Paul tells the Ephesians that “we are his workmanship (ποιημα), created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (ESV). ποιημα (related to the verb ποιεω) means “that which is made,” hence work, creation” (BDAG).
It is etymologically connected to poème (Middle French), poema (Latin), and ποιημα (Greek).
Because of this, you often hear the idea of the English “poem” creeping back through the centuries and used to define the nuance of ποιημα. And so we hear assertions such as:
- “Poiema emphasizes God as the master Designer, the universe as His creation” (Rom 1:20).
- “As the artist seeks to express himself in his work, so God expresses Himself in us.”
- “You are His work, you are His poem. A poem is a thing of grace. A thing of beauty, God wants your life to be a thing of grace and of beauty and as God works in your life it will become a thing of grace and of beauty; you are His poem.”
- “But the beauty of God’s workmanship is not displayed in posing. That beauty can only he displayed when we are put to work fulfilling His purpose in us.”
These kinds of statement make picturesque sermon illustrations, but unfortunately have no basis in truth.
But how can you know this? The starting point is always BDAG. Does it give any credence to this nuance? Do any of verses quoted support an inherent nuance of poetry?
Its only other use in the Greek Testament is Romans 1:20. “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made (ποιημα).” It refers to that which has been made. Since it is used only twice in the Greek Testament, we have to be a little cautious in defining it; it is nice to have at least five or so usages before we start talking about a word’s range of meaning.
If you look at the secular references in BDAG, you will see that their suggestion that it refers to “works of divine creation” may have some credence since they give about ten references under this heading. When you are limited in the number of occurrences for a word, you have to go to secular literature; just be sure you stay within 100 years or so of the biblical time period. Words can change their meaning quickly.
The other place to look is other translations. Do they see the nuance of “poetry” in this word? Most translations use “workmanship.“ We also find “handiwork” (TNIV) and “what he has made us” (NRSV). The NLT has “masterpiece,” but in light of the evidence, this seems to be making the same etymological error as our citations above.
It is one thing to quote a Greek word in a sermon, a practice I do not condone since it rarely adds to the meaning of the text and so often seems to be an arrogant (or ignorant) elevation of the preacher over the laity (my opinion).
But this is much worst. This is defining God’s very words using a derived meaning from a language totally foreign to the original; why do some people think that they can use the English nuance of a word that has been created 2,000 years after the biblical times and read its meaning back into the Bible.
This may be a little harsh, but this type of misuse is tiring and we all should know better by now.
So let me say it very clearly. The nuance that a word takes years in a foreign language (English) 2,000 years after the fact has absolutely zero impact on the word’s biblical meaning (Greek). Let’s let this fallacy pass and get on with our task of using Greek to help us understand the very words of God.
God did not speak English.