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The Power of a “So” (John 13:4)

It is a well-known fact that Greek sentences tend to be longer than English, and therefore a translator will regularly turn a long Greek sentence into two of more English sentences.

The problem with this is that often the connection between the two English sentences will lose some meaning. In other words, the Greek will convey meaning that the English does not.

I came across a great example of this today in the NIV of John 13:4. This is the beginning of the Upper Room Discourse. V 4 reads, “so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.” You can look in vain for a Greek word behind the “so,” and you will not find it. A lack of humility could lead a person to condemn the NIV for adding in a word, but the word is in the Greek (in a sense), and is essential to the meaning of the passage.

The full paragraph reads, “2 The evening meal was in progress (Καὶ δείπνου γινομένου), and the devil had already prompted (τοῦ διαβόλου ἤδη βεβληκότος) Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. 3 Jesus knew that (εἰδὼς ὅτι) the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up (ἐγείρεται) from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.”

Verses 2–4 are one Greek sentence, which the NIV breaks into two, with the important use of a semi-colon. What you have is a simple genitive absolute, followed by a more complex genitive absolute, a participial phrase with two ὅτι clauses, and finally you arrive at the main verb, ἐγείρεται.

The grammar is critical. The reason that Jesus was willing to get up and take the role of a servant was precisely because he had all power, he knew where he came from, and he knew where he was going. It was that knowledge (among other things, no doubt), that allowed him to set aside any pride and arrogance and to serve the disciples.

So do you know where the “so” comes from in the NIV? By breaking the Greek into multiple sentences, they were running the risk of losing the connection between these three points and Jesus’ action. The semi-colon and the “so” help the reader make the connection with the preceding. (The HCSB and NLT also use “So” but without the semi-colon.)

The ESV uses two sentences, but puts the breaks in different locations. “During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist.” The first sentence is painfully long and difficult to parse, but at least it does keep the three points connected to the main action.

The NET does the best job, I think. “Because Jesus knew that the Father had handed all things over to him, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, he got up from the meal, removed his outer clothes, took a towel and tied it around himself.”

Since Jesus is doing this to set an example for us, I think is is fair to say that the same applies to us. We don’t have all authority, and while we have not come from God we certainly are headed to him (I am writing to true followers). But think about what holds us back form serving our brothers and sisters. Pride. Arrogance. A sense of our own self-importance. Defining ourselves by what we do (or don’t do). Anger. Guilt. Thinking we are better than others. Not caring for the other person, and hence not living out the Greatest Commandment. Not joyfully putting the needs of others ahead of our own (Piper’s definition of love). Not willingly to disadvantage ourselves to advantage others (Bruce Waltke’s formulation of the heart of Proverbs).

However you state it, many of us struggle to truly serve others. But I wonder if we really knew who we were in Christ, if we defined ourselves in relationship to God and not our achievements, and if we tapped into the power of the Holy Spirit, I suspect more of us would be on our hands and knees serving, sacrificially, lovingly.

I am grateful for the NIV’s “so.”