A few years back, I was teaching some students in a remedial reading class. I remember working with a young boy named Jacob. As we were sounding out the words on the page, we came to a couple of sentences like these:
John rose from the table.
John smelled a pink rose.
The task was a relatively simple one: Determine which sentence contained the word “rose” that meant “a flower.” In spite of the fact that my second grade pupil was a remedial reader, he had little difficulty discerning the difference between the two words. Even though they looked and sounded the same, the two words had different meanings. The context determined which word was under consideration.
The word “rose” is in a family of words called “homographs.” A homograph is a word that has the same spelling and sometimes the same pronunciation as another word, but has a completely different meaning.
For example, when Paul writes of those who “by their smooth and fair speech” beguile the hearts of the innocent (Rom. 16:18), he isn’t warning us of those who discuss the livestock exhibit at the county fair. The two words sound and look alike, but have completely different meanings.
If we were unable to determine from the immediate context that Paul was talking about polished language instead of the annual midway, we could settle the issue once and for all by examining the original Greek word from which our word “fair” was translated. In this case, we would see that the original word is eulogia meaning: “a fine discourse, polished language” (Thayer, 260).
And in Galatians 6:12, we find the word “fair,” but here it translates the Greek term euprosopeo, meaning: “to make a fair show; to please”(Thayer, 261).
Homographs can be confusing, but with the proper tools and a little common sense, the correct meaning of a word may easily be determined. Which is why the following “definition” is somewhat distressing.
A popular Bible-related web site, with various study tools, has an online version of what is reported to be a “lexicon” of New Testament Greek “based on Thayer’s and Smith’s Bible Dictionary and others.” (See sources, “Thayer and Smith.”) If you review their entry for the Greek preposition, eis, you will find the standard, initial definition given by Thayer,
1. into, unto, to, towards, for, among
Then in seamless fashion, we find this expanded explanation:
“‘For’ (as used in Acts 2:38 ‘for the forgiveness...’) could have two meanings. If you saw a poster saying ‘Jesse James wanted for robbery’, ‘for’ could mean Jesse is wanted so he can commit a robbery, or is wanted because he has committed a robbery. The later sense is the correct one. So too in this passage, the word ‘for’ signifies an action in the past. Otherwise, it would violate the entire tenor of the NT teaching on salvation by grace and not by works.”
I have searched through the entire entry in Thayer and found no reference to “Jesse James.” Likewise, in Smith’s Bible Dictionary, no mention of a Jesse James wanted poster was found, at least in the entry on “baptism” — which, in fact, would be strange indeed since Smith’s dictionary was composed several years before James embarked upon his career of robbing banks!
Actually, Smith notes that baptism,
“is the rite or ordinance by which persons are admitted into the Church of Christ. It is the public profession of faith and discipleship. Baptism signifies — a confession of faith in Christ; a cleansing or washing of the soul from sin; a death to sin and a new life in righteousness....”
Which leads us to suspect that the Jesse James illustration in this definition was contributed by those mysterious “others.”
The Details Are Important
Our English word “for” is a homograph, just like fair, bear, and dozens of other words that have multiple meanings despite identical spellings. The word “for” may be defined in a number of ways.
In fact, there are at least ten different uses of this popular English preposition. The context must determine which definition is appropriate in a given instance.
“For” certainly may be defined: “as a result of; because of.” But that is a definition of our English word “for” and not for the original Greek term, eis, found in Acts 2:38.
It presumptuous to arbitrarily snatch any English definition and attach it to a Greek expression. And that is exactly what has been done in this example. It betrays a bias on the part of those “others,” rather than an honest intellectual inquiry in trying to ascertain the meaning of the word.
It is further misleading to append Thayer’s definition without any explanation. It leaves the ridiculous impression that the Jesse James illustration is either a product of Thayer or that it is in agreement with the sentiments of the esteemed scholar. Nothing could be further from the truth.
“The term eis is found some 1,750 times in the Greek New Testament, and it is never translated ‘because of’ in the common versions .... The standard Greek lexicons do not view eis as meaning ‘because of’ in Acts 2:38” (Jackson, 37).
- Arndt & Gingrich define the term in Acts 2:38 to mean “in order to.”They translate the entire phrase eis aphesin hamartion as ‘for the forgiveness of sins, so that sins might be forgiven’ (228).
- Thayer himself rendered the expression eis aphesin hamartion as “to obtain the forgiveness of sins” (94). That is, it is a prospective phrase, not retrospective!
- In the Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Balz, 399), Elliger cites Acts 2:38 as an example of eis being used “to indicate [the] purpose” of the act under consideration.
- Ceslas Spicq noted regarding Acts 2:38, “Water baptism is a means of realizing this conversion, and its goal — something altogether new — is a washing, ‘the remission of sins’” (242; emphasis added).
- Finally, Doctor Daniel B. Wallace has stated in his Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics that the “causal” use of eis in Acts 2:38 (i.e., “because of” instead of “in order to”) has been demonstrated to fail in terms of linguistic evidence (370) — an admission devastating to the tired argument appealed to in the Jesse James example.
The baptism commanded by Peter was for the purpose of obtaining the remission of sins by faithful obedience to the gospel call. The meaning of the verse is clear — in English and Greek.
Abraham Lincoln had a favorite proverb: Right makes might. If one’s theological position has the force of divine revelation behind it, one doesn’t need to resort to such gross manipulation. And if it doesn’t, it should be abandoned for the sake of truth.