10 Surprises about 2014’s Most Popular Bible Verses (Part 2)

Finally, brothers and sisters… let me share more surprises about 10 of 2014’s most popular Bible verses. (See here for the first 3 surprises and background data for this post.)

I’ll summarize the first three surprises and continue:

  1. Bible reading is growing fastest in unlikely places, including Israel, South Sudan, the Republic of Suriname, Iraq, and Macedonia.
  2. “World” in Romans 12:2 might better be translated “age.”
  3. “Finally” in Philippians 4:8 doesn’t necessarily indicate Paul plans to quit soon.
  4. Despite Philippians 4:6 (“Do not be anxious about anything”), not all “anxiety” is wrong. A fairly literal translation of this command would read, “For nothing be anxious.” Yet another form of this same verb “be anxious” (μεριμνάω) is used earlier in the same letter in a positive way: “I have no one like [Timothy], who will be genuinely concerned [μεριμνήσει] for your welfare” (Phil. 2:20). This is high praise of Timothy: he was genuinely “anxious” about the Philippian believers!
    Paul uses the same verb to tell the Corinthians of God’s purpose for the Church body: “that the members may have the same care [μεριμνῶσιν] for one another” (1 Cor. 12:25). Earlier in that letter he uses related words to say both positive and negative things about “anxiety” (1 Cor. 7:32-35). First he seems to be opposed to all anxiety: “I want you to be free from anxieties.” Then he seems to affirm a certain kind of anxiety: “The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord.” Next he clearly dislikes another kind: “But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife.” Then he clarifies his real point: “his [the married man’s] interests are divided… I say this… to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.”
    Jesus, using the same verb, strongly forbids anxiety in the Sermon on the Mount. Yet even he seems to leave room for some legitimate “anxiety”: “Tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matt. 6:34). In other words, concern for today’s needs is understandable (cf. “give us this day our daily bread”), but anxiety about tomorrow demonstrates lack of faith. We find a similar tension in Jesus’ words when he tells his disciples “Let not your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1, different Greek verb), for his own heart was troubled multiple times (John 11:33; 12:27; 13:21).
    Finally, back to Paul: He confesses his own “anxiety” to the Philippians (Phil. 2:28; unrelated Greek word) and tells the Corinthians of “the daily pressure… of [his] anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28; closely related word). So don’t be anxious if you are sometimes anxious! Just cast it on the Lord (1 Pet. 5:7).
  5. Some who are claiming Jeremiah 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope”) are actually destined to experience Jeremiah 18:11. Jeremiah 29:11 is an increasingly popular verse. Last year it didn’t make the top 10 ranking for YouVersion. But this year it was the only verse to make top five ranking for both YouVersion and Bible Gateway, and it was the number 1 most popular verse this year for YouVersion in Canada, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Australia. It’s not hard to understand why this verse is popular. Who doesn’t want to be assured that God has good plans for them?
    But what if he doesn’t? Does God have good plans for everyone? Apparently not, according to Jeremiah 18:11: “Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the Lord, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds.’”
    Those who hope to legitimately claim Jeremiah 29:11 for themselves must remember several things: (1) It was initial spoken to a specific audience just as much as Jeremiah 18:11 was; the original audience was also assured in the immediately preceding verse that “when seventy years are completed for Babylon,” God would bring them back to Jerusalem. (2) The original hearers were warned not to expect God’s good plans for them to happen anytime soon; contrary to the words of the false prophets, they would have to wait seventy years before being released from exile–by which time many of the original hearers would have been dead! (3) The original promise was given to a group of people and not to an individual; only faithful members of the group who sought God with all their heart could hope to benefit from the promise. Those who were not part of Israel’s faithful remnant would not experience God’s good plans.
    In summary, while Jeremiah 29:11 certainly does reveal God’s heart for his own people, it is dangerously wrong to use this verse as a universal promise to hand out indiscriminately to high school graduates and New Year celebrants. God has plans for you, no doubt! But unless you are repentant, his plans will only bring you disaster.
  6. The “you” in Matthew 6:33 is plural. As with the preceding example, this verse is often taken as a personal, individual promise: If I “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” then I can expect God to give me “all these things”–sufficient daily food and clothing, according to the context. And perhaps it is legitimate to understand this statement this way. Maybe Jesus simply meant “every individual (singular) one of you (plural).” But it is intriguing to ponder a possible deeper significance of the plural “you.”
    Might Jesus be saying that if his followers, together, faithfully seek God’s kingdom first, then he will ensure that his followers as a group will be given sufficient food and clothing to go around? Might he design to give this provision in such a way so that we share among ourselves until whoever gathers much has nothing left over, and whoever gathers little has no lack (2 Cor. 8:15)? Could it be that some poor believers are waiting for us to enable this promise of God to be fulfilled on their behalf? Can anyone who prays “give us this day our daily bread” act otherwise?
    Craig Blomberg writes the following about this verse: “Either one must entirely spiritualize this promise or relegate its fulfilment to the eschaton, neither of which fits the immediate context of one who is worrying about current material needs; or else we must understand the plurals of verse 33 as addressed to the community of Jesus’ followers corporately (as indeed the entire sermon is…). As the community of the redeemed seeks first God’s righteous standards, by definition they will help the needy in their midst… Serious application of this principle to contemporary churches would require such radical transformation of most Christian fellowships that few seem willing even to begin.” (Neither Poverty Nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions, 132)
  7. The Gospel writer John uses bad grammar in John 3:16. The phrase “that whoever believes in him should not perish” literally reads, “that whoever believes into him.” (For you Greek readers, the word is εἰς, not ἐν.) In the previous verse Jesus said, “that whoever believes in [ἐν] him.” But when John adds his commentary, beginning with verse 16 (another surprise–literary clues strongly suggest Jesus never spoke 3:16), he strengthens Jesus’ words by using bad grammar: “believes into.” Bill Mounce says that this is “a horrible ‘blunder’ that is so bad we have no record of anyone else in all Greek literature making the same blunder.”
    Why does John do this? Mounce again: “Of course, he is doing it intentionally to make a point… Saving faith is a trusting in the person and work of Jesus (who he is and what he has done) such that we move our self-reliant trust out of ourselves, flinging ourselves into the merciful arms of God.” (For more, see here.)
    And another surprise: The word “so” in the opening phrase (“For God so loved”) might not mean what you think it does. See the NET footnotes for more.

Finally… in good Pauline fashion I think I should give you yet another indication that I hope to end soon. So I’ll make a transition and save the final 3 surprises for yet another post. 🙂

What about the surprises in this post? Which one surprises you the most? Which old familiar verse feels richer to you (or maybe less comfortable) after reading these thoughts? Share your surprising insights below!

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10 thoughts on “10 Surprises about 2014’s Most Popular Bible Verses (Part 2)”

  1. Interesting about ‘into’ in John 3:16. Looks to me like ‘eis’ is also used twice in John 3:18.
    Zodhiates seems to prefer ‘eis’ rather than ‘ek’ in John 3:15. He refers to ‘eis’ as giving the idea of ‘motion’, perhaps reminding us that a real ‘belief in’ is not static, but dynamic.
    There are also at least 6 plural you(s) in Jesus’ address to Nicodemus, perhaps suggesting He was addressing who Nicodemus represented?

    1. Thanks, Wayne, for double-checking that ‘eis’ usage. I confess I just took Mounce at his word on this one, so I’m glad to know he was right. And indeed, ‘eis’ is used in 3:18 (twice) as well as 3:36 (once). And I see the same thing in these verses of John: 6:35, 40; 7:38; 11:25, 26; 12:44, 46; 14:12 (based on a search for “believes in” in ESV, so there could be more). Several things are interesting about this list. First, all these occurrences besides chapter 3 are quotations of Jesus. This suggests that John was using poor grammar with the intent of trying to capture something inherent in Jesus’ own (Aramaic or Hebrew) words. Second, every ESV occurrence of “believes in” uses ‘eis’ except for 3:15. My Greek NT doesn’t mention any variants on ‘en’ in 3:15 (although it only mentions “the most significant variant readings”). I’d be interested to know why Zodhiates prefers ‘eis’ there.

      As for the plural yous, might Jesus have been responding to Nicodemus’s own (perhaps subtly arrogant) use of ‘we’ in 3:2? Jesus himself used ‘we’ in 3:11, and it has been suggested by some such as D.A. Carson that that was a subtle rebuke of Nicodemus’s own ‘we’ language. Clearly Nicodemus represented (and knew he represented) a class of people, and the whole class of people needed to hear Jesus’ message about new birth.

      Thanks again for the feedback.

      1. I kind of think we need the same kind of ‘subtle rebuke’ as a class of people today sometimes. “Don’t you guys get it? You must be raised up to new life.”

    2. Okay, Wayne, you always push me to dig deeper. I double-checked with commentaries by Craig Keener and D.A. Carson, and I am right that 3:15 is the only place in John where the construction “believes ‘en'” is used. This leads both of them to suggest that ‘en’ in 3:15 actually belongs with what follows (“in him may have eternal life”), signifying the location of eternal life rather than the location of our faith. Carson discusses this at length and sees theological significance in Christ possessing life in himself (“in him was life,” chap. 1, etc.). Carson and Keener may well be right here, although the parallel with 3:16 initially makes me hesitate to agree.

      As for the ‘eis’ usage, neither Carson nor Keener discuss any possible significance. Carson only notes its absence in 3:15 as an argument in support of his interpretation of that verse. And Keener just has a brief note saying that “in general eis and en tended to merge in Koine.” He does not discuss its use in conjunction with “believes” or the idea that such a phrase constituted bad grammar. Keener and Mounce are good personal friends; I wonder if they’ve ever discussed this question!

      1. So in other words, beginning with v.14, referencing the lifting up of the serpent, it was not belief in the serpent that saved, but belief in God’s promise that actually saved. So the Son of Man will be lifted up, that whoever believes, — in Him might have eternal life. Is this what I’m hearing you suggest?

        1. I’m not fully sure I understand your question, so I’ll simply paraphrase how I understand Carson and Keener to take these verses: “Moses lifted up the serpent on a pole in the wilderness, and in the same way the Son of Man must be lifted up on the cross. If the Son of Man is lifted up on a cross, then everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” So yes, with this construction of “in him,” the object of belief remains unspecified for both the wilderness account and the Son of Man’s crucifixion. This could fit with the unspecified object of belief in 3:12 (“you do not believe”), where context indicates that the object of belief is the words of Jesus. So whoever believes the testimony about Jesus (see 3:11, 32-33) is granted eternal life in the Son of Man (3:15). Then 3:16 and 3:36 specify that our belief is not only in the testimony about Jesus, but in (or ‘into’) Jesus himself.

          Again, I’m still unsure whether Carson and Keener are correct here, or whether we should read 3:15 as a parallel to 3:16, with both speaking of “believing in him.” Thankfully, the difference is nil theologically, for both interpretive possibilities emphasize truths that are important elsewhere in John: That we must place our faith in Christ, and that life is found in him.

    1. FYI: I just discovered this morning that the new NIV of 3:15 reads: “that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” So that is clearly siding with Carson and Keener and such. They don’t even footnote any other possible reading.

      And even the ESV, which reads, “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life,” includes cross references that contain the idea of either (a) us abiding in Christ or (b) life being in Christ. So that suggests that the ESV footnote crew agrees with the NIV reading, even though the ESV text could be read either way.

      Finally, my SBL Greek NT on my Kindle does mention a textual variant for 3:15 that has ‘eis.’ Apparently that variant (and I don’t know the textual variants well enough to saw which one it is, except that it’s coded RP) includes a whole extra phrase, making it match 3:16: “in [eis] him not perish but.” The textual criticism rule of choosing the harder text could point to either text being original. On the one hand, it would suggest that the original for 3:15 was different than for 3:16, and that a scribe accidentally changed 3:15 to match 3:16. On the other hand, it might suggest that if John’s usage of ‘eis’ was uncommon, a scribe accidentally replaced ‘eis’ with the standard ‘en’ in 3:15. But that would mean he also dropped several other words, and I think it would be more likely that a scribe accidentally added words in 3:15 because he was familiar with 3:16. But perhaps Zodhiates has other reasons for preferring the ‘eis’ text of 3:15.

      1. That’s pretty interesting.
        I think RP possibly refers to the Byzantine majority text. I think the initials stand for something Latin or Greek.

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