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Greek Things (Phil 2:20-21)

I am sure that all languages have abbreviated ways of expressing meaning, and for a native speaker interpretation is probably quite automatic. It is something else for someone who is not a native speaker.

Take for example Paul's description of Timothy to the Philippians. “I have no one else like-minded who will genuinely care about your interests (τὰ περὶ ὑμῶν); all seek their own interests (τὰ ἑαυτῶν), not those of Jesus Christ (τὰ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ)” (Phil 2:20-21, CSB).

τά is the neuter plural of the article from which we get the wooden translation, “the things.” But what are “the things”? Whatever you decide, it is an interpretive decision. This is one of those situations in which you cannot transfer word-for-word. What makes it even harder is that it is difficult to find a phrase that works in all three locations.

Check out the different translations of vv 20–21. The CSB uses “interests” in both verses. The NET has “concern ... concerns.” The NASB has “your welfare” but for some unknown reason uses “interests” in the next verse, losing the connection between the two verses. And notice that they do not italicize “welfare” but do italicize “interests.” Weird. The ESV, NIV, and NRSV use “welfare ... interests” and loose concordance. Another mystery. Certainly, the same construction should have the same translation if possible.

Another challenge is that the Greek is unspecific, and therefore more encompassing than simply “concerns” or “interests.” Timothy was genuinely concerned about the things that matter to the Philippians. People seek the things that matter to themselves and not the things that matter to God. You can see why almost any English word limits the scope of meaning of the Greek.

But there’s another interesting thing in this passage. As we try to employ the historical–critical method, we try to understand what the words mean. But these words can’t mean what they seem to mean. Paul says that Timothy has genuine concern for the Philippians, and then turns around and says no one has concerns for anyone other than themselves. The last time I checked logic, those two statements were mutually exclusive.

This is why you have to be careful at too wooden of an interpretation. You have to ask what the words say, and then ask what the words mean in context. The two can sometimes be quite different. Paul especially likes to overstate things in strong language, and frankly so does Jesus. If your right-hand causes you to sin, cut it off. We have to be careful about looking at just the words but not looking at their meaning.

Having said that, it is true, especially in our graceless culture today, that people rarely have genuine concern for other people. We’re so obsessed with ourselves that we don’t have time to think about the things of others or the things of God. For example, only 2.2% of the people in the church actively tithe. They are concerned about themselves and are content to amass treasures on earth, even with all of the dangers of doing so.

And we wonder why people are not attracted to the church and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

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Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar is the standard textbook for beginning Greek language students in colleges and seminaries. It offers a clear, understandable, i...
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