One benefit of learning biblical languages is that you get to read the Bible in the dialect it was written. This can be quite a remarkable experience as you capture those nuances that are hard to translate. But also, the joy that comes with discovering clarity of the text in the original language where the translated passage is not so clear is enormous.
Just to be clear, I do not believe that one must learn Greek to understand the Bible. I also do not think that the ability to read scripture in either Greek or Hebrew is the measure of godliness.
But having said that, it is true that our ability to grasp the claims and teaching of scripture is enhanced if we can study it in its original language. It would require more diligence and study and discernment for one believer to accurately interpret the text without knowledge of the original languages compared to another believer skilled in them.
The difference would be like one cutting down a tree with a blunt ax, and the other doing so with a sharpened one. Both will have the tree cut, but neither with the same easiness nor taking the same time. Translation is a tricky task, and idioms, nuances, emphases, hints, and clues can easily be lost in the process.
But then again, it is possible to have the tree cut, and not benefit from its resources. Thus ultimately, it is not grasping the authorial intent alone that is needed, but obedience to the sense of scripture. We must understand what the text says, and we ought to obey it.
That said, it is true that reading even the most familiar passages in the original language brings the text to us afresh, with a richness and force we did not know or imagine. Sometimes we can be amazed at how much we have misread the text, as I just discovered.
The Case of John 3.
This week I was studying Gordon Fee’s New Testament Exegesis and section about ‘Establishing the Text.’ As he wrote about manuscript variants, he drew my attention to John 3:15. And since he had printed verse three to sixteen, I figured I could practice my Greek reading and interpretation as well using this passage.
The first text that caught my eye was verse 3. For those who are familiar with the Bible, John 3 is a conversation between Christ and Nicodemus, a Pharisee who came to Jesus at night with questions that troubled him. In this chapter, Jesus discourses with Nicodemus about the impossibility of anyone seeing the kingdom of God unless they are born again. In the third verse of this text, Jesus tells him thus Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν, οὐ δύναται ἰδεῖν τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ Θεοῦ.
When I read this text, I was struck by Christ’s emphatic statement. Jesus’ usage of ‘amen amen’ or ‘truly, truly’ or ‘verily, verily’ was for double emphasis. He is insisting that what He is saying is so significant that it must not escape Nicodemus (and His disciples present).
So what is His emphasis? Well, it is this: unless one is born again, they cannot see the kingdom of God. He emphasized each of those statements. What caught my attention though was Jesus’ stamp on the inability and impossibility of the natural man to see the kingdom of God UNTIL they are regenerate. They cannot. The words οὐ δύναται ἰδεῖν are unequivocal.
The Arminian idea is that the sinner can choose to order his will to believe, of his own accord. Christ emphatically rejects that and says ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν, οὐ δύναται ἰδεῖν τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ Θεοῦ. Unless a man is born again first, he cannot believe, he cannot see the kingdom. Because to behold the Kingdom is only in the domain of faith, regeneration must precede faith.
The natural man cannot believe and he will not believe on his own. Jesus in this same chapter speaks of how the natural man who is dead in sin hates light and the truth (3:17-21). In this, He still insists that the power to believe is not in human hands, for humans naturally hate God and His work. John will track people’s rejection of Christ until they all abandon Him and His teaching in John 6, ultimately crying ‘crucify Him’ in John 19:6.
Thus, no one has the inherent ability to see God’s kingdom until the Spirit of God gives them new life.
But there is more in John. Because only the Spirit gives life, and He does so like the wind, independent of and unpredicted by any man; Jesus says something striking in verses 15 and 16:
ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων ἐν αὐτῷ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον. Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ Θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν Υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ’ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.
I had known these two verses for quite long. And I had over and again heard people use them to teach universal atonement, insisting that Christ died for everyone, ‘whosoever’ somehow brings himself to believe. Apparently, the choice is in their hands, and they have the ability to believe or not.
But of course, as we just saw in verse three, Christ has emphatically ruled out the idea that anyone can bring themselves to believe. Accordingly, one has to be born again first. Verse 15 and 16 continue in the same vein, rejecting the Arminian idea of synergism in salvation.
The two verses, if translated as they appear in Greek read like this:
15: (even so the Son of Man must be lifted up) so that every Believer in Him does have eternal life
16: For in this manner God loved (the) humankind, that He gave His unique Son so that every Believer in Him shall not be lost (or perish) but has eternal life.
It is essential for us to see that in both verses, πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων is a singular noun, not a verb. The definite article before πιστεύων speaks of the state and identity of the Believer, rather than an act the world should do to have life.
In other words, Jesus is saying that Believers have life, rather than stating that every man has the capacity to believe. He is not saying “this is the test, whoever passes it will have life” but that the Father sent Him so that Believers can have life that they cannot lose.
This is thus not a universal appeal, but a particular assurance. There is a world of difference between a verb (a doing word) and a noun (an identifying/status word).
The discussion in verses 15 and 16 is about the world of believers, not an altar call to the universe. Jesus here is teaching about the Christian’s eternal security when He says the believer ‘shall not be lost.’ And He is talking about limited atonement when He restricts His coming to the Believer.
We must recall that in verse 3 He spoke of the total depravity of man, in verse 5-7 He spoke about monergistic regeneration (that only the Holy Spirit is responsible for who gets born again, just like no man can predict or control the wind). And here He stresses the blessed state of Christians, those ‘in Him.’
And Elsewhere in John
Do you think this is a stretch? Listen to the words of Jesus elsewhere in John:
…you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you. (10:26)
My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand. (10:27-29)
Do not murmur among yourselves. No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. (6:43-44)
You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit (15:16)
And yet someone might ask, ‘how does one ever come to believe?’ Well, John 10:26 states that first, you must be His sheep. You must have belonged to Him from before you were born. But how? How does one become His sheep or belong to Him? Jesus answers that the Father personally chooses the sheep in the Son (10:29, 15:16).
Then the Father draws them towards the Son (6:43-44) through His Spirit who gives them a new birth. Otherwise, they would remain dead (3:3-8). The Spirit provides the sheep with life through the power of the voice of the Son who is the Word of the Father (10:27). As a result, each one believes (John 3:16), and each Believer has eternal security (3:16, 10:27-29).
How great! What a joy! What a fantastic grace of God, what a glorious work of the Triune God in choosing us while we were dead in our sin, with no merit of our own, to the praise of His glory! There is so much more in John. So much more. That is why I mentioned before that the more I learn biblical languages, the more I love the Reformed Doctrines of Grace.
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to (the Believers) in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13)