we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus that, as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you may excel still more. 1 Thessalonians 4:1
Instruction – Sometimes you just have to have a bunch of translations in order to get the whole message. This verse is one of those times. The translation above is the NASB. The King James will be different because the part in parentheses isn’t there (it was not in the Greek text that the King James translators had in 1611). But if you look at the NIV, you’ll see other changes. In addition, our word “instruction” doesn’t actually occur in any of the Greek texts. It was added by the translators. All of this just underscores one important fact: no English translation can be considered totally reliable. When you really want to know what the passage says, you’ll have to do a lot of comparison shopping.
That doesn’t mean that we can’t understand the idea behind this verse. Basically, it says that Paul labors over the believers in Thessalonica, encouraging them to walk in godly ways. But the details seem to be shifting around with each translation attempt. Let’s take a look at some of the nuances.
The current Greek text reads hina kathos parelabete gar hemon (literally “that even as you received from us”). The King James doesn’t have the hina (“that”) in its Greek text, so it leaves this word out. The NASB adds the punctuation and the additional explanatory word “instruction.” The Greek text doesn’t say that Paul gave them instruction. What Paul says is that these believers received from him how they are to walk. If we add the word “instruction,” we push the meaning toward the realm of rules and regulations, just as one would be instructed in school. But we know that Paul often spoke of imitating his life. That’s not just rules for living. It’s the Hebrew idea of copying the behavior and thoughts of the rabbi. This shift matters.
The NIV is worse. It moves the idea of instruction to center stage, beginning the verse with “Finally, brothers, we instructed you.” Beseeching and exhorting are pushed to the secondary position, out of the limelight. Of course, there is no Greek phrase “we instructed you” in the original. This is an interpretation, not a translation. It captures the idea but it isn’t what the words actually say.
One more will do it for now. Notice that the NASB suggests that the purpose of all this instruction is “that you may excel still more.” The NIV says “to do this more and more.” But the Greek text merely says “that you have much more than enough” (hina perisseuete mallon). Paul doesn’t specify that you have more in order that you can fulfill some mission like pleasing God. He doesn’t say that you are to strive more. He simply says that walking in this way results in more than enough. The NASB suggests performance (“excel more”). The NIV suggests appeasement (“in order to please God”). Both imply an evangelical theology that might not really be in the text. So, here’s the real instruction. Be careful. Ask questions. Don’t take it at face value. Translation always involves the thinking of the translator and that’s not always obvious.
Topical Index: Translation