Word of the Week
April 15, 2023
Kataphroneō: Backward Binoculars
Looking only at Jesus, the originator and perfecter of the faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Hebrews 12:2 NASB20
It’s fun to watch a young child discover binoculars for the first time. The bird in a tree suddenly gets bigger when you look through the eyepieces!
It’s even more fun when they turn the glasses around and look through them backwards. Their eyes get big when they see a massive pickup truck shrink to toy size!
We all suffer from distorted vision at one time or another, looking at something weighty or important and viewing it as something less than it really is.
This issue lies at the core of an important word in the Greek New Testament, one that can help us understand more deeply what Jesus experienced when He died on the cross on that first Good Friday.
The word is kataphroneō (kah-tah-phraw-NEH-oh), and it is usually translated “despise” in the New Testament. That translation can be a little misleading. If I hear someone say, “I despise you!” it sounds as if they are saying something akin to “I hate you!” We use despise as a synonym for “loathe, hate, strongly dislike.”
Our Greek word, however, has a different flavor. The basic idea is to look down on, to disdain or to take lightly. It means to think less of something than it deserves, to disregard it, not giving it the weight or importance that it merits.
Like viewing through binoculars backward, kataphroneō means that you view something or someone as less than they really are.
This kind of mental shrinkage is almost always condemned in the New Testament.
- The disciples of Jesus were tempted to minimize the importance of children, but Jesus warned, “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones.” They may not seem important, but they have angels assigned to them (Matthew 18:10).
- Jesus warned that no one can serve two masters. Why? Because you will inevitably love one and hate the other; you will hold fast to one and despise the other. One will take the central place in your life, and you will put the other master lower in the pecking order (Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13).
- Paul pointed out a theological misjudgment when he asked the Romans why they looked at God’s massive willingness to delay judgment and thought so little of it (Romans 2:4). The Lord was allowing an unbelievable stretch of time for them to repent, and they barely noticed it.
- Trouble was brewing Corinth when the church celebrated the Lord’s Supper. Divisive rivalries had soured their fellowship so much that some people were gorging on lavish meals while others had scarcely a scrap to eat. How could this be? Paul accuses them of despising the church of God. God gave the church as our spiritual family, but these people barely noticed the others in their fellowship (1 Corinthians 11:22).
- Timothy followed Paul in positions of leadership in churches like Ephesus, and he faced problems from church members who undervalued him. The apostle instructed him, “Do not let anyone despise your youth, but be an example” to the believers in every way. You are an apostolic representative, and seasoned leader, and an invaluable resource. Set such a good example that no one will see you as merely a young whipper-snapper (1 Timothy 6:2).
- Peter wrote a warning about false teachers that were plaguing the early church, focusing on the fact that they “despise” They not only fail to see the great weight of authority that human leaders wield, they shrink the supernatural authority of angels to something they can glibly disregard (2 Peter 2:10).
The New Testament only provides one example of a healthy use of kataphroneō.
It’s Hebrews 12:2, where Jesus Himself “despised the shame” of the cross. He was facing something of mammoth size – the shame and humiliation of crucifixion, nailed to a wooden frame with the crowds staring at his battered body, taunting him, gloating at his helplessness. Beyond that, he was carrying the shame of the world’s sin. All of mankind’s betrayal of God rested on his shoulders. Any outside observer would have to acknowledge that it was an unimaginable load.
But Jesus chose to kataphroneo it. Not that he hated it or disliked it, although it’s true that He didn’t like it. But the idea is that he flipped the binoculars and chose to view it as smaller than we would expect. Yes, it was huge. But He was comparing it to the joy that lay before him, the joy of knowing that he would win the victory, provide salvation, defeat Satan’s schemes, and bring countless souls to heaven. Yes, the cross was terrible, but it was small potatoes compared to the glory that lay ahead.
We can follow His example on a much smaller scale. As Paul says “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). In addition, “For momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17). Your biggest burden is much smaller than you thought, viewed in the light of eternity.
Kataphroneō occurs only 9 times in the New Testament. It was common in ancient secular Greek to describe someone acting in a way that showed contempt or disregard. The Old Testament speaks of people who have contempt for God (Hosea 6:7), their father (Genesis 27:12) or mother (Proverbs 23:22) or the ways of the law (Proverbs 19:16).
There is related noun, kataphronētēs, “scoffer, one who shows contempt.” It appears only in Acts 13:41 where Paul quotes Habakkuk 1:5 as a warning not to lightly disregard the gospel of Christ.
Q: Jude 5 says that “the Lord” saved the Jews from Egypt but later destroyed those who did not believe. I understand some translators use the name “Jesus” in this verse. What is right?
A: The issue here is based on the fact that some very old Greek manuscripts say “Jesus” at this spot, while most say “the Lord.” Even the editors of the Greek New Testament had a hard time discerning which name was in the original text. Personally, I lean toward the tradition reading of “the Lord, but it seems appropriate to exercise a little humility and admit that I don’t have the last word on this.
Either wording makes Peter’s point that God brought judgment on sin in the Old Testament, proving that He is able and willing to do it again whenever necessary.
Everything keeps changing so fast! And nothing seems permanent. That’s why I am encouraged to find several things that the New Testament describes as “imperishable.” Next week we will look more closely at this list.
©Ezra Project 2023