The first lecture given to every beginning Greek class includes an encouragement that the New Testament indeed contains hidden gems—and once we master its Greek language, suddenly these treasures become ours. Immediately—it never fails—the class sets to work learning the Greek alphabet. And within a few months, the young preacher often takes the results of these mining expeditions directly into the pulpit: "Now Paul really meant something different than you see in your NIV, for the Greek verb in the verse means . …" At once the congregation is dazzled and a new tone of authority rests over the sermon.

Mature pastors know the pitfalls of this sort of preaching. And mature exegetes of the Greek New Testament also know the dangers of making single Greek words carry too much freight. They hold their breath when sermons launch "word studies" and they positively cringe when teachers unpack the "root" of a word to find new meaning—as if butterfly really has something to do with butter and flies, or as if synagogue has something to do with the Greek ago ("lead") and syn ("together"). Sometimes teachers apply an anachronistic meaning to a word. The Greek noun dunamis (power) later contributed to our English word dynamite, but that does not invite us to rewrite Romans 1:16 to have Paul say, "I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the dynamite of God unto salvation for everyone who believes." It is a nice thought but has little to do with Paul's meaning.

Nevertheless, there are rich words that enhance our understanding of Scripture and can barely be brought into English with a simple translation. The translation team of the New Living Translation (of which I am a member) worked hour after hour looking for dynamic phrases that would capture the right nuance of the original Greek vocabulary. A quick look at the NLT shows how many of those insights now enrich that translation.

Some Greek works—like koinonia and agape—have been explained so often from the pulpit and lectern that they are practically part of the English language now, at least in evangelical circles. But there are many other Greek words, less well known, that also pack a great deal of meaning and inspiration. Here are seven examples.

God's Holy Dwelling

Skenoo. When John describes the incarnation of Jesus Christ in John 1:14, he chooses a term that would evoke strong memories of the Old Testament. John writes, "And the word became flesh and dwelt [skenoo] among us." Jesus did not simply "live" with us in the world; he "dwelt" with us. This Greek verb and its noun actually refer to a tent, and when used in a theological context like this, generally refer to the tabernacle in the wilderness (see Acts 7:44; Heb. 8:2). This fits John's understanding of Jesus' incarnation. Jesus is the locus of God's dwelling on Earth and as such can not only speak for God but likewise supply many of the functions offered at the tabernacle (which later became the temple). Therefore John wants to say more than simply that Jesus "dwelt" with us. He is making an unmistakable allusion to the holy dwelling of God.

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The Breath of Life

Emphusao. At the close of his Gospel, John records Jesus' meeting with his disciples in a closed room on Easter Sunday following his resurrection (John 20:19-23). After greeting them, John writes that "Jesus breathed [emphusao] on them, and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit.'" This unusual word for breathing appears only one time in the New Testament but is found in a critical passage in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint). In Genesis 2:7, God "breathes" into Adam and gives him life (see also Ezek. 37:5-14). In the Upper Room, Jesus is recreating what sin had ruined in the Garden of Eden. Jesus is now giving life, eternal life, to his followers in a manner reminiscent of God's great work at the beginning of time. But in this case, this is renewing life given through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Perfect Completion

Tetelestai. Occasionally the significance of a verb is found not only in its meaning but in the tense attached to it. And in some cases, English struggles to convey the deeper meaning of the tense. In John 19:30, we read Jesus' final words on the cross: "It is finished."

In Greek, however, this phrase represents only one Greek word, tetelestai, and it is one of the most important things Jesus ever said. The Greek verb teleo means to complete or finish something.

But in this case, the verb is not in the simple past tense, indicating that he is done. John 19:30 uses the perfect tense, which underscores an action that is fully completed and has present-day consequences.

Given the significance of what Jesus has accomplished on the Cross, John therefore uses the perfect tense to emphasize that Jesus has truly and exhaustively finished what the Father sent him to do and that the ongoing effects of his work continue to be with us even today.

Parade of Triumph

Thriambeuo. This is an unusual Greek term that occurs only twice in the Greek New Testament. It stems from a noun that means "a triumph" and refers to someone who leads a triumphal procession. In the world of ancient Greece and Rome, royal processions were common and reserved for the emperor or king, linking his rule with God's. In New Testament times, Roman generals were greeted as "saviors" as they led triumphal processions of soldiers, captives, and wealth through the streets of Rome. Surrounded by incense, dressed in a purple toga and a tunic stitched in gold (to make him look divine), his face painted red, a general would carry an eagle-crowned scepter.

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In 2 Corinthians 2:14 and Colossians 2:15, Paul describes the victory of God in just this manner. In Colossians Paul says that God disarmed and conquered the rulers of this age, and now they are found in his "triumphal procession" (thriambeuo). In 2 Corinthians Paul describes his own link to this triumph: "But thanks be to God, who always leads us in his thriambeuo." Therefore the work of God in Christ is not unlike a conquest, and now in his Ascension, he returns "home" with genuine proof of his valor. Paul even mentions "fragrances" (2 Cor. 2:15) as a possible allusion to the generous incense burned at these festivities.

Chosen for The Family

Huiothesia. When Paul reflects on our salvation and our relationship with God, he often uses the language of sonship. The Greek word son is common in the New Testament (huios occurs 377 times) and either describes the unique relationship of Jesus or believers with the Father. In the Old Testament, Israel is seen as God's "son" (Exod. 4:22ff; Hos. 11:1). Thus Paul's view in Galatians 4:1-2. When God rescues Israel from Egypt, he is redeeming his "sons" who are in slavery.

But then in Galatians and Romans, Paul suddenly adopts a new word derived from the Greek word for son (huios). He describes us as huiothesia. This word refers to "adoptive sons" (see Gal. 4:5; Rom. 8:15, 23; 9:4). This means—and Paul knows this well—that God's commitment to us is not a natural obligation on his part anchored to his relation to Abraham (God's natural sons), but he has chosen to act on our behalf. As an adoptive parent chooses to embrace a child and bring her into the family, so God has decided to "adopt" us as well. This word offers an insight into God's decision and our security as heirs: our place cannot be jeopardized and we will benefit like any naturally born child.

Jesus' outrage

Embrimaomai. When Jesus arrives at Lazarus' tomb in John 11, how does he react? The NIV says he was "deeply moved," and the Good News Bible says, "His heart was touched." We get the picture of Jesus' feeling upset emotionally. Some translations such as the Jerusalem Bible even paraphrase John 11:33, describing Jesus in great distress, "with a sigh that came straight from his heart." But this misrepresents the picture. The verb describing his reaction is embrimaomai, which refers to the snort of a warhorse or, for humans, an outburst of anger. In the only three occurrences in the synoptic Gospels, it refers to giving someone a strong rebuke (Matt. 9:30; Mark 1:43; 14:5). At Lazarus' tomb, Jesus is not overcome by grief or pain. He is "stirred up" and angry—not at Mary and Martha or the mourners, but at death itself and the devastation it brings. Here stands the One in whom victory, life, and resurrection are powerful realities, and he looks on a pitiful, sorrowful scene of tragedy.

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Jesus was outraged by death; he was furious about it. What a difference this makes to the scene we reconstruct at Lazarus' tomb.

Divine Double Negative

Ou me apolontai. Sometimes it is difficult to catch the tone of a speaker in a translation. Is he hesitant? Emphatic? Angry? In Greek these nuances of meaning come through in phrases and "moods" that can only be rendered in English with more than one word. In Greek a speaker can use the subjunctive mood to speak of a future possibility ("I might travel to Athens tomorrow").

To negate this possibility, Greek often uses the word me (not) ( "I might not travel to Athens tomorrow"). If a speaker wants to be completely emphatic, he can use a special double negative with a past tense subjunctive (the aorist)—something we do not have in English. The New Testament uses this construction more than 80 times.

Now look at John 10:27-28, where we have a glimpse into Jesus' tone. He promises, "My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never "never" perish [ou me apolontai]; no one can snatch them out of my hand." Here Jesus uses a double negative with the aorist subjunctive to underscore in the strongest language possible: his sheep will not—absolutely not—perish.

This is a strong word of assurance for God's people.

Gary M. Burge is professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and Graduate School in Illinois.

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Related Elsewhere:

Other Christianity Today articles from the Annual Bible Issue include:

The Word of God | Quotations to Stir the Heart and Mind. (Oct. 23, 2001)

The Reluctant Romans | At Douai in Flanders, Catholic scholars translated the Bible into English as an alternative to the Bible of "the heretics." (Oct. 22, 2001)

A Translation Fit For a King | In the beginning, the King James Version was an attempt to thwart liberty. In the end, it promoted liberty. (Oct. 22, 2001)

We Really Do Need Another Bible Translation | As good as many modern versions are, they often do not allow us to hear what the Holy Spirit actually said. (Oct. 19, 2001)

In 1999, Craig A. Evans answered the question, "In what language was the Bible Jesus read?"

The American Bible Society has a wealth of information about the Bible and translation of the Bible.

The Bible Learning Center has a Bible Reading 101 section, tools for learning and teaching, and research resources.

The Bible Gateway allows visitors to read specific verses in various translations and languages.

See more related articles in Christianity Today'sBible section.

Last year, Christianity Today sister publication, Campus Life, interviewed Burge on what we really know about the Bible.

Previous Christianity Today articles by Gary M. Burge include:

You're Divorced—Can You Remarry? | There are three New Testament passages that bear most directly on the subject of divorce and remarriage. (Oct. 4, 1999)

The Greatest Story Never Read | Recovering biblical literacy in the church. (Aug. 9, 1999)

Are Evangelicals Missing God at Church? | Why so many are rediscovering worship in other traditions. (Oct. 26, 1997)

Indiana Jones and the Gospel Parchments | A sensationalist attempt to prove the authenticity of the Jesus story with a shred of papyrus. (Oct. 28, 1996)

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