Gnesios: Family Resemblance

Word of the Week

August 5, 2023

Gnēsios: Family Resemblance


To Timothy, my true son in the faith:

1 Timothy 1:2 NASB2020


Our daughter lives in Japan and every time we visit her, we get the same reaction when Japanese people see Mom and daughter side by side:  “Same – same!”  They instantly notice the family resemblance.

It’s natural, of course.  They share the same DNA so you would expect to see similarities.  Your kids have their father’s ears or their mother’s nose.  They may even share some personality traits like exuberance or calmness.

We see something very similar when we observe the interplay between the apostle Paul and his younger coworkers. They had no physical connection, but there was a spiritual link that enabled Paul to claim them as legitimate offspring.  He opened letters to both Timothy and Titus by calling them “my true son.”  In both cases, he used an unusual Greek word for “true,” one that reveals the deep, intimate relationship that they enjoyed.

He chose the Greek word gnēsios, which occurs 4 times in the New Testament, usually translated as “true, genuine.”  Other more common words for “true” were available for use, so we can ask, “Why did Paul pick this word?”

In secular Greek, gnēsios was used to describe a child who was your legitimate physical offspring, not an adopted or illegitimate child. A gnēsios child inherited physical traits from both parents, with full legal rights as a member of the family.

The apostle Paul was unmarried.  He had no children, as far as we know, so we can be confident that he was using a broader definition when he called someone his “true son.”  He was talking about spiritual sonship, not physical.  He even added the phrase “in the faith” to explain what kind of sonship he meant.

To Timothy, my true son in the faith (1 Timothy 1:2)

To Titus, my true son in a common faith (Titus 1:4)

He used the term similarly to describe an unnamed coworker in Philippians 4:3:

Indeed, true companion, I ask you also, help these women who have shared my struggle in the cause   of the gospel.

These men may not have borne any physical resemblance to Paul, but they undoubtedly demonstrated that his teaching and example had worn off on them. There was a clear “family resemblance” in their commitment to the faith that Paul taught.  They had internalized the same values and priorities that motivated him.

Paul and these men had a loving commitment to each other, just like a father and his sons. The apostle was deeply invested in his proteges, guiding them as they matured in leadership, carrying on the work he had started.

And just as the gnēsios son of a physical father shared in the family inheritance, Timothy and Titus enjoyed a share in the inheritance which God has promised to all His children (see Colossians 1:12).

Two other New Testament passages offer us a further look at this word group:

  • When Paul wrote to Corinth encouraging them to give generously to an offering for needy believers in Judea, he made it clear that he wasn’t forcing them to donate. Instead, he was giving them an opportunity to demonstrate how genuine their love was )2 Corinthians 8:8).  Their generous gift would spring from their spiritual DNA, the overflow of a heart of giving.
  • The word occurs one more time in a description of Timothy. Paul told the believers in Philippi that he was sending Timothy to them because he was one of those rare people who was “of kindred spirit, who will genuinely be concerned for your welfare” (Philippians 2:20).  He had inherited this deep, unselfish love from his spiritual father Paul.

 Gnēsios reminds us that we are children of God who have received a new nature.  As Jesus said, we been “born again” (John 3:3) so that we bear our Father’s nature within us.  Christ teaches us to “put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Ephesians 4:24).  We don’t paste on good deeds in an attempt to earn a place in His family.  As “true children” of the Lord, we grow more and more like Christ as we live up to our true identity as His beloved children.


Study Hint:

What do you do when you study a word that is not discussed at length in your Greek study tools?  The next step is to examine all the verses where it appears in the New Testament.  What if it doesn’t appear often in the New Testament?  Just do all the normal steps of a word study, even if you don’t discover a long list of deep insights.  Then meditate on the facts that you do discover, even if it is a short list.  That’s what I did for this week’s study, focusing on the lessons we can learn from the concept of a legitimate child with all that it entails.



Q – What does it mean when the New Testament says that an elder must be “the husband of one wife”?

A – This phrase occurs in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, leading off the list of qualifications for an elder.  The Greek word translated “husband” can also mean “man,” and the word for “wife” can also mean “woman.”  “Husband of one wife” is an accurate rendering, and it clearly outlaws polygamy.  There has been much discussion about its application to divorce, singleness, and other possible situations, and I believe it can be helpful to consider the alternate translation:  “a one-woman man.”  This serves as a description of a man who is clearly and loyally devoted to one woman: his wife.  Even a man who is legally married to one woman might not qualify as an elder if he is known for his interest in flirting with other women.  I recognize that many questions remain unanswered, but I personally find it helpful to start with this insight.


Coming Up

Next week we are going to find out what it takes to be a leader in the church.  Do you have to be perfect?  We will look at the Greek word that sets the tone for selecting a leader.

©Ezra Project 2023

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