Minutes With Messiah Logo

The Dreaded Grammar

by Tim O'Hearn

Most people don’t like studying grammar. Even those of us who call out those who use improper grammar don’t necessarily like studying it. After all, most of the grammar of our native language was learned through speaking it rather than studying it. English grammar is simple, though, compared to some other languages. Teachers of biblical Greek, for instance, insist their students have a basic understanding of English grammar because they are going to add onto that when studying Greek. Even English grammar can get complicated at times. Take the genitive case. (OK, so you never heard of the genitive case. It is probably the second most used case, next only to the nominative, which you may not have heard of either.) In English, the genitive case is mostly the possessive case. It indicates ownership, such as “the boy’s dog” or “the dog of the boy.” In Latin and Greek, however, one web site lists nine separate uses of the genitive, including possession. Knowing this we can wonder about the meanings of certain passages of the Bible that sometimes we thought were pretty straightforward.

Four phrases in particular stand out. “The day of the Lord.” “The angel of the Lord.” “The gift of the Holy Spirit.” “The gifts of the Spirit.”

The phrase “the day of the Lord” appears 23 times in the Bible, including 6 times in the New Testament. (Two of those are quotations from the prophets.) This phrase is distinct from “the Lord’s day” in Revelation 1:10, which probably refers to the Sabbath and not Sunday as it is commonly used today. The day of the Lord almost always refers to a day of judgement. Thus it is not a possessive, but a descriptive genitive. It is similar to the phrase “day of salvation.” The day of the Lord doesn’t just belong to the Lord; every day does. Instead it is a day in which the Lord’s presence is the most telling characteristic. It is a day in which the Lord will dispense judgement.

A little more complex is the phrase “the angel of the Lord.” Does the angel belong to the Lord? Is the source of the angel the Lord? Or is the angel actually the Lord? All three are possibilities. The first is least likely because it implies that the Lord uses one angel to communicate to man. Most often, he does use Gabriel, but this phrase is never used to describe Gabriel. The context of the phrase may sometimes imply that the angel came from God, but even these contexts are ambiguous. Perhaps the clearest is that of the burning bush. In Exodus 3:2 “the angel of the Lord appeared to him [Moses] in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush.” Two verses later, “God called to him out of the bush.” In Acts 7, Stephen recounts the incident, saying “the angel of the Lord” was in the bush, but God called to him out of the bush. It is not definitive, but it appears that most times the phrase is used it means the angel which is God himself.

Peter promised those who would be baptized would receive “the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38) Some, apparently mistakenly, confuse this with the “gifts” Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 12-14. (Actually, Paul never uses the phrase “gifts of the Spirit”, but people today do.) Both use the genitive form “of the Spirit,” but they appear to have two different meanings. In the letter to the Corinthians, Paul specifically uses the plural word, gifts. These gifts have as their source the Holy Spirit. There are several gifts, but one Spirit. The gifts are given “by the same Spirit.” Thus, “of the Spirit” is a genitive of source; the various gifts come from the Spirit. Peter’s use of the “gift of the Holy Spirit” is distinctively singular. There is one Spirit and one gift. This is what grammarians call an “appositive genitive.” It could as easily be rendered “you shall receive the gift, the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit is the gift itself. That Spirit may or may not grant one or more of several gifts. The promise that many people miss is not the ability to speak in languages one has not learned in the normal way (the least of the gifts), or miraculous knowledge, or interpretation of languages. The promise to every Christian is the Holy Spirit living in us. “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” (1 Cor 6:19)