Pagan - More Common Than Uncommon

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Friday, April 19, 2013 0 comments

Editor’s Note: Just a reminder that the purpose of the Worldview Warriors blog is to hopefully generate a lot of thought, learning, and good discussion between each other. Enjoy and please continue to be respectful to one another. Thank you so much!

Isn’t it fascinating how the same exact word can mean two completely different things depending on the tone or context in which it is used? There are many examples of this in the English language and I won’t bore you with them. But I remember first discovering this concept when I was much younger and realized how our family dog responded to the different things that we said. If I wanted to tell him he was being a bad dog and I said it with a smile and tone of happiness, he wouldn’t get the point. He’d probably get excited and think we were going outside to play. The context of my statement was just as important. If I said, “T.J., you’re a bad dog” while running towards the door with a tennis ball and bat in my hand, he’d still be running with me like we’re about to go have some fun.

Context and tone mattered a great deal in the Bible too, especially as they pertain to this week’s word “pagan”. While we certainly can’t read tone, we can and should make every effort to understand the context in which something was said or written. One of the resources I use when studying certain words is William D. Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, which gives its readers the equivalents of certain key Biblical words in their original languages. I was surprised to find that Mounce has a listing for “pagan” in the Old Testament Hebrew language, and even more surprised that he does NOT have a listing for it in the New Testament Greek. Jesus uses the word often, or so I thought. If you use the NIV when reading your Bible, you’ll find the word “pagan” as spoken by Jesus in any one of those passages that Katie mentioned in Monday’s post. So how could a “complete” expository dictionary not have a listing for it? It was time for me to dig a little deeper.

Mounce’s word for “pagan” in the Hebrew is “goy”, which is usually translated “nation”. Ironically, it’s the same word used in Exodus 32:10 when God threatened to destroy the people who had turned their backs on Him in worshipping their golden calf and then make Moses into a great “nation”. The word is used throughout the Old Testament when talking about a political kingdom, but can also refer more generally to people groups, like non-Jews for example. One key Scripture where this delineation jumped out at me is in Deuteronomy 9:4-6. In this passage and the previous chapter, Moses is warning the Israelites not to forget what God did in leading them to the Promised Land or why He did it. To summarize what he says to them, I’ll just tell you that he is warning the people not to think that God is blessing them because of their righteousness, but instead to recognize that it is because of the wickedness of the “nations” in the land that God is driving them out. Along with that warning is the charge to be set apart and different than the “nations”, or pagans, so as not to face the same fate.

Since Mounce does not have a New Testament Greek word for “pagan”, I decided to look up the Greek word translated as such by the NIV in each of the passages Katie’s post referenced. In all 4 of those passages, the Greek word is “ethnos”, which is where we get the English word “ethnicity”. Other translations of those passages use the word “Gentile” instead of “pagan”. But the interesting thing regarding the first 2 of those passages, Matthew 5:45-47 and Matthew 6:6-8, is that right between them Jesus mentions a third group of people – the Greek “hypokrites”, which is simply translated as “hypocrite”. Before Jesus tells the crowd not to be like the pagans, he tells them not to be like the hypocrites (Matthew 6:2,5), who love to give to the needy and pray so that others will see them. The hypocrites in this context are the Pharisees (Jewish teachers) who were very self-righteous. This is awesome! In the Old Testament, Moses simply told the Israelites (God’s chosen people) not to be like the common, pagan nations around them. But then in the New Testament, some members of that very same race Moses was talking TO are now part of the groups of people that Jesus is speaking AGAINST! And this was all because they did not heed Moses’ words, but instead got carried away in their own righteousness and forgot just how desperately they needed a Savior.

There it is, friends, right out in the open in the middle of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. It IS possible for “God’s people” to be grouped in with the pagans. While our context today tells us that pagans are those who don’t follow or worship God, the reality is that the word was originally used to describe those nations which were common. The Israelites in the Old Testament and the Church in the New Testament are urged to be anything but “common”. We are urged to LIVE in such a way, by God’s grace, that sets us apart so that the world will take notice. But the warning is also very clear. If we begin to think that what sets us apart from those “pagans” is our own righteousness, something we’ve earned, or even some ethnic background that makes us favored, then we will be what Jesus refers to as “hypocrites”, and we’ll be just as far from him spiritually as the pagans. So here’s my challenge for you and even for myself: Don’t be a hypocrite, don’t be a pagan, but be a Bible-believing, truth-declaring, love-sharing, life-modeling CHRISTian who is saved by grace through faith!