In Sydney we can expect lots of promises over the next few months, with a State election in March and a national election in May. Between Genesis and Revelation, the Bible is full of God’s promises. There are thousands of them. This post contains a survey of God’s promises in the Bible in order to determine which one is the greatest. We will see that the promise given to Abraham to bless all nations is the greatest because it was fulfilled in Jesus Christ and it leads to God’s other promises.
Promises in the Old Testament
The best known promises from God in the Old Testament are called covenants. We will summarize five of these that were given to Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and Jeremiah.
After the flood, God told Noah’s family, “Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Gen. 9:11NIV). He called it “a covenant for all generations to come” and an “everlasting covenant” (Gen. 9:12, 16). It was between God and every living creature on earth and was symbolized by the rainbow (Gen. 9:13). It was an unconditional promise of God’s protection. God has kept this promise: there hasn’t been another global flood.
Promised nation, land and blessing for all nations
After the tower of Babel, people scattered across the earth into different nations that spoke different languages. And God promised to make Abraham’s descendants into a great nation and to give them the land of Canaan from the Wadi of Egypt to the Euphrates River (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:18-21NIV). He also promised that “all peoples [nations]on earth will be blessed through you [Abraham]”. This was an unconditional and everlasting promise (Gen. 17:7-8). The sign of this covenant was male circumcision (Gen. 17:11). So this covenant was a promise of a nation and their own land. God partially fulfilled this part of the promise when David and Solomon were kings over Israel. But the Bible indicates that Israel will be restored again in the future (Rom. 11). The other part of the promise (blessing for all nations) is discussed below under “The key promise”.
After Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, at Mt Sinai, God promised the Israelites they would be His special people – “my treasured possession” (Ex. 19:5) and He would drive out the Canaanites so they could occupy their land (Ex. 19 – 31). It was conditional on obeying God’s laws, and there were blessings for obedience and punishment for disobedience (Lev. 26, Dt. 28-29). The Sabbath day was given to Israel as a sign of this covenant (Ex. 31:13, 17). So this third covenant was a promise of a special relationship with God. God kept His part of this promise, but Israel failed to keep their part, and so were invaded and driven from Palestine.
When king David planned to build a temple for God, God promised him an everlasting dynasty, a great name, and peace for the nation of Israel (2 Sam. 7:5-16, 28; 1 Chron. 17:11-14; 2 Chron. 6:16; Ps. 89:3-4). This covenant was unconditional. But it was conditional for Solomon’s descendants (Ps. 132:11-12). A descendant of David ruled in Judah until the Babylonian conquest in 586BC when the descendants went into exile and there was no kingdom and no king for about 400 years. Then King Herod ruled but he wasn’t Jewish as he had Edomite (Idumean) ancestry. At this time Jesus was rejected as king, but since His ascension, He is on His throne in heaven. Peter and Paul said that Jesus Christ was the fulfilment of God’s promise to David (Acts 2:29-36; 13:20-24). Jesus is a descendant of David (Lk. 3). And His kingdom is everlasting.
So this covenant was a promise of a dynasty. Because Israel failed to keep their part, the physical dynasty ended. But after a 400 year gap, Jesus established a spiritual dynasty.
We’ve seen that the Israelites couldn’t keep the old covenant that came through Moses. The prophet Jeremiah said that because they had broken the covenant by disobedience and idolatry, God would bring a disaster (Jer. 11). He predicted a Babylonian conquest, followed by a 70 year exile and then restoration for Israel (Jer. 12-13; 25; 27; 30-31).
Jeremiah also promised the Israelites a new covenant, which becomes effective after the 2nd advent of Christ (Jer. 31:31-34). The nation will be revived and indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Ezek. 36:25, 27); they willingly obey the Word of God; they have a unique relationship with God; everyone will know the Lord; their sins are forgiven and forgotten; and the nation continues forever (Jer. 31:35-37). In fact Paul says that Jews will begin to turn to God after the rapture (Rom. 11:25-26). This was a mystery to people in the first century and many are ignorant of it today. This is called the “New covenant” (Heb. 8). It’s an unconditional promise for the Jews, involving Christ’s millennial reign on earth. This covenant was a promise of a future Jewish revival and peace on earth.
That’s five covenant promises. The Old Testament prophets also predicted a Messiah who would bring peace and prosperity.
In about 980BC David prayed for deliverance when facing death (Ps. 16). He finishes with joy because he is assured that he will not die (Psa. 16:9-11). But Peter said that this refers to the resurrection of the Messiah (Acts 2:25-33). And Paul agrees (Acts 13:35-37).
In about 700BC Micah said the messiah would be born in Bethlehem of Judah (Mic. 5:2). And about that time Isaiah said that he would be more than an ordinary child because he would be called Immanuel which means God with us (Isa. 7:14; Mt. 1:22-23). Isaiah also taught about the suffering servant (messiah) who would:
– Suffer for our sins to bring us peace and spiritual life (Isa. 53:5).
– Die among the wicked but be buried with the rich (Isa. 53:9).
In about 520BC Zechariah said the messiah would be humble (riding into Jerusalem on a donkey) and victorious (Zech. 9:9-10).
But all the promises in the Old Testament were given to Jews as individuals or as a nation. They weren’t given to Christians or Gentiles like us. But there are promises given to Christians in the New Testament.
Promises in the New Testament
When I looked at the 60 verses in the New Testament that include the Greek word for promise (epangalia, Strongs #1860) and its close derivatives, I found that they involved four main types of promise:
– Promises given to Abraham and his descendants.
– Eternal life.
– The Holy Spirit.
– The second coming of Christ or end times.
We will briefly look at these in turn.
An email says you’ve won a new car or free airline tickets. Or that you can make easy money working from home or from bitcoin. The promise of romance cost a Canadian woman more than $40,000. Some promises are worthless! But God’s promises have lasting value.
Promises given to Abraham and his descendants
These promises involved three topics:
– God keeps His promises. “After waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised” (Heb. 6:15). God is reliable.
– Jesus was the promised Messiah. We will look at this soon under “The key promise”.
– Salvation (and eternal life) is a gift to be received by faith, not something to be earned. As a result of this salvation, all believers are assured of participating in and receiving the remaining promises.
Eternal (spiritual) life enables us to live for Christ today and to look forward to life after death (1 Jn. 2:25; 1 Tim. 4:8). All believers have eternal life and can look forward to new bodies, the marriage supper of the Lamb and living with the Lord in heaven where rewards are given for serving the Lord.
The Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit indwells a believer when they trust in the good news of God’s offer of salvation. He is God with us on a continual basis—God speaks to us today through the Holy Spirit. He is a great helper and teacher and will remind us of relevant Scripture.
The second coming or end times
The second coming of Christ has two stages. The first is when the Lord returns to resurrect believers and take them to heaven, called the rapture. The second is when He returns in great power and glory to rule the earth with justice. Believers are to look forward to “a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (2 Pt. 3:13). This is the eternal state after God has triumphed over Satan and evil.
The Key promise
One of the promises given to Abraham was that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you [Abraham]” (Gen. 12:3; 18:18). This was explained more fully as, “through your [Abraham’s] offspring all nations on earth will be blessed” (Gen. 22:18; 26:4). Jacob was given a similar promise, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you [Jacob] and your offspring” (Gen. 28:14).
Who is being blest in these Old Testament verses? According to Brown-Driver-Briggs (BDB), the Hebrew word:
– mishpachah (Strongs #4940) means “people, nation” (Gen. 12:3; 28:14; 28:14).
– goy (Strongs #1471) means “nation, people” (Gen. 18:18; 22:18; 26:4).
Although the same word is used for family, in this context, it’s not just a family or a tribe, but a larger group of people like a nation.
This promise is explained in the New Testament. Peter quoted this promise to unbelieving Jews, “Indeed, beginning with Samuel, all the prophets who have spoken have foretold these days [the millennial reign of Christ]. And you are heirs of the prophets and of the covenant God made with your fathers. He said to Abraham, ‘Through your offspring [Jesus Christ] all peoples on earth will be blessed.’ When God raised up His servant [Jesus Christ], He sent Him first to you [Jews] to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways” (Acts 3:24-26). Peter applies the promise that was made to Abraham to Jesus. Jesus was the fulfilment of the promise. Through Jesus all peoples earth will be blessed. In this instance, “offspring” means Jesus.
Paul quoted this promise to believers who were being influenced by legalistic Jewish Christians, “Understand, then, that those who have faith are (spiritual) children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you [Abraham]’. So those who rely on faith [believers] are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Gal. 3:7-9). Paul says that all believers are spiritual children of Abraham. They are saved by faith like Abraham was and not by good works. This is the gospel message, that both Jews and Gentiles can be saved by faith in Christ. This explains how the nations are blessed through Jesus.
Who is being blest in these New Testament verses? According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, the Greek word:
– patria (Strongs #3965) means “nation, people” (Acts 3:25).
– ethnos (Strongs #1484) means “nation, people” (Gal. 3:8).
Although patria is used for family, in this context, it’s not just a family or a tribe, but a larger group of people like a nation.
Paul then explains how this happens, “He [Christ] redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit” (Gal. 3:14). It’s through Jesus Christ. And he says it again, “The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ” (v.16). In this context “seed” means Jesus. And he says it a third time: Jesus is “the Seed to whom the promise referred” (v.19). Christ is the seed promised to Abraham. And he says it the fourth time: What was promised to Abraham is “given to those who believe” through “faith in Jesus Christ” (v.22). This says that the blessing is salvation through Jesus. Then he says, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (v.29). Christians are Abraham’s spiritual descendants as we share his faith (Rom. 4:1-25).
All those with faith in God are spiritual descendants of Abraham (his offspring or seed) (Rom. 4:13, 16, 18, 9:6-9). This includes Isaac but not his half-brother Ishmael, Jacob but not his brother Esau, and believers but not unbelievers.
The promise of Gen. 12:3 was to bless all nations of the earth in Abram. The promise of salvation through Jesus included Gentiles as well as Jews. The “seed” referred to Jesus Christ, who was a descendant of Abraham (Lk. 3:34). God promised to bless all nations through Christ. It was through Christ that God intended to fulfill this promise to Abraham. The New Testament version of the promise is, “For God so loved the world [nations] that He gave His one and only Son [Jesus], that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).
The promise of salvation was meant to be received by faith in Christ. This is evident by hindsight after being revealed by the apostles, although it is not clear from reading the Old Testament alone.
When he was accused of being unreliable, Paul said that “all of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ” (2 Cor. 1:10NLT). This is shown in a schematic diagram. The promise of blessing for all nations was made to Abraham. Jesus was the fulfilment of the promise. Through Jesus people from all nations can be blessed. Here’s how it happens. Those who trust in the work of Christ by faith are saved and delivered from the penalty of their sinfulness. Consequently:
– They enter the new covenant (a special spiritual relationship with God, which is much better than the old covenant).
– They have eternal life, which is spiritual life that endures forever.
– They are indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
– They will be resurrected at the rapture and will share in Christ’s second coming to set up His kingdom on earth.
It’s a key promise because it is the original messianic promise (see Appendix A) and it is the source of the other promises. Paul said, “All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us [believers] with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ” (Eph. 1:3NLT). The spiritual blessings that we are promised are consequences of our faith in Christ. So they were included in the original promise. The diagram shows God’s plan of salvation over a period of at least 4,000 years: the promise was given to Abram in about 2,000BC, Jesus died about AD 30 and we live in AD 2019. That’s the big picture.
So, God’s greatest promise is that people from all nations can be blessed through Jesus. Jesus is the fulfilment of the greatest promise. And salvation through Jesus is the fulfilment of the greatest promise. He is the means by which people can come into God’s blessing.
The guaranteed promise
But promises can be broken. Construction of Sydney’s light rail project was meant to go smoothly and be finished before the State election in March, but there were problems, delays and broken promises and now it’s running at least a year late. But God always keeps His promises.
The writer of Hebrews assures us that “it is impossible for God to lie” (Heb. 6:18). Abraham was given a son after waiting for 25 years. Likewise, God will keep His promise of our eternal salvation. Because of this, those who have come into God’s salvation “may be greatly encouraged”. “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (Heb. 6:19). Like an anchor holds a ship safe and stops it being shipwrecked in a storm, our hope in Christ guarantees our safety. The storms of life can lead to doubt and despair if we forget that God’s greatest promise can be our anchor.
Today’s meaning of ancient promises
The Bible was written in ancient times. What do promises written thousands of years ago mean for us today? It was also written over a period of at least 1,500 years. Because of this, the Bible is a progressive revelation. Truth gets added as we move from the beginning to the end (the graph goes up with time). So we should read it as those who have the whole book and know God’s whole program of salvation. Let’s look at what the promises we have mentioned above mean to us today.
Protection. This was a promise with Noah and his sons and their descendants and “every living creature on earth” (Gen. 9:8-9). They were the only ones on earth after the flood. So this promise applies to all people and creatures on earth today. We can be assured that the earth won’t be destroyed by a flood or by climate change (a euphemism for the enhanced greenhouse effect). Part of the promise was “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease” (Gen. 8:22). It’s an unconditional promise that as long as the earth exists the climate will remain within acceptable ranges for plants to live. Of course the Genesis flood was the greatest climate change event in history.
A nation and a land. Abraham and Jacob were promised that they would have many descendants (the Jews) who would be given the land of Canaan (and they did live there). These were promises for the Jews, so it doesn’t mean that God will give us many children and a house. Those who follow Jesus live under the new covenant and their promised blessings are spiritual, not physical (Eph. 1:3). So the equivalent promise for us is spiritual blessings. That’s the inheritance that we can look forward to – being part of the family of God and having eternal life in heaven.
Blessing for all nations. We have already seen that that the equivalent promise for us is the blessing of salvation through Jesus.
Promised relationship. This was a promise to the Israelites who were to live under the laws of Moses. But that doesn’t mean that we need to obey these laws in order to have a relationship with God. The old covenant wasn’t given to Gentiles like us. The equivalent relationship for us in the new covenant through faith in Christ and His commands in the New Testament.
A dynasty. The Bible says that Jesus Christ was the fulfilment of God’s promise to David of an eternal dynasty.
Revival. Although the Jews were promised a new covenant, the Bible says that believers enter into it spiritually and enjoy its spiritual blessings. Our sins are forgiven and we have peace with God if we accept the good news by believing that Christ paid the penalty for our sin. The Lord’s Supper is a symbol of this new covenant (Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). Do we celebrate it regularly and recall our spiritual blessings?
A messiah. Jesus was the promised Jewish messiah. Because He was rejected by the Jews, salvation by faith in His finished work is now available to all nations.
As the other promises we have looked at were made to Christians, this means that they still apply to us today. So Christians have eternal (spiritual) life; they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit; and during the end times they will be resurrected when Christ returns to take them to heaven.
Consequently, we need to be careful in our understanding and application of promises in the Bible (see Appendix B).
Lessons for us
We have seen that God gave Abraham a promise to bless all nations, which was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and which leads to God’s other promises. Through Jesus all nations can be blessed. The blessing is salvation through faith in Jesus and all that it brings including the Holy Spirit and eternal life.
This is the greatest promise because it’s the source of all God’s promises to believers. Believers have every spiritual blessing because they are united with Christ. The Bible says it’s like an anchor to get through the storms of life. Do we have this anchor to get through difficult times or do we get shipwrecked?
It’s greater than all promises outside the Bible because it’s given by the God who made the universe and continues to sustain it.
In Old Testament times, the physical descendants of Abraham had a special relationship with God, which other people lacked. Likewise, today those who have trusted in Jesus have a special relationship with God that helps them get through life and gives them something to look forward to. What about us? Do we have that special relationship with God? Salvation is a gift to be received by faith.
If we are part of God’s special people today, we receive the blessings of God’s promises. But we don’t know about them unless we read them in the Bible. And we can’t recall them unless we read them in the Bible. So let’s read about them in the Bible so we can appreciate how great and precious they are (2 Pt. 1:4). For example, are we looking forward to Christ’s return to fulfil His promises concerning the future?
Let’s remember that God’s greatest promise is Jesus and salvation through Jesus.
Appendix A: Is Genesis 3:15 a messianic promise?
You may wonder why I haven’t included Genesis 3:15 as the original messianic promise. God’s judgment of the serpent after mankind sinned was, “14So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, “Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. 15 And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:14-15).
This has been called the Protoevangelium, which means the first announcement of the gospel. It has also been called the first messianic prophecy. In this interpretation, the serpent represents Satan and the offspring of the woman represents Jesus. Jesus’ death and resurrection secures victory over Satan which will be finalized when Satan is thrown into the lake of burning sulfur for eternity (Rev. 20:2, 10).
I haven’t mentioned Genesis 3:15 in this post because:
– I can’t see any direct reference to the statement in Genesis 3:15 anywhere else in the Bible. However, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom. 16:20) could be an indirect reference. This verse seems to be saying that believers will share in Christ’s victory over Satan. According to the NET Bible, “Rom 16:20 may echo Genesis 3:15 but it does not use any of the specific language of Genesis 3:15 in the Septuagint [the earliest Greek translation of the Old Testament]. Paul uses the imagery of God soon crushing Satan’s head under the feet of the church. If Paul were interpreting Genesis 3:15, he is not seeing it as culminating in and limited to Jesus defeating Satan via the crucifixion and resurrection, but extending beyond that”.
– According to the NET Bible, “Many Christian theologians (going back to Irenaeus) understand v. 15 as the so-called protevangelium, supposedly prophesying Christ’s victory over Satan (see W. Witfall, “Genesis 3:15 – a Protevangelium?” CBQ 36 : 361-65; and R. A. Martin, “The Earliest Messianic Interpretation of Genesis 3:15,” JBL 84 : 425-27). In this allegorical approach, the woman’s offspring is initially Cain, then the whole human race, and ultimately Jesus Christ, the offspring (Hebrew “seed”) of the woman (see Gal. 4:4). The offspring of the serpent includes the evil powers and demons of the spirit world, as well as those humans who are in the kingdom of darkness (see Jn. 8:44). According to this view, the passage gives the first hint of the gospel. Satan delivers a crippling blow to the Seed of the woman (Jesus), who in turn delivers a fatal blow to the Serpent (first defeating him through the death and resurrection [1 Cor. 15:55-57] and then destroying him in the judgment [Rev. 12:7-9; 20:7-10]). However, the grammatical structure of Genesis 3:15b does not suggest this view. The repetition of the verb “attack,” as well as the word order, suggests mutual hostility is being depicted, not the defeat of the serpent. If the serpent’s defeat were being portrayed, it is odd that the alleged description of his death comes first in the sentence. If he has already been crushed by the woman’s “Seed,” how can he bruise his heel? To sustain the allegorical view, v. 15b must be translated in one of the following ways: “he will crush your head, even though you attack his heel” (in which case the second clause is concessive) or “he will crush your head as you attack his heel” (the clauses, both of which place the subject before the verb, may indicate synchronic action)”.
So, Genesis 3:15 isn’t included in this post as the original messianic promise because its meaning isn’t as clear or as robust as the other promises.
Appendix B: Application of biblical promises
As a result of the findings under “Today’s meaning of ancient promises”, when we read a promise in the Bible, let’s be careful to note:
– The context. Read the chapters and paragraphs of the Bible that describe the context in which the promise was given. Who was it written to? Did they live under the old covenant or the new one? How did they understand the promise? For example, “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chron. 7:14) was a promise to the nation of Israel. Under the old covenant, there was a direct correspondence between their obedience and their prosperity, and their disobedience and their hardship (Dt. 28). If they disobey, they will be judged. But if they repent, God will rescue them from the judgment. It doesn’t apply to any other nation because God never promised that if a righteous remnant repents and prays for their nation, that the nation will be saved spiritually or be prosperous. And as noted above, the equivalent promise for us is spiritual blessings (not physical ones).
– The conditions. What conditions need to be satisfied to receive the benefits of the promise?
– The fulfilment. Has the promise been partially or totally fulfilled already? Or has it not yet been fulfilled? Read subsequent portions of the Bible.
– History. Is the promise explained in subsequent portions of the Bible?
Written, January 2019
Also see: God’s great and precious promises
In part 2 of this evaluation of the NIV 2011 Bible, we assess a statement by an independent New Testament scholar. In order to avoid duplication, points already made in Part 1 of this series will not be repeated.
Dr Rodney Decker is Professor of New Testament and Greek at Baptist Bible Seminary in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania. This is a conservative Bible college which serves a (theologically) conservative constituency. He teaches courses in New Testament (NT) Greek language and NT textual criticism.
Rodney Decker has a doctorate in NT Theology from Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Minnesota USA. His 1998 doctorate dissertation was titled, “Temporal Deixis of the Greek Verb in the Gospel of Mark in Light of Verbal Aspect”. He is the author of numerous journal articles on linguistic, exegetical (explanatory, expository), and theological topics and has written text books on Koine Greek, which is the original language of the New Testament. Rod holds a complementarian position where men and women have complementary roles that include male leadership in the home and in the church (as Paul’s instructions on men and women were intended for all times and cultures), whereas egalitarians believe that men do not have the sole rights as leaders in the home or church (as Paul’s instructions on men and women were intended only for his time and culture).
Further information on Rod’s activities is available on his website: NT Resources.
Assessment of evaluation done by Dr. Rodney Decker
“An Evaluation of the 2011 Edition of the New International Version” (Themelios 36, 3, 415-456) was published in November 2011.
Decker explains the two general approaches to translation – “formal equivalence” (attempts to reproduce the word order, grammar and syntax of the donor language as closely as possible in the receptor language, with minimal changes for intelligibility) and “functional equivalence” (attempts to accurately communicate the same meaning in the receptor language, while it may relax the form of the source language). All translations include both formal and functional equivalents to a certain degree. The NIV balances both approaches, whereas the ESV and HCSB are more “formal” and the NLT more “functional” on the translation spectrum. Every translation, including the most formal, makes many substantial revisions to the form of the source language.
Decker explains that an update of the NIV Bible was necessary because “our language has changed”. With regard to changes in the NIV 2011 in English usage, advances in scholarship, and improved clarity, he agrees that most of these changes are “very good ones that contribute to understanding the Word of God in English”.
Changes related to gender language
If a translation intends to communicate in contemporary English, then that translation is fully justified to make changes that reflect current usage. The change in English usage of gender language was determined by a study based on the Collins Bank of English—a 4.4 billion-word database of English usage worldwide based on both print and audio recordings. This is the first time that such an objective approach has been used in Bible translation. For example, of the current terms referring to both men and women, about 70% use “people” or “human” and about 15% use “man” or “mankind”.
The principle involved in the NIV 2011, as is the case with a number of other evangelical translations (e.g., ESV, HCSB, NET, NLT), is that wording in the source language that is not gender specific should not become gender specific in the receptor language. In this respect, the receptor language for a passage should match the donor language. If one is addressed to men and women then so should the other. Likewise, of one is addressed to men (or women), then so should the other.
Seven guidelines were used to revise gender language in the NIV 2011. Decker lists these and gives some examples using NT passages. In all cases he is in agreement with the approach adopted by the translators.
Decker did a sample comparison between the NIV 1984 and the NIV 2011 using the book of 2 Timothy. Some of the changes he found are given below.
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference / Note|
|ignoble||common||2 Tim. 2:20
|weak-willed||gullible||2 Tim. 3:6
|forefathers||ancestors||2 Tim. 1:3
|reliable men||reliable people||2 Tim. 2:2
|workman||worker||2 Tim. 2:15
|a man||those who||2 Tim. 2:21; 3:13
|the man of God||the servant of God||2 Tim. 3:17
|the servant of God||the brothers and sisters||2 Tim. 4:21
He didn’t think that any of these seven gender changes are controversial. However, he did identify three potentially controversial passages.
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference
|I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servanta of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me.||I commend to you our sister, Phoebe, a deacona of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.||Romans 16:1-2|
|a Or deaconess||a Or servant|
Whether one objects to this translation, will probably depend on how deacons function in their church. The NIV 2011 has reversed the text and marginal translations that were found in the NIV 1984. In this case Decker prefers the NIV 1984. Of the changes in 12,000 verses between 1984 and 2011 (most of them are minor), this is the only one that Decker quotes where he prefers the 1984 version. Whether a technical term (“benefactor”) is used in this verse or a general descriptive (“great help”) is probably a minor matter.
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference|
|Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.||Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding amonga the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.||Romans 16:7|
|aOr are esteemed by|
In Greek only a difference of accent distinguishes between Junias (male) and Junia (female) and accents were not part of the original text. There are arguments for either accent pattern. Contemporary NT scholarship appears to favor the feminine form, but it is not certain.
The issue is not with Junia being a woman, which seems likely, but the nature of the statement made about her. Decker provides evidence that it may have been better if NIV 2011 had reversed the text and marginal readings, though including the alternative reading is an improvement over the NIV 1984.
1 Timothy 2:12
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference
|I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.||I do not permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.||1 Timothy 2:12|
The Translators’ Notes explain the reasoning behind this change as follows. Much debate has surrounded the meaning of the rare Greek word authentein … The exercise of authority that Paul was forbidding was one that women inappropriately assumed, but whether that referred to all forms of authority over men in church or only certain forms in certain contexts is up to the individual interpreter to decide. “Assume authority” leaves the question open … until we discover more conclusive evidence.
Decker states that from a translation perspective, this position is defensible. Given the uncertainty in meaning, it is most appropriate for a translation not to decide the issue. Instead, one’s conclusions regarding this text must come not from one word but from the immediate context, Paul’s teaching elsewhere, and a biblical theology of the subject.
It is a translation that allows multiple interpretations (“assume” may be read in either a positive or negative sense), but that may be a wise choice in this case. Those who want to proof-text certain positions (whether that position is valid or not) may not be happy, but we must be honest with the text and acknowledge that this is an issue that must be resolved on a much broader basis. He also states that this is not a feminist-driven translation choice.
Changes related to “Messianic” texts
Decker looked at the most commonly cited example of changes related to “Messianic” texts, the use of Psalm 8 in Hebrews 2.
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference|
|What is man that you are mindful of him,||What is mankind that you are mindful of them,||Psalm 8:4|
|the son of man that you care for him?||human beings that you care for them?a|
|5You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings||5You have made thema a little lower than the angels||Psalm 8:5|
|and crowned him with glory and honor.||and crowned thema with glory and honor.|
|a 4 Or what is a human being that you are mindful of him, a son of man that you care for him?|
|a 5 Or him|
This is a typological OT text that does not specifically prophesy Messiah directly but that the NT identifies as typological in relation to Jesus.
Decker thinks that the NIV 2011 more accurately reflects this text than the NIV 1984 and other similar translations. When Psalm 8 is interpreted on its own (without reading any NT use back into the OT text) the psalm refers only to human beings. This is the original meaning – what it meant to the original readers and hearers. The point of the psalm is that even though humans are puny beings in comparison with God, we are God’s special creations with privilege and responsibility to rule over the rest of creation (v. 5-8). Both “man” and “son of man” refer to the human race, not to any specific person. As such, using English plural pronouns (“them”) following them is appropriate. There is no hint here of anything Messianic. If we had only Psalm 8, we would never suspect that it had any relevance to Jesus.
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference|
|But there is a place where someone has testified:||But there is a place where someone has testified:||Hebrews 2:6|
|“What is man that you are mindful of him,||“What is mankind that you are mindful of them,|
|the son of man that you care for him?||a son of man that you care for him?|
|7You made him a little lower than the angels;||7You made them a little lower than the angels;||Hebrews 2:7|
|you crowned him with glory and honor||you crowned them with glory and honor|
|8and put everything under his feet.”||8and put everything under their feet.”b||Hebrews 2:8|
|In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him.9But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.||In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them.9But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.||Hebrews 2:8b-9|
|b 7,8 Or 7You made him a little lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor 8and put everything under his feet.”|
Hebrews 2:6-8 quotes Psalm 8:4-6. Once again it’s all about human beings, although “at present we do not see everything subject to them” (v.8b). The dominion over the rest of creation given to humans has never been properly administered. This problem is solved in v.9 where Jesus is introduced as the One who became human to fulfil the typology of Ps 8 – He will demonstrate this dominion in His coming kingdom. The incarnation began demonstrating how someone who is fully human should and will exercise the dominion God intended.
This means there is nothing obscured in the NIV 2011 version of Psalm 8. A generic reference for humanity is thus valid for Psalm 8:4-8 and Hebrews 2:5-8. Only in Hebrews 2:9 does the reference become Christological and singular, and at that point the NIV 2011 is perfectly clear.
The NIV 2011 more often explicitly represents the conjunctions compared with the NIV 1984, which often left them untranslated for reasons of English style (see Rom. 1:16). Also some passages that have been debated and for which there are multiple options have been left open (see Rom. 1:17). Decker thinks most of these of changes are improvements that contribute to understanding the Bible in English.
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference|
|I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God||For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God||Romans 1:16|
|For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed||For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed||Romans 1:17|
In Part 1 of this series, it was noted that the Greek word “sarx” was usually translated as “the flesh” in the NIV 2011 instead of “the sinful nature” as in the NIV 1984. Although this was because “sarx” can mean either part or all of the human body or the human being under the power of sin, I expressed some uneasiness about this change. Decker thinks that this change encourages some people to think of the physical body as sinful and is inclined to think the earlier choice was better in many cases, but “sarx” does not always have the same meaning. However, “sinful nature” remains in Romans 7:18, 25.
Decker also evaluated the NIV 2011 in terms of its accuracy, clarity, naturalness, and appropriateness. He rates it high in terms of accuracy as the meaning is communicated accurately. By taking a mediating position between formal and functional equivalence (though tending closer to the formal end of the spectrum), the NIV 2011 has been able to produce a text that is clearer than many translations, especially those weighted more heavily with formal equivalence. It excels in communicating clearly in the language of the average English-speaking person. By using expressions that a receptor-language speaker would use, the NIV 2011 sounds much more natural than many other translations. Also, it is as well-suited for expository preaching as it is for public reading and use in Bible classes and children’s ministries.
In Decker’s opinion, the NIV 2011 is a usable translation in many situations. It continues the NIV tradition largely unchanged, though improved in many small ways. It is not perfect, but no translation is. Overall, however, it improves an otherwise fine translation. He thinks that many churches would find it helpful in ministry. It is of sufficient quality and accuracy to serve as the primary Bible in the local church, just as was the NIV 1984. So long as one realizes that the purpose of gender accurate language is to accurately reflect the language in the original texts of Scripture, it is hard to fathom objections.
One group of churches that uses the NIV 1984 is of the opinion that if a church began using the NIV 2011 in public reading tomorrow, most congregation members wouldn’t even notice the change.
In this part of an evaluation of the NIV 2011 Bible, the contributions of an independent New Testament scholar, Dr Rodney Decker, have been presented. As Professor of New Testament and Greek at a US Baptist Bible Seminary, Dr Decker has provided expert input on the linguistic aspects of this evaluation including grammar and syntax (the rules that govern the ways in which words combine to form phrases, clauses, and sentences). Dr Decker confirms that the NIV 2011 is an improvement on the NIV 1984.
Written January 2013
See the next article in this series:
– Criticisms of the NIV Bible