For an Informed Love of God
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When does γάρ not mean “for”? (Matt 5:20)
When we translate the Greek conjunction γάρ as "for," we sometimes obscure the connection between verses. When Jesus says that the Pharisees wouldn't even get into the kingdom of God, how does that relate to his prior assertion that every iota and stroke of the pen found in the law will be fulfilled in him?
One of the more challenging conjunctions is γάρ. We tend to think it always means “for” in the sense of introducing a reason, but γάρ is much more fluid than that, and the English “for” isn’t.
Granted, the first definition in BDAG is, “marker of cause or reason, for.” This is its primary gloss, but only one among three.
Case in point is Matt 5:20. Beginning in v 17, Jesus is addressing the question he is expecting from the Pharisees, and that is his view of the Law. Jesus says that he did not come to abolish but to fulfill the law, every iota and stroke of it (v 18). Therefore (γάρ), whoever does not keep the least of the commandments is the least in the kingdom of heaven, and the one who does them is great.
Even this γάρ struggles to be translated. V 18 is not the cause or reason for v 17 but rather an inference, a consequence. This is the third definition in BDAG: “marker of inference, certainly, by all means, so, then.” However, “for” is so strongly slanted toward “cause or reason” that it is difficult to see the connection between v 18 and v 17 when “for” is used to translate γάρ. The NET and NLT both have “so,” which is a much better translation of γάρ.
V 20 is even more difficult. “For (γάρ) I tell you that unless your righteousness exceeds beyond that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus is calling not for more obedience but for a deeper obedience, an obedience to the law that is rooted in the heart. (I think I got this idea from Martin Lloyd-Jones.)
Up to v 19, the Pharisees are nodding in agreement with Jesus, but now comes the kicker. While they are right at one level, they are totally wrong at a deeper, more significant level. Jesus has to clarify that he does not agree with the Pharisees at this point, so he clarifies (γάρ) v 19 with v 20.
For this reason, I think that context requires we see v 20 as an adversative idea. This falls into BDAG’s second definition: “marker of clarification, for, you see.” But how do you express this in English? How do you show that v 20 is clarifying the Pharisees’s probable misunderstanding of v 19? Certainly not with “for.”
Only the NLT properly (in my opinion) translates the γάρ. “But I warn you—unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!” (italics added).
God has made it clear, at least as far back as the prophets, that his primary concern is not for the externals of religion. “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos 6:6, among others such as Amos 5:21–24). He wants our heart, and out of our hearts supplied in the New Covenant, we live in conformity to God’s character through the power of the Spirit. At least that is the idea. The Pharisees may have tithed their condiments, but (γάρ) they were not acceptable to him.