“Causes Us to Triumph” vs “Triumphs Over Us”

There’s some difference of opinion on how 2 Cor 2.14 should be translated:

  • “Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ” (KJV)
  • “But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ” (NASB)
  • “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession” (ESV)

The KJV, NASB and ESV all communicate that God leads a triumph parade that we participate in. Since they seem to agree pretty well, that means that the difference of opinion lies with someone else. It does – me.

The grammar of this phrase is nearly identical to a phrase in Col 2.15: “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” (KJV and NASB also translate the key phrase “triumphing over them.”) In both verses, a form the verb θριαμβεύω has an accusative object. In 2 Cor 2.14, the object is “us” (Paul and the Corinthians); in Col 2.15, the object is “them” (the evil powers opposing and accusing believers). In both verses, God is the one triumphing, and he triumphs in Christ.

Even though the grammar corresponds precisely, the translators chose to go opposite directions with their interpretation. Triumph + Christians = shared processional march as Christ’s victorious armies through the city; however, triumph + evil powers = dragged through the streets as captives in humiliation.

The interpretation of “triumph” in Col. 2.15 is not open for debate: Paul was certainly not rejoicing that God would lead the forces of evil in a parade of shared conquest. That brings us to 2 Cor 2.14: either [a] it should be translated “triumphs over us in Christ” (or more picturesquely: “leads us like captives in his triumph parade in Christ”) or [b] both interpretations are valid, even though they are opposite in meaning.

I checked BDAG on θριαμβεύω. It offers six definitions of this word:

  1. lead in a triumphal procession, with accusative “someone” as captive
  2. to lead in triumph, in imagery of Roman generals leading their troops in triumph
  3. cause to triumph
  4. triumph over
  5. expose to shame
  6. display, publicize, make known

Definitions 1, 4, 5, and 6 all fit the Col 2.15 negative meaning very well. Do definitions 2 and 3 support the positive translation in 2 Cor 2.14? The authors don’t think so. They note that 2 (to lead in triumph) has “no lexical support” and 3 (cause to triumph) “remains unexampled in Greek usage.” Basically, they acknowledge that some people have chosen to translate 2 Cor 2.14 as “leads us in triumphal procession,” but that there’s really no support for that translation in actual Greek usage of the word.

TDNT’s entry on θριαμβεύω doesn’t even mention the option of translating 2 Cor 2.14 as a shared parade. It actually prefers the negative translation option: “Paul describes himself as one of these prisoners. But he regards it as a grace that in his fetters he can accompany God always and everywhere.”

My first reaction on noticing the shared grammatical pattern between these two verses was to translate them the same way: God leads us / powers as captives in his parade of triumph in Christ. BDAG and TDNT confirm that θριαμβεύω means “to lead as a captive” and that there is no support for translating it “lead as a co-victor.”

If 2 Cor 2.14 should be translated “Thanks be to God, who always leads us as slaves in his triumphal procession in Christ,” what does that mean for understanding the passage? I’d argue that it actually makes a lot more sense in context than the “shared parade” interpretation. Paul is about to spend the next few chapters of 2 Corinthians downplaying himself and his ministry. He’s not interested in self-commendation (2 Co 3.1), his ministry is a gift of mercy (2 Co 4.1), he is a clay pot full of God’s treasure (2 Co 4.7), he is always being given over to death (2 Co 4.11-12), he is wasting away and afflicted (2 Co 4.16-17), and he is groaning for heaven (2 Co 5.2). Honestly, it’d be a little startling to brag about sharing in Christ’s triumph, then spend 3-4 chapters talking about nothing but struggles.

Granted, you could respond that Paul is pointing out the big heavenly reality – triumph – as a way to endure the difficulties of earth. Paul certainly does do that in other places, but not here. He’s not trying to encourage the Corinthians about enduring difficulties: his humility and affliction comments are almost exclusively focused on himself as he defends his ministry. He’s also not spending half of their letter giving himself a pep-talk: his whole point is that he’s not on center stage (God is).

It seems best to take 2 Co 2.14 as a statement that fits with all the other words and phrases of humiliation and lowness that Paul uses in this letter. The essence of the TDNT quotation above really sums it up well. Paul claims to be a captive in God’s triumphal parade: even that captivity is grace because it means being with God and demonstrating his victory to all onlookers.

Christians and Debt: “Owe no man any thing”

The phrase “owe no man any thing” (Rom 13.8) is commonly misquoted as a prohibition on incurring financial debt. This verse is often twisted to mean, “Don’t put that TV on your credit card,” “Only buy used cars,” and “Don’t borrow money from your relatives.” (Strangely, those who misuse it in this fashion almost never take it to mean, “Don’t sign a mortgage to buy a house…”)

Paul says something in the preceding verses that make it impossible to read this verse as a blanket prohibition on “financial debt.” In verse 7, Paul told the Roman believers to “pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” In other words, “pay all your financial obligations.” He uses the words “revenue” and “owed” back-to-back with no qualification. He doesn’t say, “If you happen to be under a financial obligation because you’re a sinner who doesn’t heed the words of Dave Ramsey*, pay what you owe.” He assumes that the readers have financial obligations and tells them to pay those assumed debts.

I suppose someone might argue that Paul is just talking about taxes, not car loans and credit cards. To that objection, I’d raise the following questions.

  1. Why did he say “taxes” and “revenue?” Wouldn’t “taxes” have sufficed if he was only talking about them?
  2. There were no car loans back then; of course Paul didn’t identify them.
  3. By stacking the words “taxes,” “revenue,” “respect,” and “honor,” Paul broadens this instruction far beyond car loans and credit cards.

Paul’s point is this: no matter what you owe someone, pay it. From taxes to financial debts to intangible forms of honor for authorities, pay what you are obligated to pay. That means if you sign a car loan or mortgage, pay each payment on time. If you owe recurring forms of financial obligation, like rent, school payments, cell phone bills, or taxes, make each payment on time. He assumes that his readers will have financial obligations; the instruction is to pay them properly, not to judge people whose obligation is different from or heavier than yours.

Of course, don’t take on debt for foolish reasons or in a foolish way. There’s a lot of wisdom about that in Solomon. But also, don’t take Paul’s words to mean something different from what he wrote them to mean.

As long as we’re on the topic of misquoted verses, I’d like to point out that “give honor to whom honor is due” is not really a verse about graduation honors. In its original context, it referred to respect shown to a civil authority, not to a student with a 4.0. I’m not saying it’s heresy to quote that verse during commencement; I’m just pointing out that it means something different.

* No disrespect meant to Dave Ramsey at all – my wife and I appreciate and follow much of his advice.** I’m just poking at those who misunderstand this verse and treat his books as inspired gospel-truth to corroborate that misinterpretation.

** Yes, that’s an affiliate link. I earn a little if you use it to buy this book; you don’t pay any extra, though. Win-win!

When “hate” doesn’t mean “hate”

One of the most startling verses in Scripture is Jesus’ warning in Luke 14.26:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

When we come to verses that seem to teach something strange or puzzling, one of the first things we should do is compare the puzzling verse to other verses on the same topic that teach clearly. In this case, we start by remembering Jesus’ words in Luke 10.27:

And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

Here Jesus clearly teaches his followers to love their neighbors. If we love our neighbors (including “father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters”), we cannot act hatefully toward them.

Let’s continue by looking closely at the context for Jesus’ teaching about hating one’s family. These words are part of a larger paragraph that runs from Luke 14.26-33. There is one phrase that’s repeated three times in those verses: “he cannot be my disciple.” That phrase acts as a marker to help us outline Jesus’ words. Here is the paragraph broken down into points:

  1. Unless you hate your family and your own life, you cannot be my disciple (Lk 14.26).
  2. Unless you bear your cross, you cannot be my disciple (Lk 14.27).
  3. Unless you renounce all that you have, you cannot be my disciple (Lk 14.28-33).

Jesus lists three things that you must do, or else you cannot genuinely follow him. Notice that none of those things are pleasant things. No one hates himself because it’s fun, bears a cross because it’s comfortable, or renounces all his possessions because he likes poverty. All the things that Jesus lists are very uncomfortable, unpleasant things.

Let’s look at the bigger context now: who is Jesus talking to in this paragraph and why would he tell them that they have to do three painful things if they want to follow him?

Luke 14.25 says that Jesus spoke these words to the “great crowds [who] accompanied him.” This took place after he had spent time travelling, doing miracles, and preaching. In response to his power, many followed out of awe and curiosity, but were not committed to him fully. These words were meant to stop the casual followers in their tracks and make them realize that following Jesus is exclusive.

In other words, Jesus is challenging his followers about ultimate loyalty. They can’t follow him when he’s doing impressive miracles, then turn away when it gets difficult to follow. Jesus warns them that the only way to follow him is to give him your full loyalty. You cannot let your family, your own life, your comfort, or your possessions compete with Jesus. If you follow him, you must be willing to turn your back on everything else. You cannot follow Jesus and someone or something else.

Practically, that means that family, life, and possessions are not necessarily bad things. Jesus never said, “It’s sinful to have a mother and father” or “You shall not own things.” Many people have family members who love Jesus – do they have to “hate” those family members? No. There’s no competing loyalty. Those family members aren’t trying to lead you away from Jesus. The same is true for possessions. Many people have wealth and are good at using it to further the gospel, show hospitality, help the needy, or provide for ministers of the Word. Do they have to “renounce” their possessions? No. There’s no competing loyalty. That wealth is right where it needs to be: part of following Jesus, not a distraction away from him.

Many others, however, have family who persecute or ridicule them for their faith. Do believers who have hostile family members need to respond harshly or rudely? No. Remember Jesus’ words in Luke 6.27-28:

But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

Even when we are abused, we cannot respond with violence, sinful anger, or evil hatred. If we don’t “hate our family” with sinful anger, how should Christians obey Luke 14.26? This brings us back to the loyalty theme we saw earlier. Whether your family loves or hates Jesus, they cannot compete with him for your loyalty. If you are torn between choosing your family / life / comfort / possessions and choosing Jesus, the answer is simple: you must choose Jesus. That’s what it means to “hate” your family in practice: never, ever choose them above Jesus.

God spared the city for one righteous man

Genesis 18.22-33 challenges me every time I read it. On one hand, I admire Abraham’s tenacity and unashamed persistence in pleading for Sodom and Gomorrah. On the other hand, I’m amazed that God listens and agrees to Abraham’s request every time – what mercy! Part of me wonders why Abraham didn’t press for mercy on account of five or even one righteous man. He was on a roll – why quit at ten? My curiosity isn’t currently satisfied: Genesis doesn’t tell us, and we shouldn’t get too creative about inventing a reason.

Now read more of the story, specifically Genesis 19.15-25. As Lot and his family flee Sodom, he falters, not believing that he can make it all the way to the mountains (where he had been commanded to flee). He asks for permission to stop and find refuge in a small village nearby (Zoar). It’s easy to miss how the angel responds to him in verse 21:

“Behold, I grant you this favor also, that I will not overthrow the city of which you have spoken.”

Let the implication of that statement settle in. The angel grants Lot’s request and removes that little village from the to-be-destroyed list. God spared an entire city for the sake of one righteous man.

Abraham didn’t specifically ask for mercy for the sake of just one man, but God’s mercy to Zoar is the necessary result of Abraham’s intercession. Abraham justified his plea for mercy by appealing to God’s character:

Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?

God always does what is just (other English versions: “what is right”). In this situation, that means that God won’t destroy the righteous along with the wicked. Abraham doesn’t plead that God “won’t destroy more than one or two righteous with the wicked.” He states the broad truth about God’s character and then God responds favorably to each decreasing number that Abraham suggests.

Abraham prays for mercy for the sake of 50, 45, 40, 30, 20, and 10. God demonstrates that he’ll show mercy for the sake of one. He is, after all, the God “who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Eph 3.20).

Note: If you’re wondering why I think that Lot was a “righteous man” in spite of some pretty noticeable sins recorded in this story, I offer two defenses. First, Abraham had reason to believe that Lot was righteous. Second, Peter believed that Lot was righteous (II Pet. 2.7).

The Book of Naomi

As we start reading the book of Ruth, chapter 1 points us to one person: Naomi, and to one characteristic: emptiness.

Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me.” Ruth 1:12-13

Chapter 2 turns our attention to Ruth however, and we nearly forget about her mother-in-law. Chapters 2 and 3 both follow the same pattern: a meeting between Ruth and Boaz is bookended by conversations between Naomi and Ruth. But we almost wonder … what happened to Naomi and her needs?

The narrator opened the book by deliberately calling our attention to the emptiness of Naomi! Yet we nearly lose track of when the “romance” of Boaz and Ruth takes center stage.

The author, however, does not lose track of Naomi as easily as we do! While we’re happily watching Boaz and Ruth figure out the details of the kinsman-redeemer situation, Naomi is there. But, she’s not just giving Ruth the advice she needs (although she is doing that); she’s also waiting patiently for God to fill her emptiness.

How is that emptiness filled? Well, through Boaz’s generosity, her empty stomach is full. But really, that’s not the issue. She’s had food since she moved to Moab with Elimelech. Her real emptiness is internal. Will God fill the void left by the death of her husband and the loss of her family line and inheritance?

We wait till chapter 4 for the answer to this question. In one sentence the narrator wraps up all the important details related to Ruth and Boaz (4.13). Then the focus returns to Naomi.

Naomi receives praise and honor because of baby Obed! She cares for the little boy and the women of Bethlehem rejoice in Naomi’s newfound fullness!

God does indeed make empty things full!

However, there’s an important detail about the way God filled Naomi’s emptiness – he did not fill it with more of its original fullness. He filled it with something rather different. Naomi didn’t get a new husband. She didn’t get two more adult sons and daughters-in-law. She got Boaz (an older “son”) and she got Obed (a grandson).

She did not complain about this “secondhand fullness” from God, however. She rejoiced in God’s provision. And think about what God was doing when he filled Naomi’s emptiness: he was saving the world! Through Obed came Jesse; through Jesse came David; through David came Jesus.

Let’s boil it all down:

  • Emptiness happens. It’s real. God allows it.
  • God makes empty things full, though he may do so in a way that is remarkably different from the original.
  • When he answers in a different way, it’s because he has a bigger plan in mind.

Review: The Theological Messages of the Old Testament Books

The Theological Messages of the Old Testament BooksDr. Robert Bell’s book The Theological Messages of the Old Testament Books contains a wealth of information and serves as a useful resource for Bible students at both the intermediate and advanced levels. The book begins with an introduction to the discipline of biblical theology and an explanation of the book theology method utilized in the content chapters. Following this introduction, Bell presents the theological messages of the Old Testament books in thirty-three chapters (combining Judges & Ruth; 1 & 2 Samuel; 1 & 2 Kings; 1 & 2 Chronicles; and Obadiah, Joel, & Zephaniah). The book concludes with four appendices (bibliography of book theologies, sermon on a theological theme, sermon on a book theology, and a chart of each book’s theme) and an author index.

The methods followed in this book are the analysis of structure, the analysis of vocabulary, and the analysis of themes. The content chapters do not follow a strict format for the analysis of their book(s), but present the message in a way that reflects the prominent analysis method (structure, vocabulary, or theme). In each chapter, Bell presents significant amounts of data (usually in chart or list format), clear explanations of how that data informs his conclusions, and the conclusions themselves. This allows the reader to both learn the theological message of each book and see the connections between Scriptural data and theological conclusions.

While portions of this book may be challenging to a Bible-student beginner, The Theological Messages of the Old Testament Books is a valuable resource. It serves as an excellent reference, full of theological details and exegetical data.  The book is not merely academic, however. Each chapter also contain a Christ-ward conclusion that provides devotional value.

The Theological Messages of the Old Testament Books is available on Amazon.com.

 

A brief description of three chapters, one from each OT section (historical, poetic, and prophecy) will provide a helpful sample of this book’s contents.

Samuel

Following the original Jewish pattern, Bell treats 1 & 2 Samuel as a single historical book. The four main topics are Yahweh, priest, prophet, and king. He notes that the structure of the book can be divided into four character-based sections (Eli -> Samuel, Samuel -> Saul, Saul -> David, David -> Solomon) and six chiastically arranged appendices (two narratives, two psalms, two records of David’s men). Through these sections, he traces the themes of pride and humility as they play out in the lives of each character, major (Samuel, Saul, David, et al) or minor (Goliath, Nabal, Ahithophel, et al).

Job

Bell identifies the dialogue structure of the book and the unusually high concentration of questions and interrogative words. He presents the following organization of theological truths as lessons to be gained from Job:

  1. Regarding Man
    • Man is a sinner.
    • It is possible for a human to serve God piously with unselfish single-mindedness.
  2. Regarding Satan
    • Satan investigates the men of the earth.
    • Satan accuses the saints before God.
    • Satan is as cruel as possible to the saints.
    • Satan can work his evil only as God allows him.
  3. Regarding God
    • God notices and values the righteousness of the saints.
    • God is good and therefore just.
    • God is the powerful sovereign Creator.
    • God is wise beyond man’s comprehensions.
  4. Regarding Revelation
    • God has revealed Himself to mankind.
    • The truth about God is not always evident from our outward circumstances.

Isaiah

Isaiah, according to Bell, is “ideal for the book-theology method” (282). It deals with the three most prominent theological themes: God, man, and redemption.

  • God: The names of God used in Isaiah (charts included) reveal that He is holy, unique, and sovereign.
  • Man’s Sin: Isaiah uses six different terms to describe man’s sin, summing up them up in two ideas: pride and unbelief.
  • God’s Plan for Mankind: Judgment is necessitated by God’s holiness and is often executed through human agents. The Savior, however, comes to provide deliverance and redemption. He is described as a child, king, servant, branch, stone, and light.
  • The only way for justly condemned sinners to appropriate this deliverance is “faith … in the Savior” (298). Bell notes that the full Messianic theology of Isaiah makes it a valuable and powerful source for Gospel preaching.

 

How Christ was “made perfect”

Christ is perfect: he always has and always will be perfect. Yet, the author of Hebrews says that Christ become the cause of our eternal salvation by “being made perfect” (τελειωθεὶς). How are we to interpret this difficult phrase?

Some interpretative options are:

  1. “Being made perfect” refers to Christ’s sacrificial death (as the goal of his sufferings).
    This finds support in the location of this phrase immediately after a two-verse discussion of Christ’s passion experience. Against this, however, one could argue that the “and” (καὶ) that begins verse 9 sets it apart from verses 7-8. That καὶ indicates that τελειωθεὶς fits more naturally with “he became” (ἐγένετο) than with “he learned” (ἔμαθεν).
  2. “Being made perfect” refers to God’s validation of Christ’s learned obedience.
    This also correlates τελειωθεὶς to the previous finite verb “he learned” (ἔμαθεν), but in a different way. As an expression of God’s response to Christ’s obedience, it expresses the result his learning-by-suffering and introduces his “becoming the cause of eternal salvation.” This interpretation builds on alleged LXX usage of the verb τελειόω, asserting that it refers to God’s favorable response to qualified worshipers.
  3. “Being made perfect” refers to Christ’s consecration as high priest.
    This also builds on LXX usage, but interprets the Pentateuchal occurrences as references to the priestly ordination ceremony or completed ordination process.

The word translated “made perfect” (τελειόω) and its cognates are often used with the idea of “completion” or “goal” near the heart of their meaning. The base for this word group is the noun τέλος, which means “goal, end” (1 Tim 1.5). The adjective τέλειος refers to people or things that have the quality or characteristic of “end-ness” (1 Cor. 13.10). This adjective usually has the meaning “perfect” (Mt. 5.48). From the adjective, we have the verb τελειόω, which is causative – “to complete, to make perfect” (Jn. 17.4). The adverb τελείως is used to describe actions done “perfectly” (1 Pet. 1.13). There are three nouns built from the verb. Τελειότης refers to the state of perfection or completion (Col. 3.14); τελειώτης refers to a person who makes something complete (Heb. 12.2); τελείωσις refers to the process of completing or perfecting something (Lk. 1.45).

If these New Testament references and senses were all we had, we’d struggle to wonder how Christ was “completed” or “made perfect,” since incompletion and imperfection have never been part of his character. However, if we turn to the Septuagint (to the Pentateuch in particular), another sense of τελειόω emerges.

Exodus 29 discusses the ordination of Aaron and his sons to the priesthood. Because Aaron is mentioned specifically in Hebrews 5.4, this passage has a special relevance to this interpretation. In all four occurrences in this chapter (9, 29, 33, 35), the verb τελειόω refers to the actual ordination ceremony that Aaron and his sons went through. In Leviticus, the occurrences are more spread out (4.5; 8.33; 16.32; 21.10), but they still always refer to a priest who has gone through the ordination process. Numbers 3.3 contains another reference to priests who have been ordained. In these verses, no indication of “validation” or “approval” occurs; they are simply stating that fact that a priest has been officially consecrated.

Occurrences of τελειόω in the book of Hebrews fall into two categories: Jesus as the object, and other people as the objects. When Jesus is the object, the word follows the Pentateuchal cultic sense and means “to consecrate [him] as priest” (2.10; 5.9; 7.28). When people are the object, there are two subdivisions based on the performer of the verb: the law, or God. When the law attempts to “make perfect” a person, the gloss “consecrate” does not always work (7.19; 9.9; 10.1). In contrast, by Christ’s offering, God does indeed perfect those who come to him (10.14; 11.40; 12.23). In these passages, the idea of completing or perfecting is more prominent. It is also probable that these passages communicate a degree of “derivative priesthood” since Christ’s solidarity with his people is a key theme in this book (2.14; 4.15; 13.12).

What bearing does this have on the occurrence of τελειόω in Heb. 5.9? In light of the specialized Pentateuchal cultic sense of this word, the best interpretive option is Option 3: τελειωθεὶς refers to Christ’s consecration as high priest. This fits perfectly with the context of Hebrew 5.4-10. The author begins with a principle about men becoming priests (4), comments of God’s “calling” of Aaron and Christ as high priests (5-6), explains the suffering necessary to become a priest (7-8), and presents the results of Christ’s successful ordination (9-10). As a statement of Christ’s official consecration as high priest, this participle presents the means whereby he became the cause of eternal salvation. This view is confirmed when we recognize that “made perfect” (τελειωθεὶς) is parallel to the other participle attached to “he was made” (ἐγένετο): “being designated by God as a high priest” (προσαγορευθεὶς).

This is from the conclusion to a paper I completed recently: Exegesis of Hebrews 5.4-10. Be warned, it’s heavy on Greek and fairly technical. This selection has been lightly revised.