Word of the Week
February 19, 2022
Skullō and Rhiptō: Harassed and Helpless
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
Matthew 9:36 NIV
How do you view the masses of people on “the other side” of the political and philosophical chasm that divides our society? When we listen to the rhetoric, we hear descriptions like “warped, morally corrupt, violent, prejudiced, racist, Marxist, bigot, radical.” Both sides paint their opponents as villains, and there is an element of truth in some of these characterizations.
Jesus also knew what it was like to be surrounded by crowds of people who could be described in uncomplimentary ways. He dealt with hypocritical, greedy, arrogant, oppressed, bitter, violent and self-righteous people.
However, He chose to look past the obnoxious features of His audiences and focused on a different side. Matthew 9:36 reports that He looked at them with compassion because he saw their needy condition. Instead of enemies, He saw people who were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
We can learn a lot by examining the two Greek words He used to describe the motley multitude spread out on the hillside before Him.
First, He saw people who were “harassed” or “distressed.” The Greek word is skullō, which appears 4 times in the New Testament.
In classical Greek, it originally meant “to flay or skin an animal.” It was then used figuratively to describe the act of molesting or mistreating someone.
In the New Testament, it is a verb that means “to bother someone, to cause trouble for someone, to harass or annoy.”
- Jesus was walking toward the house of Jairus, the synagogue ruler, to heal his sick daughter. But before He arrived, messengers came bearing bad news. “Don’t bother the Teacher any more, because the girl has already died!” (Mark 5:35; Luke 8:49).
- A centurion had asked Jesus to heal his slave who was dangerously ill. As Jesus began to move toward the house, the officer sent friends with a message: “Lord, do not trouble yourself any further by coming all the way to my home. Just say the word and my servant will be healed” (Luke 7:6)
The Lord used this word in a colorful comparison: the people were like sheep without a shepherd. Just as unprotected sheep would be harassed by wolves or other predators, the crowds around Jesus were constantly bothered by the demands of the religious leaders who should have been protecting them. They were suffering from “shepherd abuse.”
Second, Jesus described the people as “helpless, dispirited, dejected, downcast.” The Greek word is rhiptō, which occurs 7 times.
The word literally means “to throw,” and it can be used for various kinds of throwing, depending on the context.
- People brought the sick to Jesus and “dropped them off” for healing (Matthew 15:30).
- A guilty Judas tossed the bag of coins on the temple floor (Matthew 27:5).
- When Jesus cast a demon out of a man, the evil spirit threw the man on the ground as it was leaving (Luke 4:35)
- The Lord warned that anyone who harmed one of His “little ones” should have a millstone hung around his neck and dropped into the sea (Luke 17:2).
- When a mob rioted against the apostle Paul, they threw off their cloaks and tossed dust in the air (Acts 22:23).
- The sailors on Paul’s ship threw the cargo overboard in an attempt to stay afloat in the storm (Acts 27:19).
- Later in the voyage, they dropped four anchors to keep from running on shore (Acts 27:29).
Christ visualized the needy crowds around him like a flock of untended sheep, scattered across the fields as if someone had tossed them at random. Like sheep who have fallen and are unable to right themselves, these people are defeated and hopeless. No wonder the Lord “had compassion on them”!
The people needed help – like a turtle flipped on its back. They can’t right themselves, and their religious leaders are part of the problem, not the solution. That’s why Jesus tells them to ask God to send workers who can look past the objectionable behavior and the senseless opinions to see the desperate hearts underneath.
We can ask God to help us see people through Christ’s eyes.
Word meanings are important, but we can also gain insights by paying attention to the grammar of a verse. In this verse, “harassed” and “helpless” look like simple adjectives in English. However, the Greek words are actually perfect participles. That means each word is based on a verb so that an extra layer of meaning is packed into the phrase.
Participles are hybrid words, with some of the traits of a verb and some traits of an adjective. In this verse, I particularly notice that they are in the perfect tense. The perfect tense normally describes an action that has already been completed, with results that are still in effect now. In other words, the people around Jesus have already gone through harsh treatment. Even if no one is abusing them at the moment, they show the scars of their past suffering.
NOTE: You can learn more about Greek grammar by registering for the Greek Grammar course that will be available beginning in April. Join me for one of the FREE Greek Grammar webinars the week of Mark 21-23. Registration details coming up!
Q – I am corresponding with someone who says that it is legitimate to translate John 1:1 as “the Word was A god,” because that is how it was translated in the Sahidic Coptic translation, which shows what the church believed before the church councils of the third century developed the doctrine of the Trinity. What do you say?
A – This is one of the arguments used by Jehovah’s Witnesses to deny the deity of Christ. It is true that Greek does not have a word for “a” or “an.” Sometimes we have to add those words to make sense of a verse in English translation. However, this is not the best explanation for John 1:1. I’ll give full details in a later article.
The translation in a language like Coptic is interesting, but at most it shows that someone had an alternate translation for John 1:1. We don’t believe the Trinity because a church council in the third century invented the doctrine. The later theologians may have developed the implications of the Trinity in more detail, but we believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit because that is the best explanation of what the New Testament says about God.
Preachers often talk about Greek grammar concepts like “aorist tense,” but there are some common myths that occasionally surface in sermons. Next week we will try to strip away some myths and lay out an accurate picture of the tense.
©Ezra Project 2022