When the New Testament was written, the authors were tasked with communicating a heavenly concept using human words. I have had a handful of supernatural encounters since the day I came to Yeshua—the most powerful ones being the night I came to faith, the first time I preached (in front of four prisoners in a trailer) and one night worshipping with other college students, where I was sure angels were actively involved…and a few other times, such as during the Brownsville Revival. The hardest thing is to explain to others in mere English/Hebrew (human tongues) the heavenly experience. I am sure many of you can relate.
I referred to one encounter as “a liquid cube of heaven descended upon me,” and another as, “heaven hacked into my mind!” It was the best I could do with the words I had.
Old Words—New Meanings
The writers of the New Covenant needed to express the idea of God’s turning toward mankind with salvation. They, through the Holy Spirit, chose the word grace, which means favor. But in the New Testament context, it came to mean so much more. By grace God gives salvation to all who would come to Him through faith. (Eph. 2:8)
A form of charis (the Greek word we translate as grace) is used in 1 Cor. 12:4 to describe God’s “gracious gifts” (charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit). The new way in which they used the old terms could only be understood in light of the New Testament. These were not merely gifts, like a new sweater or necktie, but He defines them in this new light as “manifestations of the Spirit” that “profit” the body (v. 7).
Paul uses five different words in Greek to describe the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In v. 1 he calls them spirituals (the word gift does not even appear, though it is in most English translations). Of course, in context it is the gifts of the Spirit. Then, he calls them charismaton (pl) or “grace effects”, which is a divinely conferred power or talent—much more powerful than gifts. He then refers to them as acts of service and works. And lastly, as noted above, manifestations. We call them gifts—but Paul used a variety of words to help us understand the charismatic workings of the Spirit. Ironically the Greek word for gift—doro—does not even appear in the text and that is the primary word that we use in English!
The New Testament writers needed a name for the body of believers in the Messiah. They must have remembered that Yeshua used ecclesia in Matthew 16. It was the Greek word used for both the local Jewish synagogue and a meeting of the citizenry of a city or town. But now it takes on new meaning—Yeshua said, “I will build MY eccelsia/synagogue/community ” as the olive tree (Romans 11:17), the household of God (Eph. 2:19), the One New Man (Eph. 2:14), “and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” Of course, this is no ordinary “ecclesia/assembly”—this one threatens the very domain of Satan. A city council may come from hell, but it sure doesn’t threaten the underworld!
Language was also needed to describe the salvation experience. Jesus tells Nicodemus, “you must be born again.” Literally He says, born from above or anew. But Nicodemus understands that to be born from above, he would have to be born “again” and declares “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” (John 3:4) He didn’t understand Yeshua’s choice of human words to communicate a new spiritual reality—the new birth!
But those were the right words to describe what happens to someone when they come to Yeshua. The night I came to faith was not merely a turning point; it was a realization that I needed to change—and I was changed by an outside force. I was born again!
Think about when John declared, as he was immersing people in water, that Someone would come who would have a similar ministry, but He would immerse people in the Holy Spirit. Yes, there were hints of this in the Old Covenant (Jer. 31:31-33), but who ever thought to use such unique language that we take for granted today? God chose that imagery based on the Jewish tradition of the Mikveh (ritual cleansing by water). They understood that immersion in water contained a spiritual component, but now, the spiritual would bypass the water and baptize the believer with power to be a witness!
And then there are none religious words like deacon, apostle, shepherd, evangelist, the Lord’s supper, etc., all chosen through the unique personalities of each writer, inspired by the Spirit, to commutate a powerful truth.
We do similar things with words today. Who was the first to “nuke” their coffee? Or the first to create the adjective “Instagramable”? Words are powerful. We should not take the words God chose to describe Biblical truth for granted, but dig in to understand why such words were chosen. Happy hunting.