(a) “Stewards of the mysteries of God”
1 Corinthians 4. 1: ‘hupēretēs’
John 18.36, Luke 1.2, Acts 26.16

As mentioned at the beginning of the previous study, all 12 of the remaining uses by Paul of ‘musterion’ in the singular refer to the mystery of the gospel; but before we turn to those, there are 3 uses of ‘musteria’ (plural form) which deserve a quick look, all of them occurring in 1 Corinthians. The first, in 4.1, we have already visited when exploring the nature of ‘stewardship’ (‘oikonomia’) in Ephesians 1.10, though here Paul uses the personal, rather than the abstract, noun, ‘oikonomos’, a ‘steward’: “Let people think of us [Paul and his mission team] as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God”. The word ‘servant’ in the first phrase is ‘hupēretēs’ in Greek, a word quite common in the gospels and Acts (19 instances), but used by Paul only here. Literally, the word means an ‘under-rower’ (the prefix is ‘hupo’, not ‘huper’), a slave rowing in the lowest of the three tiers of rowers in a Greek trireme - not a pleasant place of work. In the NT it seems rather to refer to a public servant or official - a court official in Matthew 5.25, a synagogue attendant in Luke 4.20, and ‘officers’, or ‘temple guards’, or ‘officials’ (NIV uses all three translations when referring to what we might call ‘the religious police’) in John 7. 32, 45-6, 18.3, 12, 18, 22, and Acts 5.22, 26: in all these instances they are sent by the chief priests to arrest Jesus, and then, in Acts, to arest his disciples. Later in Acts (13.5), John Mark is described as accompanying Paul and Barnabas as their ‘hupēretēs’, their ‘gopher’, perhaps. But there are three uses of ‘hupēretēs’ which are of more relevance to Paul’s. In John 18, where the word has already been used 4 times (cited above) to refer to Jesus’ arresting officers, he tells Pilate that “my kingdom is not of this world; if it were, my ‘hupēretai’ (plural form) would have put up a fight to prevent my being handed over to the Jews” (v.36). Jesus, or John, is clearly making a point here, lost in translation, a parallel and a contrast between his disciples and the ‘religious police’, both ‘hupēretai’ , but answering to very different masters and working to very different orders. It is Luke, though, as so often, who provides us with the most helpful links to Paul’s use of ‘hupēretēs’ in 1 Corinthians 4.1. At the very beginning of his gospel he refers to these disciples as “eyewitnesses from the beginning who became servants (‘hupēretai’) of the word”, a phrase which is more or less synonymous with Paul’s “stewards of God’s mysteries”. An even closer link comes in Luke’s third account of Paul’s conversion, Paul’s own testimony before Agrippa. Paul sees a light shining round him, “brighter than the brightness of the sun”, and hears the voice of Jesus, who says to him: “This is the reason I have appeared (literally, ‘been seen’) to you, to appoint you as a servant (‘hupēretēs’) and witness on my behalf, both of what you have seen and of what you will see in my future appearances to you” (Acts 26.16); the last part of this verse is particularly hard to translate, being literally “and of what things I will be seen by you”. The verb to ‘see’ is used 4 times in these 4 verses (13-16), emphasising the point that Paul is now, like the other 11 apostles (or 12, if Matthias is included), ‘an eye-witness’. In fact, the word generally translated ‘eye-witness’ in our previous verse (Luke 1.2) literally means ‘one who has seen for himself’ (‘autoptēs’ - ‘autos’ as in ‘autograph’, something ‘written by oneself’, and ‘opt-’ as in ‘optical’, etc.); there is no specific word for ‘witness’, as there is in Jesus’ words to Paul, the Greek ‘martus’ - all too often Jesus’ witnesses have, indeed, been ‘martyrs’.

Acts 26.16, 3.20, 22.14, Ex 4.3

In a moment, we will bring together these two passages to form a fuller idea of what Paul implies both by the double description of himself and his colleagues on the mission-team to Corinth as ‘servants’ and ‘stewards’, and what might be suggested about ‘the mysteries’ to which he refers. First, though, another, very brief, word-study of ‘appoint’ (Acts 26.16). This, too, is an uncommon word, appearing only 3 times in the NT, all in Acts. The Greek word is ‘procheirizō’, a verb compounded from ‘cheir’, a ‘hand’ (a ‘chiropodist’ treats hands as well as feet - or should!). It seems originally to mean to ‘take something into one’s own hands’, and then to ‘decide’, and so, with a personal object, to ‘appoint’. In this sense it is used in the (problematic!) middle voice, as in our context here in verse 16, which I have, perhaps, over-translated as “to appoint --- on my behalf”. My excuse for this, if I need one, is that the use of the middle voice, as with ‘anakephalaiō’ in Ephesians 1.10 in the previous section, suggests the idea of ‘stewardship’: being given authority to act ‘on behalf of’ another. Probably the most memorable occurrence of this word is in the LXX version of Exodus 4. 3, the OT equivalent, one might say, of the calling of Paul in this passage. There, God is calling Moses and ‘appointing’ him to the daunting task of confronting Pharaoh and freeing Israel from slavery. Moses is very reluctant to accept this commission, and after offering various excuses, which the Lord graciously deals with, is reduced to blurting out: “O Lord, please send someone else to do it!” (‘procheirizō’ in the middle). God’s supreme ‘appointee’, of course, is Jesus himself: in Peter’s second sermon, in Acts 3.20, he tells the Israelites that God will “send out to you (‘apostellō’) the Christ (Messiah) he has appointed, Jesus” (‘procheirizō’ here in the passive). The final instance comes in Paul’s first testimony, to an angry crowd in the Temple precincts in Jerusalem. Here the context is slightly different: it is not Jesus himself who uses the word, but Ananias (like Moses, a rather reluctant, but ultimately obedient ‘appointee’). He tells Paul that “the God of our fathers has appointed you on his behalf (middle!) to know his will and to hear his voice [straight] from his mouth” (Acts 22.14).

'servants' and 'stewards'

From all this, we can now, I think, see more fully what Paul means when he tells the Corinthians to regard their evangelists and apostles (the true ones) as “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God”. “Servants” and “stewards” are virtually synonymous, but have different connotations: ‘servant’ stresses the relationship we have with Christ, while ‘steward’ stresses the responsibility entrusted to us by Christ. Our relationship is one of humble and obedient service to Jesus the Son of God, King of kings and Lord of lords, though as ‘the Son of Man’ he graciously calls us friends (John 15. 14-15). The responsibility he has entrusted to us is the same as that entrusted to Paul, to be his witnesses in and to the world. We can only bear witness to what we have ourselves experienced. Paul and his fellow apostles were ‘eye-witnesses’ and ‘ear-witnesses’: they had seen Jesus in the flesh and heard his voice (1 John 1.1,3). All Christians today are called and ‘appointed’ by our Master to be ‘head-witnesses’ to what we know of him in scripture, and ‘heart-witnesses’ to what we have experienced of his reality in our lives. The ‘mystery of the gospel’ must be a large part of what Paul means here by ‘mysteries’; but to him, uniquely perhaps, God had given insights and revelations (those “future appearances” which he promised in Acts 26.16) about mysteries yet to be revealed, the ones we have already studied, and, maybe, others besides. All the OT prophecies which Paul quotes in his letters, as Peter had done before him in his sermons, had been, until fulfilled in Christ, mysteries waiting long ages to be revealed, and now, as the Holy Spirit shone upon them the light of Christ, so they became ‘mysteries’ that Paul was responsible, as a steward and appointee, for expounding, to Jew and gentile alike. To expound scripture and to preach the gospel is to fulfil the ministry of “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God”.

(b) “knowing all mysteries”
1 Corinthians 13. 2
[i] two echoes of Matthew:
Matthew 17.20, 21.21, 25.14-15, 1 Corinthians 12.7-9
'men --- de':Matthew 26.41, 25.33

But knowledge alone is not enough, whether head-knowledge of the scriptures or even heart-knowledge of Jesus at work in one’s life by his Spirit. Above all, to be a faithful and fruitful servant of Christ and steward of God’s mysteries one needs love, as Paul so memorably teaches in chapter 13 of this letter. This beautiful chapter, understandably, perhaps, but nevertheless too often, is read in isolation from its context, which makes it particularly hard to understand the first 3 verses. This is where our next instance of ‘mysteries’ is located, in verse 2, the middle of 3 parallel statements by Paul all beginning with ‘if’ and ending with (a version of) ‘I am ---’. Our verse reads: “And if I have [the gift of] prophecy and know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” The context is important because both here and in verse 1 Paul is referring to the spiritual gifts he has been discussing at length in chapter 12, which is where we need to go to get a better idea of what Paul means here by ‘mysteries’. Twice in chapter 12 Paul lists the gifts of the Spirit, the ‘charismata’ (4-11, 27-31), and in between he develops the analogy of the church as the body of Christ, whose members have different gifts and different functions all working together for the good of the whole. Much ink has been expended on this subject, but our purpose here is simply to identify which gift or gifts Paul is referring to when he speaks of ‘knowing all mysteries’. Before that, however, I would like to draw attention to a gospel echo in Paul’s language here (12. 7-9) which, in my experience anyway, is not often remarked upon. The obvious echo, of course, comes in 13.2, where Paul talks of “faith so as to move mountains”, a clear reference to two verses in Matthew’s gospel, 17.20: “If you have faith as a grain of mustard-seed, you will say to this mountain ‘Move from here to there’, and it will move”; and 21.21: “If you have faith and do not doubt but say to this mountain ‘Get up and throw yourself into the sea’, it will happen”. If Paul had access, in some form or other, to these sayings of Jesus, perhaps he turned on a few pages (or unwound the scroll) to chapter 25.14-15, the beginning of the parable of the talents: “A man going abroad called his own (‘idios’) servants and handed over to them his possessions; to one, on the one hand, he gave 5 talents, to another, on the other hand, he gave 2 talents, to another, 1, to each according to his own (‘idios’) ability”. Although neither ‘oikonomia’ nor ‘oikonomos’ is used here, this is essentially a parable about stewardship, and so particularly relevant to Paul’s purpose, and to our study, as we have just seen. This parable has usually been taken to refer to people’s natural gifts - indeed, it is this parable which has conferred on our natural gifts the word ‘talents’, so that ‘to bury one’s talent’ is seen as a failure of stewardship. If God entrusts us with a particular gift, this parable teaches, then he expects us to use it in his service. Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 is saying the same about spiritual gifts, and he starts his exposition with, I believe, an echo, conscious or not, of the start of the parable: “The Holy Spirit reveals his power by giving to each a gift for the benefit of all: to one, on the one hand, is given through the Spirit a word of wisdom, to another, on the other hand, a word of knowledge by the same Spirit. To another, faith is given in the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing, still in one and the same Spirit” (7-9). The list continues in verse 10 with miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues and interpretation of tongues. It is the structure of the two passages which is so similar. Each uses the particles ‘men --- de’, which in Classical Greek are ubiquitous, but much less common in the NT; these I have over-translated, to make the point, as ‘on the one hand’ and ‘on the other hand’: they are used to establish at the same time both a parallelism (of structure) and a contrast (in meaning). A simple and memorable example comes in Jesus’ words in Gethsemane to his sleeping disciples: “The spirit (‘men’) is willing but (‘de’) the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26.41); or, even more appropriate, in the previous chapter, “the sheep on the right [hand], the goats on the left [hand]” (25.33). Our two parallel passages also embody a nice inversion: in the parable, “he gave to one --- to another --- to each”, while in Paul “to each is given --- to one --- to another --- to another”. If this echo is a conscious one on Paul’s part, then he is using it subtly to emphasise the point that the gifts of the Spirit are given not for personal gratification or glorification, but as a sacred trust (an ‘oikonomia’), to be used for God’s glory and for the good of the whole church. This, perhaps, is why the gift of tongues (which we will deal with more fully in the next section) comes almost at the end of both lists here (vv. 10, 28), since only if accompanied by an interpretation can it ‘edify’, or ‘build up’, the rest of the church. For the same reason, too, the gift of tongues is the first gift to be mentioned in chapter 13, since, in this carefully rhetorical passage, Paul is working up to a climax, and so starts at the bottom of the ladder (‘klimax’ is the Greek for ladder!).

[ii] the gift of knowledge: two instances in Acts
Acts 5.3-4, 9, 13.8-11

What, then, does he mean by “all mysteries” in verse 2? These 2 verses clearly refer to the gifts of the Spirit listed in chapter 12, while verse 3 gives 2 examples of Christian commitment, almsgiving and, the ultimate (the top of the ladder), martyrdom. Tongues (v.1), prophecy and faith (v.2) are specifically mentioned; “all mysteries” is bracketed with “all knowledge”, both introduced by “if I know ---”, so this links it with the two gifts mentioned in 12. 8, “a word of wisdom” and “a word of knowledge”. If we are to distinguish between these two, then perhaps wisdom is the Spirit-given understanding and guidance of what to say or what to decide in a particular situation, while knowledge is the understanding of God’s truth and purpose, and also of those ‘hidden’ things we looked at much earlier, the mystery of the human heart and the mystery of the future. What, it is safe to say, Paul is not referring to here, as he was in 4.1, is the mystery of the gospel: that is not a spiritual gift given to some but not others, but a gift, and a stewardship, for all Christians. Luke’s version of the parable of the talents (19.11-27) is ‘the parable of the pounds’; here, each of the 10 servants is given the same, a ‘mna’, a word which, for some reason, has not entered the English language as ‘talent’ has; it was a unit of Greek currency worth much more than a pound but much less than a talent (60 to a talent, to be precise). This ‘mna’ is usually, and rightly, seen as the gospel message, the sacred trust of which every Christian is a ‘steward’, called on not just to enjoy its blessings himself, but to pass on its precious truths to those around him. Perhaps, then, Paul uses the phrase “all mysteries and all knowledge” as a hendiadys, meaning ‘the knowledge of mysteries hidden from everyone else’. If these are indeed the mysteries of the human heart, we are given an excellent double example of such Spirit-inspired knowledge in Acts 5, where Peter, presumably through the prompting of the Spirit, ‘knows’ that Ananias is lying when he claims to have given to the church the full price he was paid for the property he sold; and when Ananias’s wife, now his widow, makes the same claim, Peter, speaking again as prompted by the Spirit, tells her that she, too, will be carried out dead by the same young men who had earlier carried out her husband (v.9). There is, as so often, a similar incident, if a little less dramatic, in Paul’s ministry, right at its outset in Cyprus (13. 8-11), when he confronts the ‘mage’ Elymas, who is opposing his preaching (‘magos’ in Greek, like the three very different ones in Matthew’s gospel with their gifts for the infant Jesus). “Son of the Devil”, Paul calls him (and much else), “the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind”: he knows what God is about to do, a ‘word of knowledge’ prompted by the Spirit. There is an interesting verbal link between these two passages which further strengthens the parallel that Luke is clearly establishing in Acts between the ministry of Peter in the first half and the ministry of Paul in the second half. After Peter’s words in chapter 5, Ananias’s wife Sapphira “fell immediately” (v.10); after Paul’s strong words to Elymas, “immediately there fell” on him mist and darkness: exactly the same two words in Greek, but in reverse order.

(c) speaking mysteries
1 Corinthians 14.2

After the ‘love-feast’ in chapter 13, Paul returns in chapter 14 to plainer fare. He is trying to bring order to what we can infer were the chaotic meetings of the Corinthian church. In short, he is arguing that, whatever may be the value of the gift of tongues in private prayer, in church meetings the gift of prophecy is much more valuable since it ‘builds up’ the hearers in the faith, while ‘tongues’ merely baffles them. We can, perhaps, sum up his argument in two equations: ‘tongues + interpretation = prophecy’; ‘tongues - interpretations = mysteries’. Once again, verse 2 is our key verse: “The one who speaks in a tongue is speaking not to his fellow men but to God; what he says is inspired by the Spirit, but his words are mysteries which no one understands”. The first issue to resolve here is the meaning of the Greek words which literally translate as “he speaks in/by spirit/Spirit”: there is neither a preposition nor a definite article with ‘pneuma’ (‘spirit’), which is in the dative case. This leads AV and NIV (in its main text) to suppose that this means ‘with his spirit’, but NEB is surely right (in this, at least) to use ‘inspired’ here, even though it omits ‘the Spirit’. Since Paul is, throughout, including the gift of tongues among all the other “gifts of the Spirit”, even though it is bottom of the list, it seems perverse to suppose that here he is implying that when someone speaks in a tongue (an unknown language), it is his own human spirit speaking rather than the Holy Spirit. NIV graciously acknowledges this interpretation in a footnote. The same issue recurs in verse 16, where the same argument applies, though here NIV does not even get it right in a footnote: “If [in the context of public worship, as throughout the chapter] you are praising God in [the power of] the Spirit [i.e. in a tongue], how will the person occupying the place of the ordinary worshipper add his ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving when he has no idea what you are saying?”. Paul’s point is that public worship should be corporate worship, worship of the whole body with all its different parts combining in one, not a series of individual ego-trips.

‘idiōtēs’, ‘agrammatos’
Acts 4.13, John 7.15

The word in verse 16 which I have translated above as “the ordinary worshipper” is an interesting one, and deserves a moment’s attention. In Greek this is ‘idiōtēs’, a noun related to the adjective ‘idios’, which we have met on several previous occasions. ‘idios’ means ‘personal’ or ‘private’, so that ‘idiom’ is one’s own particular, perhaps peculiar, use of language, and an ‘idiosyncrasy’ is one’s own distinctive blend (or ‘mixture’) of character traits. How, then, do we get the English word ‘idiot’ from Greek ‘idiōtēs’? In Classical Greek the word is very common, but its exact meaning is determined by its context. Essentially it means a ‘private citizen’ as opposed to a public figure, such as a magistrate or a politician, or a ‘layman’ as opposed to a doctor or a lawyer: the antithesis defines the meaning. Two further examples from the Greek lexicon make the point: in the military world, an ‘idiōtēs’ is a private soldier as opposed to a commander, and, remarkably, in the world of literature, an ‘idiōtēs’ writes in prose rather than in verse. From here its meaning slips gently downhill, as so often happens: the world of words is as much subject to the law of gravity as the physical world! Thus someone without specialist qualifications must be stupid, and so an ‘idiot’. There is, however, no suggestion of this meaning in its 5 occurrences in the NT, 1 in Acts, 3 in this chapter, and the final one in 2 Corinthians (11.6). This makes it another example of a word used only by Luke and Paul - their shared ‘idiom’, perhaps. The instance of ‘idiōtēs’ in Acts (4.13) is in the context of the Sanhedrin’s amazement at Peter’s bold and scriptural response to their questioning (8-12): were these Galileans not just “uneducated laymen”? Here ‘idiōtēs’ is defined by its near synonym rather than by an antithesis, the word ‘agrammatos’; its initial ‘a’ is the negative prefix, and “-grammatos’ has to do with writing, but ‘illiterate’ would be an incorrect translation since we know that Peter, John and Matthew, at least, could, and did, write. Rather, it implies that they had had no formal secondary education - they had not been to ‘grammar school’. In this, of course, they were just like Jesus himself, and there is an interesting parallel to Acts 4.13 in John 7.15, where the Jewish authorities were ‘amazed’ (the same word) at Jesus’ teaching in the Temple: “How does this man know the ‘grammata’ (‘writings’, ‘scriptures’)”, they asked, “when he has not been a student?”. We could, then, translate Acts 4.13: “They saw that the apostles were ordinary men, without academic qualifications or social standing”; but they also realised that they had “been with Jesus”, a three-year training course worth more than all the university degrees in the world!

[2] 2 Corinthians 11.6

Paul’s use of ‘idiōtēs’ in 2 Corinthians 11.6 is similar to this. The verse comes in the middle of his long attack on the “excessively superlative” false apostles who were causing so much trouble in the Corinthian church in his absence. He says that he regards himself as “not at all inferior” to them: “even if I am untrained (‘idiōtēs’) in oratory, I am certainly not [untrained] in knowledge [of the gospel], which I have made fully clear to you in every detail”. Perhaps ‘amateur’ might be better here than ‘untrained’, partly because Paul is at pains in this letter to stress that he received no payment for his preaching, but mostly because an ‘amateur’ is a ‘lover’, and Paul’s motivation for all that he did and said was love; as he had put it a few chapters earlier (5.14), “the love of Christ has me in its grip”. Here, however, he seems to be implying that it is by the exercise of their practised and polished rhetoric that these ‘apostles’ have so impressed the Corinthians. Rhetoric was one of the cornerstones of Greek higher education, and it is quite possible that his rivals were expert in its skills, and that, by comparison, Paul appeared unsophisticated in speech. This criticism is made against him, he tells us himself (10.10), by the Corinthians: “His epistles are strong and weighty, but his physical presence is weak, and his speaking skills are negligible”. This, perhaps, is why, in the wake of the comparative failure of his address to the Areopagus in Athens, he came to Corinth “proclaiming the mystery of God not with high-flown oratory or profound philosophy, but determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2. 1-2) We will return to both these verses later, but first we will look at the three occurrences of ‘idiōtēs’ in 1 Corinthians 14.

[3] 1 Corinthians 14

The first is in verse 16, the verse that launched us on this brief diversion. Paul is concerned that if, at a church meeting, someone “worships in the Spirit”, that is, in a tongue, “the person filling up the place of the ‘idiōtēs’” will not know when to say ‘Amen’. As before, its meaning here is defined by the antithesis: the leader in worship is contrasted with ‘the ordinary worshipper’, my original translation; but perhaps the whole phrase could simply, if anachronistically, be rendered “the man in the pew”. The other two occurrences are at the end of this passage, verse 24 and 25. Here Paul’s concern is not for the insider but for the ‘idiōtēs’, the outsider, the casual visitor who drops in to the church meeting: “If everyone is speaking in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are crazy? But if all are prophesying and an outsider or unbeliever enters, he will be convicted by everyone ---”. If ‘idiōtēs’ in verse 16 could be translated ‘the man in the pew’, then perhaps here we could say ‘the man in the street’.

Tongues as ‘mysteries’: 3 illustrations
1 Corinthians 14. vv. 23, 7-9, 11

What, then does Paul mean when he says that the person who speaks in a tongue “speaks mysteries in the Spirit”? He develops this idea by using three different images, or comparisons, in the passage that follows. The final one, in verse 23, we have just looked at: to an ‘outsider’, someone speaking in a tongue will seem to be jabbering like a lunatic (the Greek verb used here, ‘mainomai’, is the origin of ‘maniac’). He builds up to this rather extreme expression with two less startling ones. First, in verses 7-8, he uses the analogy of musical instruments, a flute or a lyre in verse 7, and then in the next verse a trumpet. If they utter a series of sounds not divided in to separate intervals, how will any one recognise what is being played? And if a trumpet gives out a meaningless succession of notes rather than a recognisable trumpet-call, how will soldiers know whether to arm for battle or to retreat as fast as possible? Formless, tuneless music is a ‘mystery’ to its audience, just as an unknown language is a ‘mystery' to those who hear it. Paul, thou should’st be living at this hour, for most modern music makes your point perfectly; it is certainly a mystery to me! In verse 11 he makes a similar point, using human rather than musical language as his analogy: “If I do not get the meaning (literally, the ‘force’, ‘dunamis’) of someone’s speech, I am a barbarian to him, and he to me”. The Greek word ‘barbaros’, a ‘foreigner’, suits Paul’s purpose exactly here, since it referred to any one not speaking Greek, whose words were therefore an unintelligible babble - ‘bar-bar-bar-’. In the ears of an ‘idiōtēs’, therefore, someone speaking in a tongue may appear to be speaking ‘gibberish’ (NEB’s excellent rendering well conveys the essence of ‘barbaros’); but since Paul clearly teaches that the gift of tongues is a gift of the Holy Spirit, any language he chooses to give us cannot be meaningless or worthless: God is the author of all language. ‘Mystery’ therefore is just the right word for such a language: its meaning is known to God but, for the time being, concealed from men.

Acts 14.12, Ephesians 6.15

How, then, do the ‘mysteries’ of tongues become the knowledge revealed by prophecy? We have seen throughout this study that the key link between mystery and knowledge is revelation, and in this context revelation comes through another gift of the Spirit, interpretation. This is both an interesting word in Greek and an important concept in scripture, and so well merits a mini-study of its own. ‘Interpretation’, in fact, is one of a whole family of words, the founding father of which is the simple verb ‘hermēneuō’, from which we get the study of ‘hermeneutics’. Before we look at the rest of the family, it is instructive to see how ‘hermēneuō’ itself is derived. I said a little while back that we would be revisiting 2 Corinthians 11.6, where Paul admits that, compared with the ‘super apostles’ he was only an ‘untrained’ or ‘amateur’ speaker (‘idiōtēs’). A literal translation would be ‘a man unskilled of speech’ - ‘logos’ is used here for ‘speech’, as in the previous reference (10.10), where his critics in Corinth describe his ‘logos’ as ‘worth nothing’. This prepares us for a visit to Lystra, and to Acts 14. A cripple has been miraculously healed, and the (presumably gentile) crowd are so amazed that they assume that Paul and Barnabas are gods from Olympus visiting the earth - as happened quite regularly in Greek mythology. “They called Barnabas ‘Zeus’”, says Luke, “and Paul they called ‘Hermes’, since he was the leader in speech” (‘logos’ again - v.12). Paul may have had no formal training in rhetoric, but he had certainly had plenty of practice at speaking to crowds! His Corinthian critics had also said, in the same verse, that “his physical presence is weak”, so presumably Barnabas was the more imposing figure of the two, so that he was assumed to be Zeus, the king of the gods. Of all the pantheon, Hermes was the most frequent visitor to earth, since he was Zeus’s messenger - his ‘angelos’, or ‘angel’! As an intermediary between gods and men, he was traditionally represented as wearing winged sandals, symbolic of his ‘air-mail’ delivery of Zeus’s messages: he was, in short, the ‘go-between god’. It is from Hermes that the verb ‘hermēneuō’ is derived, so that it means to ‘interpret’ or ‘translate’ the words of the gods into the language of men. There is a sense in which Hermes is a good role-model for all Christians, for we are all called to be ‘go-betweens’, bringing God’s message, the message of the gospel, to those around us who need to hear it. Could Paul have had Hermes in mind when, among the items of ‘the whole armour of God’, he included “wearing on your feet the [winged?] sandals that make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace” ? (Eph. 6.15)

'interpretation' and 'translation'

After these flights of fancy we need to return to more solid ground - from mythology to dictionary. The simple verb ‘hermēneuō’ has two compounds, neither of which appreciably affects its meaning: ‘methermēneuō’ perhaps suggests ‘changing’ the message from one language to another, while ‘diermeneuo’ possibly implies getting ‘through’ to people in a language they can understand. Essentially, however, all three are synonyms, so that on 2 occasions the MSS do not agree whether the simple verb should be used rather than one of the compounds. This also applies to the personal noun, ‘an interpreter’, which only occurs once (1 Cor. 14. 28), but as ‘hermeneutes’ in some MSS and ‘diermeneutes’ in others. The final member of the family is the abstract noun ‘hermēneia’, ‘interpretation’, occurring only twice, both in 1 Corinthians (12.10, 14.26). The three versions of the verb between them occur 17 times in the NT, and I shall not differentiate between them. Paul uses the verb 4 times in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, all referring to ‘interpreting’ or ‘translating’ by a special gift of the Spirit someone else’s gift of a ‘tongue’, or ‘language’. All but one (i.e.12) of the remaining uses are ‘translations’ by other NT writers of Hebrew or Aramaic names or words into Greek. Matthew gives a translation of “Emmanuel” (1.23), Mark of two sayings of Jesus (5.41, 15.34), and also of ‘Golgotha’ (15.22) and John of ‘Rabbi’ and ‘Kephas’ (1.38, 42), and the Pool of ‘Siloam’ (9.7). Luke does not use the verb in this sense in his gospel, but in Acts ‘translates’ for us the names of ‘Barnabas’ (4.36), ‘Tabitha’ (9.36), and ‘Elymas’ (13.8). All these uses refer to the process of translating words from an unknown language into a language known to the reader or listener (usually Greek), whether the original languages are earthly or heavenly, “tongues of men” or “tongues of angels” (1 Cor. 13.1). And the purpose of translation is the same, too: that, like the crowd on the day of Pentecost, all of us should be able to “hear in our own language the great works of God” (Acts 2.11). This, of course, reminds us that we all, unless we are fluent in Hebrew and Greek (and Chaldean!) need translators if we are to understand the word of God and respond to the gospel of salvation. But to understand the word of God requires not just the exercise of the human intellect but the gift of the Spirit illuminating God’s truth for us.

Luke 24.27

This takes us to the 17th occurrence of ‘hermēneuō’, in Luke 24.27, where, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus gives those otherwise unknown but uniquely privileged disciples the most wonderful bible-study in history. Perhaps their very obscurity serves to suggest that such a privilege is not restricted to the ‘big names’ of the church, but is open to all those Christians who walk with Jesus. Luke tells us that “beginning from Moses and all the prophets, he ‘interpreted’ for them in all the scriptures those passages that concerned himself”. Here, clearly, ‘translated’ would be the wrong translation! The OT was written in Hebrew, and these two disciples, like all Jews, would be well taught in Hebrew, and would probably know large parts of the scriptures by heart. But knowing the meaning of the text is not the same as understanding the message of the bible; for this, the gift of ‘interpretation’ is needed. Just as a man or woman speaking to God in a tongue is ‘speaking mysteries’, so in many parts of the OT God, in speaking to men, is ‘speaking mysteries’, as we have seen throughout this study. We are not as privileged as these two disciples: we do not have Jesus in his bodily presence to interpret the scriptures for us. But we are not on our own - Jesus has not left us ‘orphans’ (John 14.18), but has given us his Holy Spirit; and who better to interpret scripture for us than the one who inspired its writing? Not all of us may speak in tongues, and even fewer may have the gift of ‘interpretation of tongues’, because these gifts the Holy Spirit “distributes to each individually as he wishes” (1 Cor. 12.11). But these gifts, precious as they are in themselves, are also symbols of gifts which, with the Spirit’s help, each of us may possess and develop: a true understanding of God’s word, the gospel, and the ability to communicate that truth to others in language they can understand. To the world at large the gospel remains a mystery; but it is a mystery which God has revealed and entrusted to his disciples, a ‘stewardship’ or ‘sacred trust’ (‘oikonomia’), just as in the parable of the ‘pounds’ the ‘noble man’ entrusted his servants each with a ‘mna’, and told them to “get on with the job”, the job, as we can now interpret it, of evangelism (Luke 19.13).
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