If I Only Understood what the “Ifs” Meant [Fun with Grammar!]

““If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you.“If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.“Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also.“But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me.“If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin.“He who hates Me hates My Father also.“If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would not have sin; but now they have both seen and hated Me and My Father as well.” (John 15:18–24 NAS95)

[Attention:  Grammar alert!  We are going to delve into grammar here—which we are forced to do—so if you’re not a grammar person, you may suffer, but it is worth suffering through because we discover some pretty cool things through the way the Greek language uses “ifs”].

The English language uses the word “if” as a statement of supposition.  So that were I to sing with Tevya in The Fiddler on the Roof, “If I were a rich man,/All day long I’d biddy biddy bum/If I were a wealthy man, I wouldn’t have to work hard,” then I am saying that suppose I am a rich man, then it would be true that I would be able to biddy biddy bum all day [Do you know what biddy biddy bumming is?  Neither do I, which proves that neither I, nor you, dear reader, are rich].  Tevya is not a rich man, but he is setting forth what might happen were he to be a rich man.  This is how English uses an “if” statement.

Greek is a little different and we have some excellent examples of how the Greek language uses the word “if” in our passage.  It uses them somewhat differently than English does.  There are four possibilities or conditions that the Greeks could mean when they used the word “if.”  If you want to delve deeper than look here. For purposes of brevity I am only going to point out there meaning, not explain why they mean what they do.

So here we go with what the “ifs” mean in John 15.18-24:

  • If the world hates you.  This is a FIRST CLASS CONDITIONAL SENTENCE which the author or speaker assumes to be true.  In other words, Jesus is essentially saying, “If the world hates you, and it does, then it hated me before it hated you.”  Jesus is not leaving any hope that the world might not hate his disciples.  The world [which here means those who were opposed to Christ and his message] hates both Jesus and his disciples.
  • If you were of the world.  This is a SECOND CLASS CONDITIONAL SENTENCE which is stating something contrary to fact, or something not true.  Bob Utley says we can translate Jesus’ words as: “If you were of the world, which you are not, then the world would love you, but it does not.” The world would love the disciples if only the disciples held the world’s values.  They do not and so the world does not love them.

  • If they persecuted me…if they kept my word.  This is a FIRST CLASS CONDITIONAL SENTENCE.  The speaker assumes it to be a true statement.  Persecution is coming, it was coming to Jesus, it was coming to Jesus’ disciples.
  • If I had not done among them the works which no one else did. This is a SECOND CLASS CONDITIONAL SENTENCE which is something contrary to fact.  Bob Utley says that we can translate this sentence as: “If I had not done the works among them which no one else did, then they would not have sin, which they do.” Jesus here roundly condemns the Jewish leaders and authorities who witnessed his words and miracles, but still did not believe in him.  They remain in their sins.

“If” sentences might have considerably different meaning in the Greek than they do in English, but since we have no similar grammatical meaning in English, Bible translators are left to do their best to communicate what the biblical writers meant.

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