Since coming to America I’ve realized more and more that the USA and the UK are, as George Bernard Shaw allegedly said, “Two nations divided by a common language.”

But sometimes it feels like I’m learning a foreign language. (More than once I’ve been asked, “What language do they speak in England?” or “What is your first language?”). Sometimes it’s just spelling: not colour, but color. Sometimes it’s a matter of emphasis: not gar-age, but gar-age. Sometimes it’s pronunciation: not tom-ah-to but tom-ay-to. But sometimes it’s a completely new word I’ve had to learn for the same thing: not trousers, but pants; not biscuits, but cookies; not pavement, but sidewalk, etc. I could persist in using my old vocabulary, but it does not get me very far, and can result in some confusing conversations. So, I must learn this country’s vocabulary to improve both my understanding and my ability to communicate (without losing my valuable accent, hopefully!).

This is also true for all of us when we try to understand and communicate the Gospel. How do we understand the theological words, phrases and concepts of the New Testament? Do we consult, Merriam Webster’s, OED, etc? If so, we will import 21st century Western meaning into ancient Eastern words, confusing ourselves and others.

Where, then, do we turn? While we may get some light from Greek lexicons, our main dictionary should be the Old Testament. When we come to a word, phrase, or concept in the New Testament, our first question should be, “What does the Old Testament say about this?” Remember, the New Testament was originally written by Jews, and much of it was written to Jews. It assumes a knowledge of the Old Testament, and builds upon it. Let me demonstrate what this means if we are presenting Christ in His three-fold offices of prophet, priest and king.  

1. If you say “prophet” to most people today, they will think of a fortune teller, someone who predicts the future – usually for money. However, if we turn to the Old Testament, we find that while a prophet sometimes told the future, his main task was to explain and apply God’s existing Word to people. He was to be a forth-teller, more than a fore-teller. Thus, when Christ is presented in the New Testament as THE prophet, we should not be looking for new revelations and predictions of the future (although there are some of these), but explanations and applications of God’s existing Word.

2. “Priest” makes most people think of Roman Catholic priests. In the past, with less media scrutiny, they were thought of as some kind of detached, perfectly holy, super-spiritual order of beings. Today, with the never-ending media revelations, many people hear the word “priest” and think “hypocrite” or “abuser.” However, Old Testament priests were to be ordinary men who could sympathize and identify with sinners. They were not dressed in pompous royal clothing, but rather in white linen, often spattered with the blood of sacrifices. They were to be filled with love for needy souls. If we want to present Christ as a sympathetic and trustworthy high priest then we need to turn people away from their ideas of modern priesthood and toward the Old Testament model of priesthood.

3. For most people a “King” is someone who is above the law. They can do what they like without consequence. They live lives of unbridled luxury. They often oppress the innocent and befriend the evil. The Old Testament, though, presents the king as someone under God’s authority, someone who was answerable to God, someone who was accountable for the way they related to God and the people, and someone who was to represent God to the people. That view of kingship will transform our view of Christ’s kingship.

If we use the Old Testament as a dictionary of Christian vocabulary, we are much less likely to get confused in our understanding and communication.

  • Scott@fb

    Wait until you go south of the Mason-Dixon line and have to deal with grits, lagniappe, and ACC college basketball fans (Dook, Wuffies, etc).Of course, I’ve learned some strange new words from listening to UK preachers like gurn and boffin.Just in case: You season grits with salt and butter to make them taste good. If they’re unseasoned, they’re awful.

  • Scott@fb

    Oh, that reminds me, I was reading a reprint of an old magazine from Radio Missions and encountered a new word: Colportage, the distribution of tracts. I’ve never seen that word before.

  • Nancy

    Thank you for this interesting summary. This is a great reminder to make sure that we’re speaking the same language when sharing the gospel (eg. Christ as our Priest!).Still, the language differential will vary from culture to culture. For many Canadians, “King” (or Queen) is quite a positive term (lots of monarchists still around, I’m happy to say).