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Archive for the ‘Ephesians’ Category

Speaking the Truth in Love

I’m thankful I am a part of a church community that takes sin, holiness and accountability seriously.  We try, as much as possible, to foster a community that facilitates confession of sin, as well as gently confronting someone when a persistent sinful pattern or attitude has been observed.  I know I’ve been helped greatly by others hearing my confessions, as well as calling me out when I’m getting off track.  It’s part of what the body of Christ is supposed to do.

One of the biblical phrases most often quoted in our church regarding this topic is “speaking the truth in love,” from Ephesians 4:15.  The point often made is that it’s important to speak truthfully to others, but we must do so lovingly.  We don’t dangle someone’s sin over them, we don’t rejoice that we’ve caught them in the act.  We try to love as Christ does, not overlooking sin but not condemning someone with it either.  “Speaking the truth in love” is a good phrase to sum up what we teach in these situations.

But once in a while, I run across these phrases or verses in their context, and I realize that we might not be using it properly.  This happens all the time, all of us have done it at one point or another (how many times have you heard “where two or more are gathered, Jesus is there” at the beginning of prayer or worship?).  More often than not, it’s no big deal and we’re not in danger of slipping into some heresy. 

Let’s look at the phrase in its immediate context:

14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

In its original context, this phrase really isn’t speaking about accountability and personal sin.  Notice the contrast between v14 and v15.  “Speaking the truth in love” is the opposite of “cunning,” “craftiness,” and “deceitful scheming.”  The point is that there are always deceitful people infiltrating the body of Christ, spreading their false teaching in a cunning manner.  But rather than speaking lies in a deceitful way, Christians are to speak truth in love.  Lovingly proclaiming truth combats the lies that are spread throughout the body of Christ.  Those who are caught up in deceit are like little infants.  But when truth is spoken in love, the body of Christ grows strong and mature.

So this phrase is not really about personal accountability.  It’s about how we combat lies in the church.  I suppose it could overlap with the area of sin and repentance, but that’s not the heart of the matter.  Truth vs lie- that’s what we’re dealing with here.

This would be an example of what is sometimes called the “right doctrine from the wrong text.”  It is, of course, important that when we confront someone caught in sin, we do so lovingly- with an extra stress on lovingly.  I guess Ephesians 4:15 just shouldn’t be our go-to verse to make that point.  We can, however, refer to Galatians 6:1, “if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.”  Either way, I hope we apply both of these points faithfully in our lives and churches.

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In Ephesians 4:8, Paul quotes Psalm 68:18:

“When he ascended on high,

he led captives in his train

and gave gifts to men.” (NIV)

If you flip to Ps.68:18 in your Bible, however, you’ll find that the text reads:

“When you ascended on high,

you led captives in your train;

you received gifts from men” (NIV)

What do we do about this?  The change of subject (i.e., from “you” to “he”), isn’t entirely alarming, since the NT frequently applies things said of God to Jesus (e.g., Peter’s sermon in Acts 2; never mind that we understand God to be Triune, so putting Jesus and God on the same footing is no offense).  The issue is “received” and “gave.”  Is Paul misquoting the text?  There are no easy answers.  Peter O’Brien, in his excellent commentary on Ephesians, admits as much.  After listing five major interpretations of this verse, he admits, “None of the above-mentioned suggestions fully solves this difficult crux” (Ephesians, PNTC, p.293).

We find no help here from textual criticism; the textual evidence is very strong for Paul’s use of “gave” in Eph.4:8.  We find less help when we refer to the Hebrew Masoretic text or the Septuagint.  Both write “received;” not “gave.”  The problem won’t go away that easily.

Historically, these types of things have shaken me, bringing up questions in the “is the Bible reliable?” vein.  Something helpful to me in such circumstances has been the mental equivalent of taking a deep breath, and reminding myself of what we know about Paul, and NT authors in general:

  1. Paul probably knew the OT (in Hebrew and Greek), better than most of us, let’s not forget that he was a Pharisee (Php.3:5).
  2. Paul probably held the OT in higher regard than most of us (this is the man who wrote 2 Tim.3:16, after all).
  3. Paul was probably writing to people who knew the OT, and had a high regard for it.
  4. Paul is no sloppy writer.  As literature, the structures, words and themes of Paul’s letters show amazing skill, purpose, thoughtfulness and depth.

Given the above, the most reasonable thing to conclude is that Paul’s use of “gave” in his quotation is intentional, serious, and with scriptural basis.  It is no accident, no light treatment of the OT, and no Biblical contradiction.  Also, it is worth reminding ourselves that it is dangerous to impose our contemporary ideas about quoting sources upon Paul, who comes from a vastly different culture than our own, with completely different technology, expectations, and assumptions about the transmission of ideas.  In our eye witness news days, with entire books written on how to properly quote a source, where we even insert special words to remind readers that we’re quoting a source exactly as the author wrote it (e.g., sic), it’s easy to lose sight of this.

So in the first instance, we can relax, and doubly so because I haven’t even mentioned yet that Paul is an apostle writing by the power of the Holy Spirit, a fact itself capable of allaying our fears.  But we still have a problem, namely, what is Paul saying and why?

The explanations I’ve read broadly fall into two categories.  The first suggests that Paul is applying some flavor of Jewish technique for Biblical interpretation, called a midrash.  There were targumim (i.e., midrashic interpretations of the OT) available to Paul at the time that actually use “gave” instead of “received” for the verse in question.

The second has to do with the words themselves.  The word for “receive,” it is argued, can mean “receive in order to give.”  In other words, the gifts are received, but only to be given back.  Expanding on this, some have made connections between Psalm 68 and Numbers 8 and 18.  In these texts, God takes or receives the Levites only to give them back to serve the community (c.f., Num. 8:16 and 8:19).   This explanation fits nicely in the context of Ephesians, because in Eph.4:7-16, Paul is talking about gifts that God has given to the church, specifically people (apostles, prophets, etc.), for the purpose of serving it.

My summaries above all require much defense, and again, as O’Brien notes in his commentary, none are without deficiencies.  The one unifying premise we might note, however, is that to say Paul “quotes” Ps.68:18 may be misleading in itself.  It might be better to say that Paul is interpreting the Psalm for us as much as he is quoting it.  He actually does this quite explicitly in the verses that follow (vv.9-10), when he shows how the Psalm points to the incarnation and ascension of Jesus.  Paul is in “interpretive mode,” as it were.

Finally, we should note that this text poses no great exegetical problem.  Had we no knowledge of Psalm 68, Paul’s point is in this passage is clear:  God (Jesus) has a history of giving gifts to us, in this case the gifts are people who help us grow to the unified maturity that has Christ-likeness as its ultimate goal.  And exhale.

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