Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Saturday, December 15, 2018

What Benefit do You Receive from Your Giving? (Phil 4:17 and defining greek words)

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One of the fundamental lessons everyone who does word studies needs to understand is that words have a range of meaning. When students memorize Greek vocabulary, we have to give them the basic meaning (or meanings) of the word, but it is a mistake to think that the most common use of a word is somehow its “literal” meaning.

σάρχ does not mean “flesh”; it means many things. One of its “glosses” may be “flesh,” but the word means so much more than just “flesh.”

So whether you are in a church learning Greek for your Bible study, or a first year Greek student, at some point you will need to make the transition from glosses to a full definition of a word and understanding how to use context to determine meaning.

A good example of this is the word καρπός. Its glosses are “fruit, crop, result.” You can see the relationship among the options. A tree has fruit and a field has a crop, and just as the result of a farmer’s work is fruit and a crop, so also the result of other types of activity can be a “crop” metaphorically.

But this is where things can get tricky. Consider Philippians 4:17. Paul has been thanking them for their gift, but he has to be careful. In his culture, gifts were given so that another gift would be returned. Quid pro quo. If you gave something to someone, there was a cultural expectation that something would be given back.

To deal with this, Paul says, “Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more (καρπὸν) be credited to your account” (NIV). They’re not getting anything back from Paul; his desire is that their gift be credited to their account. How would you translate καρπός in that context?

The context is financial, so the translation “profit that is increasing to your account” (CSB, cf. NASB, NRSV) is accurate. But what is the problem? Did Paul think of the Christian life as something that has a financial profit, of good deeds as increasing your financial portfolio? Of course not. That is an unattended consequence of using “profit.” καρπός doesn’t mean “profit,” but how do you express the result of a gift given?

The NIV’s “more” is significantly under-translated. The ESV’s “fruit that increases to your credit” is pretty good. It keeps the metaphor of “fruit” and also the financial context with “credit,” although the latter does bring in a possible misunderstanding. The NET has “credit that abounds to your account” (cf. KJV). The NLT totally misses both metaphors and introduces the foreign concept of a reward: “I want you to receive a reward for your kindness.”

What is the profit we receive from giving? First of all, it is the gift itself. Isn’t the giving “reward” enough? But then sometimes we actually get to see the benefits the recipient receives from our gift, and that too adds to the joy of giving. In this holiday season, let’s remember our favorite charities. So many receive the bulk of their budget in the last week of December.