The Original Languages

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Matthew 18:15-20 says:

15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

And in Bill Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek, Craig S. Keener comments:

In some translations of Matthew 18:18, it sounds like Jesus promised his disciples that whatever they bound on earth would be bound in heaven, and whatever they loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven. In other words, they had the power to bind and to loose, and Heaven (i.e., God) would simply back up their decrees. But the matter is not quite so simple; the actions described in heaven are future perfect passives–which could be translated “will have already been bound in heaven…will have already been loosed in heaven.” In other words, the heavenly decree confirming the earthly one is based on a prior verdict.

This is the language of the law court. Jewish legal issues were normally decided in Jesus’ day by elders in the synagogue community (later by rabbis). Many Jewish people believed that the authority of Heaven stood behind the earthly judges when they decided cases based on a correct understanding of God’s law. (This process came to be called “binding and loosing.”) Jesus’ contemporaries often envisioned God’s justice in terms of a heavenly court; by obeying God’s law, the earthly court simply ratified the decrees of the heavenly court. In Matthew 18:15-20, Christians who follow the careful procedures of verses 15-17 may be assured that they will act on the authority of God’s court when they decide cases.

Just as we struggle to affirm absolutes in a relativist culture, Christians today sometimes wonder how to exercise discipline lovingly against a sinning member of the church. In this text, Jesus provides an answer: when the person refuses to turn from sin after repeated loving confrontation, the church by disciplining the person simply recognizes the spiritual reality that is already true in God’s sight.

Mounce’s Greek grammar is filled with these kinds of exegetical insights, which I’ve enjoyed reading immensely. I’ve returned to my Greek textbooks (and others) this year to re-familiarize myself with basic principles of the Greek language. I’ve even resorted to flash cards. I’m trying to expand my vocabulary. I’ve struggled with languages–and not just Greek and Hebrew. But I’ve taken Greek up again because I felt called to, and because I think it will make me a better student and teacher of the Bible.

I have a long running joke with a family member of mine about the original languages. It usually involves making light of a minister’s claim that they can tell us what the text really says, while the hoi polloi, plebes, rabble, and riffraff in the pews need “experts” to help us see more clearly what is plainly before our faces. We’re Baptists. We take issue with authority. As a Baptist minister, I know what it feels like to be taken issue with. It goes with the turf.

But as I’ve studied church history and listened to preachers, I’ve found that the Bible teachers and preachers who make the most compelling and interesting presentations of a biblical text are familiar with the biblical language, or can at least make use of the tools of translation available to us today. They know the basic rules of the grammar, and can help us see the way the words run as presented by the original authors, and as heard by the original addressees.

There are exceptions, of course. But reform movements possessing both depth and longevity have developed biblical, systematic, and practical theologies that evidence close study and exposition of Scripture as presented in the original languages.