“And let us consider one another to stir up love and good works.” (NKJV)
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” (NIV).
For many years—most of my adult life really—I read the NIV translation of the Bible. This verse in Hebrews played an important role in how I understood relationships among Christians were supposed to work. That is, I thought we were supposed to spend time imagining ways to spur others on to love and good works: we were supposed to pay attention to how and whether others were loving and doing good works, and think of ways to prod them into doing what they should be doing. In the end, such a reading of this verse becomes nothing more than a license for busy bodying.
Reading the passage in Greek yesterday, I was surprised to discover that the King James tradition provides the more accurate translation. Instead of considering how to spur one another, we are to consider one another into [resulting in] the stirring up [inciting, stimulating] of love and good works. To tell you the truth, the Greek is ambiguous. I can see why modern translators might want to provide an easy solution. It is reasonable to assume that the love and good works are done by the “one another” whom we are to consider, and the preposition (into) implies a causal relationship; so with a little translator’s license we have an easily readable translation that “makes good sense” to modern Protestant English readers. And why not? What else would we consider in others except how to make them better?
St. John Chrysostom read this verse very differently. Faced with the same ambiguity of text, he provides a very different interpretation, one that calls for humility and considering others as better than ourselves. St. John asks, “What is, ‘let us consider one another’? It means if a certain one is virtuous, let us imitate this one. Let us look upon him so as to love…. For from love all good works come.” For St. John, the stirring up of love comes from considering others who are more virtuous than our selves. Of course to do this one must actually believe that others are more virtuous.
The shift in perspective is telling. St. John assumes that we look for what is good and emulable in one another, not for what needs to be fixed—and then to consider how I am supposed to help fix it. And isn’t this our usual (sinful) tendency, to see what’s wrong with one another and to think we know how to fix it. Instead, the writer of Hebrews is calling us to stimulate love and good works in ourselves by considering what is good and virtuous in others.