Splanchnon: That Gut Feeling

Word of the Week

April 3, 2022

Splanchnon: That Gut Feeling

 

But whoever has the world’s goods and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?

1 John 3:17

 

The Valentine card you will never see:  “I love you with all my colon!”

Just try sending that to your sweetheart on Valentine’s Day and you’ll end up with your gift of flowers thrown back in your face!

We express romantic sentiments with hearts and flowers, not intestines. For us, the heart is the seat of affections.  The Bible even uses the heart as the instrument of loyal affection when Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart” (Matthew 22:37).

However, the New Testament employs another image that is not nearly so familiar.  In verses like 1 John 3:17, the Greeks used the word for intestines to express ideas that we connect with the heart.  Sometimes your English Bible actually says “heart” when the Greek says “intestines”!

Let’s get a fresh look at this through the eyes of New Testament readers by examining the Greek terms involved.

We need to examine a matched pair of words:  the noun splanchnon [SPLANK-nahn] and the verb splanchnizomai [splank-NID-zo-mye].

Splanchnon literally means the inner organs of an animal or human.  In ancient Athens, priests would slaughter animals as sacrifices to the gods.  In the process, they would remove organs like the heart, lungs, liver, spleen, kidneys and intestines.  These were the splanchnon.

When Judas realized the depth of his sin in betraying Jesus, he hung himself in remorse.  Evidently the rope broke, and when his corpse fell to the ground, “it burst open in the middle and all his bowels [splanchnon] gushed out” (Acts 1:18).

How did a word like this become a term of affection?  Just as we use “heart” figuratively to describe the emotions that make it beat faster, the Greeks used splanchnon figuratively to describe the deep emotions that we feel “in our gut.”

In the centuries before Christianity, the Greeks used this word to describe violent emotions like anger or lust.  The gospel, however, transformed the word and used it for tender emotions like love and compassion.

The verb splanchnizomai occurs 12 times in the New Testament, always to describe the compassion displayed by Jesus toward suffering people.

People without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36; Mark 6:34)

People who were hungry (Matthew 15:32; Mark 8:2)

The sick (Matthew 14:14)

The leper (Mark 1:31)

The blind (Matthew 20:34)

The bereaved (Luke 7:13)

The demonized (Mark 9:22)

 

We sometimes say that Jesus performed miracles as a demonstration of His power, a way of undergirding His claims to be the Messiah.  However, His healings were more than just a strategic move.  He saw the suffering of the people He encountered and responded with a surge of strong emotion.  He cared about their plight with razor-sharp intensity.

Jesus featured this trait in three parables:

A king felt compassion for a slave who owed more than he could possible pay, so he forgave the debt (Matthew 18:27)

The good Samaritan felt compassion for the wounded man he found by the side of the road, so he cared for him (Luke 10:33).

The waiting father was overcome with compassion when he saw his prodigal son coming down the road, so he ran to throw his arms around him (Luke 15:20).

 

The noun splanchnon occurs 11 times, always in the plural.  Paul was a man of strong emotions, and he used this word often.  He grieved when the Corinthians closed their affections (splanchnon) from him (2 Corinthians 6:12), but he exulted over the affection shown by Titus toward those same Corinthian believers (2 Corinthians 7:15).

When the apostle wrote to Philemon, imploring him to show mercy to his runaway slave Onesimus, he uses this word three times.  Each sounds strange unless we substitute the word “heart,” but Paul actually used “intestines” each time:

The hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you (Philemon 7).

Refresh my heart in Christ (Philemon 20).

When he sent Onesimus back, he said, “I am sending my very heart” (Philemon 12).

 

Splanchnon and splanchnizomai are powerful reminders that our Lord modeled a capacity for deep sympathy.  When He encountered a suffering person, He not only understood it, His gut tightened with emotion.  He cared!

 

This kind of empathy does not come easily to some of us.  Distracted or deadened, we can observe people in pain without feeling much of it ourselves.  However, our Lord modeled it for us, leaving us an example so that we would follow in His steps.

 

 

Study Hint:

There are two related adjectives that deserve attention as long we are talking about splanchna:

Eusplanchnos – The eu on the front means “good, well.”  The word means “tender-hearted, kind” and it occurs in Ephesians 4:32 and 1 Peter 3:8.

Polusplanchnos – The polu at the beginning means “much, many.”  The word means “very compassionate, full of mercy, and it is used in James 5:11 to describe the mercy of God.

Q/A

Q:   I was studying the verse from Luke 18:1, “Men ought always to pray and not to faint”. The Greek for faint here was “ekkakeo” and I was wondering the difference between the two. . The other word for faint (to be wearied) is the verb kamno used in Rev. 2:3. Can you help me understand the different uses? It seems to me that ekluo is used like the person is relaxing their grip on the LORD because of trying circumstances (but then, I am not a Greek scholar).

A:  The words are pretty similar, but the word in Luke 18 describes a person who is so tired, so exhausted that he can’t keep going. The word occurs 6 times in the New Testament. The word in Rev 2:3 only occurs 3 times. It also has the idea of being tired, and in James 5:15 it appears to mean a fatigue that comes from a sickness.
Ekluo can mean exactly what you have described, as long as that meaning fits the context of the verse you are studying. In other passages, it might be used with a slightly different flavor.

 

Coming Up

The glory of God is one of the biggest concepts in the Bible – not because it is used so often, but because it goes so far beyond our ability to imagine.  Next week we will take a small bite of the subject by looking at the Greek word for glory.

 

©Ezra Project 2022

 

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