Harry Whittaker
Word Studies


Give Up the Ghost

There is a perhaps excusable practice of substituting “Holy Spirit” for “Holy Ghost” when reading the King Jam Bible. In its turn this has brought about a similar switch from “gave up the ghost” to “gave up the spirit”, which is not so defensible. Ekpneo is, quite simply, “breath out”, ie “to breathe one’s last (breath)”. “Expire” is the exact (Latin) equivalent. Ekpsucho is, literally, “to out-soul” or “out-life”. To turn this into “give up the spirit” is both inexact and misleading. This practice should stop. Either let us have the good old English, which no congregation misunderstands, or else “expire” (this is perhaps best), or the plain unvarnished “die”.

Gnashing of Teeth

This expressive phrase comes 9 times in the NT and in 8 of them is coup-led with “weeping”. So this is usually taken as an intensive for irremediable uncontrollable sorrow. But no! The one place where “gnashing of teeth” occurs by itself (Acts 7:54) it describes the violent inexpressible anger for and hatred of Stephen shown by his Sanhedrin judges. Then this must be the meaning in the eight gospel descriptions of the anguish of those rejected in the Day of Judgment. “Weeping” certainly means intense sorrow. And in that Day “gnashing of teeth” means anger — with whom? and why? The only pos-sible explanation is: anger with oneself, for having been such a fool as to have within one’s grasp or attainment the “blessed hope” of eternal redemption in Christ. To come so near to this and wilfully to reject it is the most arrant folly a human being is capable of. So here is the nearest that the teaching of Jesus comes to the mediaeval notion of everlasting torment in hell — only, mercifully, it will not be everlasting, for then “the sinner being an hundred years old shall be accursed.” No fate worse than that? (See Psa 112:10.)

The original of Acts 7:54 is almost certainly the eloquent Psalm 37:12 (but see also Job 16:9).


Stenos means “narrow”. It describes a pass shut in between cliffs, or a slim isthmus of land, or an ocean strait (the straits of Gibraltar) joining larger pieces of water. This idea of being shut in has passed into the English words “straitened” and “constraint”. Hence “the strait gate” (Mat 7:13,14).

Similarly, in Greek, stenos has begotten stenazo, groan, and stenagmos, groaning. Always the idea is that of being shut in, under pressure or constraint.

The idea comes out excellently in the angel’s words to Moses: “I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel” (Exo 6:5; Acts 7:34).

Paul appropriates this word to describe his own aspirations to be rid of the spiritual cramping which the “earthly house of this tabernacle” necessarily imposes on the new man in Christ: “For in this (tabernacle) we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon (more completely) with our house which is from heaven (the new creature)” (2Co 5:1,2).

“Groan” becomes a key word in a passage of similar import in Romans 8, where Paul has written about the New Creation waiting expectantly and looking earnestly for “the manifestation of the sons of God”. “The whole (new) creation groaneth and travaileth until now. And not only they (the brethren in general), but ourselves also (the leaders and elders of the ecclesias), which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves.” He goes on to emphasize this: “For we (the leaders) know not what we should pray for (on behalf of others) as is needful (or, necessary): but the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities (these deficiencies of wisdom and spiritual power), making intercession (for our brethren: ‘for us’ is not in the Greek text here) with groanings which it is not possible to utter (apart from the Spirit’s help)” (8:19,23,26).

Read this way, the passage comes down to earth. It is an allusion to the ecclesial leaders having the deficiencies of their mortality, in the guidance of the ecclesias, being made good by Holy Spirit power. Today, although the same inspiration does not operate, the duty to pray for the brethren as individuals is still there, but in general it goes shamefully ignored.

This word “groan” has exactly the same context in Heb 13:17: “...them that have the rule over you...for they watch for your souls...that they may do it with joy, and not with groaning”.

Jam’ exhortation is in contrast with this: “Grudge (groan) not one against another, brethren, lest ye be condemned” (5:9). Not this, but “groaning” in prayer on behalf of one another.

The one occasion when this word is used about Jesus is in his healing of the man who was deaf and almost dumb (Mar 7:34). In this miracle, and on hardly any other occasion, Jesus looked up to heaven and “sighed”, groaned. This doubtless was the offering of a special prayer. But why in this miracle and not in so many others? Because the Lord saw this deaf and dumb man as a figure of his chosen disciples who were spiritually like that, and making little progress. So the prayer was not just for the man, but also for a miracle of hearing and speech to be wrought on his disciples. From this point of view the miracle makes sense. It was an acted parable.

In the next chapter a more intensive form of this word is used regarding Jesus (8:12). Pharisees pressed him for a sign from heaven. They knew they had a good attacking gambit here: “You say John was the promised Elijah prophet of Malachi 4 and yourself the Messiah? But when the first Elijah handed over to his greater successor there was a sign from heaven — the cherubim of glory. Then to prove your claims, give us the same sign! We’ve had enough of these trifling miracles of healing. Let the chariots of Israel appear, with the horsemen thereof.”

And indeed at a word Jesus could have given the sign they demanded. But instead he offered a heart-felt prayer for patience with these soul-less faithless men (lit.: he up-groaned in his spirit), and then abruptly he left them.

There is another word twice translated “groan”, in the account of the raising of Lazarus. “Jesus groaned in his spirit, and was troubled” (John 11:33); “therefore again groaning in himself Jesus cometh to the grave” (v 38). Clearly the translators have read these two passages as expressions of the intense grief of Jesus because of the death of Lazarus and the bereavement suffered by Martha and Mary.

But embrimaomai suggests indignation and even anger. It is a word to describe the snorting of a horse (very onomatopoetic!) or the roaring of a lion. This is certainly the idea when disciples “murmured” at Mary for her anointing of Jesus (Mar 14:5). No grief here, but only indignation. And in the only LXX occurrences (Lam 2:6; Dan 11:30) this is certainly the meaning. So also in quite a few places in the versions of Aquila and Symmachus: eg Jer 10:10; 15:17; Psa 76:7.

Then why should Jesus be filled with indignation at the graveside of his friend. The context suggests anger at the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders who “wept” along with the two sisters, and in the next moment indulged in sarcasm and criticism: “Behold how he loved him!...Could not this man...have caused that even this man (one so sick) should not have died?” (John 11:36,37). Jesus did well to be angry!

So also in connection with two other miracles. With both the leper (Mar 1:43) and the two blind men (Mat 9:30) Jesus “straitly charged” (embrimaomai) that no one should be told. There is an intriguing picture here of the compassion of the Lord fighting a battle with his mistrust of human nature. Against his better judgment he healed them, and paid for it, for in both instances he was flagrantly disobeyed. The question as to why Jesus was so anxious in these instances to avoid publicity is another problem, not to be entered on here.

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