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Half-Empty — Half-Full


“Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, To God our Savior, who alone is wise, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever. Amen.” —Jude 24, 25 (NKJV)

We are all familiar with the illustration of a partial glass of water and the question, “Is the glass half empty or half full?" The answer depends upon a person's attitude, worldview, and experiences that have shaped whether an optimistic or pessimistic response. The conundrum of the water in the glass is replicated many times in a person's life. Knowingly or unknowingly, most decisions in life are, to some extent, influenced by one's general attitude or worldview, which is based upon a multitude of life experiences.

This ambiguity of the glass is also reflected in our interpretation of the Bible. How we read and interpret the Bible is based upon prior experience with the book; most notably with the God of the book and who we believe Him to be. Is this God a capricious, vengeful, genocidal sadist? Or is this God a kind, loving compassionate, forbearing, and forgiving Father?

Words are often ambiguous in the same way, with double meanings that have the potential to create misunderstanding. Homonyms can play interesting mind tricks based on context and usage. As an example, in the September 2019 issue of Adventist Journey, the first paragraph in the first article entitled “Listen, Get Involved, Make a Difference” printed the following: “. . . church pews were hauled out of the Life Adventist church in Berkeley; and lightning [sic] tresses, [sic] cameras, stage furniture, and 165 folding chairs were hauled in.” I immediately thought of an electrical storm coming out of someone’s hair, but then realized that the sixth letter in “lightning” and the third letter in “tresses” had changed the meaning of the original intention of "lighting trusses." This is a ridiculous example of how seemingly small errors by a writer and a reader creates a filter for a concept that was never intended.

In Matthew 5:48, there is a Greek word “teleios” whose meaning is ambiguous and can be interpreted as either a command or a promise. Bible translators have had to decide which way to emphasize Jesus' statement. Translating the text into English, leaving it just as ambiguous as the original Greek is difficult, and perhaps some translators did not even recognize the issue. Additionally, all translators have a worldview and prior concept of God that could have easily helped them make their translation choice, which becomes the first filter on the intended meaning. Similarly, as we read the verse, our previous assumptions provide a second filter that can obscure the intention of the verse. A third filter that also can have an impact on our understanding is the choice of Bible version, which can — knowingly or unknowingly — hide the original intention of the word “teleios” as either “perfect” or “mature.”

However, the context of the text itself indicates a problem. The word "Therefore" is an essential clue as to the meaning of the text. "Therefore" is introducing a concluding statement summarizing what has come before. Previous examples of God’s “maturity-perfection” in Matthew 5 are: be a light to others, don’t worry about your food or clothing, reconcile differences with others, control your thoughts and what you look at, keep your marriage vows, be generous and kind to those who would take advantage of you, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you; that you may be sons [and daughters] of your Father in heaven. 

Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.” —Matthew 5:48 (CEB)

“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” —Matthew 5:48 (MSG)

Is Matthew 5:48 half-empty (a command) or half-full (a promise)? Ultimately, the answer comes down to who you believe God is, and not in what others think it means. For every belief we have, each of us must be fully persuaded in our minds because “…each of us shall give account of himself [herself] to God.” —Romans 14:12 (NKJV)

It is your choice; there is no point in trying to make a choice for others.


Dennis Hollingsead works in the Office of Development at Andrews University.

Photo by manu schwendener on Unsplash


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