Is Strong Language Ever Appropriate? Are Our Best Efforts Actually σκύβαλον skýbalon/rubbish/poop?! #287 #theoneaboutcrap
Happy Friday to you, dear friends! Only 3.5 days until my wife, Lord willing, returns from the deep south and the adult to child ratio in the home is back to a more healthy 2-5, rather than the most terrifying 1-5 ratio that we are at now. If anybody has any robot wives or robot enforcer/security guards that I could borrow for the next few days, that would be awesome.
Today’s readings include 1 Kings 12, Psalms 94, Ezekiel 42 and Philippians 3. If Bible chapters were college football teams (which is a sentence that has never been uttered in all of human history), I feel like Philippians 3 would be like an Ohio State, or Oklahoma – maybe not the very best of all time, but always a contender and loaded with amazingness from top to bottom. We’ll focus on this chapter today, and there are any number of verses and concepts that are worthy of our attention. For today, we’ll focus on one particular verse – really on one particular word. You might think that today’s discussion is about strong language, or Bible translation, or vocabulary, but keep listening, because we are going much deeper than that. In talking about all of those things, we are REALLY going to be talking about how our best efforts fail to measure up and how the wonders of this world don’t compare with our future in Christ. Don’t get lost in the weeds.
Let’s talk for a minute about strong language, because the Bible has a LOT of strong language. I’m not talking about swearing/cussing, and I’m not talking about foul language, but language that is like a cup of cold water to the face, or a stinging slap, or sitting down on a sharp needle. There are many Christians who wince and totally avoid such language, and I think that is appropriate for the most part – if you utilize strong language every day, it eventually becomes commonplace and loses its power. But is it ever appropriate and right to use strong and offensive language? Consider these verse from the Bible, and let’s see if that helps us with our decision:
Strong Language in the Bible:
- 3 “Look, I am going to rebuke your descendants, and I will spread animal waste over your faces, the waste from your festival sacrifices, and you will be taken away with it.“- Malachi 2:3
- “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?” Matthew 12:34
- Bold and arrogant, these men are not afraid to slander celestial beings…these men blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish. … They will be paid back with harm for the harm they have done. … They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed—an accursed brood! … Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud” Selections from 2nd Peter 2.
- “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread he will live forever. The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”52 At that, the Jews argued among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life in yourselves.” John 6:51-53
I could go on and on, because there are a myriad examples of strong language in the Bible, but the above suffices to make the point, and today’s chapter in Philippians will underline it. So let’s read Philippians 3, looking out for a strong and potentially offensive phrase AND, more importantly, don’t get lost in the strong word, but in the strong POINT that is being made.
Did you hear the offensive word? I’ll bet you didn’t, and the reason why is interesting. Let me read the pertinent passage again, and I’ll give you a hint – the word begins with an ‘R’ and ends with a ‘bish’
7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
The word in question is ‘rubbish,’ but honestly, that is a very, very sanitized and watered down translation, and I’m not sure how I feel about that, because Paul is making a very, very strong point that doesn’t sound nearly as strong when the word ‘rubbish’ is used. There is a saying among those who translate the Bible and other documents: “Traduttore traditore,” which is an Italian phrase that means, translator, traitor, and I think this is a case where it applies, at least to a degree. Translation is a difficult task, and most modern Bible translations are excellent in conveying the original meaning and sense of the Bible documents, but I would rate this translation of the Greek word “σκύβαλον skýbalon” to ‘rubbish,’ as “needs improvement,” for a very simple reason: Paul’s word is much stronger than rubbish. I learned early in marriage that when my wife asks me how her outfit looks, or how a meal tastes, to say “fine,” is to fail to convey something positive. ‘Fine’ is not a very strong word – it means fair, adequate, or ok…and that is not how one wishes to describe his wife’s cooking or outfit. If I send one of the kids to tell my wife that she looks amazing, and that child goes and tells my wife, “dad says you look okay tonight,” then that child has failed to deliver an accurate message. If Paul writes that he counts all things as σκύβαλον skýbalon compared to the monumental joy and wonder of knowing Christ, and a translator waters that word down to ‘rubbish’ or ‘refuse,’ then I believe we might have come very close to failing to properly translate the verse. It is easy to see why the translators might be having a hard time…because Paul is using an offensive word (to some) here in this passage. The Greek word σκύβαλον skýbalon basically means ‘feces,’ or poop, and like many words for waste, there is a spectrum of offense in most languages that describe that word. New Testament Greek scholar Dan Wallace – an extremely biblical and conservative Bible scholar, discusses σκύβαλον skýbalon here:
In Phil 3:8, the best translation of σκύβαλα seems clearly to be from the first group of definitions. The term conveys both revulsion and worthlessness in this context. In hellenistic Greek it seems to stand somewhere between “crap” and “s***.” However, due to English sensibilities, and considering the readership (Christians), a softer term such as “dung” is most appropriate. The NET Bible, along with a few other translations, grasp the connotations here, while most modern translations only see the term as implying worthlessness. But Paul’s view of his former life is odious to him, as ours should be to us. The best translation, therefore, is one that picks up both worthlessness and revulsion, and probably a certain shock value.
So – strong language, and not the only time Paul uses strong language. You might recall from Galatians that Paul wished those who were combining works/circumcision with salvation by grace through faith would go ahead and castrate themselves – which is another instance of incredibly strong language. Why so strong Paul? If he was here, I’ll bet he would say that he used strong language (not foul, not swearing!) to express a very strong truth: ALL of his righteousness that he recounts in the first few verses was not sufficient to save him – they are dung, crap, utter and disgusting garbage, even though Paul’s good works and righteousness was actually very, very strong compared to the average human…and that’s exactly his point. As zealous and righteous as he was, all of that amounted to dung – in another place he writes that all of our righteousness adds up to nothing more than filthy rags, and I am being polite using that translation…another instance of passionate and strong language. Paul wants us to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that good works can’t save us, being good can’t save us, only Christ can save us – by grace, through faith. When we are saved, our previous accomplishments are worthless compared to the glories that await because of Christ. Let’s close with Martyn Lloyd Jones thinking through this passage:
God is not interested in the clothing, the outward appearance. He is interested in the heart and in how well we meet His demands. God does not ask how much good you have done. He says, “Have you loved Me with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength?” In the Old Testament He puts it like this: “All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6). Saul of Tarsus, who thought he had clothed himself in very beautiful garments and had amassed a great mound of righteousness as a Pharisee, came to see that his goodness was nothing but dung and refuse. All this talk about goodness and all that we are doing is vile, refuse in the sight of God. Self-righteousness is foul because it is self-centered and lacks the most glorious element of holiness and beauty and self-abnegation and forgetfulness of self.
I cannot atone for my sin. “How should man be just with God?” (Job 9:2). “Who shall dwell in thy holy hill?” (Psa. 15:1). Who can dwell with the Lord, with burning fire? These are the great questions. And it is because men and women know nothing about these things that they reject this miraculous, supernatural Gospel. For this reason they are complete and total failures. They cannot change themselves, they cannot fight sin, they cannot deal with the devil, they cannot deal with death, they have nothing to say before the Lord God.
And the last reason men and women reject the Gospel is because they do not realize what it has to offer them. They do not know because they are not interested in knowing; they have not seen the need. They think the Gospel is an exhortation or a kind of glorified socialism or pacifism. But that is not the Gospel, which is proved by the Old Testament where we read that God gave people a law, saying that if they kept it, it would save them. But they could not keep it.
As for the idea that the Gospel is glorified socialism or pacifism, consider the teaching of the New Testament. You who think you can put yourself right and stand before God, have you ever read the Sermon the Mount? That is how you have to live. You say you are going to imitate Jesus of Nazareth, but have you ever considered what He was like? Have you ever looked at His life? Have you ever looked at His actions? If Jesus of Nazareth only came into this world to teach, to tell me what to do, and to give me an example, then He damns me more than anything else I have ever heard of. The Ten Commandments are bad enough, but Jesus Christ’s example! I am utterly undone. If I have to live like that to save myself and to stand before God, I am already in hell. I know nothing that so condemns me as the person and life of Jesus of Nazareth.
But blessed be the name of God, that is not the Gospel. What has that sort of teaching got to offer to failures? Look at your modern moral people, living their “good lives,” as they say. What do they have to give to someone in the gutter? What do they have to give to someone who has sinned away chastity, purity, and honesty? What do they have to give to people who have lost their character? Nothing, nothing at all, absolutely nothing. Thank God that is not the Gospel. This is the Gospel, this that was preached by the apostles in the beginning. Our Lord Himself began to preach it, the apostles continued preaching it, and it was verified by the powers that were given to them.
What is this Gospel? Oh, this is the glorious thing. It is a Gospel that tells us that every one of our needs has been met, every problem has been solved, and it has all been done in this blessed person, Jesus of Nazareth. Who is He? A man? No, the God-man, God the Son who came into this world, two natures in one person. He is not only a man. He is a man, but he is God in the flesh: “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). He took on our nature. He faced our problems. He stood with us. He asked to be baptized when He had no need to be baptized, putting Himself alongside us. He met the four enemies—the four final problems. And He never sinned, never disobeyed any single commandment. He lived a perfect life.
David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “Human Need and God’s Provision,” in Courageous Christianity, 1st U.S. ed., vol. 2, Studies in the Book of Acts (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), 267–269.