This assertion was a cause for ridicule back then, but today it actually sounds like a profound insight. In 21st century America, we can no longer count on the conventional meaning of even the most basic words.
For instance, these days ”affordable” apparently means “unaffordable," if “the Affordable Care Act” is any indication. “Freedom of choice” has become “freedom to murder.” "Awful” no longer means “inspiring reverential wonder,” but something more along the lines of “hideously unpleasant.” “Egregious” once meant good; now it means bad. Coming from the Latin for “ignorant,” “nice” now means “pleasant” or “agreeable.” And “till death do us part” now means “till something better comes along.”
Funny how that happens, isn’t it?
These days, we often see this phenomenon playing out in the realm of theology (which still means “the study of the nature of God,” thank goodness). Sometimes it’s simply a matter of twisting the contextual meaning of a single word. For example:
- The common Hebrew word for a 24-hour day, “yom,” now means “vast ages.” For far too many people, this little alteration transforms the Bible from the inspired and inerrant word of God into a book of myths.
- “Hope” means, to the world, something along the lines of “wishful thinking.” But biblically speaking, it means “trust” or “confident expectation.” So what does it mean when I say that I am looking for our “blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13)? That I sure do wish He would come back but I'm not holding my breath?
- “Fear” used to mean “revere.” Now it means “to be afraid of something unpleasant or dangerous.” So much for the “fear of the Lord” being “the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10).
- “Jealous” used to mean “fiercely protective.” Today it means envying, coveting, harboring suspicions about someone else. How does that make you feel about a “jealous God” (Exodus 20:5)? It was enough to make that great Bible scholar Oprah Winfrey turn her back on Him in favor of New Age thought; how many others have joined her because of this single slice of ignorance?
- “Love,” in its highest form (Greek “agape”), once meant self-sacrificing, unconditional, unceasing and profound affection. Today it is mostly reduced to what the Greeks call “eros,” meaning “a deep romantic or sexual attachment to (someone),” or what the Bible calls “lust” – not a good thing. Or it’s used to describe our most superficial feelings for something that gives us pleasure – we “love” ice cream or dogs or a good game of Scrabble. These definitions could certainly impact one’s understanding of “God is love” (1 John 4), couldn't they?
- “All” used to mean “the whole quantity or extent of a particular group or thing.” Now, to growing numbers of Christians, it means “some of each.” Consider how that changes the meaning of a pronouncement like Jesus’ “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me” (John 12:32).
Here’s the thing. There’s only one way to heaven, and that's through the payment Jesus rendered on the cross for our sin. To avail ourselves of that payment, we need simply to repent of what He calls sin and trust in His payment. That has all kinds of implications for our lives and how we will think, speak, behave and live, of course; but the point here is that we cannot even “repent and trust” if we harbor such grave misunderstandings of language.
In fact, how can we possibly trust a transcendent being whose very words are not trustworthy?
Yes indeedy, these days it really does depend on what the meaning of the word “is” is. And anyone who wants to spend eternity in heaven with the Lord had best spend some time determining what His word actually says.