One of the beauties of knowing Greek is that you get to see nuances of meaning that are often lost in translation. It’s not that the translators don’t see the meaning; it’s that they simply cannot bring it over smoothly into English.
A prime example is the many ways Greek can state a prohibition, each with its own nuance in terms of aspect, and sometimes a nuance of strength. There is quite a bit of difference between saying “No” and saying “Absolutely not!”
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus starts with laying out his basic understanding of what it means to be one of his followers. This is the role of Beatitudes, and the salt and light teaching stresses that a Beatitude-type person will be different from and in conflict with the world.
Jesus then turns to the relationship between a Beatitude person and the Jewish leaders. The key verse is 5:20. The ESV translates, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter (οὐ μὴ εἰσέλθητε) the kingdom of heaven.” οὐ μὴ and the aorist subjunctive form an emphatic negation. Pretty strong words.
But it is the “never” that causes the problem. Never? It is true that if a person’s righteousness never surpasses that of the Pharisees and scribes, they will never enter the kingdom. But that is not actually the thrust of the construction.
οὐ μὴ and the aorist subjunctive places its emphasis not on the issue of time (“never”) but rather on the certainty of the truth. This is why the NIV’s “you will certainly not enter” is superior.
As long as a person’s righteousness is no deeper than that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, it is absolutely impossible that they will even enter God’s kingdom. Yes, it is an issue of nuance, but it is an issue meaning.
I forget where I read this (probably Stott), but Jesus is calling for “deep obedience.” He does not want more religious activity. This is the answer of the Pharisees and many “religious” people who go to church buildings today. What Jesus requires is a deep obedience that originates deep inside a person’s being, in their new heart of flesh given by the Spirit, and out of that heart springs forth into action. Without that, a person should be absolutely convinced that no amount of religious activity will amount to a hill of beans in Jesus’ eyes.
I wonder how many people who attend church buildings today have fallen into the same trap as first century Judaism of thinking that all God requires are certain spiritual markers, and have made issues of the heart secondary or non-essential?
I wonder how v 20 squares with the idea that if you have raised the hand and said the magical “sinner’s prayer,” that nothing else must happen?
Actually, I don’t wonder.
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and is the general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV. Learn more and visit Bill's blog (co-authored with scholar and his father Bob Mounce) at www.billmounce.com.