Paul’s description of pastoral and member care responsibilities in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-14 includes two related, but distinct terms paramuthein1 and makrothumein (5:14). Paul used the verb makrothumein (2x) and its cognate noun makrothumia (10x) twelve times in his writings, but it has wider usage in the New Testament.2 The noun occurs across the whole range of his letters, from his earliest to the latest. As well, the verb or noun is found occasionally in Matthew, Luke, Hebrews, James and 2 Peter.
While the evidence does not indicate that this term was created by the translators of the Greek Old Testament, if first appears in extent Greek literature at the beginning of the third century B.C., when the Books of Moses were being rendered into Greek. The adjective makrothumos glossed the Hebrew compound formation literally translated as “long of anger”, with the sense that it takes a while for anger to generate effect. Traditional English translations have rendered this as “slow to anger” (cf. Exodus 34:6), used both in the King James Version and the New International Version.3 The Greek compound makrothumia etymologically has the same elements –“long in becoming angry or impassioned.” Within the Greek translation of the Pentateuch, the adjective only occurs twice and in both contexts it defined an essential characteristic of Yahweh (Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18). In Exodus Yahweh describes himself as “The Lord, the Lord God is compassionate and merciful, patient (makrothumos) and very merciful and truthful….”4 When Moses intercedes for Israel in Numbers 14:18 he appeals to Yahweh’s self-disclosure to him (“The Lord is longsuffering (makrothumos) and very merciful and true….”),5 but note that in this context it stands first in the list of such divine traits. These two affirmations become fundamental, confessional assertions about Yahweh, repeatedly referenced within Judaism (cf. Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 7:11(12); 85(86):15; 102(103):8; 144(145):8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Nahum 1:3).6
This divine quality created problems for some Old Testament writers, such as the author of Jonah. The prophet says he tried to flee and not carry out his divine mission precisely because he knew Yahweh was “merciful and compassionate, long-suffering (makrothumos ) and very merciful” (4:2). Jonah wanted Nineveh punished and so his flight to Tarshish was his strategy to void the opportunity for repentance that God was giving to Nineveh because God was “long-suffering.” In Nahum 1:1-7 there is a play on words between the reality of Yahweh’s wrath (thumos) and his “long-suffering” character (makrothumos).
Yahweh is “long-suffering” when his own covenant people sinfully rebel, but this does not cancel all punishment. Some in Israel die due to their rebellious transgression, even though Yahweh remains “long-suffering.” On occasion Yahweh’s “long-suffering” character leads the pious who are suffering at the hands of wicked people to wonder whether relief will ever arrive (Psalm 85(86):14-17), as they look for “a sign of good” from him.
A transfer occurs between the character of Yahweh and the character of those who live in obedience to Yahweh in that they too are expected to be “long-suffering” with respect to other people. The translator of Proverbs (16:32) states that “a man who is slow to anger (makrothumos) is better than the mighty; and he who controls his temper better than one who captures a city.”7 We discover in Proverbs 17:27 that “a patient man (makrothumos) is sensible.”8 In his advice to monarchs, the writer of Proverbs urges that “with patience (makrothumia) a king has a safe journey.”9 Similar ideas are promoted in the Wisdom of Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus as it traditionally is called). For example, the trials of a pious person are compared to the refining of gold and such a person is urged “in the vicissitudes of your humiliation be patient (makrothumēson).”10 Alternatively the righteous person should “with a lowly person be patient (makrothumēson) and do not make him wait for charity.”11 Conversely (35:22-23) those who are unmerciful towards the widow or the orphan, God “will never be patient (makrothumēsei) regarding them, until he crushes the loins of unmerciful persons.”12 The Israelite who lives faithfully within the covenant with Yahweh will demonstrate “long-suffering” in his relationships with other humans just as Yahweh does. The pious person who understands Yahweh’s patience will not take undue advantage of God (Sirach 5:4): “Do not say, ‘I sinned, and what has happened to me?’ For the Lord is longsuffering (makrothumos).”13 One should not act presumptuously. God’s patience, i.e. long-suffering in waiting for humans to respond to him, should not be interpreted as inability or unwillingness to exact vengeance.
The Jewish historian, Josephus, used this term occasionally. In a speech that the Roman general, Titus, gave to the Roman troops, he urged his soldiers not to be discouraged by “the longsuffering (makrothumia) of the Jews and their fortitude in adversity.”14 Here the sense is more akin to endurance, than patience, referencing the Jewish soldiers’ willingness to endure great hardship in order to gain victory. Similarly Roman troops are characterized in the same manner by the writer of 1 Maccabees 8:4, who explains how the Roman army subjected Spain and “how they prevailed over the whole place by their strategy and patience (makrothumia),…”15 In these contexts the term has the sense of “putting up with hardships.”
In the teaching of Jesus this terminology occurs in two different parables. In Matthew 18:26,29 Jesus responds to Peter’s question about the extent to which Jesus expects his followers to forgive. He told the story of the unforgiving slave whose master forgave his enormous debt. And then that slave turns around and refuses to forgive his fellow-slave who owes him a comparatively paltry sum. On the one hand, the slave appealed to his master’s “long-suffering” nature: “be patient (makrothumēson) with me,” he pleaded. On the other hand, when his fellow-slave made the same appeal to him (v.29), using exactly the same words, the slave refused. Jesus condemned that slave. Jesus expected that his followers, who had experienced the long-suffering forgiveness of God, should in turn be ready to extend that long-suffering forgiveness to other humans. The second occurrence (Luke 18:7) is found in the parable of the widow and the unjust judge. Jesus concludes by assuring his followers that God, unlike the unjust judge, will exact vengeance on behalf of his “elect who cry out to him day and night.” Thus far most is clear. It is the last part of v.7 that has generated immense discussion as to Jesus’ intended meaning.16 The respective translations in the KJV (“though he bear long with them”), NIV (“Will he keep putting them off?”), and ESV (“Will he delay long over them”), indicate the difficulties with the use of makrothumei in this text. Given the linkage between vengeance and “long-suffering”, similar to what occurs in the Old Testament, I would suspect that Jesus intends to comfort his followers by assuring them that justice will be done and that God will not persist in his long-suffering attitude to the evildoers. As v.8 indicates, “he will avenge them speedily” (KJV).
Several contexts affirm that God is “long-suffering.” 1 Peter 3:20 describes “the longsuffering of God in the days of Noah,” when God waited to exercise judgment until Noah and his family were safely in the ark. God endured human sin, letting the building of the ark be a constant testimony to coming judgment and allowing time for repentance. In 2 Peter 3:9,15 the writer wrestles with the delay of Jesus’ return. He assures his readers that this delay expresses God’s patience (makrothumei), because he desires none to perish (3:9). In fact this very longsuffering (makrothumian) “means salvation” (3:15 NIV). Here the focus is upon God’s mercy and willingness to endure human recalcitrance anticipating that at some point repentance may still occur.
In the Epistle to the Hebrews 6:12,15 Abraham is cited as an example of a believer who patiently waited (makrothumēsas) for the promises, even though he did not experience them completely in his lifetime. The writer’s audience is urged to imitate the examples of those “who through faith and patience (makrothumias) inherit what has been promised” (Hebrews 6:12). James similarly urges those who read his letter to be patient (makrothumēsate), like the farmer awaits the maturation of his crops, for the return of Jesus Christ (James 5:7-8). He continues a few verses later to draw their attention to the long-suffering (makrothumias) of the prophets in the midst of suffering (5:10). Job then comes into the picture as a model of endurance (here James used a different, but related word that stresses more the idea of perseverance in the face of difficult circumstances (5:11)).
Within Paul’s letters we discern two distinctive applications of this terminology. First, as in the Old Testament, he praised God for his long-suffering attitude towards human wickedness. In Romans 2:4 Paul urges unbelievers not to treat with contempt the “riches of God’s kindness, forbearance and patience (makrothumias),” which should lead to repentance. They should not interpret the delay in judgment as God’s lack of concern over human sin, his inability to hold humans accountability, or his capricious mis-application of his own divine standards. He comes back to this theme in Romans 9:22, but in this case the reason his gives for God’s significant long-suffering patience (en pollēi makrothumiai) is so that at the right time he can act to bring judgment upon the wicked, i.e. “vessels of wrath.” Paul, as Peter was in 2 Peter 3, desires to defend God’s reputation against human misconstrual of this divine long-suffering. Finally, Paul testifies that he personally has benefited from divine long-suffering. In 1 Timothy 1:16 Paul reflects upon his conversion after several years of zealous persecution of Jesus’ followers. He recognizes that Jesus used him to demonstrate a Messianic pattern or example of total long-suffering (tēn hapasan makrothumian) that would encourage others to repent and believe.
The second usage extends this characteristic of God to followers of Jesus Christ. For example, among the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22 we discover “peace, long-suffering (makrothumia), kindness.” In his wonderful definition of love (1 Corinthians 13:4) Paul asserts that “love is patient (makrothumei).” A comprehensive profile of a believer is given in Ephesians 4:2 where Paul claims that a Christian will “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient (makrothumias), bearing with one another in love.” Similarly in Colossians 3:12 he describes God’s chosen people as those who “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience (makrothumian).” He goes so far as to say that servants of Christ will be evident because they demonstrate “purity, understanding, patience (en makrothumia) and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love;…” In these various contexts Paul clusters various, but similar, terms that define the shape of Jesus’ followers and prominent among them all is “long-suffering.”
Teaching and encouraging believers to exhibit this shape through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit forms a critical part of the pastoral advice that mature believers share with other believers. In 1 Thessalonians 5:14 Paul urges the Christians (he calls them “brothers”) to “be patient (makrothumeite) towards all.” Presumably Paul’s perspective is that believers need to give other believers (and perhaps unbelievers, note his application to “all people”) space and time to grow in their obedience to Jesus or understanding of the Gospel. Just as Jesus is patient with people, so his followers must also be with one another and with non-believers as well. We have to be prepared to teach, exhort, and love one another with great patience. Note how Paul stressed this in 2 Timothy 4:2. Preaching and teaching, which includes exhortation, correction and rebuke must proceed “with great patience (en pasei makrothumiai ) and careful instruction.” Paul emphasizes that this “long-suffering” attitude must be total (pasei) and comprehensive. He commends that Timothy model what Paul himself was disciplined to demonstrate in his own leadership (2 Timothy 3:12 — “my purpose, my faith, my patience (makrothumiai), my love, my endurance”).
“Long-suffering” is not merely a self-generated discipline; it is something that the Holy Spirit enables a believer to develop and express, an evidence in other words of the Spirit’s presence. It describes a believer’s ability to persevere in very difficult circumstances because he or she knows that this is God’s desire and will result in God’s glory. Within the Christian church “long-suffering” becomes an important part of “body-life,” an outcome of true agape and the necessary foundation for a constant mutual ministry. It is evident where humility, gentleness, kindness and love flourish. When it is absent, a Jesus follower is unable truly to reflect the image of Christ. For those whose vocation is involved in church life, makrothumia, the ministry of patience, becomes an essential part of spiritual leadership, because it helps us express the very heart of God for his people.
- In what situations or relationships is the Holy Spirit requiring you to exercise and demonstrate a “long-suffering” attitude? What hinders your ability “to keep in step with the Spirit” in this situation?
- If “long-suffering” is key to effective spiritual leadership, what has to change in your leadership “style” such that makrothumia becomes an integral element in all of its diverse expressions?
- 1A study of this verb will be found in Internet Moments #106.
- 2Verb: Matt. 18:26,29; Luke 18:7; 1 Cor. 13:4; 1 Thess. 5:14; Heb. 6:15; James 5:7(2x),8; 2 Peter 3:9; Noun: Rom.2:4; 9:22; 2 Cor. 6:6; Gal. 5:22; Eph. 4:2; Col. 1:11; 3:12; 1 Tim. 1:16; 2 Tim. 3:10; 4:2; Heb. 6:12; James 5:10; 2 Peter 3:15.
- 3The proposed revision to the NIV retains this equivalency.
- 4A. Pietersma and B.Wright, ed., A New English Translation of the Septuagint (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007): 76.
- 5Ibid., 122.
- 6In each of these texts (except for Psalm 7:11(12) where the Greek translation adds this epithet) the Hebrew equivalent is the same as found in Exodus 34:6.
- 7A New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS), 636.
- 9Ibid., 644.
- 10Ibid., 721.
- 11Ibid., 743.
- 12Ibid., 748.
- 13Ibid., 723.
- 14Josephus, Bellum VI, 37. The Jewish writer Philo did not use this terminology.
- 15NETS, 490.
- 16Darrell Bock, Luke 9:51—24:53 Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996), 1452-1454, cites twelve different interpretations.