true and better way:

Happiness begins, Jesus said, with recognizing and acknowledging your spiritual poverty, and then weeping over that spiritually poor condition. It continues by you humbling yourself before God and hungering and thirsting after righteousness: which if you do, God will give to you as a gift of his grace (His righteousness, not your own!).

For more on how the beatitudes, the “happy sayings”, show the pathway to happiness, check out this message I taught on this section called “How to Be Happy – Matthew 5:1-12”

May we be those who hear what Jesus has to say in these Happy Sayings, and may we follow him down the pathway to true, lasting happiness, which begins with humility and repentance!

Further Reading

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Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?

concrete dome buildings during golden hour

Recently SBC pastor J.D. Greear received some criticism over claims that he said that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. 

In all fairness, that’s not exactly what J.D. said. In his book Breaking the Islam Code: Understanding the Soul Questions of Every MuslimJ.D. stated that while the Christian and Muslim conceptions of God are irreconcilably different, there are some shared assumptions about God which can be used in apologetic conversations with Muslims, e.g. monotheism, affirmation of the Old and New Testaments, recognition of Jesus as a prophet, etc.

You can hear, watch and read J.D. Greear speak on this subject in his own words here.

Allah and God

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to visit Israel, and during my time there I met several Israeli Christians, including some Arab-Israeli Christians. Arab-Israeli Christians refer to God by the Arabic word for God: Allah. Just as the English word God is of Germanic origin, and is not itself particularly tied to the God of the Bible, but is a “generic” name for deity, Allah is a similar word in Arabic. As monotheists, who believe there is only one God, we use this word to speak of the one supreme God rather than using a personal name for God to differentiate Him from other deities, since we do not believe any other so-called god is a rival to Him. There is precedent for this in the Bible, in which the ancient Hebrew word, with its Mesopotamian origins is used: אל (“El”), and in the New Testament, the Greek word Θεός (“Theos”).

Islam is different than Christianity in their belief that the Quran cannot be translated to any other language other than Arabic. Muslims are required to pray in Arabic, meaning that non-Arabic speakers are not allowed to pray to God in their mother tongue, but must memorize and recite Arabic prayers. Furthermore, when they read the Quran, they must read it in Arabic. There are “interpretations” of the Quran into other languages, but they are not considered scripture; only the Arabic-language Quran is considered valid and legitimate. It is for this reason, that muslims all over the world refer to their deity as Allah and not God in English, Gott in German, Бог in Russian, and so on.

So, the real issue is not: “What is the difference between Allah and God?”, but rather: “What is the difference between the God of Islam and the God of the Bible?” Even though they are both monotheistic supreme deities, they have different attributes, and therefore, even though they are both called “God”, they are not the same.

Why Islam is Like Mormonism

As the above tweet mentions, when Islam first came on the scene in the 7th Century, Christians did not consider it a different religion per se, they originally considered it a Christological heresy, and they considered Muhammed to be a false prophet.

In the Near East at that time, the majority of the population, particularly in urban areas, was Christian. In the Arabian peninsula, where Muhammed was located, polytheism was still practiced by the majority of the population, many of whom were nomadic. Muhammed led the Arabic people into monotheism, but a new and unique form of monotheism, which built on, but changed, the teachings of Judaism and Christianity.

The reason Islam was considered a Christological heresy was because Islam affirms both the Old Testament and the New Testament, considering them both holy scriptures, upon which Islam seeks to build. However, they claim that both the Old Testament and the New Testament have been severely altered and redacted, and therefore are not trustworthy. They argue that as a result, the Quran, which they claim is a new and trustworthy revelation given to Muhammed, the last and greatest in the long line of prophets, is the only trustworthy revelation available to us, and the Quran “sets the record straight” regarding things which have been altered and redacted in the Old and New Testaments.

For more information on why we can be sure that the Bible has not been altered (neither the Old nor the New Testament), check out this article in which I discuss historicity, attestation, and canonization.

Some of the things Islam claims were changed in the Bible: God’s choosing of Isaac instead of Ishmael (they claim Ishmael was the chosen son, since they trace their ancestry through him – and they claim the Jews changed the Bible to say that God chose Isaac). They also claim that what the New Testament says about Jesus was radically changed by Christians in order to claim that Jesus was God, when in fact (as they say), he was only a prophet. They do however, acknowledge that Jesus was sinless, unlike Muhammed.

Thus, Muslims deny Jesus’ deity, and along with that comes a denial of his identity as Savior. As a result, they teach salvation by works, whereas Christianity teaches salvation by grace, through faith, through the atoning work of Jesus on our behalf. The Christian gospel is that God imputes Christ’s righteousness to us, which is the basis for our standing before Him, as opposed to Islam, which claims that you must earn your way before God by trying hard enough to keep the 5 Pillars of Islam, so that hopefully your good works with outweigh your bad works, and then God will allow you into Heaven. These are two radically different soteriologies (doctrines of salvation, i.e. how one is saved).

In a way, Islam is quite similar to Mormonism. Consider the similarities:

  • Both claim to build upon the Old and New Testaments, but claim that both have been corrupted and are therefore not trustworthy in the present form in which we have them.
  • Both claim a “new revelation”: the Quran and the Book of Mormon
  • Both claim a new prophet: Muhammed and Joseph Smith
  • Both change the identity and story of Jesus
  • Both teach a works-based soteriology (doctrine of salvation)

Are there bridges of shared assumptions between Christians and Muslims which can be used for apologetic and/or evangelistic purposes?

I believe there are. My wife and I, before we were married, used to serve together in a refugee camp in Hungary which was populated mostly by Muslims from Asia. We provided humanitarian aid to them, and as we built relationships with them, we got the opportunity to share our faith with them as well. We found that they had an affinity for the New Testament and an openness and interest in reading it, so we provided them with copies of the New Testament in their own languages. Many of them, though they had been taught that the New Testament was one of their holy books, had never had the opportunity to read it, assumedly because of the teaching in Islam that the New Testament has been changed and is not trustworthy. However, as these people read the New Testament, many of them were captivated by Jesus, and decided to become Christians. The inbuilt affinity for the Old and New Testaments, for Jesus, and their monotheistic belief, are great starting points for sharing the gospel.

An example of this in the Bible can be seen in how the Apostle John, in the Gospel of John, begins in chapter 1 by identifying Jesus as the divine Λογος (Logos = “the Word”). The concept of the divine Logos was a Greek philosophical concept, which basically meant: “the grand idea” or “the grand force” of the universe. John identified the Logos (translated: the Word) as Jesus. By doing so, John was tapping into an existing belief for apologetic and evangelistic purposes, like Paul did in Acts 17 in Athens, where he appealed to the Athenians on the basis of their altar to “the unknown god.”

Like Paul and like John, may we be uncompromising in our biblical beliefs, and yet wise to use opportunities to share the gospel with people in ways they can grab ahold of, that they might find love, joy, hope, freedom, and salvation in Jesus.

A “Jealous God”? How is that Good?

bible black and white book close up

A few years ago, in a conversation with a childhood friend of mind, he told me that the thing he can’t accept about the God of the Bible is that he is described as being “jealous.” My friend insinuated that he could never respect a God who had such a petty and insecure character trait.

Several times in the Bible, God refers to himself as a “jealous God.” For example, in the 10 Commandments, God tells his people not to worship other gods, because he is a jealous God.

What’s interesting, is that jealousy is listed in the New Testament as being one of a handful of sins which are called “the works of the flesh” and are contrasted with “the fruits of the Spirit” in Galatians 5.

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)

How can God have a characteristic which the Bible itself calls sinful?

There are two answers to this question:

1. Two Different Greek Words – With Two Different Meanings

The confusion over the word jealous being attributed to God is really a matter of the weakness of the English language. In Greek, two very distinct words, with distinct meanings, are used to describe these two attitudes:

In Galatians 5:21, where jealousy is listed as a sin, the word is: φθόνος (phthonos) – which is more akin to envy or covetousness: it connotes ill-will towards someone because of something they have which you want for yourself. [1]

In James 4:5, where God is described as jealous, the word is: ἐπιποθέω (epipotheo) – which means to dote upon or desire intensely. [2]

In other words, God is not described as having a sinful characteristic at all. The confusion comes from the deficiency of the English language, or perhaps of the translators to find better words to differentiate these two concepts.

2. Why It is Good that God is “Jealous” for His People

One definition of jealousy in the dictionary is: “fiercely protective or vigilant of one’s rights or possessions”

This is the essence of what the Bible is talking about when it describes God as a jealous God. It means that when it comes to his people, he desires our hearts to be fully his, and he desires exclusivity in that relationship —  hence the first commandment: You shall have no other gods beside me.

Throughout the Bible, God describes his relationship with his people as a marriage – a covenant relationship. God calls himself the husband of his people; in the Old Testament, Israel is referred to as the wife of Yahweh. In the New Testament, the church is called the Bride of Christ, and Jesus is called the Bridegroom. This is why idolatry is compared in the Bible to adultery against God.

It is appropriate for a spouse to be fiercely protective of the exclusivity of their marriage, and be opposed to anything which would try to come in and threaten it.

When we first moved to Colorado, my wife went to a dentist. After that first appointment, Dr. Brian began calling her on the phone and sending handwritten cards. Maybe he was just following protocol, but as a husband, I didn’t like Dr. Brian sending my wife cards and calling her on the phone!

The fact that God is jealous for his people is a wonderful thing. It means that God doesn’t just tolerate you, He doesn’t just put up with you — but He is fiercely passionate about His love for you! 

This kind of fierce, passionate love is described in the Song of Solomon:   Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the Lord. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. (Song of Solomon 8:6-7)

That is the kind of love that God has for you. It is the kind of love that moved the God of the Universe to leave his heavenly throne, and become one of us — to walk our dusty streets, and be despised by the very people he created — and ultimately to be nailed to a cross in order to redeem you. This love is at the very heart of the gospel.

Making Sense of Different Bible Translations – Part 3: Gender-Inclusive Language and the NIV

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In this mini-series on Making Sense of Different Bible Translations, in Part 1 we looked first at translation theory in general and some basic guidelines for choosing a translation, and in Part 2 we looked at the King James Version specifically. Here in Part 3, we will be looking at the question of gender inclusive language and how it relates to the New International Version.

The “Nearly Inspired Version”?

During my undergraduate studies, I had to learn Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, and our final project was to translate 1 John and then analyze other translations based on our reading and translation of the Greek text. For my analysis, I chose the NKJV, the NIV and the Message.

I had heard people joke that the NIV stood for “Nearly Inspired Version” or the “New Inferior Version,” so I was curious to see how it stood up under scrutiny. Much to my surprise, the NIV was much more literal and accurate than I had expected. The Message, however, does not qualify as a translation at all, in my opinion, but is rather a commentary – as in it, one person (Eugene Peterson) gives his interpretation of what he deems the text to mean, not what it says.

Side note: any translation that is made by one person should be suspect, especially when that person is pushing a particular agenda, as in the case of the Passion Translation.

A Case Study: Hebrews 11:6

Some of the main criticisms that are leveled at the NIV, are that it waters down the meaning of the text, and that it imposes gender inclusive language on the text. This week on Calvary Live, the call-in radio show that I host on Mondays, one caller pointed out Hebrews 11:6 as an example of this. Let’s take this as a case study to see if there’s any validity to it.

  • NIV: And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.
  • KJV: But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.
  • Greek: χωρὶς δὲ πίστεως ἀδύνατον εὐαρεστῆσαι, πιστεῦσαι γὰρ δεῖ τὸν προσερχόμενον τῷ θεῷ ὅτι ἔστιν καὶ τοῖς ἐκζητοῦσιν αὐτὸν μισθαποδότης γίνεται.

Here’s my hyper-literal translation of the Greek text:

Without but faith impossible to please (a direct object), believe (a direct object) because must he who comes to God that (object) exists and those who seek him [he] rewards.

So, which translation is more accurate? Both are good translations which convey not only what the words say, but what they mean.

Gender-Inclusive Language

As can be seen in the example above, the NIV tries to use gender-inclusive language when possible. The word προσερχόμενον – means “he who comes” and is in the male singular accusative case. Yet the NIV translates this with the gender-neutral “anyone who comes.”

The question is whether this accurately reflects the meaning of the text or whether it is imposing a modern bias towards gender inclusivity upon the text.

In academic writing today, gender-inclusive language is required whenever possible, including moving away from terms like “mankind” in favor of “humankind,” and “every man” to “everyone.”

In some cases, this is warranted and more accurately reflects the author’s intent. For example: Colossians 1:28 in the NASB says: “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ.”
Paul is clearly speaking about “every human being,” not only about males. So most modern translations translate it: “He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.”
In this case, gender-inclusive language more clearly communicates what Paul was saying.

Another example worth considering is Leviticus 24:15. NASB: “If anyone curses his God, then he will bear his sin,” versus the NIV: “Anyone who curses their God will be held responsible.”
In this case, it is not only gender-inclusive language, but a removal of the concept of “bearing one’s sins” being rephrased as “being held responsible.” While the latter may justifiably be called a “watering down” of the text, since the word “sin” is in the original text, the gender-inclusive language could be justified in the sense that this law did not only apply to men but to men and women.

The NIV does not go as far as some other translations when it comes to gender-inclusive language, like the Holman Christian Standard Bible which replaces the often-used “Brethren” with “Brothers and sisters.” Again, it could be argued that this is still appropriate in that it conveys the fact that the people being addressed are both men and women.

However, there are other examples of gender-inclusive language which do actually have theological implications, and therefore are inappropriate impositions on the text. Examples of this would be replacing the masculine “Father” with “Parent”, or “sons of God” with “children of God.” In the case of “sons” versus “children,” there were very specific differences in the way that sons specifically were treated in ancient society regarding rights and inheritance. Whether this was fair or not, that understanding is built into the use of the term “son” as opposed to children in general, and therefore has direct theological implications. The same is true of the masculine pronouns and terms used consistently throughout the Bible for God. To change these is actually to change the meaning of God’s revelation of Himself in the Scriptures.

To those who may feel that it is odd for a female to consider herself a “son of God,” it should be noted that men are similarly included in the feminine term “bride of Christ.” These terms paint pictures by making allusions and parallels to things which are diminished by disregarding the gender-specificity of “son” and “bride”.

There and Back Again

The NIV has dabbled in varying levels of gender-inclusive language, including a 1997 Inclusive Language Edition, which was only released in the UK, but quickly discontinued.  In the early 2000’s, the TNIV (Today’s New International Version) was released, which included changes such as “children of God” instead of “sons of God.” However, the TNIV was also discontinued, and the most recent update to the NIV (2011) actually reinstated some of the gender-specific language which had been removed in the TNIV, because of recognition of the theological importance of the gender-specifity of those terms.

Conclusion

While I don’t think the NIV is the best translation available, I don’t think it’s the worst either. As we have seen, some gender-inclusive language may be justified and warranted. The question is whether gender-inclusive language is being introduced because of cultural pressure or by a desire to accurately translate and convey the meaning of a text.

Even the best translation, however, won’t benefit you if you don’t read it. So, go do that!