In my last article I echoed Luther’s concern for retaining and praising the study and use of the original languages of the Bible: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin. Luther says, “And let us be sure of this: we will not long preserve the gospel without the languages.” For the sake of this series it’s important to keep this in mind along with what I said in my first article about our “opinion of the law,” namely, that we can keep the Law to justify ourselve, and, because of this inherit and internal desire, we want to run passages of Scipture in the way of the Law. Our old Adam is a legalist and wants the Christian religion to be one of “do right, act right” instead of being justified by God’s gift of faith alone when we believe Christ died and rose FOR YOU.
This article is the start of several articles that will discuss several passages in light of the original languages. This will help us cut through our Old Adam’s legalistic reading. This will help us show how these passages really point is to God’s salvation and love for us in Christ Jeaus, His Son, our Lord. May the Holy Spirit guide us and bless these studies with the Light of His Word.
“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” (Lk 2:8 ESV)
“For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many a time it had seized him. He was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the desert.)” (Lk 8:29 ESV)
“While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” (Jn 12:25 ESV)
And when the blood of Stephen your witness was being shed, I myself was standing by and approving and watching over the garments of those who killed him. (Acts 22:20 ESV)
The above are good starting points for understanding what this word means. The word is fulāsso (φυλάσσω). It’s more of a military term. It means to guard, to keep watch, to set a guard, to keep. The noun form of the Greek word (fulakē, φυλακή) means “prison”—like “a place that is guarded.” This is like it is in English. An older, less-used definition of “to keep” means “to guard, protect”, and this is why the most fortified and central part of a castle was called a “keep.” Thus, most instances of fulāssō are clearly used to mean “guard or protect.” This is how it is for the above examples but also: “The Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one” (2 Thess 3:3 ESV), and “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. (Jn 12:25 ESV).
What about more ambiguous examples? Those which seem to have a definition of “to observe” or “do” or even “obey.” Let us consider just a few of them.
For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. (Gal 6:13 ESV)
He said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Lk 11:28 ESV)
He said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” (Lk 18:21 ESV)
The first example from Galatians fits easily into the understanding of “guarding” or “keeping watch.” The false teachers, the Judaizers, were teaching and demanding that the Gentiles must do all the Jewish ceremonial Laws before they could be considered true and good Christians. But it is was even more than that. They were doing this not because they wanted to guard and protect the Law from being broken. It was “that they may boast in your flesh.” They were guarding and protecting their own power and position and not the Law. Circumcision was a gift to Abraham and his Seed. It marked the people of Israel as God’s chosen people. But, even though circumcision was a great gift, it was fulfilled in Christ Jesus. That gift was fulfilled, used up, spent in Jesus, and now there is another gift, like circumcision, that needs to be guarded and kept: Baptism. This gift also marks God’s people. “In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.” (Col 2:11–12 NKJV)
The “keeping” of the law in the other two examples also fits with the basic definition of “guard.” Looking to the Old Testament helps with this. The Hebrew word (shamār, שׁמר) and the Greek word (fulāssō, φυλάσσω) have very similar, if not synonymous, meanings. In Exodus 31:13–14, YHWH says to Moses, “And you will instruct the sons of Israel, ‘Watch, and you will keep my Sabbaths. It is a sign for Me and among you unto your generations so that you may know that I am YHWH who makes you holy, and you will keep the Sabbaths because it is holy for you.” The Sabbath is just like all the other commandments. YHWH gives gifts to His people, and He wants to protect them. This is very clear when it comes to the Sabbath. The Sabbath was given so that the people of Israel may know that “YHWH makes them holy,” and, in fact, the Sabbath is holy and for this reason is “for you.” The Sabbath makes holy because of God’s Word which is preached, read, and studied on that day. More than that, every day is a Sabbath when God’s Word is studied! “Whenever God’s Word is taught, preached, heard, read, or meditated upon, then the person, day, and work are sanctified.” (Luther, Large Catechism I.92) This is how it is for all of God’s Law and His Word as a whole. We guard it, protect it because it is His great gift to us, to make us holy, to give us His holiness won for us in His death and resurrection.
We keep God’s Word. We guard it. We ask Him to guard, to keep us so that we in turn keep it, guard it. Thus we pray with David:
Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth;
Keep watch over the door of my lips.
Thus we cherish His Word also, but that’s for another time!