Word of the Week
November 20, 2021
Splanchna: Living with Tender Intestines
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.
I’m glad that the ancient Greeks aren’t in charge of the greeting card industry. If they were, we would be sending Valentines Day cards that said, “I love you with all my intestines!”
“I love you with all my heart” sounds much better!
We’re used to the idea that the heart is the seat of our emotions. Of course, we’re talking about much more than the half-pound of muscle that pumps blood through our body. Hooking our emotions to the heart is a figure of speech, a handy kind of verbal shorthand. Your heart may beat faster in the midst of a long kiss, and it will certainly race if you catch sight of a grizzly bear charging toward you!
The Greeks had a different idea. Though they sometimes spoke about the heart, they preferred to describe the intestines as the center of deep emotions. You seldom see that idea in English translations of the New Testament because the translators almost always choose to avoid confusion by substituting “heart” for “intestines” in verses like Colossians 3:12: “Put on a heart [literally, intestines] of compassion.”
Focusing on the gut does make sense. When I look over the edge of a precipice like the Grand Canyon, something in my abdomen tightens up instantly. When you’re worried about something, your stomach gets upset.
Let’s take a closer look at this fresh way of describing deep feelings in New Testament Greek.
The New Testament employs a trio of words for this concept:
Splanchnon (noun) – “intestines, affection, compassion” – used 11 times
Splanchnizomai (verb) – “to show compassion” – used 12 times
Eusplanchnos (adjective) – “tenderhearted, compassionate” – used 2 times
Originally splanchnon was used in the literal sense to describe the inner organs of a sacrificial animal, including the heart, lungs, liver or kidneys. It was later used for human internal organs, and before long Greeks began using it figuratively to describe strong emotions ranging from fear or anger to compassion and love.
Here are some things to notice as you view the word group in the New Testament:
- The word can refer to the literal, physical organs in your abdomen.
After Judas hanged himself, his corpse fell to the ground and split open, spilling his bowels [splanchnon] onto the ground (Acts 1:18).
- The word can describe God’s compassion toward us. How encouraging to see that the Lord is more than a cold, calculating deity carrying out a master plan. He has genuine feelings of care for His creatures.
Zacharias declared that God’s act of sending the Messiah was an act of His “tender mercy” (Luke 1:78).
- Jesus was often “moved with compassion” for the people He encountered. He saw their need and responded emotionally to them. Though His miracles were demonstrations of His credentials, they were also gestures of help motivated by His feelings of compassion. His heart went out to:
A leper (Mark 1:41)
People like sheep without a shepherd (Mark 6:34; Matthew 14:14)
Two blind men (Matthew 20:34)
A widow who had just lost her son (Luke 7:23)
- Jesus talked about “bowels of compassion” in three of his parables, describing three instances where strong emotion spurred someone to offer help to someone who couldn’t help themselves.
The prodigal’s father felt a surge of emotion in his gut when he saw his son coming (Luke 15:20).
Faced with a servant hopelessly in debt, the ruler felt compassion for him and cancelled the debt (Matthew 18:27).
The Samaritan’s heart went out to the man lying beaten and robbed by the roadside (Luke 10:33).
- Paul used these words in pleading with Philemon to forgive his runaway former slave. The apostle aimed to reach the inward emotions of this Christian man, so he used more than mere logical arguments.
He reminded Philemon how he had encouraged the “intestines” of other saints (Philemon 7).
He described the runaway slave Onesimus as “my very heart” [splanchnon] (Philemon 12).
Finally, he asked Philemon to “refresh my heart” [splanchnon] by showing mercy to Onesimus (Philemon 20).
- God calls believers to this kind of intentional, intestinal compassion.
Put on a heart [splanchnon] of compassion (Colossians 3:12).
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted [eusplanchnos] (Ephesians 4:32).
Be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted [eusplanchnos], and humble in spirit (1 Peter 3:8).
We sometimes make the point that agape love is more than a matter of emotions. It is a choice to do good for a person, whether we feel like it or not. That’s a valid point, because we don’t always feel like showing love.
But it is a mistake to misrepresent God and His Word by stripping love of all emotion. Jesus felt the hurts of the people He encountered. It affected His emotions, whether you prefer to say He felt it in His heart or in His gut.
If I am to be like Jesus, it’s appropriate to experience the kind of emotional engagement that feels the other person’s pain and moves me to action. As 1 John 3:17 says, “But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart [splanchnon] against him, how does the love of God abide in him?”
Studying a word group like splanchnon highlights the importance of recognizing the difference between literal and figurative meanings. Literally, the word refers to body parts like the intestines, just as our word heart describes a physical body organ. But you’re just as likely to find both words used figuratively. How do you tell the difference? Context and common sense. When someone says, “Give me your heart,” there are few contexts where that could possibly refer to your physical heart!
Q – What’s the difference between the word study webinar next Monday and the online word study course that you’re offering?
A – The webinar is a free Zoom session that explains the basic steps in a Greek word study. I’ll show you the two stages of every study and two ways to do each step. I’ll also show you how to use your smartphone to find the Greek word in any verse in less than a minute. When you’re done, you’ll know what a Greek word study looks like.
The online course goes further. It guides you in actually doing the things we discuss in the webinar. You’ll learn how to use four Greek tools and help you work through examples in the New Testament. This course consists of seven lessons. You do have to pay for the course, but it’s definitely worth it. And you get a discounted price and several bonus add-ons if you register by December 1.
Interested? Register at Word Study Course.
Jesus urged His disciples to “abide” in Him, and most of us have a sense that we could face life more confidently if we could learn how to do that. Next week we will take a closer look at the Greek word Jesus uses in John 15 for this important command.
©Ezra Project 2021