Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Spiritually strong? (Luke 1:80)

I had a great time at Lifeway a few days ago, and as I was leaving they handed me an HCSB study Bible. Pretty impressive, especially in its use of color. Not sure I like their lack of formatting on poetry, but time will tell. Anyway, I thought I would use it for my daily devotions for a while; it is fun to develop a better feel for the translation.

One of the things that hit me right away was the translation in Luke 1:80 about John the Baptist. "The child grew up and became spiritually strong" (ἐκραταιοῦτο πνεύματι). "Spiritually strong" (others have "strong in spirit," ESV, NASB, NRSV, KJV, NET, NLT)? Even the NIV has "spirit" but with the footnote, "or, in the Spirit." The TEV is, in fact, troublesome: "The child grew and developed in body and spirit." "Body"? That's nowhere in the text.

Perhaps it is my time on the NIV and my closeness to Gordon Fee, but it is virtually impossible for me to see this verse as speaking about John's spiritual condition. Yes, it is a possible translation, but surely the point is that God's Spirit was strong in John.

What exactly would "spiritually strong" or "strong in spirit" mean? Pao (EBC-R) says the phrase, "probably means 'became strong in spirit' in the sense of development of moral character," but is there any evidence to support this? He adds that "somewhat similar wording in Ephesians 3:16 describes a strengthening by God’s Spirit" (κραταιωθῆναι διὰ τοῦ πνεύματος αὐτοῦ). Marshall (NIGNT) comments, "The reference is to his human personality, but there may be a suggestion that such growth was due to the hand of God."

In the next chapter, Luke is going to say this about Jesus: "And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him" (2:40). I wonder if we are letting this passage, which does not mention the spirit/Spirit, unduly influence us.

The life that we see John live is not one of a developed moral character (although that is true). What we see is a prophet, one under the control and empowerment of God's Spirit, preparing the way for the one who has the Spirit without measure.

Much better the take the minority position (along with the NIV footnote) and capitalize "Spirit."