Because the New Testament as we have it was originally written in Greek, a study of words in the Greek text often sheds additional light on the gospel. It is not difficult to see that many Latter-day Saint concepts or expressions have roots in the earliest writings of the Christian era.
When the reader exercises the combined effort of heart, mind, and spirit, translation of these ancient writings can bring to light interesting nuances in the text, especially where the ancient Greek words may have multiple meanings. Jesus often employed multiple meanings in the words of his parables, knowing that people would understand at their own level of spiritual preparedness. (See Matt. 13:9–17 for his explanation.) It is not surprising, then, that many important Greek words in the New Testament have a general, ethical meaning for all people in all stations of life, while these same words have a specific meaning for those who have been instructed more completely in the covenants and ordinances of the gospel. The use of some words in the Greek text suggests, for example, that the Saints of former days knew and practiced sacred ordinances.
We will examine here just a few words in the Greek New Testament that may have particular interest to Latter-day Saints. 1
In Acts 3:21, Peter taught that Jesus would stay in heaven “until the times of restitution (apokatastasis) of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began.” The word apokatastasis means “restoration” “until the time for restoring everything to perfection.” 2
This Greek word embraces a complete restoration of all kinds of physical, moral, and heavenly things. 3 Indeed, Peter speaks of the restoration (apokatastasis) of all things spoken of by the prophets of God.
Other scriptural occurrences of this word yield further insights.
(1) The word restoration may refer to a personal event. Hebrews 13:18–19 uses the term to speak of the reunion of people: “Pray for us … that I may be restored to you the sooner.” [Heb. 13:18–19] A key part of the restoration Peter mentions in Acts 3 would be the personal reappearance of Jesus Christ and his reunion with the righteous.
(2) A restoration may be preceded by a withering, deterioration, degeneration. As recorded in Matthew 12:10–13, Jesus healed the withered, crippled hand of a man, “and it was restored [apekatestathe]” to its former state of full health and function. [Matt. 12:10–13] In the same way, the latter-day restoration of the full gospel followed an ancient withering or falling away.
(3) The restoration of Israel is another aspect of Peter’s prophecy. In Acts 1:6, the last question that the Apostles asked Jesus before his ascension was: “Wilt thou at this time restore [apokathistaneis] again the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus answered, “It is not for you to know the times [chronous] or the seasons [kairous],” which only God controls. Significantly, Peter mentions this critical “season” and the ensuing restorative “times” again, in connection with the latter-day restoration, in Acts 3:19–21: “the times [kairoi] of refreshing” and “the times [chronon] of restitution.”
(4) The restoration spoken of in the Bible will involve the return of the prophet Elijah. When Jesus says that Elias (Elijah) must surely come and “restore [apokatastesei] all things” (Matt. 17:11), he is referring to Malachi 4:5–6 [Mal. 4:5–6]. The Septuagint text of Malachi reads: “I will send to you Elisha the Thesbite … who shall turn again [restore, apokatastesei] the heart of the father to the son.” 4 Latter-day Saints sometimes think of Elijah turning the hearts of the generations toward each other for the first time, but the concept is more that of returning—bringing people back into the relationships of love and concern that once prevailed.
(5) All of this is consistent with the use of the word restoration in the Book of Mormon. Nephi spoke much “concerning the restoration of the Jews” (1 Ne. 15:19), and Alma counts the physical healing of the Resurrection (see Alma 11:43–44; Alma 40:22–23), together with its accompanying day of God’s personal settling of the moral order (Alma 41:2, 13–15), as parts of the restoration of all things.
(6) Likewise the Doctrine and Covenants—the scripture of the Restoration—identifies the gathering of Israel (D&C 45:17), the coming of Elias (D&C 77:9; D&C 110:12) and, most distinctively, the return of the fulness of the priesthood and lost ordinances (D&C 124:28; D&C 127:8; D&C 128:17; D&C 132:45) as key ingredients in “the restoration of all things spoken by the mouth of all the holy prophets since the world began, concerning the last days” (D&C 27:6).
In the end, the purpose of this restoration is to reunite God and his children. The Atonement itself is not only a powerful process of union (at-one-ment), but of reunion. As Jacob said, “For [by] the atonement … they are restored to that God who gave them breath.” (2 Ne. 9:26.)
What is the meaning of the word endued or endowed? In Luke 24:49, shortly after his resurrection, Jesus told his Apostles, “I send the promise of my Father upon you,” but they were to remain in Jerusalem, “until ye be endued with power from on high.” (Emphasis added; see also Acts 1:4–5, 8.) The Greek word in the text is enduo.
Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (published in 1828) noted that the English word endue (or indue) “coincides nearly in signification with endow, that is, to put on, to furnish, … to put on something; to invest; to clothe.” The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary notes that endue means “to put on as a garment; to clothe or cover.” 5 Indeed, Joseph Smith’s diary uses the spellings endument and endowment interchangeably, as when he prayed in December 1835 that all the elders might “receive an endument, in thy house.” 6
The Greek word enduo has two main meanings. The first is “to dress, to clothe someone,” or “to clothe oneself in, to put on.” Second, the word can also be used figuratively, meaning to take on “characteristics, virtues, intentions.” 7
Thus, the endowment is a dressing not in ordinary clothes, but “with power from on high” (Luke 24:49) and in the virtues and intentions of God. It involves the opportunity to “put on [enedusasthe] Christ” (Gal. 3:27), so that “this mortal [can] put on [endusasthai] immortality.” (1 Cor. 15:53.) It is possible to see both literal and figurative significance in the word enduo in connection with the desire of the pure in heart to be encircled in the robes of God’s righteousness.
In Matthew 5 (the first chapter in the New Testament Sermon on the Mount) and 3 Nephi 12 (part of the Book of Mormon Sermon at the Temple), Jesus is speaking to disciples who may be considered to have reached a gospel plateau. He invites them to continue upward: “Therefore I would that ye should be perfect.” (3 Ne. 12:48.) The word therefore marks a transition in the sermon. On the one hand, it looks back over the instruction given thus far. On the other, it looks forward to what will be required if the people are to become “perfect.”
It is possible that the word perfect has only a straightforward ethical or religious meaning here, 8 reflecting perfect or “undivided in obedience to God” and “unlimited love.” 9 But it is possible that the word perfect, as used here, also indicates advancement from one level to a next level, going on to become “perfect,” “finished,” or “completed” in an individual’s instruction and endowment. Several facts support this understanding.
First, the Greek word translated into English in Matt. 5:48 as perfect is teleios. This word is used in Greek religious literature to describe the person who has become fully initiated in the rituals of a religion. 10 The word is used in Heb. 5:14–6:1 to distinguish between the initial teachings and the full instruction. Generally in the epistle to the Hebrews, the term follows a “special use” of Hellenistic Judaism, with the word teleioo meaning “to put someone in the position in which he can come, or stand, before God.” 11 Early Christians continued to use this word in this way in connection with their sacraments and ordinances. 12
With regard to this idea, an intriguing letter by Clement of Alexandria describes the existence (around A.D. 200) of a second Gospel of Mark; it reports the Lord’s doings as recounted by Peter and goes beyond the public Gospel of Mark now found in the New Testament. This gospel contained things, according to Clement, “for the use of those who were being perfected [teleioumenon]. Nevertheless, he [Mark] did not divulge the things not to be uttered, nor did he write down the hierophantic [initiatory] teaching [hierophantiken didaskalian] of the Lord, but … brought in certain sayings of which he knew the interpretation would … lead the hearers into the innermost sanctuary of … truth.” 13 The copy of this text was read “only to those who are being initiated [tous muoumenous] into the great mysteries [ta megala mysteria].” 14 Almost nothing more is known about these sacred teachings of Jesus mentioned by Clement (who died in A.D. 215), but there can be little doubt that these teachings existed in Alexandria and that some early Christians had been “perfected” by learning them.
Moreover, use of the Hebrew term shalom may provide a concrete link between the Israelites and the Christian use of teleios. Biblical scholar John Durham has explored the fundamental meanings of shalom, usually translated as “peace,” especially in Numbers 6:26 and in certain of the Psalms, and concludes that it referred to a gift or endowment to or of God that “can be received only in his Presence.” 15 [Num. 6:26] Baruch Levine saw the Israelite shelamim (peace offering) sacrifices as intended to produce “complete,” or perfect, “harmony with the deity … characteristic of the covenant relationship as well as of the ritual experience of communion.” 16
Durham, along with several others, sees this Israelite concept also reflected in the word teleios in Matt. 5:48. 17 “Matthew does not use teleios in the Greek sense of the perfect ethical personality, but in the Old Testament sense of the wholeness of consecration to God.” 18 An LDS scholar points out that the word teleios tends toward the meaning of “living up to an agreement or covenant without fault: as the Father keeps the covenants he makes with us … the completely initiated who has both qualified for initiation and completed it is teleios, lit. ‘gone all the way,’ fulfilling all requirements, every last provision of God’s command. The hardest rules are those which will decide the teletios, the final test—the Law of Consecration.” 19
Accordingly, in Matthew 5:48 and 3 Nephi 12:48, it seems that Jesus may have had several things in mind as he invited the people to become perfect. Above all, this involves becoming like God (“even as I or your Father who is in heaven”). Those who do this will have the opportunity to see God and become like him (see 1 Jn. 3:2) and to know God, which is life eternal (see John 17:3).
These were selected from short word studies in BYU’s Religious Studies Center newsletter beginning in 1987; the collection is available from F.A.R.M.S.
Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 92.
Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1967), 1:389–90.
Charles L. Brenton, The Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and English (London: Samuel Bagster & Sons, 1851; reprinted by Zondervan, 1978), p. 1130.
The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), 1:863.
Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1984), p. 105.
Bauer et al., Greek-English Lexicon, p. 263.
On perfection as our eternal goal, having the flaws and errors removed, see Gerald N. Lund, Ensign, Aug. 1986, pp. 39–41. Elder James E. Talmage, in Jesus the Christ (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1973), p. 248, note 5, explains that we can achieve “relative perfection” in this life. See also Bauer et al., Greek-English Lexicon, pp. 816–17, giving the meanings of teleios as “having attained the end or purpose, complete, perfect,” “full-grown, mature, adult,” “complete,” and “fully developed in a moral sense.”
This is the preferred meaning suggested in the Protestant view. See Kittel, Theological Dictionary, 8:73, 75.
Bauer et al., Greek-English Lexicon, p. 817, citing sources; referring also to Philip. 3:15; Col. 1:28. See also Demosthenes, De Corona 259, in C. A. Vince, tr., Demosthenes (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), pp. 190–91, where telousei is translated as “initiations,” and Kittel, Theological Dictionary, 8:69, 10:1. For further discussion, see John W. Welch, The Sermon at the Temple and the Sermon on the Mount (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1990), pp. 57–62.
H. Stephanus, Thesaurus Graecae Lingue (Graz: Akademische Druck- und Verlaganstalt, 1954), 8:1961, “gradibus ad sacramentorum participationem, ton hagiasmaton metochen, admittebantur.”
Morton Smith, Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973), p. 446.
John I. Durham, “Shalom and the Presence of God,” in Proclamation and Presence (Richmond, Va: John Knox, 1970), p. 292.
Baruch A. Levine, In the Presence of the Lord (Leiden: Brill, 1974), pp. 35–36.
Durham, “Shalom and the Presence of God,” p. 293, note 135.
G. Bornkamm, G. Barth, and H. Held, Tradition and Interpretation in Matthew (London: SCM, 1963), p. 101. See also Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck, Kommentar zum neuen Testament (Munich: Beck, 1922), 1:386.
Hugh Nibley, unpublished notes from his Sunday School class on the New Testament, commentary on Matt. 5:48, in the Hugh Nibley Archive, Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, Provo, Utah.