People often use shorthand or catchphrases to say more than the individual words themselves would normally mean.
When my wife, Renee, smiles and says, “Remember — oxygen,” I know she’s encouraging me to take a break in the conversation with our family members or friends. They almost never catch what’s just happened, but I do!
Conversely, when I smile and say, “You may want to write it all down,” Renee knows I’m encouraging her to think through the details before asking me to endorse her latest plan. She smiles back and marital bliss continues to reign.
Similarly, the Apostle Paul uses shorthand phrases within almost all of his epistles. Typically, he tells his readers a core truth and then uses one or more keywords to refer back to that core truth — without spelling it all out again.
If we know to look for Paul’s shorthand phrases within a given epistle, we’ll have more fun reading them. And we’ll much more quickly be able to answer the common questions about “what does Paul mean by this word (or phrase)?”
Let’s look at three examples.
1. The Day
In 1 Corinthians 3:12-13, Paul writes, “If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light.”
What does Paul mean by “the Day”?
This is a classic example of a shorthand phrase. Paul uses it 16 times — in Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and 2 Thessalonians. It appears eight more times in Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, and 1 John. That’s a lot!
Let’s focus back again on 1 Corinthians alone to answer “the Day” question raised above. We find the core truth early: “As you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will also keep you firm to the end so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:7-8).
In other words, “the Day” refers to the return, revelation, and second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ for judgment. That judgment includes punishment for the persistently evil and wicked. More importantly, it includes the culmination of salvation and rewards for God’s people.
What a Day it will be. It should energize us!
2. In the Spirit
In Ephesians 6:18, Paul says, “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.”
What does Paul mean by “in the Spirit”?
This is another classic shorthand phrase used 18 times in the New Testament. Paul uses it six times in Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. It’s used a dozen more times in Luke, John, Hebrews, 1 Peter, Jude, and Revelation.
Unlike “the Day,” which appears dozens of times from Isaiah to Malachi, “in the Spirit” doesn’t appear even once in the whole Old Testament. It’s a decidedly New Testament core truth.
Let’s focus back again on Ephesians alone to answer the “in the Spirit” question raised above. This time around, we find the core truth near the middle of the epistle: “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being” (Ephesians 3:16).
It quickly becomes apparent that Ephesians 6:18 can be understood to mean, “And pray with the power of the Holy Spirit within you on all occasions…”
Praying “in the Spirit” isn’t boring. Instead, it’s electric!
3. The Inheritance
In Colossians 3:23-24 (ESV), Paul says, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.”
What does Paul mean by “the inheritance”?
This is a third classic shorthand phrase used 18 times in the New Testament. Paul uses it seven times in Galatians, Ephesians, and Colossians. It is also used in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts, as well as Hebrews and 1 Peter.
The word “inheritance” appears a couple of hundred times from Genesis to Malachi. Typically, it refers either
1. To personal inheritance.
2. To clan, tribe, or national inheritance from God sometimes known as the Promised Land.
3. To God Himself as His people’s ultimate and ideal inheritance.
The latter had special meaning not only for the Levites but also for God’s other faithful men, women, and youth.
Nowhere in the Old Testament, however, does “inheritance” mean what the Apostle Paul means.
Let’s focus back again on Colossians alone to answer “the inheritance” question raised above. We find the core truth early: “Giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He [the Father] has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:12-13).
It quickly becomes apparent that Colossians 3:23-24 can be understood to mean, “...you will receive, as your reward, the inheritance of the saints of light in the kingdom of God’s beloved Son. You are serving God’s beloved Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
What a thrilling reward to enjoy for all eternity!
Never forget: If you look for Paul’s shorthand phrases within a given epistle, you’ll have more fun reading them. And you’ll much more quickly be able to answer: “What does Paul mean by this word (or phrase)?”
Always be sure to look for the core truth earlier in that epistle. If you read slowly and carefully, you’ll spot it in a single re-reading. Enjoy!
For further reading:
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/efks
The late David Sanford’s book and Bible projects were published by Zondervan, Tyndale, Thomas Nelson, Doubleday, Barbour, and Amazon. His latest book was Life Map Devotional for Men published concurrently with his wife Renee’s book, Life Map Devotional for Women.
The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Salem Web Network and Salem Media Group.
These verses serve as a source of renewal for the mind and restoration for the heart by reinforcing the notion that, while human weakness is inevitable, God's strength is always available to uplift, guide, and empower us.
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