Sprechen sie Englisch? Part 1: Synonym Symphony

People say English is a hard language to learn, but I say it’s easy. After all, I ain’t no brainiac, and I’ve been speaking English since I was a baby!

As much as that may be true, unless my community college Communication Process instructors were talking out of their hats, English is, in fact, quite a tough language to learn.

According to some calculations, English has more than double the number of words of other European tongues – partially because it’s a Germanic language that was heavily influenced by both French and Latin (Thanks a LOT, William the Conqueror!).

Thanks to 1066 and Roman Catholicism, we have more synonyms, antonyms, homonyms and homophones (I still can’t believe we need two words to describe what homonym and homophone describe) than we know what to do with.

And somehow, even with all of this denotative detritus, the English lexicon doesn’t have enough words to effectively communicate the Word of God.

Take, for example, the reinstatement of Simon Peter in John 21:15-17: “When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” 
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” 
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
 Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
 Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
 Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”

Reading this passage in English, you get the sense that Jesus is simply being repetitive and it’s not entirely clear why.

Some point out that this three-pronged interrogation mirrors the three times Peter denied Jesus before His crucifixion, and thereby reinstates the bumbling pope-to-be from an arithmetic standpoint. I think that’s really cool, and I think that’s part of what’s going on.

But some pastors who know something about ancient Greek point out that the first two times, Jesus uses a different word in Greek for ‘love’ – agape, which means divine, unconditional, self-sacrificing, active, volitional, and thoughtful love. Peter, on the other hand, replies with the Greek word phileo, which is sometimes translated to mean mere brotherly love. The second time, Jesus again says agape and Peter answers phileo, but the third time, Jesus sighs with infinite patience and lowers Himself once again to Peter’s level and says phileo. As John reports, Peter is undoubtedly hurt because of the repetition, but there’s reason to think he’s also hurt because he realizes he’s fallen short – even in his own reinstatement as a Disciple – of being worthy (on his own steam) of Jesus’ love.

Incidentally, Peter eventually gets with the program. He uses agape many times in his epistles (1 and 2 Peter) and is also quoted as using it several times in the book of Acts.

* * *

A similar phenomenon happens with the word ‘life’ – particularly in the Gospel of John.

“Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” – John 12:25.

On the surface, here’s another example of Jesus inexplicably speaking in riddles. If we hate our life, we’ll get to keep it? How, exactly, do we go about choosing to hate something. If I like cookies, for instance, I’m gonna continue to like cookies. I can choose not to eat them, but I can’t choose to hate them. If the same is true for life, am I damned before I even get started, because I can’t force myself to hate life? And assuming I were able to willfully make myself hate cookies, why would it then be advantageous for me to have access to cookies for all eternity?

Firstly, ‘hate’ here doesn’t mean loathe or dislike, it refers to priority; I like the word forsake. If we choose to put aside our own selfish desires and dedicate our life to Christ – forsaking the earthly pleasures of this life, we’ll be rewarded with a far greater life. Conventional wisdom says this vastly preferable life begins after we die.

That’s a pretty decent English-based interpretation of that passage, but Shane Hipps, a pastor at Rob Bell’s Mars Hill Bible Church, opened my eyes to another way of looking at it, if you look at the original ancient Greek words.

The first two times, Jesus (through John) uses the word psyche. But the third time, when he says ‘eternal life,’ that’s translated from the Greek words aeon zoe.

“‘Eternal’ does not mean something that lasts, in time, forever. Eternal, or aeon, is a word that describes something that exists outside of time – independent of time. Something that has no beginning and no end,” Hipps said in his May 1 sermon (via Podcast). “It does not have a beginning or an end, which means it’s happening. Now. This is what Jesus came to reveal.”

And since Aeon Zoe – that existence that will be fully revealed in the afterlife – is already happening, maybe we have the capacity within us, already, to experience a confidence, a peace, a joy that burns brighter than anything on this earth; that is unaffected by what happens in our psyche lives.

If you buy his premise, maybe it means we need to stop psyching ourselves out about all the trimmings and trappings of this mundane life, and focus on something that’s zoe much greater.

English may be an inferior language for conveying Christianity, but something tells me our puns put ancient Greek to shame!

Peace be with you.


About robpetkau

Communications professional by day, amateur musician by night, worship leader (at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Calgary) on weekends and aspiring Bible teacher in my dreams. Grateful husband to the woman who completes me. Doing-the-best-I-can dad to the son and daughter who keep me on my toes. Striving disciple of the GodMan who came, taught and died for me. Thanks for stopping by!
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