Given the unique message of the Gospel, ways and means had to be found to validate its truthfulness and accuracy. Paul particularly brings various legal terms to bear on this process, incorporating them into his writings adroitly to encourage confidence in the Messiah Jesus. The cognate terms bebaios, bebaioō, and bebaiōsis are pressed into service to define the nature of this guarantee, both by Paul and the writer to the Hebrews. Occasional usage also occurs in 2 Peter 1 and Mark 16.
The adjective bebaios defines something as solid, firm, steady. Etymologically it is related to the verb bainō, which in the perfect form means “stand or be in place, established.” When applied to friendship, it signifies constancy; if used in connection with an oath, it means it is inviolable; when found in reference to divine words, it can mean immutable. For example, when Philo describes the Law of God given to Moses he declares it to be superior to all other human institutions because it is “firm (bebaia), unshaken (asaleuta), immovable (akradanta),…”1 Similarly Josephus in his response to the attacks of Apion declares that Moses “prepared the [framework of the law] to be preserved most securely (babaiotatēn) for ever.”2 The term confirms that a law or institution or promise/oath is secure and certain. In Romans 4:16 Paul argues that God has made faith the basis of human response to himself “in order that the promise might be secure/firm/guaranteed (bebaian) for all the seed…to those who are of the faith of Abraham.” The writer of Hebrews compares our hope in God to an anchor “firm (asphalē) and secure (bebaian),” embedded in the heavenly sanctuary where Jesus now serves as our High Priest. Philo used these two expressions to describe God himself:
The sure (asphalēs) God is the support and stay, the firmness and stability (bebaiotēs) of all things, imparting as with the impress of a seal to whom He will the power of remaining unshaken.3
Philo was a contemporary of Paul, a Hellenistic Jew living in Alexandria. It is interesting to note how similarly they use this terminology of security, steadfastness and sealing to encourage human confidence in God’s provisions for salvation.
God’s wisdom is “steadfast (bebaiov) and unfailing (asphalēs).”4 Those who pursue wisdom and demonstrate this by keeping wisdom’s laws are assured that “attention to the law is a surety (bebaiōsis) of immortality.”5 When his soul experiences exhaustion, the Psalmist asks God to “keep me steady/established (bebaiōson) in your words.”6
The writer to the Hebrews picks up this sense of God’s total trustworthiness in 6:16. God swore an oath to Abraham that He would bless him (Genesis 22:17). God used Himself as the guarantor for this oath. In doing this God, just like a human person, used an oath to “confirm (eis bebaiōsin) what is said and put an end to all argument.”
The author of 2 Peter 1:16-19 refers to the Transfiguration of Jesus as an event that demonstrates the validity of Jesus and his message, as well as the prior prophecies, as Elijah and Moses joined with Jesus in that extraordinary event. So he rejoices that “we have the word of the prophets made more certain (bebaioteron).” The writer includes himself among the eyewitnesses of this event, seeing the change, observing Elijah and Moses, and hearing God’s voice directly from heaven. This confirms for him that Jesus is truly the one prophesied.
This terminology also has a long history of usage in commercial, taxation, and legal settings. For example, when individuals in the Roman Empire bid for the right to collect taxes, they had to provide some surety to the government that they would reach their quota. Sometimes those who won the auction entered into private agreements with other individuals who served as guarantors (bebaiōtai).7 Twice in Greek Leviticus this terminology is used in this commercial/legal sense. In Leviticus 25:23 Israel is reminded that while they might sell their land, they really have no right to do so because “the land shall not be sold irrevocably (eis bebaiōsis) for the land is mine [Yahweh].” Any such sale cannot be definitive, absolute, or legally guaranteed, because the Israelites were only tenants, not land-owners in Palestine. When one buys a house in a walled city, the prior owner has a year within which to redeem it. After the year has elapsed, “the house that is in a city that has a wall shall be confirmed irrevocably (bebaiōs) to belong to its purchaser, throughout his generations,…”
To what degree this commercial/legal referential sense of ‘guarantee’ should be read in New Testament passages is disputed and must be determined on contextual grounds. For example in the text cited from Wisdom 6:18, is attention to the law a “guarantee” of immorality such that no agent can rob such a person of this treasure? Or in the case of Hebrew 6:16 is God’s oath to be construed as a guarantee, proof against any accusation? When the Psalmist appeals to God for help in the face of his opponents (Psalm 40(41):12) he confesses that God has “secured (ebebaiōsas) me forever.” God will ensure that the Psalmist wins his case and is declared innocent.
When we come to Paul’s letters, we discover him using these terms frequently in various ways. For example, in 1 Corinthians 1:6 he claims that “the witness of Christ has been confirmed (ebebaiōthē) in you.” Presumably this refers to the apostle’s presentation of the Gospel, whose power has been established in the conversion of these people and their formation into the body of Christ. And then two verses later Paul writes (1:8) that Christ himself is the one “who also will keep you secure (bebaiōsei) to the end, free from any charge in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” I think the use of the legal term anegklētous, free from any charge, adds judicial colour to the context. God-in-Christ will confirm our status as innocent in the final judgment. No charge will stick because we are in Christ.
Similarly in the initial chapter of 2 Corinthians Paul again incorporates this language. In v.21 God himself is the one “who makes us together with you secure (bebaiōn) unto Christ and anoints us, who also sets his seal of ownership on us and gives us his Spirit as the guaranteed deposit in our hearts.” God is the agent here, doing all of these things to assure us of our position in Christ. Notice how Paul piles up the terms here that focus our attention on this certain, secure status. This is why his hope for them is secure and firm (bebaia) (1:7). God stands as the guarantor for it all.
Paul also used the noun in Philippians 1:7. He links together his imprisonment, his defense, and the validation of the Gospel, i.e. warranty that the Gospel is valid. I do not think it going too far to suggest that Paul’s successful appeal of the charges can be seen as a legal validation, formal confirmation of the Gospel. He is an apostle, a witness of the Gospel and so how God works through him becomes a confirmation of the Gospel. To the extent that the Philippine believers participate with him, they too contribute to this work of Gospel validation.
- If God is the One Who “affirms” our place in his family, how does He do that?
- If you are struggling with your position in the family of God, then perhaps a text like 2 Corinthians 1:21 can be of great encouragement.
- Is our testimony for Jesus part of the warranty that demonstrates the reality of the Gospel?
- 1Philo, De Vita Mosis, II.14
- 2Josephus, Contra Apionem, II.156
- 3Philo, De Somniis, I. 158
- 4Wisdom of Solomon 7:23
- 5Wisdom of Solomon 6:18
- 6Psalm 118(119):28
- 7S.R. Llewelyn, editor. New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity. Volume Eight (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 50-51 (specifically footnote 19).