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Romans 8:13 and the Meaning of μελλω (Monday with Mounce 38)

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Monday With Mounce buttonDavid wrote me about the use of μελλω in Rom 8:13. The question has to do with the relationship between μελλω and the use of the future. Are they the same? Any nuance differences?

 

Here is the passage. "For if you live according to the flesh you will die (μελλετε αποθνησκειν), but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live (ζησεσθε)" (ESV).

 

There is nothing in the immediate context of the passage that determines the answer to the question. V 11 may help a little as it is a conditional sentence and the apodosis has the simple future. "If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life (ζωοποιησει) to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you" (ESV).

 

But there are two hints to the answer to David's question. The first is the parallel construction of the two verbs in v 13. "You will die" is parallel to "you will live." Both describe the certainty of the consequences of both actions, living according to the flesh and putting to death the deeds of the body. That in and of itself suggests they carry the same basic force: the certainty of a future consequence.

 

But μελλω has a variety of nuances that should also be taken into consideration. BDAG gives several basic meanings.

 

1. "to take place at a future point of time and so to be subsequent to another event, be about to." This includes the sense of imminence, that the event is soon about to happen. Under this meaning they list the usage of μελλω with an infinitive, which is what we have in our passage, and they add that  "in a weakened sense it serves simply as a periphrasis for the futire." In this case, there would be no difference between our two contructions and the variation is stylistic.

 

2. "to be inevitable, be destined, inevitable." Under this gloss they also include the present infintiive, and it is in this caregory that they place Rom 8:13. In this case there would be a nuanced emphasis on the destination of a person who lives according to the flesh, driving home the consequence of their sin.

 

3. As a participle BDAG also includes the meaning, "(in the) future, to come."

 

So what can we make of Rom 8:13. I don't see anything that demands one interpretation over the other. There is nothing in the passage that suggests the imminence of the reader's death, or the destination of one destiny over the other, only the certainty of the outcome of a life lived according to the flesh. Consequently, I would not want to place too much emphasis on the variation between μελλω and the simple future.

 

If this were a term paper and not a blog, where is the next place I should go in determining the meaning of μελλω? You would go throughout Paul and look at how he uses μελλω and determine if he used it with any consistency with one meaning over another. But this is a blog.

 

But this also gives me the chance to say something about how to use BDAG.

 

1. Be sure to pay attention to the grammatical divisions in the BDAG entry. μελλω especially is broken down by whether it is followed by an infinitive or if it is a participial form. And the tense of the infinitive appears to have some significant effect on its meaning; the weakened sense of μελλω as being the same as the future is tied more closely to when the following infinitive is in the present.

 

2. Recognize that where BDAG places a specific passage is a matter of interpretation. I remember when I was starting out in biblical studies, I assumed that their understanding of a passage was non-interpretive. After all, this is a dictionary, not a commentary. But the category they choose is often a matter of interpretation, and therefore BDAG's opinion carries the same weight as any good grammatical commentary. No more; no less.

 

MounceWilliam D. [Bill] Mounce posts every Monday about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation. Learn more and visit Bill's blog (co-authored with scholar and his father Bob Mounce) at www.billmounce.com.

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