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Are branches burned, or will they be burned? (Matt 3:10)

I have been spending some time reading the update of the Homan Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), thankfully renamed Christian Standard Bible (CBS). I don’t think God’s Word should carry a human name.

I find myself liking it. It does use an anaphoric “he” when referring back to a singular antecedent, which will limit its use to those cultures in which “he” includes women and men, but it does make translation much easier. “How happy is the one who does not walk in the advice of the wicked or stand in the pathway with sinners or sit in the company of mockers! Instead, his delight is in the LORD’s instruction, and he meditates on it day and night” (Ps 1:1-2).

But what I really like is how it is willing to break with tradition. Luke 2:7 reads, “Then she gave birth to her firstborn Son, and she wrapped him tightly in cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” The old “swaddling” makes no sense to most readers (ESV), and “wrapped Him in cloths” is meaningless, albeit historically accurate (NASB). And it was a guest room and not an inn where they stayed since there were no inns in those days. But I was sad to see the change from “feeding trough” (HCSB) to “manger” (CSB) because “feeding trough” was exactly right. I hope that change wasn’t due to political pressure.

But as I was reading I came across a translation conundrum. John the Baptist says, “The ax is already (ἤδη … κεῖται) at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down (ἐκκόπτεται) and thrown (βάλλεται) into the fire” (CSB; Matt 3:10)). Both verbs are present, but most translations treat them as futures, the present tense emphasizing the certainty of the future eschatological judgment.

But doesn’t that lose some meaning? After all, the “axe is already” at the base of the tree, which is present. The process of judgment has begun. Also, the metaphor is a present reality. As trees are not productive here and now, they are cut down and they are thrown into the fire. Hence the NASB, “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (also NRSV). The current reality of fruitless trees is a present reminder of what will, in its fullness, be true in the future. But it is a conundrum since each option loses meaning.

We have so lost the fear of the Lord in today’s culture. As we painfully sit through one therapeutic sermon after another, the pastor giving us his best human advice, cheering us on to happiness, instead of being a herald of the king — certainly not in every pulpit, but in many — we are not being reminded that our lives and those of our children will be spent in eternal bliss or permanent destruction.

Symbols and reminders of what is at stake are important, and needed.

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