New Testament Words and Verses
Ephesians 4:14-15, Warning against Deception
Not too long ago I wrote an essay on the inutility of New Testament exhortations to live in a moral or upright way. My reasoning there was that the virtues commended in the New Testament so overlap with each other that it is impossible to define one word with precision in its ancient formulation or today; that some virtues in the New Testament are so “plastic” that they can be encouraged in one place and denounced in another (e.g., ταπεινοφρσύνη); and, finally, that a person’s moral center is almost fully shaped by the time that biblical instruction enters his/her life.
This thought template acts as a kind of background framework or “music” for anyone examining exhortations to avoid deception or false teaching. These types of exhortations fill the New Testament, especially in Paul and the Pastoral Epistles, but it usually isn’t very clear what the idea that ought to be avoided is, nor why to avoid it. In addition, general exhortations against avoiding deceivers are of little use today in helping us discern who the people are “out there” who are trying to mislead us. Nevertheless, we have a rich harvest of words that bring us the concepts of deception and being misled, and I propose to introduce some of those terms here.
Setting the Context in Ephesians 4
Ephesians 4 addresses the subject of the Gifts of the Spirit that equip the church for its ministry. The author gives himself a huge running start in 4:1-10 in introducing the subject of spiritual gifts. He then lists a handful of them in 4:11, before indicating the benefits of these gifts for the church in 4:12-16. But along with the dramatic use of prepositional phrases in 4:12-16 to encourage fidelity are stark warnings in 4:14-15 about things to avoid. One shouldn’t be “toddlers” (νήπιοι), but should aspire to speak the truth in love and grow into maturity (4:15). But there is a big parenthetical in 4:14-15 after “toddlers,” that describes what a “toddler” is in the mind of the author. The description is so rich that it invites consideration. It consists of two major things. Don’t be toddlers who are:
1—“Tossed about in the waves” or “blown about by the wind” (4:14). Each of these phrases is rare and memorable. The first is formed off the typical Greek word for “wave” or “billow” (κλύδων) but uses the verb κλυδωνίζομαι, “to be tossed about in the waves” or “buffeted” or “swept by heavy seas.” It appears in Hellenistic works, such as Josephus’ Wars of the Jews or the classic sea-faring work by Arrian on the Periplus of the Euxine Sea. It is a particularly vivid verb because it reflects both the helplessness and vulnerability of a person. It appears once in the LXX, in Isaiah 57:20, where the unrighteous are said to be “tossed about in the sea” (κλυδωνισθήσονται). The second phrase, περιφερόμενοι παντὶ ἀνέμῳ τῆς διδασκαλίας, or “carried about by every wind of teaching,” uses the more common verb περιφέρω (“to carry around”), which appears with that meaning in the LXX in Prov. 10:24, “the wicked is carried about in destruction, but the longing desire of the righteous person is acceptable” (ἐν ἀπωλείᾳ ἀσεβὴς περιφέρεται ἐπιθυμία δὲ δικαίου δεκτή). Well, at this point we would all say, “Yeah, I don’t want to be tossed around in the waves or blown about in the wind,” but we don’t know what that means. The next verse brings us to the world of deception.
2a—The author then uses a very fine vocabulary of deception to capture the things that the Christian ought to avoid. First is the phrase: ἐν τῇ κυβείᾳ τῶν ἀνθρώπων, “in the gaming/dice-playing of humans.” I chose to render the rare word κυβείᾳ literally so that we would pause to “hear” it. It is the simple, and not-often-used Greek word for a “die” that would be cast or thrown. Or, it could be a “cube,” as it is used in Plato’s Phaedrus. But by the Hellenistic era the word had picked up a figurative meaning that was suggested by the gaming image: playing dice was resorting to trickery. So, one is to avoid the trickery of people. It really is a fine phrase, even though it not only doesn’t define the contours or shape of “trickery” by humans, nor does it tell us conveniently how to avoid it. Thus, its value as moral exhortation is small, but its value for vocabulary-building is great.
2b— But perhaps realizing that he needs either to be more specific or to repeat himself “louder,” the author basically repeats the thought about deception but with a longer phrase: ἐν πανουργίᾳ πρὸς τὴν μεθοδείαν τῆς πλάνης. This is a problematic phrase because it gives us, in seven words, three words of deception coming from three different spheres of human activity. Literally this may be rendered, “through the deceit/villainy by means of a crafty method of leading from the right path.” Or, to be less wooden, we have images from the worlds of unethical behavior (the old dictionaries talk about “knavery” or “villainy”), of general rules of operation (the “method” in μεθοδείαν originated in a neutral term to describe modes of operation, but morphed in the Hellenistic era to take on a meaning of “cunning”) and “wandering away” like the English cognate “planet,” a heavenly body that “wanders.”
Both of these phrases in 2 deal with deception and have the same “bottom line”—the author is trying to save his hearers from the guile and trickery that might try to lure them away from the Gospel taught by Paul and his followers. The helpfulness of such an exhortation is directly proportional to the age of the exhortation. When it is fresh and raw, the exhortation perhaps is directed to certain people and may give them specific advice as to whom to avoid.. Everyone knows what is meant, and the clear lines between competing groups can be neatly demarcated. But, the further one gets from the heat of the moment, the more the meaning of the phrase fades, leaving us just the most shadowy substance or distant echo of what is meant. We get at the words and perhaps can even render them faithfully or effectively, but have the distinct feeling that all our work leads us nowhere. Avoid deception? Sure thing. Know what deception is or how to avoid it? Not a clue. This passage, and other similar NT exhortations on deception are wonderful land even fun to read but don’t get us very far if we are interested in understanding concepts. The most helpful thing, however, is the variety of words the NT bequeaths to us on the subject of deception. That, indeed, is a verbal supplement that will last several meals.
Colossians 1:20-23, Rhetorical Power
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