The Misplaced Comma
Dr. Jim Denison
Have you heard of the Wicked Bible? This was an edition of the King James Version published in London in 1631. The word “not” was accidentally left out of the seventh commandment. As a result, Exodus 20:14 commanded, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” For this, the translation was appropriately called the “Wicked” Bible. William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, ordered the printers to pay a fine of 300 pounds.
In 1716, thousands of copies of another Bible edition were printed before someone noticed that the command of John 8, “Go and sin no more” had been printed, “Go and sin on more.” And a mix-up in gender in a 1923 version produced this command: “A man may not marry his grandmother’s wife,” a difficult task anyway.
Some translation mistakes are humorous and harmless enough. However, there is another mistake in a biblical translation which is not so funny today. For centuries it has had a devastating effect on the church, and still hurts us. It’s not a sentence or even a word, but a comma. Just one little comma. But it’s been disastrous.
This morning I need to show you why this is so, and the enormous and crucial significance this comma holds for your life and soul today, and for eternity.
The worst typo in history
The worst typo in history is found in the King James Version of the Bible. Now, I have a high regard for the KJV; it was the translation preached when I came to Christ, and is still the most popular version in English today. I don’t want you to worry if you read the KJV.
But there’s a major problem with this passage: “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-12).
What’s wrong here? We’ve discussed this text before, but never as a morning sermon. The issue is so important, I want us to revisit it and give it our full attention today.
Verse 11 is fine. God did indeed call some leaders to be apostles, others prophets or evangelists, still others to be pastor-teachers. The problem is with verse 12, which describes the work of these leaders. According to the KJV, my first job is the “perfecting of the saints.” This means to mature the saints, to train or “feed” God’s people. This is my first responsibility.
My second job is to do “the work of the ministry.” I am to witness, to visit, to counsel, to comfort, to serve. And my third job is “the edifying of the body of Christ.” I am to build the church. Now, isn’t this how the typical church member evaluates the pastor? Did he “feed” me? Did he do the ministry? Did he grow the church?
But as you may remember, the first comma of verse 12 was a mistake. It simply didn’t exist in the Greek original. It was inserted by Anglican translators, men who wanted to preserve the power of church officials.
And so they reinforced the greatest single mistake in church history: the “clergy.” A class of “ministers,” separate from the members. A disaster. And they gave us three jobs: equip the Christians, do the ministry, grow the church.
But take out the first comma, and what do you have? The job of the pastor or any church leader is the “perfecting of the saints for the work of the ministry.” Or as the NIV puts it, “to prepare God’s people for works of service.” And that’s a completely different thing.
This comma has given birth to an entire mindset in the Christian church which is wrong. Simply put, it is the idea that effective personal ministry and witnessing, passionate commitment to Jesus, and sacrificial stewardship are wonderful, but optional. Once you’re saved, you’re fine. Everything else is extra credit, reserved for the super-Christians who are called by God for “special service.”
For the sake of our church, and our souls, I must show you how wrong that is.
Two jobs, one vocation
God’s strategy for a healthy church and soul is really very simple: leaders who are equippers, and members who are ministers. Two jobs, one vocation, to help people follow Jesus.
First, let’s look at the job of leaders. If you are a leader in this church, here’s your job description: to “prepare God’s people for works of service.” “Prepare” translates a medical term, which means to “set a bone” or heal something broken. It describes a trainer who wraps the ankle of a football player so he can send him back into the game. Someone who gets others ready to play.
This is how God will evaluate our performance one day. Not by how well we do the ministry, but by how well our people do. The coach is not judged by his own ability, but by that of his team. Pastors and leaders will not be evaluated by how many people we won to Christ, but by how many people our people won; not by how well we pray, but by how well our people pray; not by how much Scripture we know and practice, but by how much our people do.
This week I found an odd military term: “attack oilers.” The USS Savannah is one of these, for instance. She provides fuel, ammunition, missiles, and other essentials to the fighting ships. Without her, they cannot win the battle.In the same way, we in leadership are “oilers”—we exist to help you find and fulfil your ministry calling. As we will see in a moment, God will hold us accountable for this, his purpose for our lives and work.
So God needs leaders who are equippers, and members who are ministers.
Every Christian has at least one spiritual gift (v. 7). You have a calling from God, a specific ministry you are to perform to help people follow Jesus. You need to be equipped for this ministry. You need to be reading Scripture daily, praying as a lifestyle, worshiping God across the week. You need to practice the various spiritual disciplines. Scripture is clear: “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).