Why Many Love the Gospel of John
One of the reasons many people love the Gospel of John is due to the many encounters Jesus has with individuals. Whether it be the woman at the well in John 4 or with Nathaniel and Jesus in John 1 . Or even the infamous one on one encounter with Peter near the conclusion of the gospel. This one on one dynamic produces within us a certain ease and comfort as we read these stories because we can imagine ourselves in the position of the one to whom Jesus is ministering to.
Well if there is one thing I have realized in seeking to translate the New Testament and words of Jesus from the original Greek to our modern English, it’s that certain things get lost in translation. Literally.
You vs. Y’all
While there are many idioms, language quirks, and even metaphors that make up this list there is one functional pronoun issue that tops them all. That would be You vs. y’all.
In Koine Greek language, the language of the New Testament, there is both a singular and a plural “you.” A singular “to you” is σοι, pronounced like “soy.” While a plural “to you” is ὑμῖν, which is pronounced “who-min.” I am sure if you look closely, even if you can’t read Greek, you will notice the difference. Well for us as English-speaking people, we lack that difference. Except in the south where we will often hear “y’all” which is short for “you all.”
So why is this an issue? Well often times in these “one on one” stories of Jesus and another he speaks directly to them as individuals (σοι). However, in some of these stories he will then broaden out and a second time say “you” but this time, unbeknownst to us, include others as in “you all” (ὑμῖν).
Jesus, Nicodemus, and y’all
One such example can be found in John 3. During a nighttime conversation between the Pharisee Nicodemus and Jesus they begin to dialog about the origin of Jesus and His message. In order for Nicodemus to rightly understand this profound truth Jesus declares that he must be “born from above” or as some call it “born again.” This means to come into a saving, redeeming, and confessional relationship with Jesus and this new message of the Kingdom. However, the dialog is not meant for Nicodemus alone, but also others in Israel and the readers of this gospel. Both then and today. Keeping in mind what we read above, lets look more closely at v. 7.
NA28 John 3:7 μὴ θαυμάσῃς ὅτι εἶπόν σοι· δεῖ ὑμᾶς γεννηθῆναι ἄνωθεν.
NRS John 3:7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’
Do you see the difference? In our Greek translation it basically says, “Do not marvel or be astonished that I said to you (singular), ‘You all, Y’all, everyone, must be born from above.”
Well how about that. We, the reader, the listener on the outside have just been invited into the story in a deeper way. This second “you” is in the plural form relating to everyone around Nicodemus. Not just him.
Dean Deppe, a scholar out of Amsterdam, speaks on the importance of this singular/plural “you” and its importance. He says,
“This dialogue represents a conversation between unbelieving Jewish leaders in the first century and the Christian church, led by Jesus. Without realizing it, Nicodemus speaks prophetically in the plural: “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God” (3:2), Then in 3:11-12, the dialogue displays the contrasting faith of Christians, on the one hand, and unbelieving Jews, on the other hand, when Jesus gives to Nicodemus personally (sing. you) a message for everyone (plural you)….This change in Greek pronouns demonstrates that all of us must enter into a conversation with Jesus. ” (Dean Deppe, PhD., Devotions on the Greek New Testament, 45)
Why is This Important?
Understanding this helps us realize as readers of this story and others like it that we were not just meant to observe the story playing out in Scripture but rather join in on it. We were never meant to be mere observers but rather participators placing ourselves within the texts we read and study.
This understanding of the singular and plural “you” only furthers that very truth. Since Jesus was not from the south where he would have readily said “y’all”, perhaps the next time you come across one of those “you’s” in Scripture, do a simple word search on Bible Gateway. It will tell you if it’s singular or plural. The result and context may just open your eyes and draw you in even more to the beauty of Scripture and the beautiful narrative which unfolds.
Want to try one? Read 1 Corinthians 6:19 and try to figure out who it is that serves as the “temple of the Holy Spirit.” The context is more important than you may think.