Monthly Archives: December 2008

Bible Translation: the unforgivable sin

I was chatting with a friend of mine who works as a robotics engineer and I began to express my passion for Bible translation.  In fact, I got a little over-excited and exclaimed, “I have the best job in the world!”  He looked at me sideways and said, “I thought I had that job.”  Well, OK. Being a robotics engineer sounds pretty cool, too. 

Having recently come back from Pakistan after another month of translation, let me share with you one of the gems that I picked up along the way.  One of the joys of translation is the discipline it demands to understand what the passage means.  The act of representing the meaning of the original text in the forms of a different language does not permit the translator to “blip” over the phrases that don’t seem to make sense.  It is that search for the sense of the author’s original communication that provides those “aha!” moments, as the meaning of some apparently obscure or difficult passages is clarified.

For example, in Mt 12:30-32 Jesus speaks of the “unforgivable sin.” The context of this verse is the previous account of Jesus’ releasing a man from the bondage of demon possession.  The response of the Pharisees is not one of praising God – a reaction reflected in comments of the common people – but rather an attempt at political “spin” to disparage the miracle: “He is doing this by the power of Beelzebul, the king of the demons!” (Mt 12:24).

Amazed at such a blatant attempt to twist truth into falsehood, Jesus responds with the quote about the “unforgivable sin,” that is, “blasphemy against the Spirit will never be forgiven,” (vs 31). Essentially he is saying to the Pharisees, “You are hopeless! When you see God in action bringing salvation and healing in people’s lives and call it the work of Satan, then there is no possibility for you to take part in that salvation.  Any other sin can be forgiven, for the recognition and acceptance of the Holy Spirit’s working means that you are open to God’s rule, and that you have a desire for him; repentance and turning to life is possible.  But without that initial and sincere orientation to God, there cannot be repentance and salvation.  A denial of what God is doing because of adherence to religious norms is a blindness for which there is no cure.”

That is, the “unforgivable sin” is not a reference to a solitary act, as if there is one thing a person can do which dooms them forever, despite any change or repentance on their part.  Rather, it is an ongoing attitude of denial of the Spirit or essence of God’s work in bringing restoration and healing, a rejection of God’s action in making things right.

it is important to understand the context and point of Jesus’ teaching in order not to miscommunicate

When translating verse 31, it is important to understand the context and point of Jesus’ teaching in order not to miscommunicate.  That is, the translator must not only choose the appropriate words, but must also use a grammatical form within the target language that provides the reader with an equivalent understanding.  For example, when Jesus says, “blasphemy against the Spirit will never be forgiven,” (vs 31), the reader needs to make the connection between the Pharisees’ denial of the work of God described in the previous verses and the “blasphemy” referred to.  It is also important to make it obvious to the reader that Jesus is not speaking against one solitary act, but against an attitude of disregard for the action of God in bringing healing and salvation.  Taking care to communicate clearly in Bible translation prevents the spiritual harm that can occur through misunderstandings caused by an unclear translation.

And that was just one verse.  We completed most of Matthew’s gospel during that month of translation!

See also Sindhi Bible Translation

The Beauty of the Word

As we near Christmas, I wanted to use this opportunity to pass on a gift given me by a very dear student. During our last class session in November, the students were presenting the product of their final project paper on a selected topic for the Introduction to the Bible. One of the students, Benjamin Van Meter, had done a study on the authorship of the book of Ecclesiastes. Along with his study [which was actually quite a wonderful piece of work] he presented a picture that captured my imagination.

Using a free internet tool called Wordle, he had entered the text of the book of Ecclesiastes. The magic of Wordle created a mesmerizing piece of artwork. The only way I can describe it is to use Wordle’s own description: Wordle is a toy for generating “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes. The images you create with Wordle are yours to use however you like. You can print them out, or save them to the Wordle gallery to share with your friend.

“Word clouds” – you have to see them to appreciate the sight as certain words stand out, capturing the essence of a message. In a demonstration of the “Wordle toy”, Benjamin made another map after the class, this one taking the text of the young man’s hymn of love in the Song of Solomon.  Adding a little artistry with colors and fonts, the final picture became a delightful gift for his wife, Jessica, as the words seemed to punctuate a delightful expression of Love.

Song of Solomon in a Wordle

Let me offer a recommendation. During the Christmas time, you might want to play with the toy and enter the text of the Christmas story just to see the beauty of the Word Made Flesh! I would love to see the result!  Merry Christmas!

The Moving of Heaven and Earth

 As Luke tells the Christmas story, in the hills surrounding Bethlehem, shepherds were awakened to wondrous angelic news of a Savior born to them. He was their Messiah and Lord. And the sign of this great arrangement to the shepherds’ eternal advantage was that they would find their Savior in the most humble of circumstances–swaddled in cloths and lying in a Bethlehem manger.

Luke continues that, if the heavenly announcement was not enough of a shock to them, the next thing the shepherds saw and heard was a great company of the heavenly host raising a chorus of praise: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests." (Luke 2:14)

God’s Good News through the Chaos

The Son of God, who was Savior and Lord was leaving his home to come to earth. And at the same time, the whole world was having to leave home to go to their places of origin to be counted.  Augustus Caesar was responsible for the chaos.

But it wasn’t beyond God’s marvelous arrangement and there was no surprise. All this only served to get a young peasant couple named Joseph and Mary relocated from Nazareth–a four day journey of about 70 miles–to Bethlehem, in order that Mary could deliver God’s own Son in accordance with the scriptures.

 It was the moving of heaven and earth to prepare for the arrival of the Savior.

Glory to God in the Highest

When I was young, I used to think that when the angels sang, "glory to God in the highest," the words "in the highest" meant at the top of their heavenly voices. While I’m sure that the volume was impressive, the song was not about volume but location.

"Glory to God in the highest heavens." they sang. It was not just praise anywhere; it was praise to God in the very place where he dwelt and from where His beloved Son had just left. 

That strikes me as somehow very important. When a beloved son leaves home to strike out on his own, there’s usually a good measure of parental hopefulness, but not a little melancholy and a whole lot of missing that occurs.

Not so in heaven.

Luke says that heaven was filled with joyful praise because of what the Son of God had left to do. He was on a mission from His heavenly Father. God was reaching down to earth in the most personal, intimate and understandable way he could. He didn’t have to, but He did nonetheless out of compassion, generosity and love for us all.

…and on Earth Peace to Men on Whom His Favor Rests

In the coming of Jesus, God himself was making the arrangements to establish peace between Himself and people who were, by and large, hostile toward him. It was going to be incredibly costly. But that cost was undertaken.

At Christmas time many folks think about "peace on earth" in terms of ‘giving it the old college try’ yet again.  They hope to work up pleasant feelings and lift the level of civility just a little because of the season. In fact, peace on earth has nothing to do with us manufacturing warm and generous feelings so that we can feel a bit more peaceful in ourselves. And it doesn’t really work anyway.

What Luke’s talking about is the earthly consequence where God’s Son is received and embraced for who He is. The angel praise is all about God’s disposition and not ours. Jesus embodies God’s action in making peace. Jesus represents God’s forceful intention to offer salvation against what people deserve and sometimes event want.

Christmas is all about God.

The Embodiment of the Holy Passion of Deity

There’s no uncertainty in the angels’ song, no doubt, no question but that Jesus’ coming represents God’s best for you and me. When Jesus arrived, he was the embodiment of the holy passion of deity and the full intensity of pure love.

Jesus embodied the favor of God’s peace to men. There is no other peace like it on earth … because it didn’t come from here. And heaven continues to ring with praise for that sending. Give God the glory; embrace His Savior.

Have a blessed Christmas!

God’s mission: Emmanuel

Emmanuel is my favorite Christmas word, partly because it is also a missions word.  God is a missionary God and provides us with the greatest expression of missions in and through the Christmas event.  The reason why the shepherds could accept the angel’s invitation was because God had come to earth: “Let us go and see” (Lu 2:15).  The reason why Jesus could say, “Come to me everyone who is tired and burdened” (Mt 11:28) was because he was living in the same world with the same demands, discouragements, obstacles and opposition that we face.  The reason why the apostles were so confident in their faith was because they had seen “the Life” with their eyes and touched it with their hands (1 Jn 1:1-2).  Missions (pl) is our part in God’s mission to redeem the world.  Jesus was sent into the world as the greatest act of that mission.  Our participation in God’s mission happens when we play a role through the ongoing sending of the Spirit: either by going ourselves or by becoming the means for sending others.

Emmanuel, God with us

Emmanuel, God with us, is the proclamation of the missionary God. God speaks the eternal Word and it becomes a baby lying in a manger, a man on a mission, a sacrifice on a cross, the resurrected savior, the ascended Lord.  But the proclamation of Emmanuel does not end at the ascension.   Emmanuel does not become “God no longer with us.”  Jesus said, “I will be with you always” (Mt 28:20) and this is not just a comforting metaphor or a pretentious sentiment, but a living reality.  The act of Emmanuel continues with the explosion of words and languages at Pentecost – the Spirit of Christ beginning to blast the message of Emmanuel out to the four corners of the earth.  It is not the principles and instructions of Christianity that are the essence (as good as they are for living well), but it is the presence of the living Christ impacting lives around the world – Emmanuel, God with us. Words are weak and limited, but the experience of the living Word continues on, and it is our faith in Emmanuel that drives us to be part of that movement, the mission to cross barriers, to face obstacles and to show love for the sake of Emmanuel. The God who came to earth continues to be with us, Emmanuel.

Glad to Let the Bible Speak

When I finished preaching yesterday, I was encouraged by the normal comments from people who had appreciated what I had to say. I was a little surprised then, when one woman rather breezily said, “Thanks for the sermon, though I disagreed with you.”

“Oh,” I asked, “what did you disagree with?”

It turns out that she had a problem with my primary point from 1 Peter 2:21-25, that Christians must follow the example of Christ by loving the people who hurt us instead of defending ourselves, even at great personal cost. Clearly, this woman had been hurt and she felt that in order to protect herself, it was not possible to extend grace to the one who had caused her pain. Indeed, she felt that it was wrong for the church to extend grace when that grace came at the expense of support for the victim – her, in this case. “Grace is for God to give,” she said, “it isn’t possible and it isn’t good for me to try and do God’s job.”

First, of all, I wanted her to know that I was sorry for her pain. I also wanted to affirm that a church must offer both grace and truth. In our attempts to give mercy, we must also be sure to not make excuses for sin or deny the truth. But having sympathized with her, it was important that I not back down from my message, but find a way to lovingly re-affirm the truth as I found it in the Scriptures.

The passage was clear, though the message was difficult. I encouraged her to take some time to go back and read the passage carefully and to let the Holy Spirit speak. I reminded her that the truths of Scripture might be hard, but that they always resulted in something good. Further, I tried to help her see that until she could find a way to forgive the one who hurt her, she would never know real freedom in her heart. Forgiveness, I admitted, is risky. People take advantage. They did it with Jesus and we shouldn’t be surprised if it happens with us. But if we can learn to live like Jesus, following the example he gave us to walk “in his steps,” we will grow into the kind of people that God intended us to be.

It was a lengthy, emotional conversation, but by the end of it, the woman seemed to appreciative the dialogue. Personally, I relished the opportunity to engage a conversation of such depth and importance. This is what preaching should always lead to if we’re listening honestly. The Bible is hard on us and it doesn’t hurt to admit it.

Reflecting on the experience later, I realized that I had experienced again the importance of expository preaching. When you let the Bible speak, you don’t have to worry when people disagree. I was able to help the woman see that whether or not she agreed with me was irrelevant. The question was whether or not she was willing to listen to God and to obey what she had heard.

The text was clear and I was glad to let it speak…and let it stand.