Which "If" Is It?

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One of the more important things a preacher should do when working with a passage of Scripture is to examine every conditional sentence that you encounter, especially in the New Testament. In the English language, we have only one word to express a conditional clause: the word “if.” In order to determine its nuances, we need to examine the context of that English conditional clause in its sentence.

Greek, however, has two different Greek words to introduce conditional clauses: εἰ and ἐάν. And how each conditional sentence is structured grammatically goes a long way to determining its interpretive nuances (though context can also be important).

Let’s review the basic grammatical features. A Greek conditional sentence that begins with εἰ (and εἰ is generally followed by an indicative verb) is called a condition of reality. The writer or speaker is asking the audience to consider, for the sake of argument, that the conditional element is true (or, in the case of a contrary-to-fact condition, which also uses εἰ, that the conditional element is false). By contrast, if a conditional sentence begins with ἐάν (which is generally followed by a subjunctive verb), there is much more of an element of uncertainty or probability.

OK, enough of the theory. Let’s look at a specific verse: John 13:17. The context here is that Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet. Then in 13:15 he follows up that event with the principle he is teaching them: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” Now 13:17 has two conditional clauses, the first beginning with εἰ and the second with ἐάν: εἰ ταῦτα οἴδατε, μακάριοί ἐστε ἐὰν ποιῆτε αὐτά. The first conditional clause is the condition of reality: “if you know these things.” There is really no question as to whether the disciples know what Jesus has just done and why he has washed their feet (the only way they could not have known was if they were not paying attention—hardly possible in this situation). In fact, so certain is the reality expressed in that Greek conditional clause with εἰ that some translations actually phrase this, “since you know these things” (or, as in the NIV, “now that you know these things”). According to a recent statistic I read, more than a third of the occurrences of εἰ conditional clauses in the Greek New Testament have the flavor of “since.”

But then Jesus goes on. “Since you know these things, happy are you if you do them.” Ah, now there is the more uncertain issue: Will the disciples do these things? Will they become servants of one another, similar to how Jesus has just served them? The ἐάν plus the subjunctive is by no means an assumed reality for the disciples—or for us. But we can never expect to receive the blessing Jesus talks about here if we do not follow in his steps. Servanthood receives a blessing from the Lord if indeed we do practice it.

So, to repeat my plea: anytime you encounter an “if” clause in the Bible, make sure you understand what sort of condition it is. Review in a Greek grammar, if need be, the various types of Greek conditional sentences that exist, so that you know what type you are working with.

Maybe some of you reading this have come across some real preachable moments because of your analysis of Greek conditional sentences. If so, can you share those verses with us?

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Great little unexpected message! 

Nice summary and reminder.