The Powerlessness of Religiosity: A new look at Romans 7

Romans 7:7-24 has been interpreted in a number of different ways over the centuries. Some have seen Paul’s treatise on his struggles with sin, wanting to do good but then doing what is bad too much, as 1) the normal Christian life, b) describing a back-slidden Christian, or 3) someone who is not a Christian. The struggle to understand what he means is compounded by his use of “I” and the present tense. So is Paul describing the norm for his life after he became a Christian?  Is he describing his day to day struggles? Or was this just how he felt when he did sin? Or is it how he felt before he became a Christian?  And whichever it is, how do we apply it to our own lives today?

I believe a key to understanding this section begins with looking at how he begins talking about it. Romans 7:7-8 says: “What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead.”

To follow what Paul is driving at here, it is important to have a correct view of the law. We know that the law is good, as Paul says in vs. 12: “So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good”  Then in vs. 14: “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.” The law is good, but we are sinful. The law was given by God in part to show us how holy He is and how sinful we are. This is the theme of the book of Galatians.  We need a savior because we simply cannot, with our own strength, obey the law as God wants.

So what happens when we do try and follow the law with our own strength? I believe this is what Paul is describing in Romans 7:7-24. It leads to real frustration when you have a person, like Paul, a Pharisee and the son of a Pharisee, who studied the law under the famed teacher Gamaliel, who in his heart wanted to do what the law said, but as a sinner simply could not even come close to its standard of holiness. Vs. 21-23 describe his frustration point blank: “So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.”

The majority of the Jewish people did seem to try and follow the law, but they could not keep it. God already knew this would be the case, and that is why He set up the sacrificial system, which in itself was actually pointing to the need for a better sacrifice, a perfect sacrifice, who is Jesus. This is the message of the book of Hebrews.

Too many times when we think of the law we think of the Pharisees Jesus spoke about, who seemed to try and keep the law mostly for show, but as Jesus said, their hearts were far from God. I think they were the exception, for many, like Paul were good-hearted, including the Jewish people in Rome reading this letter. They wanted to do what God wanted, but they failed more than they succeeded.

teachreadTo get more to the point, when Paul is using “me” and “I” throughout this passage, I believe that he is focusing on his Jewishness, and how he felt before his heart was transformed by Jesus. He was “religious”, he wanted to be a good Pharisee, a good Jew, he wanted to do what was right, but his own sinful nature got in the way, his “best” was just not good enough.  The Jewish people who did not yet have Jesus in their lives are on Paul’s heart. He knows his people, and he knows their frustration in trying to serve God, but failing miserably to live up to the impossibly high standard of the law. He therefore uses his own “before Jesus” experience to relate to their frustration.

But he has good news for the religious Jews. He comes to the end of the section, in vs. 24 and 25 and reveals the only way to change this path of frustration: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God–through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  Here is the real point. Paul could not live up to the law’s standard on his own. But Jesus bridges the gap. He becomes Paul’s perfection and transformed his life, as he expands on in chapter 8.

Paul continues his great conclusion of how the Jews, and all people, are to become right before God. It is not the ability to obey the law perfectly, but the answer is in Jesus. 8:1-2 says: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.”  Trying to keep the law perfectly is impossible, so if that is your only way to God, you will fail and it will lead to death. But through Jesus, the condemnation of the law over us for not being able to keep it perfectly is wiped out. We are made clean through the blood of Jesus, the perfect sacrifice.

Paul is saying to the Jews, and to all religious people: “I know how you feel. I felt it for most of my life. I loved God, I wanted to do His will, but I just couldn’t do it on my own. But through His power I am no longer under condemnation. I have experienced the transforming work of Jesus, the Holy Spirit is living within me. I am now sinless before God because of the sacrifice of Jesus and now have the power to live a life pleasing to Him.” As 8:5 says: “Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.” The law is good, but it does not change our heart. Jesus, and the Holy Spirit living within us, is what changes us through and through.

So in conclusion, the way we can apply this is to know that no matter how “religious” we are, if we have not given our lives to Jesus, we will find ourselves living a psychotic, bi-polar life which Paul describes in chapter 7; wanting to do good but simply unable to do it with any consistency. We do not need to be more “religious”, we need the transforming power of Jesus in our lives and in our hearts.

You may be a Christian and sometimes feel the same way. The Bible deals with this as well, and so we can apply, in regards to this part of Scripture, chapter 8 to our lives when we are failing even though we are a Christian. Chapter 8 says that through the power of the Spirit we can overcome sin. The Bible talks a lot about how to redirect our lives, and I’m sure we have heard lot of sermons on the importance of daily personal devotions, prayer, counsel of fellow Christians, regular fellowship, filling our minds with Godly things in the middle of all the “trash” we are bombarded with in this world, etc. It is a daily battle, but the most important thing is to not to try and fight it on our own. Let us surrender our lives to Jesus and let His Spirit direct us. Without this, we have no chance.


Understanding the phrase, “Nothing shall separate us from the love of Christ/God.”

In a book full of famous phrases, one of the best known in the book of Romans is, “Nothing shall separate us from the love of Christ/God.” It is an amazing promise and one many of us lean on, especially in tough times. But I wonder if we truly grasp the full meaning of this phrase, especially as it relates to the context in which it is found in Romans 8. It is so easy to hear a lovely phrase like this without really realizing how super-practical it is.

So let us look at the last five verses (35-39) of chapter 8 and see it in that immediate context. There is context before it, but let me just focus here on these last five verses.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,  “For your sake we are being killed all the day long;  we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Paul begins with a list of things that people might think could possibly “separate us from the love of Christ/God.” So how could tribulation, the first of the list, separate us from God’s love? Is the focus on me, that I might turn my back on God and therefore be separated from His love? No, I don’t think that is what it means at all. In fact, the focus is not on us, it is on God. I would like to posit that it makes much more sense to understand this as, “Even if we find ourselves in the middle of tribulation, God still loves us.” It doesn’t matter what is going on around us, God still loves us. There is a heresy taught sometimes that when we are going through tribulations or other bad things are happening to us, it is somehow our fault, and God has turned His back on us. (I am not referring here to tribulations of our own making, like getting a girl pregnant which can lead to a divorce or all other kinds of tribulations, though even in this case, God still loves us.) What I want us to always remember is that no matter what is happening to us, to loved ones or if there is chaos all around us, God is with us, He is still loving us, He has not abandoned us. It may seem like it or feel like it as times, but Paul proclaims that it is not true.

  • He still loves us (and has not abandoned us) when we are in the middle of tribulations.
  • He still loves us (and has not abandoned us) in the middle of our distress.
  • He still loves us (and has not abandoned us) when we are being persecuted.
  • He still loves us (and has not abandoned us) when we don’t have anything to eat.
  • He still loves us (and has not abandoned us) when we are homeless or don’t have any clothes to wear.
  • He still loves us (and has not abandoned us) even when people are threatening to kill us, and He still loves us (and has not abandoned us) even if were are killed.  You can ask Jesus about all these things. He was never outside the love of God, though when He carried the sins of the world, God momentarily turned His back on Him.

Paul starts another list in verse 38.

  • Death cannot do anything to stop God from loving us, since death is far from the worst thing that can happen to us. In fact, Paul says in Philippians 1:20-24 that death is in some ways better than life, since we will be with the Lord.
  • Nothing that happens to us in this life can stop God from loving us. A lot of crazy and even terrible things happen to a person over the course of their lifetime, but there is not a single one of them which can cause God to stop loving us.
  • Angels are powerful beings and even with their intimate knowledge of God, a third of  them turned their back on God. There are now evil angels, but there is nothing they can do to stop God from loving us.
  • Rulers can refer to the ungodly rulers of this world, like when Jesus told His disciples that they will be brought before rulers(arrested) as a result of being His people. Even during this hard time, He is with them and will give them words straight from the Holy Spirit. This word also sometimes refers to the evil, unseen forces of this world, but “greater is He who is in me than he that is in the world.” God is greater and more powerful, and His love is greater and more powerful.
  • Nothing in this present world, anything that happens to us now, can cause God to stop loving us. I know it seems at times that God is far away and has forgotten about us, but it is simply not true. He is still there, and He still loves us.
  • There is nothing in the future which will happen to us that can stop God from loving us. This gives us great hope, for He holds our future in His hands, and He has the ultimate control of what will happen to us.
  • Powers, height nor depth are also apparently referring to unseen powers that could squash us in a millisecond or which have the power to deceive the smartest worldly person in the world. Since we are under God’s grace, He is greater and He will keep on loving us. Satan is called the god of this world, this is currently his kingdom. Luke 4:5-7 says: “And the devil took him(Jesus) up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus came to bring God’s kingdom, to form a people living under His authority, because the majority of the world is under Satan’s hand. We live under a worldly, anti-God system which is opposed to us who have Jesus as our Savior and Lord. This world is not heaven, far from it. So we should not expect for things to go smoothly. In fact, we should expect significant problems. But He has not and will not abandon us. His love is unconditional. God can put heaven/peace in our hearts and keep us until that day.
  • For good measure, Paul, in case he has left out anything, adds, “nor anything in all creation.”. This basically states again that it is impossible that anything could ever happen to us to cause God to stop loving us. So in our darkest hours, in our deepest desperation, when we lose loved ones or it seems that all hope is lost, we must cling to this truth. God still loves us, He has not abandoned us and He will work it all out in our lives for His glory.

After much study and thinking about what different Mixtec phrases implied, we translated “what can separate us from the love of Christ/God” as, “What can cause God to stop loving us?” Nothing! And at the end of the passage, “And nothing that God has made is able to cause that God stops loving us, for He shows His great love for us through what Jesus Christ, our Lord, did for us.” Video of this article on Facebook.


Grace upon Grace

Mexico, March2008 080

Distributing the Mixtec New Testament after the Dedication Celebration for it


16And from his(Jesus) fullness we have all received grace upon grace. 17For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (John 1:16-17)  If you read some Bible versions, they say “blessing upon blessing” as opposed to grace upon grace in verse 16.  To understand what John is communicating to us here, and keeping in mind the context, I don’t believe that “blessing upon blessing” is the best translation of this phrase. (In Greek it says charin anti charitos or grace on top of grace.) If you read different Bible commentaries you will find that they interpret “grace upon grace” in various ways. I would like to propose a different way to understand this phrase, one that is not usually brought out in the commentaries.

The Law as Grace

We usually don’t think of the Law of Moses as grace, but I think that this is the “first grace” John is referring to in this phrase. As we read the Old Testament, and consider what Paul has to say about the Law of Moses, we find that there is a lot of grace in the Law of Moses. If it weren’t for the law of Moses, God would have wiped out all the Israel people and started over, as he once told Moses He was going to do (Deut. 9:13-14).  The Law makes it so that, even though our sins are not washed away, they are covered. Besides that it was given as guide on how to live a holy life before God. Paul tell us that one of the main reasons God gave us this guide was to show us how far we fall from His glory and His perfection (Gal. 3:24) and therefore we need a Savior, a “better” grace. In Romans 3:19-20, Paul says: “Obviously, the law applies to those to whom it was given, for its purpose is to keep people from having excuses, and to show that the entire world is guilty before God. For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are.” A little later in chapter 7, verse 12, he says, “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” He also says that there is a great glory to that law (2 Cor.3:7).

The message of Hebrews: Grace upon Grace

The main theme of the book Hebrews, a topic also found in other parts of the New Testament, is that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law.  A more recent way of thinking about Paul is that when he was on his way to Damascus he finally understood the true meaning of the Law, where it was pointing to, that it was pointing towards Jesus, and that Jesus is the complete fulfillment of the law. It is important to keep this understanding of the law in mind when thinking about this phrase from John 1, “grace upon grace.” I believe that this message of “grace upon grace” is the message of Hebrews. We have grace through the law, but it is only a starting point.  Jesus completes the work of grace through His sacrificial death once and for all for all to erase our sins. His resurrection proves what He did is real.

A life preserver

We might think of it like a person drowning in the sea, and someone throws them a life preserver. The person is now no longer drowning,  but they are still not where they want to be. They are just there, and, while alive, still floating in the water. They are experiencing grace, the life preserver, they are surviving, but it isn’t where they ultimately want to be. What they now need is to be taken up to the promised land.

A sacrificial system became the prefect One who sacrificed Himself once and for all

That, in a nutshell, is the message of Hebrews, and in the same way, John in 1:16 is telling us this: We received grace through the Law, but now, through His fullness, we have received complete grace. We first had this grace that kept us from being destroyed by God for our sins, for He covered our sins from His sight. His commandments are really good for us if we can follow them, but the problem is we keep falling short of the mark. But now we have this grace fulfilled, which comes through Jesus Christ. Hebrews says it is a grace which is much better than the previous grace. “A sacrificial system became the prefect One who sacrificed Himself once and for all.”  So God changed the sacrificial system, as Hebrews talks about a lot, into the perfect One, the sinless One, who sacrificed Himself once and for all.

More than surviving

Verse 17 is an explanation of this “grace upon grace”  phrase found in vs. 16. 17a says “For the law was given through Moses.” Through Moses we have the Law and the sacrificial system. It covered up sins, we are surviving, but it is not where we want to be, our final destination. However as it says in 17b: “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”  It is important to remember that this phrase “grace and truth is also found back in verse 14, which says: “14And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”  So in vs. 14 and vs. 17, not only is grace referred to, but so is truth.

The Law fulfilled is grace and truth

In many places in the Bible the word truth also carries with it the idea of fulfillment.  It is the true, the final, the ultimate grace, which we find in Jesus Christ. We first had the grace of the Law of Moses. Then God’s perfect timing was fulfilled and God’s super-grace appears, the fulfillment of grace through Jesus Christ. But it seems that this wonderful truth is a bit obscured, and we miss it when we read translations which say “blessing upon blessing.”

 John the Baptist: The Bridge

Finally, the other context of John 1 is John the Baptist. He is the bridge, and there are a number of verses which talk about that (i.e. Matt. 11:13-14). There is the Old Testament, pointing towards Jesus, pointing towards Jesus, it is covering our sins, showing us our need for something better, and even prophesying about something better, proclaiming itself incomplete. Then John publicly reveals the Messiah, the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus is the one who is the truth, the fulfillment of the grace God began in the Law, and He also brings the ultimate glory though His death on the cross and His resurrection. Now grace has been fulfilled and it is available to all who call upon the name of the Lord.

The top 10 things to consider when translating John 3:16

The following are ten things a translation team should consider when translating John 3:16. Of course the entire context of not only chapter three but all of what John has written must be kept in mind, as well as what we know about Jesus from other Gospel writers. Decisions about key terms used in other passages should be considered. I’m sure other translators can add to this list, but these are the things the translation team I was part of especially had to think about when translating into their language of Mixtec, an indigenous language of Mexico

This is not an attempt to cover every aspect of the translation of John 3:16, but to raise awareness of some of the issues. It is also simplified so that it can be used to share in Sunday Schools, Bible studies and other teaching situations to show those not involved in translation some of the issues translation teams encounter. This should be especially interesting to most since this is such a well known verse.

  1. We do not know if Jesus said this or if John is telling us about Jesus

Commentators do not agree where Jesus stopped talking and the writer John began his commentary. Different versions of the Bible punctuate this section differently, depending whether they think Jesus said what is written in vs. 16-21, or whether they decide John wrote it about Him. All agree that Jesus said to Nicodemus what is written in vs. 10-15. It makes it harder to determine which view is correct in 16-21 since Jesus does speak in third person during most of His discussion with Nicodemus. Whether Jesus is speaking here affects in many languages how this verse in translated, especially in the Mixtec language.

  1. For

The translation team must decide how verse 16 fits into the context, since vs. 15 is a mini summary of vs. 16. Vs. 15 says: “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” The actual first word of the verse is “Thusly”. So the verse starts out: For “thusly” (in the following way) God loved…

  1. God

Many languages do not have a good understanding of God, or a belief that there is only “one” God. Investigation is needed to see if there is an acceptable word for God in the language, and what that word implies to the speakers of the language. Sometimes it may be possible to say, “The Creator of all things.” I was in Thailand several years ago and while looking at a Buddhist temple, a monk spoke some English to me, so I began talking with him. I finally asked him if he knew of Jesus. He had never heard of Jesus. I then asked if he knew of God, and that word also did not ring a bell. I thought for a moment, then said God is the one who made the world, and he seemed to grasp that idea. I once had a discussion with a man in the Mixtec village who told me Andrew (the town saint) was a better saint than Jesus. No matter how much I explained about the uniqueness of Jesus and who He is, the man was steadfast in his belief.  Some people in this village also call the saints gods.

  1. loved

Translating love in the completive (past) aspect could imply in some languages that God does not love us any more (He “used” to love the world). In the Mixtec translation I was a part of, the team decided to express this in present tense (continuative aspect), “God loves us very much.” Greek, of course, has three words for love, “agape”, here, plus “philos” and “eros”, so the translation team will need to consider and test different words for love. This Mixtec variant also has at least three different words/phrases that can be used to express love, compassion, empathy, desire, etc.

  1. the world

The translation team must be careful about translating the word “world” (kosmos) literally, or it may imply that God loves the dirt, trees, etc. In Mixtec it was adjusted to say that God loves the people of the world.

  1. He gave

This is also a more profound idea than it seems at first glance since it can sound strange to say that God gave His son, like He gave Him away. Plus with a transitive verb like give, many languages require a direct object, to clarify to whom He gave Him. In Mixtec, after experimenting with using the idea that God “sent” Him, the team finally decided to keep the word give, plus add an arrival verb, so it comes out as: God gave him and he has arrived to this world.

This required the translation team to make a decision as to who is speaking in this verse because of the implications of the motion and arrival verbs. If Jesus is still speaking to Nicodemus, He would say, “God gave him/me and he(I) has/have arrived to this world (and is/am still here)” since arrival verbs in this context imply the speaker is still present. If it is John narrating, he would say, “He sent/gave Him and He came(and left).” “Come” in the completive (past) aspect implies the person being spoken about came and went. This would imply that John wrote the verse sometime after Jesus ascended to heaven.

It is very possible that the implied information is that He gave His only Son “to die for the sins of people”, or “so that God might forgive the sins of people” or something along those lines. Most of us are so familiar with this verse that we can easily say this verse without thinking about that. For many languages, just saying, “He gave” is an incomplete thought. It needs more context. In the Mixtec example, saying, “He gave His only Son and He arrived in this world” helps fill things in. If a translation team realizes their language needs/requires added information for “give” , what implied information do they feel comfortable “adding”? What type of translation are they aiming for? And how will this information need to be adjusted as they decide if Jesus is talking or if John is talking about Jesus?

  1. His only son

This is another phrase that is hard to translate because of all the implications when stating that God has children. Translators, especially in Muslim areas, have faced this issue, since it sounds very much like God has a wife, had sex, etc., and the people reject the translation.  In Mixtec this is translated as, “His only son.”

Another issue is, if Jesus is talking, can a person talk about himself in third person in the language? Will people think that, if Jesus is talking, then He is talking about some other son, His brother, or even implying that He is not the son of God? Yet another issue is, should it say, “He sent ME, His only son”? If Jesus is still talking, this is a real option. This is an issue throughout the Gospels, and especially in the book of John.

  1. whoever believes in him 

The teams need to consider carefully what word to use for believe, since James says that the devils believe, and tremble. In Mixtec it says that whoever trusts in him, which is a good Mixtec way of talking about faith. In many languages, you can believe in facts, but you cannot “believe” in people. You can trust them or have confidence in them, which works well here.

  1. shall not perish

Perish in what sense? Will it communicate, like some groups teach, that those who don’t go to heaven simply cease to exist? What are the people’s beliefs about the afterlife, What happens when a person dies? The Mixtec says that they will not die.

  1. but have eternal life

Does this term mean they will never experience death on this earth? Does the language have a word for eternal? If so, what does it imply? In Mixtec it says that they will be able to live forever.

A word for word translation with these adjustments in Mixtec is: For since God loves very much the people of this world, therefore he gave (ME) his only son to arrive in this world, and whoever trusts in him(ME), they will not die. Instead they will be able to live forever.


Acts 15 and Sex: How then should we Gentiles live?

Acts 15

The challenge of translating sexual terms was partly brought to my attention because of the succession of events found in Acts 15. Paul and Barnabas had a heated discussion with some men who came to Antioch from Jerusalem and said, “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This led to a big conference in Jerusalem, where Paul, Barnabas, Peter and others spoke, and ended with the decision to send out a letter to deal with the controversy. In vs. 23 of chapter 15 we see that it is a letter from the Jewish leaders to the Gentiles: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings.” Then verse 29 communicates their decision: “that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”

Notice the most interesting list in vs. 29:

  1. that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols,

2. and from blood,

3. and from what has been strangled,

4. and from sexual immorality.

Eating together can cause good communion or division

The letter is not a four spiritual laws type of list. It contains three requests to abstain from certain types of food, and the other admonition is to abstain from sexual immorality. F.F. Bruce (p. 311) says in regards to the food recommendations: “In most of the churches, Gentile believers had to live alongside Jewish believers, who had been brought up to observe various food laws.” “James asked them to respect their Jewish brethren’s scruples by avoiding ‘these things’.” It is hard for people in modern times imagine how repugnant meat with blood was to the Jewish people. They had grown up from early childhood with these laws and regulations. Now, as a result of them giving their hearts to Jesus, and Gentiles doing the same, for the first time in their lives, and we might even say, in history, these “people of the law” are having close communion with Gentiles, people who were accustomed to eating meat with blood, or meat that had been sacrificed to idols.

In that era, almost all communion included food, so this was something they had to deal with practically every time they came together. At that time the idea of the First Christian Church of the Gentiles and a separate First Christian Church of the Jews was not an option. The Bible emphasizes the importance of koinonia, and many of the problems within the church had to do with divisions, strife, bickering, judgment of others, etc. So the letter asked the Gentiles to be willing to adapt in this way for their “weaker brothers.” Paul deals a lot with this issue in his letters as well, for example: Rom 14:20: “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” 1 Cor. 8, another chapter dedicated to this issue says in verse:13: “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”

A big difference in sexual mores

Besides the significant differences between Jews and Gentiles in regards to food (and idols), there was also a gulf of difference between them in regards to sexual mores. As a result, FF Bruce (p. 311) says this letter asks the Gentiles to “conform to the high Jewish code of relations between the sexes instead of remaining content with the lower pagan standards to which they had been accustomed. This would smooth the path of social and table fellowship between Christians of Jewish and Gentile birth.” It is hard to overstate how much the difference in sexual mores between the Jews and Gentiles affected their fellowship. The believing Jews had grown up with a strict sexual code to live by while most Gentiles grew up with the opposite. We get a glimpse of their former lifestyle through what Peter, one of the Acts 15 conference attendees and speakers said in his letter (1 Peter 4:3-4a): “For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do–living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation.”

Not only was the different views of sex an issue, but the pagan attachment of feasts and sex showed itself in a number of cases. As already mentioned, most meetings among the believers at that time included food. Witherington (p. 13) says that “one should not underestimate the place of sexual expression in some pagan festivals. There is evidence that there were in Roman Corinth numerous hataerae who often served as companions of the well-to-do at meals. 1 Cor. 10:7 is a meaningful warning only if Paul had good reason to assume that sexual play was a regular part of some meals among the pagans.” 1 Cor. 10:7 says: “Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.’” Quinitilan warns that a teacher of rhetoric should teach his charges about the danger of such feasts, especially because of the possibility of more mature youths or men taking advantage of younger boys in such settings.” (Witherington, p. 13. footnote 31) It is clear that at least something similar was a problem in some churches, reflected in Jude’s warning about the false teachers, with the implication that some of them practiced such things, as vs.12 says: “These men are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm–shepherds who feed only themselves.”

Paul’s letters emphasize sexual purity

It is into this cultural context that Paul writes his letters. Paul’s letters include at least twelve lists of three or more sins, and in every one of his lists, except for one, at least one sexual sin is listed, and in most lists there are three. The one list in Ephesians 4 which does not include a sexual sin is preceded by verses promoting purity, and followed by a list which entreats the Ephesians to flee sexual immortality. Paul contextualizes his instructions not to sin, and one of the biggest sins which he had to confront the people about was illicit sexual relations. (Note also how many times division and strife are mentioned as well.)

In fact, in his writings Paul lists over 65 different sins which his readers were to avoid. Yes, Paul’s main message is that only through Jesus do we find grace, are forgiven and have eternal life. But then the question comes, as Francis Shaffer stated, “How then shall we live?” Since Paul did not expect the Gentiles to become Jews and follow all the laws and customs of the Jewish people found in the Old Testament, he takes the moral laws of God and applies them to the Gentile context in each place he visited.

We can think of the Acts 15 controversy this way: Judaizers sought to change the Gentiles’ religion. (Acts 15:5b: “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.”). Paul, on the other hand, gives them a message which could change their heart, and gives instructions on how to live a holy life, pleasing to God. His lists are contextualized to deal with their specific sins and temptations, although they included most of the ideas from the 10 commandments.


Bruce, F. F. 1970. The New International Commentary on the New Testament, The Book of Acts. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co.

Witherington III, Ben. 1995. Conflict & Community in Corinth. A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

The following is a list of the Greek sexual terms used in the New Testament. Note how many verses in the New Testament contains a sexual term. This issue is not just some obscure topic. It literally concerns well over one hundred verses.

Greek word Romans letters verses Translations
πορνεία porneīa


Mat. 5:32, 15:19, 19:9; Mark 7:21; John 8:41; Acts 15:20, 29, 21:25; Rom. 1:29, 1 Cor. 5:1, 6:13, 18, 7:2; 2 Cor. 12:21; Gal. 5:19; Eph. 5:3; Co. 3:5; 1 Th. 4:3; Rev. 2:21, 9:21, 14:8, 17:2, 4, 18:3, 19:2. Fornication, sexual immorality
πορνεύω porneúw 1 Cor. 6:18, 10:8; Rev. 2:14, 20, 17:2, 18:3, 19:2 sins sexually, sexually immoral person
πόρνη pornh Mat. 21:31-2; Luke 15:30; 1 Cor. 6:15-16; Heb. 11:31; Jas. 2:25; Rev 17:1,5, 15-16, 19:2 Prostitute, harlot, whore
πόρνος pórnos 1 Cor. 5:9-11; Eph. 5:5; 1 Tim. 1:10; Heb. 12:16, 13:4; Rev. 21:8, 22:15 Fornicators, whoremongers, sexually immoral, adulterers (NIV)
ἐκπορνεύω ekporneúw Jude 7 Giving themselves over to fornication/sexual immorality




Mat. 12:39, 16:4; Mark 8:38; Rom. 7:3 (2); Jas. 4:4; 2 Pet. 2:14 Adulterous, adulteress, adultery
μοιχεύω moicheúw Mat. 5:27, 28, 32 19.18; Mark 10.19; Luke 16:18; 18.20; John 8:4; Rom. 2:22; 13.9; Jas. 2:11: Rev. 2:22 adultery
μοιχεία moicheía Mat. 15:19; Mark 7.21; John 8:3 Gal. 5.19 Adultery, adulteries
μοιχάω moicháw Mat. 5:32; 19.9; Mark 10.11-12


commits adultery
μοιχός moíchos Luke 18:11; 1 Cor. 6:9; Heb, 13:4; Jas. 4:4 Adulterers,


asélgeia Mark 7:22; Rom. 13:13; 2 Cor. 12:21; Gal. 5:19, Eph. 4:19, 1 Pet. 4:3; 2 Pet. 2:7, 18; Jude 4 Sensual conduct, sensual passions, lasciviousness,

debauchery, wantonness, lustful desires

Greek word Roman letters verses Translations


páthos Rom. 1:26; Col. 3:5; 1 Th. 4:5 Vile affections, inordinate affection, lust
πάθος ἀτιμία


páthos atimía


Rom. 1:26 dishonorable passions, shameful lusts,
ἐπιθυμία epithumía Rom. 1:24, 6:2, 7:7-8, 13:14; Gal. 5:16, 24; Eph. 2:3, 4:22; Col 3:5; 1Th 4:5; 1 Tim 6:9; 2Tim. 2:22, 3:6, 4:3; Tit. 2:12, 3:3; Jas. 1:14-15; 1Pet. 1:14, 2:11, 4:2-3; 2Pet. 1:4, 2:10, 18, 3:3; 1Joh. 2:16-17; Jude 16, 18. Lusts, sinful desires
ὄρεχις órexis Rom. 1:27 lust
ἐκκαίω ekkaío Rom. 1:27 inflamed, consumed with passion


kómos Rom 13:13; Gal. 5:21; 1 Pet. 4:3 Orgies, rioting, revellings, carousing


koith (Luke 11:7, Rom. 9:10) 13:13; Heb. 13:4 Bed, chambering, sexual immorality
μαλακός malakós (Mat. 11:8(2); Luke 7:25) 1 Cor. 6:9 Soft, effeminate, male prostitute
ἀρσενοκοίτης arsenokoítes 1 Cor. 6:9, 1 Ti. 1:10 Abusers of themselves with mankind, defile themselves with mankind
ἀκαθαρσία akatharsía Mat. 23:27; Rom. 1:24; 6.19; 2Cor. 12:21; Gal. 5.19; Eph. 4:19; 5.3; Col 3:5; 1Th 2:3, 4:7 Uncleanness, impurity

2 Corinthians: Understanding the difference between “we” and we


For a discussion on 1 Corinthians 13 (“How not to love”), scroll down or go here.

Many commentaries state that 2 Corinthians 1-9 has a theme of reconciliation. In contrast 10-13 is commonly said to be almost the opposite, which has led to partition theories, that these two parts were written at different times and later put together as one book. Some commentators divide/partition 2 Corinthians into as many as five or six books.

Thrall, writing in the International Critical Commentary, divides it into three:

1-8, 13:11-13 (she sees several “digressions” in 1-7)



The Exegetical Summary of 2 Corinthians, published by SIL, while holding the interpretation that 2 Corinthians is one book, states: “The most serious challenge to the integrity of canonical 2 Corinthians comes from the sudden change of tone from the chapters 1–9 to chapters 10–13.”

Thrall, in the ICC, in her section on the “Arguments for and against the separation of chaps. 10-13 from chaps. 1-9,”on page 5 states the commonly held view that: “Paul’s attitude to his readers here and the general tone of these chapters are incompatible with the tone and attitude of the earlier chapters. In the first seven chapters he has written of reconciliation, and his joy of its achievement. But now, he suddenly bursts out into a torrent of reproaches, sarcastic self-vindication and stern warnings.”

The thesis of this short discussion is that there may not be quite the stark contrast between 1-9 and 10-13 that appears on the surface if one takes into account the interpretation of one concept which occurs over and over in 1-9. The concept is the correct understanding of the first person plural references (“we”) and their purpose in the rhetoric of 2 Corinthians. There are over 200 occurrences of the first person plural pronoun, and so the issue is of great importance.

In A Handbook on Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, published by the United Bible Societies, Roger L. Omanson and John Ellington state on p. 8 that: “For many verses the context is so very ambiguous that it is not possible to be certain. In languages that use separate forms for inclusive and exclusive first person plural pronouns, the translation will involve a certain amount of guesswork.”

It is important to keep in mind that this issue is not only important for languages which distinguish between we inclusive and we exclusive, where the language forces the translator to one interpretation or the other. It also has an impact on languages without this distinction, since how the translator understands who Paul is referring to will affect the translation of these verses, as well as the overall rhetoric of the book.

The Mixtec language I work in does distinguish between first person plural inclusive and first person plural exclusive. The pronoun “yo” is inclusive, and “ndu” is exclusive. This concept was hard from me to grasp at the beginning since English does not have separate pronouns to make this distinction. In English, we can only go by the context. So if my wife and I are speaking to a church and saying “We are going to Mexico January 7”, then the people listening know that we are only talking about the two of us, and we are not including them. In Mixtec, we would have used the pronoun “ndu”, “we exclusive” to say that sentence. But if, in that same church, I say, “Today we are going to look at the 3rd chapter of John’s Gospel,” then people know the “we” includes everyone. we are all going to talk and think about it. In that instance, in Mixtec, I would have said “yo”, “we inclusive.”

Bible scholars have mostly dealt with this issue in the Bible when trying and decide if Paul sometimes uses “we” to talk about “we Jews” as opposed to “you Gentiles.” There are a number of verses where it is hard to know which he is referring to.  But the issue is vitally important in trying to understand 2 Corinthians, since the word “we” appears in this book over 200 times, much more than any other book in the New Testament.

As the Mixtec translation team worked through 2 Corinthians, the context led us to translate almost all of the first person plurals “we”, as exclusive, either referring to Paul himself, or to himself and Timothy. In Mixtec, when it is read this way, the tone is not reconciliatory. Paul is defending his ministry, urging the Corinthians to accept his apostleship and authority as God’s calling, and to quit listening to false teachers. We felt these decisions fit the overall context of the book, and brought unity to the book.

Later on, further research showed that SIL Mexico Branch member Velma Pickett wrote in the first and sixth Notes on Translation back in 1962 that almost all of the first person plurals of 2 Corinthians are probably exclusive. A number of other translators have come to the same conclusion. In each of these cases, the language they worked in required them to make an inclusive/exclusive decision.

Almost none of these earlier studies say what impact such an interpretation has on the rhetoric of the book. In Mixtec, the use of we exclusive helps to reflect Paul’s jealousy for God’s glory, the gospel and the believers. If one rejects the messenger, they end up rejecting the message.

This was further confirmed by an article in The Bible Translator, Vol 54, No 4, published in 2006, by Paul Ellingworth , where he sates that Paul “is concerned to defend his own and his companions’ ministry against harmful attacks, so the great majority of the occurrences of we in this letter exclude the Corinthians. Only occasionally does he appeal to deep convictions which he and his readers hold in common: e.g., when he writes “our Lord Jesus Christ” (1.3; 6.16); “we all…are being transformed into [Christ’s] likeness” (3.18); or “we are the temple of the living God” (6.16). These cases would use inclusive “we.”” I would also add 5:10: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ….”

Philip Hughes, in The New International Commentary on the New Testament, written in 1962, also saw how the argument of Paul defending his apostleship brought unity to the entire book of 2 Corinthians, stating that: “The difficulty of the change of tone and content of the final four chapters is more imaginary than real. As we have shown, they fit in with the scheme of the epistle. But, what is more, it can be demonstrated that they harmonize with the pervading theme of the epistle–the theme, namely, of strength through weakness. In this theme is bound up the whole argument for the genuineness of Paul’s apostolic authority, which has been impugned by his adversaries in Corinth.”

While Hughes focuses on the theme of “strength through weakness” as tying the book together, I advocate that understanding almost all of the we’s as we exclusive, which give further evidence Paul is defending his apostleship, is further and even stronger evidence of the unity of the book, and which lessens the assumed change of tone between 1-9 and 10-13.

The following Scripture is well known, and fairly representative of chapters 1-9. Here, as in many passages in 2 Corinthians, Paul contrasts “we” and “you.” He is also validating his ministry, thus the Gospel, by telling how he has risked his life so that they might have life. In other passages he freely interchanges “we” and “I.” These and other cases add to the evidence that the majority of the first person plurals are exclusive.

7 “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.” 4:7-12 (NIV)

We can, and should, of course, apply these verses to our own lives, but it is also very important to understand what Paul is trying to do in the context of his writings. What was the impact on the original readers? I would challenge you to some day soon sit down and read 2 Corinthians, and each time you come across “we, our, etc.,” replace them with “I, my, etc.” As you do this, ask yourself what impact this has on the rhetoric and purpose of what Paul is writing. Also note how the reading flows better into the arguments found in chapters 10-13, where Paul does use “I” almost exclusively.

(I have written a much more detailed (unpublished) paper on this topic, where I deal with all the passages of 2 Corinthians and explain the reasons why I conclude Paul is using we exclusive. I, along with another colleague, led a workshop on 2 Corinthians in Spanish in 2012 where we went into even more detail.)


Abernathy, David. 2003. An Exegetical Summary of 2 Corinthians. Dallas: SIL International.

Ellingworth, Paul. 2006 “We” in Paul, The Bible Translator, Vol 54, No. 4. United Bible Societies.

Hughes, Philip E. 1962. The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Thrall, Margaret E. 1994. The International Critical Commentary, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Vol. I. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

Tuti yóꞌo kúú tôꞌon Ndios, ta xíꞌo ña kuenda saꞌâ Jesus. The New Testament in Tezoatlán Mixtec. 2006. Mexico, D.F.: La Liga Bíblica, A.C.

What the Corinthians teach us about how NOT to love

seb-group00The following is part of a presentation I gave at Bible Translation 2009, a conference held in Dallas, Texas. My next entry will be the other part of that presentation, on 2 Corinthians. The full paper can be found here.

Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians is commonly understood as a love poem, but I believe it to be more of a strong rebuke and summary of their already mentioned shortcomings, especially in regards to spiritual gifts. Most people have probably never thought of chapter 13 as a “summary of shortcomings” but let’s look a little closer at the book and try to see what Paul is doing, through the eyes of the Mixtec language.

The Mixtec language I work with, like many languages of the world, does not have abstract nouns. As a result, the language requires a translation of love in its verb form. The verb love requires a subject, as well as a direct object. Mixtec must state who is loving whom. The translation team at first thought it could be God loving us, but we saw that after saying love is patient, love is kind, the next eight statements say what love is not. So we determined the focus is more on how the Corinthian Christians should love one another. Looking at the immediate context of chapter 12 and 14, as well as the context of the rest of the book led us to conclude that 1 Corinthians 13 is not a love poem, but more of a rebuke to the Corinthians, showing how they were not loving one another. This fresh understanding, to me at least, came as a result of Mixtec requiring us to look at the passage through new eyes. If this chapter is read as a rebuke, and since so many verses in the previous chapters have “rebuke” as the focus, when read in Mixtec, the entire book of I Corinthians sounds very much like a “severe” letter. (2 Cor. 2:4)

As I studied this list of the characteristics of love from the Mixtec language perspective, it brought to my mind previous verses in the book where Paul relates how the Corinthians did almost the opposite of what he is advocating here in chapter 13. I soon found verses stating how the Corinthians were not kind, how they were proud, boastful, envious, rejoiced in evil, etc. I soon developed a devotional to share this new discovery with my Mexico Branch colleagues during chapel times at the linguistic centers in Oaxaca and Tucson. (I think it is important that as translators make such new discoveries, that they share them with others.)

In preparation for this present study, I discovered a book by Michael Gorman called, Cruciformity: Paul’s narrative, Spirituality of the cross, where he has a very similar list. The following is a combination of his list and mine. The underlined words in the verses below either contain the Greek word found in the chapter 13 phrase indicated or a synonym of it (according to Gorman), while verses without underlines reflect a similar thought.

4Love is patient, (makrothumei)

20When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. 22Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not! 33So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat wait for each other. ―11:20-22, 33

love is kind. (crēsteuetai)

Gorman says there is no direct parallel, but a possible play on words with Christ. I think there are many verses which state how unkind the Corinthians believers could be to one another, such as:

6But instead, one brother goes to law against another―and this in front of unbelievers!

7The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? 8Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers. ―6:6-8

is not envious/jealous, (zēloi)

3You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? ―3:3

15If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 16And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. ―12:15-16.

This is the first of quite a few of the characteristics of love in chapter 13 dealing with the misuse of the spiritual gifts. God gave these gifts to mature and edify the believers, but, on the contrary, they began getting either proud or, as stated here, envious of the gifts they didn’t have. The attitude seems to be, “Too bad God didn’t make me to be a head or to be an ear. Those would have been much better gifts than the gift I have now.”

is not boastful, (perpereuetai)

29so that no one may boast before him. 30It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God–that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.” ―1:29-31 ((kauchēsētai)

“The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” 21So then, no more boasting about men! All things are yours…. ―3:20-21 (kauchasthō)

What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not? ―4:7

6Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? ―5:6

In relationship to the gifts, a common attitude seemed to be: “My gift’s better than your gift,” from verses we find in both chapters 12 & 14.

it is not proud/arrogant. (phusioutai)

6Now, brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not take pride in one man over against another. 18Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. 19But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, ―4:6, 18,19

1It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. 2And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? ―5:1-2

1Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. ―8:1

5It is not rude, (ouk aschēmonei)

20As it is, there are many parts, but one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” ―12:20-21

It does not insist on its own way, (ou zētei ta heautēs)

24Don’t seek out trying to live well yourselves, instead seek out that others live well. ―10:24 (heautou)

31So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. 32Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God– 33even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. ―10:31-33

The main teaching of both chapters 8 and 10 deals with meat sacrificed to idols, and how, though they may have had the “right” to eat such meat, they must give up this right since it may cause a weaker Christian to fall into sin. By doing this they would show love for others. By insisting on their own way, they were not showing love toward their brothers and sisters.

it is not irritable, (paroxunetai)

3You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? ―3:3 (Gorman says it could refer to divisions and rivalries)

it keeps no record of wrongs/is not resentful. (ou logizetai to kakon)

5Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God. ―4:5 (Gorman says it could possibly refer to lawsuits)

6Love does not delight in evil/rejoice in wrongdoing, (ou chairei epi tē adikia)

7The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? 8Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers. 9Do you not know that the wicked/wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? ―6:7-9b

A man has his father’s wife. 2And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? ―5:1b-2

What others are saying

The vast majority of commentaries, especially older ones, and most sermons do not take this view of what Paul is doing in 1 Corinthians 13. However, after some research I did find a few statements which confirmed that at least some others share this view of chapter 13. William D. [Bill] Mounce, who served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, wrote the following as he was sharing about the work his committee did on chapter 13: “I can hear Paul punctuate his words as they are being written down. Good grief, Corinthians. Love is patient. It is kind. Do you know anything about love? You are full of envy and boasting and arrogance and rudeness. You know nothing of love; all you know is self-serving resentment that works against the true meaning of love when you rejoice in wrongdoing. You think you are so important, but all the gifts you treasure will one day be gone, and you will be left with nothing because you have neither faith, hope, or love. Poetry? I don’t think so. Rhetoric? Powerful condemnation appropriate to a people who rejoice in their acceptance of the worse kinds of sexual immorality? Yes. I am glad that 1 Cor 13 was not read at my wedding. I am sorry that translations treat apostolic condemnation as pretty words.”

I want to emphasis again that the idea is not that we shouldn’t apply these verses to our own lives, as well as the lives of others. The point here is to discover what is Paul’s purpose, in the context, for writing the way he did, and how does that affect our understanding, not only of this chapter, but of the book as a whole.

John MacArthur, in his messages on Speaking in Tongues, The Permanence of Love–Part 1, gives this list of sins Paul has referred to in the book leading up to chapter 13: “…the Christians there resented each other, argued with each other, and shut each other out from their private little groups. They sexually violated each other, sued each other, boasted against each other, deprived each other in marriage, divorced each other, perverted the proper place of women within the church meeting, withheld food from the poor at the love feast, turned the Lord’s Table into a drunken orgy, offended each other, and fought each other for prominence in the use of their spiritual gifts.”

The issue as to whether 1 Corinthians is the “severe letter”, which used to be the prevailing view, is now rejected by most contemporary scholars because, as the Word Biblical Commentary notes on pg. xlvii, “Paul’s language describing his state of mind while writing it (2 Cor 2:4) is thought to be extravagant if 1 Corinthians is in his mind.” But looking at MacArthur’s list, and taking into account that chapter 13 can be considered apostolic condemnation, as well as chapters 12 & 14, I think this is further evidence that 1 Corinthians is the “severe letter”.

Gorman’s comments on chapter 13 summarize what I am advocating: “verses 4-8a provide a kind of “anti-description” of the Corinthians.” “As a corrective device, the text urges the Corinthians to reshape their communal narrative….” “…despite English translations and usage, Paul uses not a single adjective in his description of love; all the “characteristics of love” are expressed as verbs.”

Even if one may think that Mounce goes a little overboard in calling chapter 13 “apostolic condemnation”, it seems pretty clear that, at the very least Paul is unhappy with the Corinthians and what he writes here is “corrective”, as Gorman states. Earlier commentators even suggested that Paul wrote chapter 13 at some other time, and just kind of “stuck” it here. But chapter 13 is an integral part of the arguments of chapters 12 and 14, as well, as I advocate, of the book as a whole.

Here is the link to my YouTube video of this post: 1 Cor. 13


Gorman, Michael. 2001. Cruciformity: Paul’s narrative, Spirituality of the cross. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

MacArthur, John. Speaking in Tongues, The Permanence of Love–Part 1, as found at:

Mounce, William D. 2009.

The ACTS of Prayer

The Wailing Wall, Jerusalem. Taken by Stephen Payne

The Wailing Wall, Jerusalem. Taken by Stephen Payne

Prayer. For many, the word prayer is practically equivalent to ask for something, plead, request, petition, supplicate, etc. But in this post I would like to give a more global definition of prayer. A number of years ago I heard someone talk about using the acronym ACTS to guide us in praying. I have found through my intensive Bible studies via translating the Scripture into Mixtec that this is a way which is very much in line with what the Bible teaches about prayer.

The acronym ACTS stands for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication. Perhaps you have heard the comment, “Why pray at all if God is in control?” The problem with this and other similar objections to prayer is that they focus only on the “supplication” aspect of it. God is worthy of our adoration all the time. We need to continually confess our sins, and be thankful in all things, even if we don’t have a long lists of requests. God commands us to pray and Jesus teaches how to pray and leads by example by praying a lot during His time on earth. It is a privilege to stand before the throne of the Almighty, all-powerful God of the Universe and know that He is paying attention to us. Since He is all-knowing and wise, He may say yes, no or wait to our humble requests.

In fact the one who benefits the most from prayer is us, as Philippians 4:6-7 says: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Let’s take a closer look at these four parts of prayer.

Adoration: To pray, we need to continually keep in mind Who we are praying to. He is the God who is in control, who is over all, and we need to recognize and acknowledge that. He is worthy of all praise and honor. We need to remember who is the Lord and who is the servant. I find it unbiblical when I hear people praying as if they are giving orders to God. “Heal this man now!!!” “Give me this and that thing!!! Our role is to bow humbly before our God and, when we have a request, to present it to Him, knowing He knows better than we do. We can rebuke the devil in the name of Jesus, but when it comes to talking to God, let us come as servants, not as one either ordering Him what to do or coming before him like He is Santa Claus and we are just there to ask, and ask and ask.

Revelation 4:11 declares why God is worthy: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” Since this is true, He is always worthy of our adoration, no matter the circumstances.

Praying the Psalms is good too. Psalms is full of praise.

Another way people of the Bible exalt God in prayer is remembering all the great things He has done in the past, His faithfulness, and so He can be trusted to do something special now. Psalms 105, 106, 136, Neh. 9:6ff, Acts 7, Acts 13:16ff, to name just a few, are all classic examples of God’s people remembering the absolute faithfulness of God in the past. So as you come to God to pray, or are facing a difficult situation, take time first to remember all the ways He has helped you in the past.

Confession. Jesus said that if you are about to offer a sacrifice to God, and remember that you have an unresolved conflict with someone, go and seek reconciliation before going before God. I think we all know that it is hard to have a good relationship with someone if there is that elephant in the room of an unresolved issue. We need to clean the slate before God as we come before Him so we can have that open whole-hearted communication with Him. And when we sin, it is best to confess it as soon as we are aware of it. It is like getting a speck of dirt in our eye. Do we say to ourselves, “This really bothers me, but I think I’ll wait until tonight or tomorrow to try and remove it”? No, we start rubbing our eye or putting water it in right then. Many times it is easy to justify ourselves or rationalize things we have done, but we need to realize that we are coming before a holy God, and nothing with sin can enter into His presence. 1 John 1:8-2:1 states it well: If we say we have no sin, His truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us. But if we do sin, we have an advocate before the Father, Jesus. So there is really no reason not to confess our sins before God. It is not like we can hide anything from Him. David tried to hide his sin for a while, but then finally expresses his deep repentance in Psalm 51. Romans 3 proclaims no one is good and that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

Thanksgiving: It seems the anti-thesis of gratitude is pride. I did it. But thanksgiving acknowledges that God did it. Sometimes He does things using me, but in the end He did it. Everything comes from God. Our health, our very breath to accomplish anything. Any money we have comes because He provided a job, strength to do it, provision to finish our studies, etc. We can be thanking Him for His great salvation, Hs mercy, His protection, His Word, and the list goes on and on. One thing I learned, for example, was that it was good to thank Him when I get safely to a destination, and not to think, I got here fine since I’m such a great driver. I have a mechanic friend who has told me that on a number of occasions a car has come in that he thought he could fix in just a few minutes, but after a few hours of frustration finally asked God to help him, and he was able to fix it in the next few minutes. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths. Some good thanksgiving passages are: 1 Thes. 5:16-18, Philippians 4:6, Colossians 3:7, Psalms 7:17 and 100:4.

Supplication: I won’t say much about this one, since this is the most talked about aspect of prayer. I do remind you of what I mentioned above under adoration. He is Lord and we are the servants. We ask him, then let Him do as He wills. I think the best Scripture to guide us in this part of prayer is to model what Jesus said in Matthew 26:39: “Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Not my will, but Yours. May that be our attitude as we go before God with the needs on our hearts. Another great verse to remember when we are going through trying times and come before God, after we adore Him, acknowledging His power, confess and get things right with Him, and we thank him for His care, we can remember Romans 8:26-27: “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.”

In Jesus’ name

Many end their prayers with, “in Jesus’ name.” But what does this mean? It is not a “formula” and it definitely is not an “abra kadabra” to cause it to happen, “order” God to do it or to “make” Him do it. When we pray in Jesus’ name, we are praying by His power, His authority, asking that things be done as He wants, for His glory, and because of what He has done on the cross.

As we finish our prayer, and pray in Jesus’ name, let us remember that we are asking that things be done as He wants, in His timing, for His glory, by His power, that He will use us. It is the ultimate way to say, “It is not about me, it is all about You.”

We know we are in a spiritual warfare. Things will many times not happen when nor the way we want. We in ourselves are weak, but Jesus is powerful, He has authority. But because the devil is the “god” of this world, he has a certain right to deceive the people of this world and to cause all kinds of chaos. But Jesus said He will never leave nor forsake us. We can be content whatever our circumstances because we can go through all things through Him who gives us strength.  We have hope, peace and joy. We can trust Him! All the faithful people of the Bible faced hardships, sufferings and “unanswered” prayers. It takes more faith to persevere and remain strong with Jesus in these times than when all is going well and easy.

Because of what Jesus has done, He has the victory. But He will do things in His timing, for His glory and ultimately, because of His love, for our good. Reading Revelation, we know that God wins. Then He will wipe away all tears because the fact is, we will have tears and hard times in this world.

I hope this simple ACTS formula can help you better understand some of the more important aspects of it, and to dispel the too common myth that prayer is almost synonymous with asking. And when we do pray, may it all be for His glory.

We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God

For those of you who know your Bible, what comes to mind when you think of Acts 2? Especially Acts 2: 1-13? For most folks, it is Pentecost. And when you think of Pentecost, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? For most folks, probably speaking in tongues. You may also think of Pentecostal churches or a large Jewish festival held 50 days after Passover (Easter). Pentecost is also known as the Feast of Weeks, which celebrated the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, and occurs 10 days after the ascension of Jesus into the clouds.

Most of us are familiar with the scene. Jesus had risen into heaven. The apostles (less Judas), Mary and other women who were with Jesus for much of His ministry and some others, 120 in all, were in an upper room, praying. Jesus has recently told them to go into all the world and preach the Gospel, but He also told them to wait, saying in Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

So there they were, in that upper room, waiting, and praying, and naming a new apostle, Matthias, to replace Judas. Then in Acts 2: 2-4: “suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.”

It is easy to take the following verses, 5-13, as an “add-on” to this monumental event of the coming of the Holy Spirit. To think, well the most important thing is that the Holy Spirit filled the followers of Jesus and they are speaking in tongues and lots of the close to a million people in Jerusalem for the festival heard them. Then towards the end of the chapter, after Peter’s speech, 3000 of them became believers. Thank God!

I would like to propose here that verses 5-13 are the key to understanding why God had the apostles speak in tongues. Actually, to be more accurate, why they spoke in at least 14 different languages.

When working on the translation of the Bible into another language, it is important to be consistent when translating words and phrases which have the same meaning and context. It is especially important to conserve this consistency since similar phrases in close proximity constitute a theme. If you find the same word or phrase several times in a short passage, you can be sure that it is key to understanding what the passage is about.

In Acts 2:5-13, there is one phrase which occurs 3 times, and which I believe tells us why God gave the followers of Jesus the ability to speak in tongues. It is at the heart of what God wanted to do that day, to begin to transform hearts, and thus the world. It is something that moves Jesus from our head to our heart. Vs. 6 says: “each one was hearing them speak in his own language.” Vs. 8 says: “how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?” Then, after the list of the 14 or so languages and regions present, vs. 11 says: “we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”

They (people from “every nation under heaven” vs. 5) heard of the wonderful works of God in their own heart language, in their mother tongue. Most probably just spoke “passable” “tourist” Greek. But now they were hearing it and understanding it, and it was touching them, in their mother tongue.

In my previous post, I spoke of Sebastian’s son trying to verbally translate what the Bible teacher was saying, but since there was no Bible in his language, he was using lots of Spanish loan words. But when Sebastian sat down to translate Scripture into Mixtec then later read it out loud, the women cried, and people were fully attentive.


I remember the story of a linguist helping the people of a remote village translate the Scriptures, and they took over ten years to find a word to communicate forgiveness. But here in Jerusalem, during Pentecost, these thousands of pilgrims, most from far away lands, heard all those words, which are so hard to translate, life-giving words like grace, glory, forgiveness, resurrection, eternal life, God, etc., translated perfectly into their heart languages by God through the mouths of the disciples. Now these people could go home and tell mom, grandma and others, who probably spoke no Greek, about Jesus. They did not have to be an expert to find a word in their language to express the wonderful things they had heard, God had already given them all the key words they needed so others could understand and come to salvation.

Pentecost is called the birthday of the church. It is much more than that. It shows us that God desires that each person hear His Word in their own heart language. Through this miracle, people far, far from Jerusalem heard the message from their friends and relatives who had traveled there, heard it in words that came directly from the heart of God. Through this amazing act of God, Jesus’ desire that people in Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth hear His message began to happen before the apostles actually began to scatter throughout the world. Some of the people groups are listed: “Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians.” Wow!

Think about what your life would be like if you spoke English, and the only Bibles available were in, say, Spanish and French. Or Chinese. Lets suppose you, to be able to buy and sell, learned some Spanish, French or Chinese. Not real well, but enough to get around. Now lets suppose that someone tried to tell you about all that God has done through Jesus in one of those languages. Or gave you a Bible in their language. In your mind, you would be trying to translate it all into English, But there would be so many concepts that you really didn’t grasp or have any idea how one might say them in English. But maybe the worst part would be that you would probably conclude that God, since he doesn’t speak English, is a foreigner. An outsider. Something for others, since he can’t speak to me in any real, intimate way. That is more or less how it was for most of the people who came to the Pentecost festival, and even more so for their relatives back home. But God spoke to their heart that day and the world began to change. But there are still millions of people in Mexico and worldwide who do not yet have the Bible in their mother tongue, their heart language.

There is so much more I could say about this, but I think you are starting to get the idea. Consider what Jesus said in Matthew 9:37-38: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Pray for more people to have the opportunity to hear of God’s wonderful works in their own language, and pray how you might be involved, either by going or helping others to meet this most important challenge. And don’t forget to thank Him that you have His word in English, in fact the language with the most versions of the Bible, and published helps to understand the Bible. So no excuses.

The miracle of Sebastian’s translation

In my first blog post I mentioned a Mixtec man named Sebastian. The featured image of the blog has him sitting with me way back in the late 80’s, before I had a computer, translating with him near the door of the small village church. The story of Sebastian is, in my opinion, one of the most inspiring in the recent history of Bible translation, and maybe one of the least known. Back in 1987, one year after I met Sebastian, his story was featured in the Wycliffe publication, “In Other Words.” A number of years later I wrote a short story of Sebastian for a Writers Digest contest, and it made the top 25. A missionary translated that into Spanish and it was published in the Christian magazine Prisma. Wycliffe president Bob Creson’s staff later found the story in 2009, and below I am copying his well written summary of it. (March 2016 update: I just found out that a version of the story of Sebastian is on pages 61-64 of the book by Bob Creson called The Finish Line.)

To set this account up even more, you need to know that in the mid 80’s it was very hard to get a visa to go to Mexico and spend time in small villages. You could only go to tourist spots on your tourist visa. So the question was being asked, “How can we reach all the villages and help them translate the Bible into their languages if we cannot get a visa to go there for more than very short visits?”  It was during this difficult time that I left for a very short trip to try and visit a Mixtec language area. I had permission to spend one night there. In the large market town of the region, I met a missionary who introduced me to a man selling ice cream who was a Mixtec speaker. He agreed to go with me to his village several hours away.

When we got there, a small church service was in progress. We went in and the man who had accompanied us stood up and said, “Brother John has come to learn our language and help us translate the Bible, but he needs someone to go with him to the big city to work with him. Now, if my father can’t go, maybe someone else can.” He had not mentioned anything to me about his father, nor had he spoken to anyone else during the service. But as it was ending, an elderly man came up to me and, well, you can read the rest in the account below.

Notebook cover

Sebastian was 50 years old, an alcoholic with a second grade education, when he trusted Christ as his Savior.  He was 55 – quite elderly for his small Mexican community — when he began translating the Scriptures into his Tezoatlan Mixtec language.  He had no training, no help, not even an alphabet beyond the Spanish one he’d learned in school, but he saw a need.  While he could understand a fair amount of what he read in his Spanish Bible, his wife could not, nor could many others who attended the Bible study in their village.  His heart burned to help them.

Finally one day he decided he had to try. He bought a notebook and set out to translate the resurrection story in Luke 24. It was hard to spell Mixtec words using only Spanish letters. It was even harder to understand the biblical concepts and express them in his own language. It made his usual work plowing rocky fields and hauling firewood down mountain trails seem easy. Nevertheless he kept at it.

He took his beloved notebook to every Bible study, but he didn’t read from it out of fear that he might have mistranslated the precious Word of God.  Then one night as he watched his neighbors sleeping, wiggling or whispering to each other through an unintelligible service, he knew he couldn’t wait any longer.  He slowly stood up, and moved to a position underneath the only light bulb in the room. With trembling hands, he opened his notebook, took a deep breath and began to read. Slowly, haltingly at first, he read those words from Scripture, gaining strength and confidence as he read on.

Several people gasped as they realized that he was reading in Mixtec, their heart language. Then the room grew quiet.  No one moved or spoke or slept. Tears rolled down a few cheeks. The light of understanding shone in their eyes. Sebastian read on for a long time, and when he stopped, he knew that no one present would ever be the same again.

Time passed and Sebastian’s notebook filled up.  His farming suffered, as did his weaving of palm fronds into baskets and hats for extra income.  Money grew tighter, but God always provided for his needs.  He kept translating, and he kept on sharing those newly translated verses with his wife and neighbors. He read at four or five services each week, and the walls began to come down.  God was no longer a “foreigner.” God spoke Mixtec, and the words went straight to Mixtec hearts.

Four years after Sebastian began translating, Wycliffe member John Williams came to Sebastian’s village, looking for someone willing to move six hours away and teach John his language so they could make books and translate the Scriptures.  John could only stay in the village one night, but God led him straight to Sebastian, who asked just one question: “Do you want to leave tonight or in the morning?”

As Sebastian and John worked together, Sebastian eagerly appropriated the new alphabet symbols that made his language easier to write. He just as eagerly contributed to every aspect of their translation and literacy work. Thirteen years later, with joy and thankfulness, Sebastian held in his hands a draft of the whole New Testament in Tezoatlan Mixtec.

Not long after that, God took Sebastian home, his task completed.  The New Testament was joyfully dedicated in 2008 and is now being used by Sebastian’s people in both written and oral forms. Watch the Celebration here.

If you or I had been choosing a mother tongue translator for the Mixtecs, we might have overlooked Sebastian.  He was too old, we might have said, and his health was compromised by his former addiction to alcohol.  He didn’t have a good enough education or knowledge of Spanish.  He didn’t know how to develop an alphabet for a language that had never been written, and certainly he couldn’t translate without one!

But God knew better.  He changed Sebastian’s life first, and then He gave him the vision, endurance and ability he needed to translate many chapters of His Word for his neighbors, providing for his physical needs along the way.  Then He graciously sent John and Judy Williams to help him complete the task.

In the same way, God knows how He plans to reach the rest of the last language communities around the world.  I can’t wait to see how He does it!

Warmly, Bob Creson, President, Wycliffe USA

Why this blog?

I have been involved in helping with the translation of the New Testament into the language of Mixtec, in southern Mexico, since 1986. That was when I first met Sebastian, whose amazing story I will share in a future blog post.

Being involved in the translation of the Scriptures into another language has presented me with a unique and exciting opportunity: a window into seeing Scripture in ways I might have missed when only looking at it through the eyes and worldview of our my language and culture. I feel especially blessed that my “work” involves intensive Bible studies, pouring over verses with people who speak a different language and who are looking at the Scripture through new eyes, as well as with a different worldview. As we discuss each verse, I gain new insights which I had not gleaned in my previous Bible training, both from seeing it from their fresh perspectives, as well as dealing with the semantic and linguistic requirements of their language which the Hebrew and Greek languages, and in my case, English, do not have.

In fact, the name of this blog is also the name of a paper I gave at the 2009 Bible Translation Conference in Dallas, Texas. In that presentation, I shared what I consider are some really interesting insights into the use of “we” in 2 Corinthians and also a different perspective on 1 Corinthians 13. These insights came as a direct result of seeing the text “through the eyes of Mixtec.” In future blogs I will share what those insights are, as well as new ways of looking at many other Scripture passages.

Please note that my “seeing anew” these passages will be my own personal reflections, and do not necessarily reflect those of any organization I have ever worked with. I invite you to look with me at different Scripture passages over the coming months and see if there is something new about that passage which we have never thought of before when reading it just in English, or even Greek. God bless.