Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Sunday, February 20

Can Jesus Sanctify Himself?

Came across a great illustration in church today about the nuances and complexities of translation.

The pastor was preaching on John 17:17-19. “Sanctify (αγιασον) them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify (αγιαζω) myself, that they too may be truly sanctified (αγιασμενοι) ” (NIV).

Dave preaches out of the NIV, but I double checked it against the ESV. Basically the same except for one very interesting difference. The second use of αγιαζω is translated as “consecrate.” “And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.”

What is fascinating about this passage is that the ESV tries to use the same English word for the same Greek word when used in an immediate context (like a verse or paragraph); here it varies the word from “sanctify” to “consecrate.” That’s your first clue something is up.

The NIV on the other hand is comfortable using different English words for same Greek word in the same context; after all, that is better English. But here the NIV and ESV are the reverse. So what’s going on?

I remember the discussion in the ESV. The concern had to do with the idea of Jesus “sanctifying” himself. What does that mean? Does it give any false ideas? After all, Jesus was holy. How could he make himself holy?

Again, the pastor’s definition of αγιαζω was good: “to make holy, set apart for sacred use.” My dictionary gives the semantic range as, “make holy, sanctify, consecrate.” It is the later that is clearly meant here.

So the NIV keeps the word-for-word equivalency, and the ESV varies the translation to make it clear that Jesus is consecrating himself, dedicating himself, for the sake of the disciples, and this he did on the cross.

No translation principle can be enforced rigidly 100 percent of the time. There are usually competing principles, and the translators have to make the best choice they can in light of their overall translation philosophy.