Category Archives: Bible Bites [Exegesis]

This category includes all posts that are primarily about exegesis (biblical interpretation), except for posts already included in the Church Chat category.

Who Is Lording Over Whom? (Matthew 20:25)

Today while studying Greek I encountered an exegetical puzzle. Who is lording over whom in this verse?

“25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you.” –Matthew 20:25-26 (ESV)

Here is a more specific question: To whom does the final “them” in verse 25 refer?

  1. To “the Gentiles” (like the other “them” in the sentence)?
  2. Or to “the rulers of the Gentiles”?

(Another detail as you ponder: the “their” at the beginning of the second clause translates οἱ, a plural article that could just as rightly be translated “the.”)

Until today, I have always assumed (1) is the correct answer. That is how the ESV and a host of other English translations read most naturally to my ears. In other words, the translations I scanned seem to generally present the two clauses of of verse 25 as parallel to each other:

(a) “the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them”
(b) “their great ones exercise authority over them”

By this understanding, both “them”s refer to “the Gentiles.” They are the ones being lorded over in both clauses.

Some translations suggest that either the nouns (rulers/great ones) or verbs (lord it over/exercise authority over) of one or the other phrases may be stronger, but the phrases are still usually presented as parallel.

But today I read another translation that suggests something I had never even considered before:

“But Jesus said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles are lording it over them, and the great ones are lording it over them [i.e., over the rulers].”

That is how Rodney J. Decker translates the verse in his Reading Koine Greek textbook. (Decker, now deceased, was no slouch with Greek.) The bracketed explanation is his, not mine.

According to this interpretation, not only are the Gentiles lorded over, but even their rulers are lorded over by those greater than them.

Now that I have read Decker’s interpretation, I see that the there is no grammatical reason why ESV could not also be read the same way (although the “their” rather than “the” at the beginning of the second clause, though a legitimate translation option, distracts from Decker’s interpretation).

I don’t know whether Decker is right.

If Decker is correct, then Jesus was not only prohibiting individual persons from forcibly ruling over others in his kingdom, but he was also condemning a hierarchy of such rulers. And both have been a problem in the church, right?

To test Decker’s interpretation, I’d want to do several things I don’t have time now to do:

  • Compare this passage more closely with its parallels in Mark and Luke.
  • Investigate whether the word usage of “great ones” suggests a higher position than “rulers.”
  • Investigate whether “exercise authority over” suggests a higher position than “lord it over.” (These do come from two different words, despite Decker’s identical translation.)
  • Learn more about how pronoun references tend to work in Greek.

Either way, the essential message of Jesus is clear: If you are my disciples, don’t lord it over others! That’s not how my kingdom works!

What do you think? Which way have you read this verse? Do you find Decker’s interpretation convincing? Why or why not? Share your insights in the comments below.


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A Story in Greek

In December I had the opportunity to take a two-week Greek immersion class in Pennsylvania. There were about seventeen students and five teachers, depending on how you count. We had lots of fun, with over 4 hours a day of stories, role playing, and dialogue in New Testament Greek!

Joseph Neill telling a story about a man who made a great feast. Here he is inviting the class to identify (in Greek) the food that was served at the feast.

Since New Years we have been continuing studies with weekly three-hour video conference classes. The main teacher of the course is Joseph Neill. He exhibits considerable knowledge and patience and enhances our learning through good use of technology (Google classroom, Google docs assignments, video recordings of our classes on Zoom, audio excerpts, etc.). I’m really enjoying this opportunity to dig into NT Greek, especially since this program uses some of the same materials that I had selected for self-study several years ago.

For more information about the Biblical Greek Program, including a chance to sign up for the next class, go here:  https://biblicalgreekprogram.org/

And to learn more about the “living languages” approach taken by this program, go here:  https://www.biblicallanguagecenter.com/why-works/

One of our homework assignments this week is to record ourselves reading part of a story in Greek. We discussed the beginning of the story together in class, then we were each asked to write our own endings.

Here is a video of me reading the entire short story—the first half written by Joseph Neill, and the second half written by me. I must credit the Gospel writers for a couple lines I adapted!

You may notice that the pronunciation sounds different than you expect. The first reason is that, unlike most seminaries, we are following a pronunciation scheme developed by Randall Buth. This scheme is designed to more closely mirror the actual pronunciation of Koine Greek that was used in the time of Jesus. The second reason why my pronunciation may sound different is that my pronunciation, even by this scheme, is still amateur.

Here is the text of the story:

ὁ παῖς ὁ πτωχὸς ἐπείνασεν σφόδρα.
ᾔτησεν οὖν τὸν πλούσιον ἄνθρωπον ἄρτον.
ἐγέλασεν ὁ πλούσιος καὶ προβὰς ὀλίγον ἐξέβαλεν τὸν ἄρτον.
ἰδοῦσα τὸν παῖδα λυπούμενον ἀπέστειλεν γυνὴ δοῦλον αὐτῷ.
Πῶς ἔχεις; εἶπεν ὁ δοῦλος τῷ παιδί.
Κακῶς ἔχω, εἶπεν ὁ παῖς. ἐγώ πεινῶ. θέλω ἰχθύας. ἰχθύας ἔχεις;
Οὐ, ἀλλἀ ὑπάγω ἁλιεύειν, εἶπεν ὁ δοῦλος. Ἀκολούθει μοι καἰ ποιήσω σὲ ἀλιεῦς.

Here’s a rough translation:

A poor child was very hungry.
So he asked a rich man for bread.
The rich man laughed and, going on a little farther, threw away the bread.
Seeing the sad child, a woman sent her servant to him.
“How are you?” [Literally, “How do you have?”] said the servant to the child.
“Not good” [Literally, “I have bad”], said the child. “I am hungry. I want fish. Do you have fish?”
“No, but I am going fishing,” said the servant. “Follow me and I will make you a fisherman.”

Thanks for listening! If you have any questions about the Biblical Greek Program, or any stories about learning biblical languages, share them in the comments below. Blessings!


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“All Things Work Together for…” What?

In Romans 8:28 Paul famously assures us that “all things work together for good.” This is a much-quoted and much-misunderstood verse. Here it is in full:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

One way this verse is misunderstood is to turn it into an indefinite assurance that “everything that happens has a purpose”; things will work out well for everyone, eventually. But this promise is given only to “those who love God.” Those who do not love God have no such assurance.

But this still leaves a question: What is the “good” that will come to those who love God? Expanding on what I shared in my sermon opening today, I’d like to share three answers.

All Things Work Together for What?

First, there is the “prosperity gospel good.” Many professing Christians—perhaps even most in places as diverse as America and Africa—believe that if a Christian has enough faith God will eventually shower them with material blessings. For example, consider this:

God takes pleasure in blessing you, and it’s His will for you to be prosperous… It’s His plan for your life to have enough to take care of all your needs and be a blessing to others, too! To be able to take your family out for a nice meal, to live in a good home, to drive a great car, to go on a nice vacation, and to be able to bless others as you have been blessed… Believe God for a little extra to give, and a little extra to enjoy, and speak His promises of abundance over your life. As time passes, your faith will increase as well as your ability to receive abundance in your finances… Declare that He supplies all of your needs according to his riches in glory, expect His prosperity in your life, and thank Him before you see any change because you know it’s coming!

There is a lot of truth in those words, but also enough serious error that my employer, which sells Christian books, does not plan to order any more of this title for our shelves. I won’t unpack here all the problems with prosperity gospel thinking. Anyone who reads the New Testament carefully should see that for many of Jesus’ most faithful servants, faith in God meant “always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:11), not nice vacations!

Seeing the errors of the prosperity “gospel,” many Christians look closer at the context of Romans 8 to see what “good” Paul had in mind. They note verse 29, which comes next:

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

This leads to a second option: the “character-development good.” What good does God want us to enjoy? He wants us to “be conformed to the image of his Son.” What does that look like? Quite naturally, many readers think of moral qualities. What is Jesus like (WIJL)? What would Jesus do (WWJD)?

In this reading, God uses every circumstance of our lives to deepen our character. Suffering is his special way of filling us with more of his Spirit-fruit–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Suffering teaches “those who belong to Christ Jesus” to “crucif[y] the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:22-24). The end result is that, as we go through all the joys and especially all the sorrows of life, we look more and more like Jesus.

What earnest Christian would not rejoice at this news? This is indeed good! And, unlike the prosperity “gospel” interpretation above, it is also true, as many Bible passages prove.

But is this the “good” that Paul had in mind when he wrote Romans 8:28?

I don’t think so. A closer look at context suggests a third option, something we might call the “glorification good.” And I think it’s important to hear what Paul is saying.

Notice the final clause in verse 29. Why does God want to conform us to the image of his son? “In order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” Elsewhere in the New Testament when “firstborn” language is used about Jesus, it consistently refers his exalted position–over angels, over creation, and especially over death (Col. 1:15, 18; Heb. 1:6; Rev. 1:5 and Luke 2:7 uses it to refer to Jesus’ natural birth order). That speaks of glory.

Similarly, in the one place where the same term is used to refer to Christians, we read of “the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Heb. 12:23). That, too, suggests glory.

Back to Romans 8. Does our linguistic clue fit with Paul’s flow of thought? Consider verse 29, which comes next:

And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

This verse brings Paul’s thoughts to a climax. In many modern translations it is the end of a paragraph, with the next paragraph transitioning to wide-angle reflection on all that has been said before (“What then shall we say to these things?”).  The “punch-line,” then, of Paul’s thought in this entire pericope (“puh-RICK-uh-pea,” fancy biblical studies language for “literary unit” or “section”) is the word “glorified.”

The ESV translation provides the heading “Future Glory” for verses 18 through 30. This is fitting, for the word “glory” is important in the entire pericope. Working backwards, this is what we find:

The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (Rom. 8:21)

Notice here that the glory spoken of belongs to “the children of God.” Talk of “children” foreshadows the language of Jesus being “the firstborn among many brothers” that we found in verse 29.

The first sentence of this pericope also mentions our glory:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Rom. 8:18)

And, in the verses that lead into this entire pericope, we find this:

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Rom. 8:16-17)

Notice here the focus on our position—like Jesus—as “children of God.” Again, this closely matches the language of Jesus being “the firstborn among many brothers” that we found in verse 29.

In fact, the whole pericope from verses 18 through 30 function as an elaboration and proof of the claims in verses 16 and 17, and glory is at the heart of it all:

  • Verses 16 and 17: Paul claims that we who have the Spirit are Jesus’ brothers and will someday inherit the glory that he has inherited, provided we are willing to first suffer with Jesus.
  • Verses 18 to 30: Paul moves from “groaning” to “glory,” detailing the suffering we experience, assuring us of the Spirit’s help, and promising that our glorification is as good as done (“glorified”—past tense).

In this context, there can be little doubt: When Paul told his amanuensis to write “all things work together for good,” the “good” he had in mind was the future glorification of God’s children.

Why does this matter?

First, if you believe the “prosperity gospel good” interpretation of Romans 8:28, you will be sadly disappointed. Your faith is likely to be crushed beneath the persistent sufferings of this life. “When tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word,” you may “fall away” (Matt. 13:21). Or, equally bad, if you actually do enjoy prosperity here and now and pin your hopes on it, you will lose your life when you inevitably die. Make no mistake; the prosperity “gospel” is deadly.

But second, if you believe the “character-development good” interpretation of this passage, you are also in danger. As “all things” that bring suffering into your life “work together” and unrelentingly bear down upon your soul, you may grow weary of God’s refining fire. Being good may pale in comparison to being comfortable. I know it does for me sometimes.

Paul claimed that “if in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19). Taking up your cross and denying yourself is no fun. That’s why Paul said what he did. I don’t care how much you end up sharing Christ’s character, cross-bearing is a really, really bad deal for you unless you believe the incentive of eternal reward. In fact, it is such a bad deal that you probably won’t be able to psych yourself into keeping it for long.

Not even Jesus could bear his cross without focusing on “the joy that was set before him” (Heb. 12:2).  Thus Peter urges you, too, to “set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:13).

In short, you need to set your hope on being “glorified,” not merely on being “good.” 

When you read Romans 8, never stop at verse 28. But never stop at verse 29, either. It sounds super spiritual to focus on suffering to become like Jesus. And you will indeed need to suffer if you are going to become like Jesus. But don’t try to be more spiritual than Jesus. Just aim to be with him and like him—good, yes, but also glorified!

For, one day, the two will be perfectly one, with suffering no more.

I don’t know about you, but I’m about ready for some glory. And yes, in another “moment” or two (2 Cor. 4:17), it will come. There is indeed “Such a Thing as Glory”!

May you catch a glimpse of glory to come as you walk through the “all things” of this week. And share your thoughts, glorious or otherwise, in the comments below. Thanks for reading.


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