New Testament Words and Verses
Recovery from Drunkenness in the New Testament
The purpose of this essay is to try to extricate us from all those harmful behaviors we no doubt have been practicing and which will keep us from inheriting the Kingdom of God (Gal. 5:21; I Cor. 6:10). The way to do so is to study closely the language of sobriety and prudence in the NT to see how people can be brought back from the brink of all this licentious, lustful, lascivious, lubricious, lax behavior. But this is only an interim step; we then have to develop the positive language of virtue, such as the language of the fruit of the Spirit or cultivation of piety/godliness. The end of this all will be to have a full-orbed understanding of the language of personal destruction, redemption and faithful practice.
Coming Back from the Brink
I am still bothered by the notion that those who practice any of the 15 items in Gal. 5:19-21 and an additional four which Paul bequeathed to us from I Cor. 6:10, won’t inherit the Kingdom of God. There is nothing said in that context you can just “pray” and “accept Jesus” and, presto! you are OK. Nope, this list comes after all the discussion of justification by faith. Thus, any of this raunchy, riotous, repulsive, reveling, revolting behavior described in the more than two dozen words I have discussed, will get you tossed from the table, banned/bumped/barred from the banquet, cast from the celebration, flung/forced/frozen out from the feast. Nothing that you can do about it. As a matter of fact, that already probably eliminates most people in the world.
But we press on, because there is also a rich vocabulary of redemption or “coming back” from drunkenness into sobriety. Let’s begin with the idea of returning to sobriety and with the root νήφω.
ἀνανήφω— to return to sobriety or recover one’s soberness. It is a NT hapax and appears in a long discussion in II Tim. 2 about proper living. We can translate, beginning in verse 25, that “God might give to them (a spirit of) repentance, (leading) to the knowledge of truth, and that they might regain their sobriety (ἀνανήφω, v 26) out of the clutches/snare of the devil. . .”
ἐκνήφω— become sober-minded. This is a synonym of the preceding (and is also a NT hapax), and is urged by Paul on the Corinthians in his famous chapter on the resurrection (I Cor. 15:34), “Be righteously sober minded and don’t sin.”
Ok, now that restoration to sobriety has been accomplished, let’s look at the basic verb for being sober, and its related noun.
νήφω— be sober. νήφω appears 6x in the NT and points not just to the physical activity of not being overcome with drink but of a kind of attitude that keeps one free from illusions in life. Two of its six appearances are in interesting hendiadys with γρηγορέω, “to stay awake/be on the alert” (I Thess. 5:6; I Pet. 5:8). Also alluring is that one of the four remaining appearances is with the verb σωφρονέω, “to be of one’s right mind” (I Pet. 4:7). Thus, we have an interesting and powerful trioka of verbs that anchor the Christian in good behavior: νήφω, γρηγορέω, σωφρονέω. The concept of “sobriety” then can stretch its meaning from the body’s physical condition to a pattern of behavior.
νηφαλέος— sober (adjective). This appears 3x in the NT, and in every instance it is connected with a series of other virtues a person should cultivate. Let’s illustrate through Titus 2:2,
Πρεσβύτας νηφαλίους εἶναι, σεμνούς, σώφρονας, ὑγιαίνοντας τῇ πίστει, τῇ ἀγάπῃ, τῇ ὑπομονῇ·
“Elders are to be sober, serious, prudent, healthy in the faith, in love and in patience.”
Looking at this passage gives one a remarkable trio of adjectives to go along with our three verbs of self-control, with the νηφ root acting as the connecting tissue. Here the two other adjectives are σεμνούς, σώφρονας. But before considering these, we should pause on that “healthy in faith,” surely a unique expression in early Christian literature. It would be interesting to try to do a study of the overlap of medical terminology and the issue of Christian virtue. . .Back to the world of sobriety. .
σεμνός—honorable, holy, above reproach, worthy, serious. It appears 3x in the NT, and each time it helpfully appears in a list. In the list in Phil. 4:8 it carries with it the meaning of something worthwhile or worthy of dignity and weight. I generally associate it with the concept of seriousness or level-headedness, as far as possible removed from the language of riotous partying that characterizes those that won’t enter the Kingdom of God. A related word is:
σεμνότης— dignity, seriousness, probity, holiness. The Latin word that captures this concept perfectly is gravitas or “heaviness/weight/significance.” Its religious significance is captured in the first of the three NT appearances (I Tim. 2:2), where the recipient is urged to do things “with all godliness and godly dignity’ (ἐν πάσῃ εὐσεβείᾳ καὶ σεμνότητι). Yet, its more secular meaning is captured in another appearance (Titus 2:7f), where the recipient is urged to furnish a pattern of good words, including being “incorruptible in teaching” (emphasizing the integrity of the teacher), “with seriousness/dignity (σεμνότης), with words that are not censurable.”
κόσμιος— respectable, orderly, well-ordered. This is a fascinating word because it builds on a concept that is, if not inimical to the early Christians, at least questionable, and makes a virtue out of it. The ambiguity of the root comes out in brief consideration of the adjective κοσμικός. Of course the adjectives come from the basic word “kosmos,” or “world,” but one’s attitude toward the world is a crucial issue for earliest Christians. In Titus 2:12 the recipient is urged to deny irreligion/ungodliness/impiety (ἀσέβεια) and the “worldly (κοσμικός) passions (ἐπιθυμίας)” that come with it. That is, in this instance, the “world-rooted” passions are bad. But in I Tim. 3:2, κόσμιος appears in a row of praiseworthy characteristics that are to be possessed by one aspiring to become a bishop. Its near-neighbors are νηφάλιον σώφρονα, the best companions one could hope to have. So, while making trifectas, we can include the virtuous triple as νηφαλέος, σώφρων and κόσμιος (Even though I Tim. 3:2 lists a few more virtues). But this list encourages us not to think of everything related to the “world” as bad, since something κόσμιος is well-ordered. It also encourages us now to turn to a separate treatment of σώφρων and related words.
Prudence and Self-Control in the New Testament