A Word for Today - καινός
Brian Clatworthy, Newton Abbot, Devon, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
It is not an exaggeration to suggest that human beings have an insatiable appetite for new things. We seem to be obsessed about new products, and people will often queue for hours on end to be the first to acquire a new computer game or a new smartphone. And the craze is not just confined to modern technology, as people are just as likely to queue into the early hours of the morning to acquire a new publication by a popular writer or even a book from a deceased writer, published posthumously. In all these instances, the fickleness of the human heart is evident, demonstrated by a constant desire for that which is new and novel. What a contrast to the immutability of the God that we serve, Mal. 3. 6! Yet the Greek word kainos, meaning new or fresh, that occurs on a number of occasions in the New Testament often relates more to the intrinsic quality of something new rather than simply being novel or unused. As Stephen Renn points out, kainos is found in passages of distinctive theological significance in the New Testament.1
In the Septuagint (LXX) the word kainos is used to translate the Hebrew word hadash, meaning new or different. It is a well-worked word with the writer of Ecclesiastes who constantly reminds us that although we think that what we have in our generation is unprecedented, ‘Is there a thing of which it is said, “See this is new”? ‘It has been already in the ages before us’, Eccles. 1. 10 ESV! The prophet Ezekiel, in chapter 11 verse 19, uses the word kainos when he describes the action of God in putting a new spirit within His people. This takes up the theme that Jeremiah articulates in chapter 31 verses 33-34 of his prophecy, relating to a new covenant that God seals with His people by writing His law indelibly upon their hearts. Occasionally, the word kainos can simply refer to the process of succession, as in Exodus chapter 1 verse 8, where a new king in time assumes the throne of Egypt. But, even in this same context, the word may also be interpreted as meaning a new kind of king to that of his immediate predecessor, and how quickly Israel discovered that reality, Exod. 1. 9ff. One of the most famous texts in the Old Testament reminds us that God’s steadfast love and His mercies are not only eternal, but, equally, they are renewed on a daily basis, i.e., they are constantly fresh, Lam. 3. 22-23. They remind us of the freshness of the manna that fell daily from heaven, Exod. 16. 4ff. In Isaiah chapter 65 verse 17 kainos is used in connection with the renewal of creation. Alec Motyer states that this will be ‘a total newness without anything even promoting a recollection of what used to be’, cp. 2 Pet. 3. 13.2 Another meaning of the word kainos suggests that something has never been tested before. For example, part of the Gibeonite strategy to deceive Joshua was to feign that new – in the sense of untested – wineskins had burst when filled, even though, in reality, they were worn-out wineskins, Josh. 9. 4, 13. A similar meaning is also attached to kainos in Judges chapter 16 verse 11 of the new (untested) ropes, which Samson tells Delilah could be used to restrain him and restrict his strength. These various shades of meaning of kainos found in the Septuagint (LXX) also occur later in early papyrus usage, and other non-literary sources prior to the New Testament. But, by the time that we come to the New Testament, kainos has developed almost into a Christian word, highlighting the quality of something new that will not fade or grow old in time.
Moving then to the New Testament, we find that when kainos is used by writers their intention is to emphasize something unusual, or unheard-of, or even unprecedented. Mark chapter 1 verse 27 records the outburst of those in the synagogue at Capernaum who had witnessed our Lord exorcizing a demon from a member of the congregation. Not only did they find it an amazing spectacle to watch, but considered the Lord’s teaching as completely unprecedented. Paul had the same sort of effect on the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers of Athens who, having heard him preach ‘Jesus and the resurrection’, wanted to learn more about this unusual or unheard-of teaching, Acts. 17. 19. In our Lord’s upper room discourse, recorded in John chapters 13 to 17, He gives a new (kainos) commandment to his disciples that they should love one another, John 13. 34, which is expanded for them in John chapter 15 verses 12 to 17. Kingsley Barrett points out that the commandment was not ‘new’, in the sense that it had never previously been promulgated, cf. Lev. 19. 18, but it was new because it corresponded to the command that regulated the relation between Jesus and the Father, and thereby revealed the Father and the Son, cp. John 15. 10.3 It would be the principle of the new order that would be effected through the death of Christ, John 13. 31-32. A secondary meaning of kainos is by way of contrast to that which is old, or become obsolete and needs to be replaced. Hence, the new covenant, Heb. 8. 8, a new creation, 2 Cor. 5. 17a, and a new self in place of the old self, Eph. 4. 24. And we are told that those discipled scribes are able to bring out of their experience of the kingdom of God things that are of a new quality, Matt. 13. 52.
The word kainos is often distinguished from its synonym neos in the New Testament. When the word neos is used for ‘new’ it suggests new in time, or recently come into existence or youthful. Examples of these uses can be seen in Matthew chapter 9 verse 17 of new wine, and in Titus chapter 2 verse 4 of young women. But the distinction between neos and kainos is sometimes blurred, as they are, on occasions, used interchangeably, as in the parallel text to Ephesians chapter 4 verse 24, where Paul uses the synonym neos and not kainos to describe the new self, Col. 3. 10. Notwithstanding a number of such instances, and there are few in the New Testament, the words can be clearly distinguished. In what better way can we highlight this distinction when we contemplate that day when we will sing ‘a new (kainos) song’, Rev. 5. 9, in heaven. New, not simply because it is fresh (neos), but because, for us, it will herald an unprecedented state, i.e., redemption finally accomplished! Until this hope is realized, may we continue to depend on God so that we might be faithful ‘ministers of the new covenant’, 2 Cor. 3. 6 NKJV.
For further reading/study
Harold K. Moulton, The Challenge of the Concordance – Some New Testament Words Studied in Depth by – ‘Newness’, Bagster, 1977, pp. 73-76.
Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged in One Volume - Kainos, Eerdmans, 1979, pp. 388-389.
1 Stephen Renn, Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, Hendricksen, 2005, pg. 674.
2 J. Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah, IVP Academic, 1993, pg. 529.
3 Kingsley Barrett, The Gospel According to St John, SPCK, 1962, pg. 452.
AUTHOR PROFILE: He is an elder and active member of a pioneer assembly work in Newton Abbott. For many years he has been welcomed as a ministering brother in the south of England and has written a number of articles for the magazine. He is married and has two children.