You know that when you were pagans, you were led astray to the mute idols, however you were led.—1 Cor. 12:2
I submit that most Christians today, by their own admission, are still pagan in the biblical sense of the word.
Please read on to see if you are in fact a “pagan Christian.” Once again, we are plowing through unfamiliar waters, so please take your time and read carefully. Please, jot down any questions and post them below.
In my last several posts I have presented a view which has been lost in great measure for almost 1,700 years—that our citizenship is in heaven. Those who are familiar with this idea almost inevitably take it as a metaphorical or “spiritual” truth, with limited application. It is so foreign that I suspect most of you still do not realize its full significance, or realize the pun intended in the use of foreign.
Pause for a moment and think—What does the word pagan mean? Seriously—stop reading and say out loud what you think pagan means in the verse above.
If you are like I was several years ago, you just said, “unbeliever,” “non-Christian,” “idol worshiper,” or something like that. A quick glance at the above verse at biblehub.com. should make you feel good, because unbeliever is exactly how at least two modern translations render the Greek word used here.
Pagan, is by far the most common translation, followed by Gentile. If fact Gentile is the word commonly used for this Greek word, and pagan is rarely used at all. The reason Gentile is not normally used here is clear; Gentile means non-Jew, and that clearly does not fit the context.
What does ethnos mean?
In this case the Greek word is ethnos (ἔθνος). Strong’s Concordance gives the definition as “a race, a nation, pl. the nations (as distinct from Isr.).” It is interesting to note that this definition states that the plural form is used to indicate nations distinct from Israel. John on the other hand uses this word in both his Gospel and epistles in the singular form to refer only to the nation of Israel.
A close examination of all the New Testament occurrences leads me to believe that the singular form of ethnos should always be translated as “nation” and the plural translated as “other nations.”
This puts a completely different spin on the meaning of the verse we are considering. Greek has a perfectly good word for nonbeliever (ἄπιστος) and Paul could have used it here if that was what he was trying to say. To use the word gentile, as many translations do, implies that these people had converted to Judaism, rather than Christianity. It is clear that Paul intended neither of these ideas.
Is something hidden from view?
By translating the word as pagan the translators seem to be pointedly avoiding the clear and simple meaning of Paul’s words, and the obvious intent of this whole passage. Interestingly, at the biblehub link cited above, we find two translations (Darby and Young’s) that correctly render Paul’s words in a way that makes sense. Here is Darby’s: “Ye know that when ye were of the nations ye were led away to dumb idols, in whatever way ye might be led.”
Did you catch that? What were they formerly? Of the Nations! But wait a minute, what is the alternative to being “of the nations?” In most contemporary Christian thought there is no alternative. It seems this is why most modern translations use the word pagan here. An Iranian who comes to our Lord is now an Iranian Christian. A Canadian who comes to the Lord is now a Canadian Christian, and so on. Most of those reading this consider themselves American Christians, or if they hold to the error of “ultimate” allegiance cited in our last post, they may say Christian American.
What is Paul talking about?
In the context Paul is addressing the nature and gifting of the church. He obliquely refers to the spirits which govern the nations and used various means to draw their subjects to idol worship. This is in contrast to the Holy Spirit which declares Jesus as kurios (κύριος) translated Lord, and meaning undisputed owner. This Spirit equips the “church” with gifts so that it can be the “body of the king.”
This body is made of the king’s subjects who are no longer considered Jews or Greeks. Their identities have been transformed by the transfer of their allegiance. It is sad that many translations render the word “Greek” in the text (verse 15) as Gentiles, obscuring the Paul’s clear reference to specific national cultures here.
The fact is that in the context Paul is very pointedly making it clear that his audience were no longer of the nations, but that their new owner (Lord) is their king Jesus, whom they are to represent. It seems strange to us because this point which the New Testament makes repeatedly is so often obscured by translators who find the fact difficult to accept.
Consider Ephesians 2:11. In the NIV it in reads “Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision”…” Did you catch that… “you who are Gentiles.”
The Holman Christian Standard Bible comes closer with “So then, remember that at one time you were Gentiles in the flesh…” This at least preserves the Greek sense that whatever you were (both say Gentiles) you no longer are.The problem of course is that the Ephesians had not converted to Judaism and should still be Gentiles, if we understand the word correctly.
No longer “of the nations.”
That is the problem! We are not understanding the word ethnos correctly. Once again we see in the Darby and Young’s Literal Translations, something that makes sense but sounds strange in our ears. Here is Young’s: “Wherefore, remember, that ye were once the nations in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that called Circumcision in the flesh made by hands.” That is quite a difference from both the NIV and HCSB. It is probably also different from any Bible teaching you have heard before.
The Bottom Line
We will continue with this theme in the next post but for now we should summarize the points established up until this point.
- Scripture teaches that New Testament Christians were “formerly ethnos.”
- In 1 Cor. 12:2 ethnos is often translated as pagan or Gentile.
- Pagan, today is taken to mean unbeliever, which makes sense to us.
- Gentile means non-Jew which does not make sense in this context.
- Scholars are in agreement that ethnos means nation or race.
Could it be true, as it is beginning to appear, 1 Cor. 12:2 should be understood to refer to those who were “formerly of the nations?” Does “pagan” in the Bible really refer to a member of one of the world’s nations? If so, by holding on to the nationality of our first birth, after the occurrence of our second, we are indeed guilty of being pagan Christians!
How are we to understand this. Does the New Testament really teach that followers of Jesus lose their first born nationality when they submit to His lordship? What do you think?
Please pray about what our king wants you to gain from this. Ask a question and/or check back for the next installment.
For the king–your servant, Chris
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