1 Corinthians, KJV Pitfalls, & the Need for a Readable Bible

The church should value a Bible translation’s readability as much as its fidelity to the intent of the original authors. For a translation of God’s Word to change lives, it must be understandable. Paul makes this point in 1 Corinthians 14:9: “If with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air.” Though Paul addresses the ability to share the gospel in a foreign language through divine inspiration, the passage can be easily applied to the topic of Bible translations. Just as witnessing proves useless if no one can understand you what you are saying, a Bible translation proves useless if people cannot understand it.

Understandability proves to be the great downfall of the view that King James Bible is the best Bible translation of all time. Most readers simply cannot understand the Old English of the KJV as they don’t use “thee” and “thou” when grabbing a soda at their local gas station.

A Brief KJV History

Admittedly, the King James Bible has not always been associated with Shakespearian or highbrow English. It has not always been hard to understand. The original translators often stated that the goal of their translation was to gift English speakers a Bible in their “vulgar” or common tongue. When the translators of the King James Bible wrote out 1 Corinthians 15:31 as,

I protest by your reiocycing which I haue in Christ Iesus our Lord, I die daily,

the average 1611 reader could easily understand the terms above.

Thankfully, the original translators understood that no Bible translation “is begun and perfected at the same time.” The translators of the KJV Bible were in large part updating the text of the Bishop’s Bible and anticipated that the KJV would need to be updated in the years ahead. The KJV would be undergo five major updates and more than 100,000 changes between 1611 and 1769. Because of those changes, 1 Corinthians 15:31 reads, “I protest by your rejoicing which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily.” The text undoubtedly benefited from the updating. I have yet to meet anyone who carries around a first edition 1611 KJV reprint.

After 1769, the updates stopped. The translators made a more decisive break from the KJV and published the Revised Version of the Bible in 1885. Around 1930 following the teachings of a Seventh Day Adventists, the King James only crowd emerged and rather arbitrarily declared that the KJV could no longer be updated. The sentiment reflected their misplaced effort to protect the inherent meaning of the text against the attacks of Christian liberalism which had gained influence at the beginning of the 20th century. In the process of trying to protect the relevance of the KJV, KJV only crowd fossilized the text.

More Than A Dictionary

Admittedly with the help of a dictionary, readers can look up some uncommon words like ‘chapmen’ and get to the meaning of the text. But that is not the only challenge facing readers of the KJV. In addition to relying upon an antiquated vocabulary, the KJV also contains a host of “false friends“: words which meant one thing in 1611 and another in 2022. For example, 2 Timothy 2:15 in the KJV reads “Study to shew thyself approved unto God.” The word “study” in the KJV does not mean Timothy needs to grab his Bible, pencils, and highlighters and head to the library. The word in Old English meant “to do one’s best.” The KJV contains countless such illusionary words that can lead readers to false assumptions about the Biblical text. The fault lies not with the translators nor with the readers but in the span of time between the two groups during which the meaning of words naturally changes. Even academic works published in English a few hundred years ago such as John Wycliffe’s volumes require translation. Like many other old English works, the KJV no longer contains the “vulgar” language of the everyday reader.

Church History & KJV

Still some counter that the beauty and history of the KJV should compel readers to pull out their massive English dictionaries. Though well intended, the impulse to demand that Christians read the KJV as opposed to a more colloquial translations goes against the intent of the Scriptures and of the history of the protestant Church. When the apostles penned the New Testament, they used Konia Greek which was spoken by everyday merchants as opposed to the “Classical Greek” of Plato and Aristotle. The God who was the Word become flesh desired for people to readily have access to his thoughts.

Before there was a King James only camp, there existed a Latin only camp. This group of scholars, pastors, and churchmen believed that the poetic nature of the Latin Bible translated by Jerome proved far superior to the then unimaginative and modern language Bibles appearing in vulgar tongues such as English. Yet as John Wycliffe noted in 1384, those who mandate the usage of a hard-to-understand Bible unquestionably go against the teaching of Scriptures they seek to protect. He wrote,

“The Holy Spirit gave the Apostles essential knowledge at Pentecost in order to know all languages to teach the people God’s Word. God willed that people were taught his Word in diverse tongues; therefore, what man acting on God’s behalf would reverse God’s ordinance and his revealed will?”

One of the things Protestants protested was the absence of the Bible in the common language. For sinners to be saved, Christians sanctified, and pastors held accountable, men and women needed access to Bibles that they could understand.

The events of Pentecost, Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 15, and the history of the church reveal that God intended for people to have a Bible in their language. Since the KJV no longer contains common English, readers should be suspicious of pastors who demand strict adherence to the KJV. That sentiment resides outside the bounds of Scripture and historic Protestantism. John Calvin concluded, “Faith needs the Word as much as fruit needs the living root of the tree.” The Scriptures should be understandable.

Benefits of the KJV

Despite its perils, the KJV remains an accurate translation of the Bible. Many pastors, Christians, and historians can still appreciate the poetic beauty of the KJV. Others rightfully find a sense of peaceful familiarity in the KJV when they recite the Lord’s Prayer and other well-known passages. The KJV was a masterful translation for its time and still contains value for some modern readers.

A Readable Bible

But it was never meant to be the final English translation as all the updates to the original 1611 edition make clear. We also no longer live in a world of “thee’s” and “haveth’s” or “harts.” The Bibles in our homes and in our pews should be readable. They should use the language of today’s construction workers, middle school teachers, and doctors. A good Bible translation will be accessible to all readers.

Where Did All the Miracles Go: Jesus, the Supernatural, & the Empty Tomb

The western preoccupation with the supernatural leads modern men and women to prioritize accounts of healing and of spectacular alterations within the physical world. Even in the imaginary worlds of comic book heroes which often mimic societal norms, the heroes validate their uniqueness through displays of self-healing and superhuman strength that defy the limits of nature. When modern readers encounter the Jesus of the New Testament, many somewhat predictably demand that Jesus prove his divinity through the manipulation of scientific laws within the modern context. They want to see Jesus heal someone today.

Why Jesus Did Miracles

While Jesus certainly carried out hundreds of miracles throughout his lifetime as attested to by the first four books of the New Testament and by secular authors such as Josephus and Tacitus who labeled Jesus “a miracle worker,” Jesus never saw the miracles associated with his teaching ministry as the ultimate proof of his divinity. He performed healings, led exorcisms, and calmed storms to prepare his audiences and the modern reader for the greatest act of all, the resurrection.

In Matthew 9:1-8, the Pharisees take issue with Jesus when he tells a disabled young man, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” They complain that Jesus’s sentiment while nice is completely unprovable. Anyone can promise the remission of sin. Only God can grant it. To prove that he has the power to forgive sins, Jesus responds to his critics and says,

“But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” – he then said to the paralytic – “Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home.

In other words, Jesus heals the man to establish that he can do something even greater. He can forgive sins. The means of accomplishing this forgiveness proves to be the ultimate miracle of all, the theological telos of all miracles past and present.

Just One More

When the Pharisees come back to Jesus in Matthew 12:38-40, asking for one more proof of his divinity, Jesus responds to their demand with a cryptic allusion to the prophet Jonah whose ministry prefigures Jesus’s death and resurrection. Jesus tells the Pharisees, “Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (40).” The implication remains clear. The greatest sign of Jesus’s divinity is the cross and the empty tomb.

Men and women who walk about with contempt for Jesus because he has not performed a miracle in the last decade fundamentally misunderstand the point of Jesus’s miracles. They do not stand in isolation. Yes, they affirm his Messiahship, but they do something more. They point to the cross. If that does not convince someone that Jesus is the Messiah, nothing will. Nothing proves harder than overcoming sin and liberating sinners from death. Abraham failed, Moses failed, and King David failed at this. For all their greatness, they all fell victim to sin. Only Jesus was able to resists the temptations of the devil and conquer death. He alone can heal sinners. In other words, Jesus does not have to perform additional miracles today for nothing is greater, mightier, or more significant than living a sinless life, dying unjustly, and then rising from the dead. The forgiveness of sins depends exclusively upon this miracle. Nothing can top it.

Jesus concluded in Matthew 12:41:

The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold something greater than Jonah is here.

Those who demand that Jesus must do one more miracle so they can believe devalue the empty tomb, the vary apex of Jesus’s ministry on earth. If the greatest earthly miracle cannot convince a person to believe, the miraculous curing a quadriplegic will undoubtedly prove ineffective. Even if God where to raise someone from the dead, the skeptical modern soul still would not believe (Lk 16:29-31). The problem facing modern men and women is not one of a lack of miracles but one of a lack of faith. The empty tomb is more than enough. Will you believe?

The Kingdom is Real: Understanding the Promises of Jesus

Even the youngest of souls grasps the difference between making a promise and the fulfilling of that promise. Any parent can promise their toddler a trip to Disney World or to Lego Land. But only those with the means and ability to take their child to a theme park and to pay the price of admission can make their children’s dreams come true. Ability is found not in words but in action.

Do Jesus’s Dreams Come True?

The writer of the gospel of Matthew grasps this reality. He anticipates the concerns of both his ancient and modern readers who observe the great beauty the Sermon on the Mount. While all people long for a world in which hate is overcome by love, most assume that it cannot be achieved by the fickle and relationally clumsy souls that make up our cultures and churches. In one sense, the writer of Matthew shares in the readers pessimism, noting that human religion falls short of Jesus’s grand vision. Jesus repeatedly says, “You have heard it said…but I say to you (Matt 5:21-22; 27-28; 31-32; 33-34; 38-39; 43-44).” But unlike Matthew’s many readers who wonder how the next generation of religious ne’er-do-wells can do any better, Matthew directs the reader’s attention not towards humanity but towards Christ. If the kingdom of God is to arrive and if selfish, hateful, and malicious people are to become selfless, peaceful, and kind, Jesus must do it.

The question remains: can he? Can Jesus turn his words into actions? Can he get us to the amazing world of the kingdom of God?

While ever pessimistic about the human condition, Matthew remains ever hopeful in the abilities of Jesus (Matt 5:18-19). According to the Gospel writer, Jesus can and will establish the kingdom of God for he makes the unclean clean. In short, the answer is an emphatic “yes!”

Making the Unclean Clean

To prove that the Sermon on the Mount is not just another somewhat inspirational and yet totally unfeasible mandate for souls exhausted by a lifetime of failed promises, Matthew recounts how Jesus miraculously healed a leper.   

In Jesus’s day, the term leprosy covered a wide range of skin diseases that could cause everything from the discoloration of the skin to the losing of fingers and toes (Lev. 13-14). If a person did not recover from their disease by the end of seven days, they would be exiled from their community and from the temple. Leviticus 13:45-46 prescribed the following:

The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean. He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.

Though the possibility of healing existed, the law and the priestly system could only diagnosis and condemn. Such actions prevented others from contracting the disease but essentially condemned the leper to a humiliating death shrouded in uncleanness. As an old Israelite king noted when the Syrian general Naaman asked from permission to visit Israel in the hopes of finding a cure for his leprosy, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy (2 Kg 5:7)?” Men and women could not make the unclean clean. Leprosy proved fatal.

But, Jesus can. When the leper approaches Jesus in Matthew 8:1-2, modern readers can grasp the shock value of this moment having lived through the COVID-19 pandemic. Where the text to be updated into today’s context, the leper’s actions could be equated to a man profusely sweating, coughing, and stumbling about with all the demonstrative signs of the coronavirus raging through his body. Undoubtedly many in the crowd would openly question the leper’s actions for he has put all kinds of people at risk. But unlike the crowds of his day and those of us afraid of diseases, Jesus does not recoil from the leper. When the leper says, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean,” the text reports that “Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleaned.” Jesus triumphs over uncleanness. When sickness touches Jesus, he does not become unclean, the uncleanness becomes whole. He restores that which is broken.

Jesus is Better

In that moment, Jesus does something that no other human being can do. Even the youngest of children know that when you pour dirty water into clean, the clean does not purify the dirty. For this reason, Paul reminds Christians that, “Bad company ruins good morals (1 Cor. 15:33).” When Christians embrace and touch abuse, sexual immorality, gossip, greed, or any other number of sins in their midst, the sinners do not become pure, the healthy Christians become sick. The human condition remains as it was when that when the old Israelite king encountered Naaman’s request. We cannot make the unclean clean.

Only Jesus can. His ability to heal the sick reveals that he is the Messiah. Matthew notes in 8:17 that this miracle and the others that follow were done “to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illness and bore our diseases.” Jesus can bring the kingdom of God to bear. He can promise greatness and achieve it.

Jesus can heal the sick and overcome both physical and spiritual uncleanness for he has dealt with the world’s fundamental problem: sin. The apostle Peter following the lead of Matthew and Isaiah concludes that Jesus, “bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wound you have been healed (1 Pt 2:24).” In other words, the healings that Jesus accomplished in Matthew 8 point to his death and resurrection in Matthew 27-28. Because Jesus makes the unclean clean, the reader knows that Jesus can truly absolve us from all sin and guilt and empower us to live the ethic of the Kingdom of heaven both today on earth and tomorrow in the new heavens and the new earth. Jesus can do it.

Final Thoughts

The knowledge of Jesus’s ability to make the unclean clean should cause hope to burst forth in every soul. No soul proves too dirty for the saving grace of God. No stain of sin proves permanent. If we will but ask Jesus to heal us, he will make our spots as white as snow.

The Sermon on the Mount proves not to be a philosophical daydream of what could be. It is what is. Jesus possesses the ability to fulfill his promises. Lepers are healed. Sinners are saved and sanctified. The kingdom of God is real.