Something tells me English ain’t the official language in Heaven.
As I wrote the other day, English dictionaries are cluttered with innumerable words that mean almost – but not quite – the same thing, and we still don’t have enough words to do justice to the Word of God.
Translating the Bible out of a dead tongue into any living language must be an incredible challenge, but I think it’s particularly maddening when it comes to The Queen’s English.
Take Ecclesiastes, for instance (please!).
The most commonly used English translation of Ecclesiastes uses the word ‘meaningless’ ad nauseum.
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” – Ecclesiastes 1:2 (New International Version). It goes on like that for pages, making me think that the Teacher isn’t a wise sage, but a bitter, old man who hates his life and has nothing but regret about the choices he made.
But ‘meaningless’ isn’t the only way to translate the original word. The Teacher (often thought of as King Solomon) used the Hebrew word ‘hevel‘ or ‘hebel,’ which most literally means ‘vapor.’
In the King James Version, hevel is translated as ‘vanity.’ In The Message, it’s ‘smoke.’ In the Contemporary English Version, it’s paraphrased as ‘nonsense.’
You get the idea.
Shane Hipps, who is a colleague and fellow pastor with Rob Bell at Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan, interprets hevel to simply mean ‘temporary.’ Not meaningless, but fleeting. In a sense, the fact it’s temporary can make something MORE meaningful. Imagine if your wedding day went on forever, for example. Not quite as special as if it’s the only (hopefully) day in your life where you wear that fancy white dress with the veil and dance to Mama’s Got a Squeezebox.
The Teacher’s message, Hipps says, is that meaningful or not, the stuff of this temporal existence – the good, the bad and the ugly – will all pass. Enjoy it, but don’t get too worked up about it, or attached to it. The things that happen to you in your life are not your life. Don’t allow your life to be limited and defined solely by its contents – its events and items.
I really like Hipps’s take on Ecclesiastes, but I’m aware it might be an unconventional view. Still, looking at other, non-NIV translations of the book suggest that ‘meaningless’ is a harsher, bitterer translation for hevel than the Teacher intended. Maybe there’s more reflective wisdom than bitter hindsight in Ecclesiastes after all.
* * *
We get pretty worked up about the word ‘disciple,’ don’t we?
If Peter and James and John were disciples, it’s got to be a pretty exclusive club, doesn’t it?
Mmm, not necessarily. The word merely means ‘follower’ or ‘learner.’ Are you trying to learn what Jesus taught? Do you strive – even some of the time – to live like Jesus did? If so, congratulations – you’re a Disciple of Christ!
OK, that’s not really much of a stretch. Most of us are well acquainted with what disciple means. But on a related topic, consider several of Paul’s letters.
In the New International Version, Ephesians, for instance, is addressed to ‘God’s Holy People’ in Ephesus. To me, that rather non-threatening term refers to every member of the church in that town. You go to church once a month and drop your three shekels into the collection box, you’re in the club. You’re one of God’s Holy People.
But in the original King James Version, this letter is addressed to the ‘Saints’ in Ephesus. That means something quite a bit different in 21st-Century connotation, doesn’t it?
Whatever ‘disciple’ means, ‘saint’ means somebody with unbelievable piety. John, Paul, George and Ringo (I mean James and Peter); St. Augustine, St. Francis, Joan of Arc, Mother Teresa. Those kind of people.
So which is it? Saints or God’s people?
Maybe there’s no need for a distinction, because they mean the same thing. Maybe Paul considered every member of the Ephesian church to be a saint.
After all, a person who’s accepted Christ is a new creation – when we accept Jesus, God gives us a new heart. We’re justified (which my friend Pastor Stephen Hambidge enjoys defining as: it’s just [as] if I’d never sinned). Washed clean. We look the same; we sometimes feel the same, we even often behave the same. But we are different; our sin is gone.
And in the same way that darkness isn’t the opposite of light, it’s the absence of it, maybe ‘saint’ isn’t the opposite of ‘sin,’ but the absence of it.
If that’s the case, once we grab hold of God’s grace and cease to be sinners (we still sin, but God has removed the ‘sinner’ name and all that that implies), maybe we’re saints by default.
Not that this means we saints don’t have more growing to do. Not by a long shot. It’s our job for the rest of our lives to let Jesus take that in-the-heart transformation and extend it out to the rest of our selves. Learning to ‘live into’ our sainthood is the toughest process we’ll ever endure, but it’s the only one that really matters, I sprechen (er, reckon).
Peace be with you.