35. The Importance of a Comma! (Ephesians 4:12)

In the ancient Greek manuscripts punctuation marks are few or non-existent. Paragraph markers do occur in some texts. So in our modern English translations punctuation is as much a matter of interpretation as the rendering of specific words. For example, in Mark 1:24 the response of the demon-possessed man to Jesus in the Capernaum synagogue may be either a question (“Have you come to destroy us?”) or an accusatory statement (“You have come to destroy us!”). English translations differ on which option they select, but the punctuation you choose determines the interpretation intended.

In the last several decades the concept of ministry as being the responsibility of every person in the church and not the singular responsibility of the paid clergy has gained strong support. In large part this philosophy of ministry is based upon a reading of Ephesians 4:12 and the placement of the commas. Let me illustrate. In the King James Translation we read:

And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ. (Eph. 4:11-12)

The placement of the comma after the word “saints” in verse 12 suggests that it is the ministry leadership in the church that is responsible for three activities: “perfecting the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” This understanding of the text fit well with the conceptions of the church that operated in the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries.

More recent English translations present a different punctuation. The New International Version, for example, omits that comma and renders these verses as:

It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…”

While there are other translation choices that affect the wording, the major translation decision is that “works of service” are the proper responsibility of God’s people and the ministry leadership serves to equip them for these tasks. Thus the comma comes after ‘service’, not ‘saints.

The placement of this comma makes a significant difference in terms of our ecclesiology and the primary role that ministry leadership plays in the local assembly.

The noun that Paul chooses (katartismos – preparation or perfecting) has the general sense of preparing or adapting for the purpose of achieving a specific goal. This is the only context in which the noun occurs in the New Testament. The cognate verb (katartizein) describes the mending of fish nets. Paul uses the verb in 1 Thessalonians 3:10 to pray that God “will mend the deficiencies (fill in the gaps) in your faith”. It also occurs in Galatians 6:1 where Paul urges those who are led by the Spirit to “set right (restore, reclaim) a person who is taken in a fault”. In secular Greek the noun sometimes occurs in medical contexts, to describe the setting of broken bones so that they might be restored to health. But even with all of the modern discoveries of papyri today, no parallel to the metaphorical usage of this noun has been found, as Paul uses it in Ephesians 4:12.

In the Ephesian context Paul immediately adds into the mix the metaphor of the physical body’s coordinated function – joints and sinews working together and exercised for proper functioning. Perhaps then part of Paul’s reason for choosing katartismos to describe the “preparation of the holy ones for the work of service” resides in the medical connotations of bodily restoration for healthy functioning. As the holy ones are prepared, they are restored to the point where they can contribute to the healthy growth and functioning of Christ’s body. The preparation is both restorative and equipping.

How does this preparation occur? Perhaps Paul indicates this in Ephesians 4:20ff where he talks about “learning the Messiah, hearing him and being taught in him”. The Christian community is a place of learning where people discover “the truth as it is in Jesus”. The metaphor of armour in Ephesians 6:10ff again emphasizes the kinds of things the holy ones need to learn in order to be God’s warriors in the spiritual struggle – truth, righteousness, Gospel of peace, faith, salvation, the Spirit (i.e. word of God), prayer, etc. Earlier Paul has prayed that they might “know the length, width, height and depth of Jesus’ love”, as well as to have “the eyes of their hearts illuminated” to perceive fully the nature of the hope contained in their calling, their glorious inheritance, and God’s great power at work in them (Ephesians 1:18ff).

The curriculum for preparing God’s holy ones for practical and spiritual service is explained and defined throughout Ephesians. In 2 Timothy 3:17 Paul urges Timothy to be focused in the “God-breathed scripture” so that “the man of God may be adequate (artios), equipped (exertismenos) for every good work” (NASB).

Application: as you reflect upon God’s word today,

  1. as a ministry leader how are you achieving this part of your calling – the preparation of holy ones for work of service? How intentional are you in achieving this goal?
  2. Do you consider others in the church your ministry partners? How is this demonstrated?
  3. To be a ‘teaching shepherd’ (pastor and teacher) brings significant responsibility. What do you do to maintain your spiritual focus on this task?

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