Taking time each day to read the Bible can help us grow spiritually, and experience God’s love. Truth? I am sometimes tempted to skip this spiritual practice or hurry through it, because I think I’ve read it before. I’ve been reading the Bible since childhood–and for me, that’s a long time! But when I slow down, and take time to really dig into overly familiar words, I’m often surprised to learn something new. The word might not mean what I think it means at first glance. It might not mean what other people have told me it means. The Bible was not written originally in English, so our understanding can sometimes be blurred by time, tradition and translation. Here are three words whose true meaning might surprise you.
In Genesis 2:18, God sees that Adam is alone. Everything else in creation up to that point has been declared good, but God says that aloneness is “not good.” So he creates a helper or help suitable for Adam.
The word translated “helper” or “help” is ezer. Many dictionaries define ezer simply as “one who helps.” But how does an ezer help? As a child helps a parent, or as a parent helps a child? As a secretary or administrative assistant helps the boss (this was the meaning I was taught growing up in the church)? Or as a shepherd helps his sheep?
In almost every other occurrence in the Bible, the word ezer is used to describe the help we receive from God. And this is not the gentle, nurturing side of God (although that obviously exists). Rather, it is the strong, warrior side of God. For example, in Deuteronomy 33:29, we read, “Blessed are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the Lord? He is your shield and helper (ezer) and your glorious sword.” This military imagery gives us a clue to the meaning of ezer: a strong warrior who aids and protects.
This is the word God used to describe Eve—a warrior to stand beside Adam. Someone who helps in the way God does. In almost every other instance, ezer refers to God. In Exodus 18:4, Moses names his son Eliezer, which means God is my helper; in 1 Samuel 7:12, Samuel sets up a stone for an altar and names it Ebenezer, which means stone of help.
In these and all of those other instances, it describes the help God gives to his people. Likewise, God created men and women to stand together, in what Carolyn Custis James calls a “blessed alliance” and work together as partners.
Jesus frequently used fruit as a metaphor (the vine and the branches, the parable of the sower, etc.). Fruit is not just the product of a tree but a metaphor for our lives.
How do we know if we are living fruitful lives? The fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) is described as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Notice the verse does not say the “fruits are” of the Spirit, but “fruit is.” These words describe characteristics that are all true of a Spirit-led life (in much the same way that words like crunchy, sweet, round, red might describe the fruit of an apple tree.)
The fruit, or result, of the Spirit working in our lives is that we become not just some but all of these things: more loving, more patient, more faithful, and so forth. This verse is not a to-do list for us to work on, but a description of the transformation that occurs when God’s Spirit begins to work in us. When we remain open to that work, cooperating with it, hearing and retaining God’s word, fruit will result. We will be transformed and become agents of transformation in the world.
In Jesus’ parables and in Paul’s description of the fruit of the Spirit, there is an underlying tension about the miracle of growth—we cannot force ourselves to grow, but we can cooperate with God to create the right conditions for growth in our lives.
Jesus told his followers, “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28–30).
It might seem a contradiction or paradox. A yoke, used to harness beasts of burden to pull a plow or wagon, was easy? How can a burden be light, especially to someone who is already burdened? But Jesus’ listeners would have heard this in a very different way.
First, the Greek word zugos, translated “yoke,” comes from the root zeugnumi, to join, especially by a yoke. Zugos also means a beam of balance, which connected scales. A zugos connected two things together. So to take on Christ’s yoke is to be linked with him, to have his help, rather than shouldering burdens alone.
Second, those listening to Jesus had recently heard him criticize the Pharisees because of the burdens they put on people. A few chapters earlier, Jesus had told his followers that they should obey the law, but not act like Pharisees, because “they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matt. 23:3–4). Jesus was contrasting his yoke—summed up by “love God and love others”—with the repressive and hypocritical one of the Pharisees.
Third, Jesus was a Jewish rabbi, whose goal was to teach people how to live out God’s law. According to some scholars, the term “yoke” was often used to describe a rabbi’s specific interpretation or teaching on the Torah. Jesus, with his frequent “you’ve heard it said…but I tell you…” style of teaching, was likely telling people how his yoke differed from that of other rabbis, teachers, or traditions. Taking on a rabbi’s yoke was a common way of saying that you followed the teachings and interpretations of that rabbi. And that is exactly what Jesus invites us to do.
Adapted from 99 Bible Words You Should Know: Increase Your Bible Knowledge in Less Than 5 Minutes Per Day–New Testament Edition and Deeper Into the Word: Old Testament: Reflections on 100 Words from the Old Testament by Keri Wyatt Kent. Learn more about Keri’s books and speaking ministry at www.keriwyattkent.com.