Figures of Speech
The Everyday Language of Jewish People during Jesus’ Time
One thing that I have come to find in my quest to learn Koine Greek (Biblical Greek) over the last few months is that it is often very difficult to translate the original meaning into the English language. Many times, it may take more than one English word to translate one Koine Greek word correctly. Often though, translators will not add more words to the translation. This is done in order to try to maintain a (somewhat) word for word translation (KJV, NASU). In some cases words are added (Amplified Bible). I would like to share something that came to me as I was listening my pastor’s message one Sunday morning.
Currently, I’ve finished the Greek noun system and have started on verbs. At this point, the teacher encourages the students to take their Greek New Testament to Church with them. I did and to great delight, I could follow along pretty well. The first New Testament passage that my pastor read was from the below narrative. I have included the entire narrative here. Typically, I use the NIV for studying, but since the KJV is more common, I will quote from it.
13When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?
14And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.
15He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?
16And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.
17And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.
18And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
19And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
The main thing that strikes me in this text is how the Lord uses “figures of speech” to get his message across. In fact, Jesus used this form of talk in many of his teachings. “Figures of speech” were commonly used by the Jews during this time. “What is a figure of speech,” you ask? It is a saying or analogy we use to communicate or to get a point across. Typically, we use figures of speech in our everyday language. Ok, how about an example?
If a person was trying to explain to me something and I understood what he was saying I could say, “I hear ya’” or “I get ya’” instead of saying “I understand”.
How about this one…
I could say, “I’m going to get a Coke”, but I come back with a Pepsi. Every one knows that “coke” means soft drink.
How about one more…
“I’m going to close the door on this subject.” Everyone knows that this simply means I’m finished talking about that particular subject.
Make sense? We use these all of the time. In fact, we use them so much, that they have become part of our culture. That’s the way it has always been. Times change, but people have always had their funny ways of talking and expressing themselves. This same thing also happened among the Jewish people some 2000 years ago.
From the text!
From the above passage, there are at least 5 “figures of speech” that Jesus uses.
1. “…for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee…”
Flesh and blood is a figure of speech. So what does it mean? This one is pretty easy to decipher. In its basic meaning, Peter (himself) didn’t come up with who Jesus was, nor did any other man give it to him. God gave him this insight or revelation. This insight, and how Peter gets this insight, forms the context of the reminder of the passage. The complete context of a passage must always be in play and referred to in order for us to fully understand how this affects us as children of God. We will find out later that this narrative is very important to the Church as a whole.
So why did Jesus say it this way? I don’t think anyone knows, but most likely, this was the common way the Jewish people talked and expressed themselves. In other words, it was probably the normal, everyday language.
2. “…thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church…”
In order to understand this figure of speech, one must take a look at the original Greek. This is what I read that inspired me to write this. The Greek word Πέτρος means stone or piece of rock. The word itself is a masculine word. Here, the translators transliterated the Greek word instead of actually translating it. The word Peter is the English version of the Greek word. The writers of the New Testament used this word in every instance to refer to Peter and never used it when just referring to stones or rocks. The word is used several times in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) and refers to pieces of rocks most of the time. The Greek word for “rock” in the second part of this text is πέτρα. This is a feminine word that means large rock or bedrock. It’s the same word used in Luke 6:48 when Jesus is describing the house that was built on a rock. The Greek’s used masculine, feminine, and neuter cases to define their words. Normally is doesn’t change the meaning of the word or how it is used. It was just their way of language. For instance, the word for God, θεός (Theos), in the Greek, is masculine. The word for the earth, γῆ (gay), is feminine. The word for angel, ἄγγελος (angelos), is masculine, and the word for a ruler, ἀρχήv (archay), is feminine.
The thing about this passage, once one looks at the original Greek, is that the Church is not built upon Peter, as Peter is only a stone or a piece of rock. It is built on a large rock. What it let’s you see is that Peter is made of the same substance as the foundation that the church is built on, but he is not that bedrock. In a sense, Peter is “a chip off the ole block” so to speak. Although he may be made of the same substance, he is just not big enough or strong enough to have a Church built upon him. As we see in Acts and in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Peter does have his problems within the Church. He’s unsure if the Gentiles should enter into the Church, and he’s unsure of how to handle Gentiles’ non-conviction of circumcision.
Keeping this within the context of how Peter gets his insight as to who Jesus is, we must look at the possibility that this could be a type of a prophecy or some type of a warning to Peter. Peter is not the “all knowing” and Jesus may be looking to the future as to how Peter will end up handling himself as a leader in the Church. It may also be that Jesus is reminding him of his place. “Peter you are a small rock, but the Church will be built on Me (The Rock! bedrock). Peter, you may be a part of this, but always remember who gives you this knowledge. It is not of yourself, but God.
3. “…the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
The “gates of hell” or πύλαι ᾅδου in the Greek. The word πύλαι (pulie) is plural and is from the word πύλη (pulay) which means gate. The word ᾅδου (hadou) is the genitive form (possessive) of the word ᾅδης (hades) which means “mansion of the dead” or “place where the dead go”. In short this passage means that the Church will stand in the way of the doors of the dead opening. If the doors of the dead can’t open, then we can’t taste death and we’ll receive the promise of eternal life with him. This is a very consistent teaching as it is confirmed in other parts of the New Testament: John 3:16, 1 Co 15:54-55, 2 Tim 1:10 just to name a few.
4. “…I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven”
What an appropriate segue way Jesus has given us to get to this verse. He refers to the closing of gates or doors in the preceding passage, and now, He brings us to the “opening of heaven to us”. This is just what Peter does on the day of Pentecost. The Church is born and Peter delivers the message of a lifetime: The way to eternal life was opened to us that day! Peter used the keys (more insight) to open the way for us. One small thing to note here in the Greek is that the word for heaven is actually the plural form. The literal translation should be “the kingdom of the heavens”. This possibly is speaking of the fact that God’s realm is a very large place.
5. “…and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Interestingly enough, this was a common figure of speech among the Jewish people during the time of Christ.
The best way to understand this concept is to read this quote from Craig S. Keener from “The Basics of Biblical Greek” by William Mounce:
“This is the language of the law court. Jewish legal issues were normally decided in Jesus’ day by elders in the synagogue community (later by rabbis). Many Jewish people believed that the authority of Heaven stood behind the earthly judges when they decided cases based on a correct understanding of God’s law. (This process came to be called “binding and loosing.”) Jesus’ contemporaries often envisioned God’s justice in terms of a heavenly court; by obeying God’s law, the earthly court simply ratified the decrees of the heavenly court.”
This is the context of what Jesus is trying to tell Peter. “Peter, your authority, power, and knowledge come from God. God has already blessed you with the knowledge of who I am. Later on, if you stay within the faith, you will also pass God’s rules and judgments to others. Remember though, it is from God, not of yourself, that you receive this thing.”
Figures of speech are fun to explore in the Bible. It also let’s one know that Jesus talked to his disciples and to all of the people in everyday language and speech. I think that’s cool.
So what is the theology* behind all of this? Simply put; no man is above his master. The wisdom and understanding of God come, not from one’s self, but from God and him alone. In Matthew 18, Jesus grants the Church the very same honor of binding and loosing, but there is a prerequisite…we must become one of his own.
2 And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them,
3 And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven…
18 Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
19 Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.
20 For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.