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Discovering the Power of Luke's Gospel: A Greek Word Study without Greek

  • Andrew B. Perrin Columnist for Bible Study Magazine
  • Updated Mar 25, 2010
Discovering the Power of Luke's Gospel: A Greek Word Study without Greek

Whether you have spent countless sleepless nights pouring over Greek flash cards or can barely manage to order a gyro, you can reach beyond your English Bible to the original Greek in four easy steps.

In Luke 8:46, a desperately ill woman touches Jesus in order to be healed. Jesus then says, "Someone touched me, for I perceive that power has gone out from me" (Luke 8:46 ESV). What does the word "power" mean in the passage? What precisely went out from Jesus? To find out, we need to investigate the Greek word behind the English word "power."

Step 1: Make the Switch to Greek and Establish a Working Definition

For those who don't read Greek, the most effective way to make the English to Greek transition is to use a tool like the ESV English-Greek Reverse Interlinear New Testament. Simply find the English word "power" in the reverse interlinear and look at the Greek word placed below it—δύναμις (dunamis).

Now that we know that the Greek word for "power," dunamis (δύναμις), is the subject of our investigation, we need to formulate a working definition.

If you are using print books, you can use Strongest Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible for this step. The key to efficiently using this resource is to take note of the Strong's Number allocated to the word dunamis (δύναμις) in the interlinear Bible—1411. We can use this reference number to look up the word numerically in the Greek to English Dictionary-Index to the New Testament appended to Strong's. Here we see that dunamis (δύναμις) can refer to a literal or figurative force, specifically the ability to work miracles, or even to a miracle itself.

We can skip this step entirely in Logos Bible Software by just double-clicking a word in a reverse interlinear. When we do this, our preferred lexicon* automatically opens to dunamis (δύναμις). For me, this lexicon is A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG). BDAG tells me that dunamis (δύναμις) in Luke 8:46 falls under the definition of "potential for functioning in some way, power, might, strength, force, capability." BDAG also includes a sub-definition, which reads: "specifically the power that works wonders."

Step 2: Briefly Track the Word through the Greek World

With one of these working definitions in mind, the next step is to investigate how this definition functions in literary contexts and biblical passages.

The key to an efficient study of a Greek word is not to reinvent the wheel by personally searching through literature of various time-periods. Rather, streamline the process by consulting a resource such as the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Abridged in One Volume) (TDNT). The TDNT provides concise articles that explain how and where a word occurs in various passages and contexts.

This resource accommodates to English readers by providing a table of English keywords. When we look up the word "power" we are directed to the entry discussing dunamis (δύναμις) on page 186. This entry discusses the word in Greek literature (such as Homer's Iliad) and in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament (the Septuagint).

While dunamis (δύναμις) in Greek literature often had to do with various forces (powers) moving and governing the universe, the Greek translators of the Old Testament viewed "power" as something God himself possessed and exerted. This shift in meaning further develops in the New Testament.

Step 3: Explore the Usage of the Word in the New Testament

When looking up a particular word in the New Testament, there are two things that should be considered: frequency (how many times a word appears) and distribution (where the word appears).

We can use an interactive chart in Logos' Exegetical Guide to determine the frequency of a word in the New Testament. Our word, dunamis (δύναμις), occurs 119 times. Although this is interesting, this statistic only provides us with a panoramic landscape. We must supplement it with details of the terrain—the context (or specific distribution) of each occurrence. We can use Logos' concordance function or Strong's to ascertain the predominant meanings attached to this word by the New Testament authors.

Whenever we study a word, we should focus on how it is being used in the passage we are investigating. The fact that Luke uses the word dunamis (δύναμις) fifteen times throughout his account—a frequency equaled only by Paul in 1 Corinthians—establishes that "power" is a central theme and emphasis of his Gospel.

Now that we know that "power" is a central theme in Luke's Gospel, we need to determine how the word is used throughout the book. Each occurrence of the word can be categorized by what it describes. When we categorize the different occurrences of dunamis (δύναμις) in Luke's Gospel, we find that it describes four things.

In the beginning of Luke's Gospel dunamis (δύναμις) comes from the "Most High" (Luke 1:35). However, once Jesus endures a period of testing in the wilderness there is a shift. Jesus becomes "filled with the power of the Spirit" (Luke 4:14). From this point onwards, Jesus independently uses and distributes divine power, like God the Father (Luke 9:1; 10:19). Luke uses "power" to establish Jesus' divine identity. Jesus' "power" causes onlookers to scratch their heads and ponder the identity and message of Jesus (Luke 4:36).

Now that we have determined how Luke uses the term in general, we can return to Luke 8:46 to reassess the meaning of dunamis (δύναμις) in light of our entire investigation.

The use of "dunamis" in Luke:

-God (1:35; 4:14)
-Jesus' heavenly authority (21:27; 22:69) 
-Jesus' miracles (10:13; 19:37) 
-Jesus' healing ministry (5:17; 6:19; 8:46)

Step 4: Revisit the Passage to Find the Meaning of the Word in Context

Judging from the usage of the term in various contexts (and specifically in Luke's Gospel), it seems fair to conclude that this occurrence of dunamis (δύναμις) refers to the divine power contained and originated in the person of Jesus.

The purpose of Luke 8:46 is to highlight the connection between Jesus' divinity and the actions performed in his healing ministry. Numerous times throughout Jesus' healing ministry, divine "power" finds its source in him (Luke 5:17; 6:19; 8:46). Dunamis (δύναμις) in Luke 8:46 subtly expresses that the presence and effect of "power" in Jesus' earthly ministry indicates his divine identity.

To review: The Greek writers used dunamis (δύναμις) to describe spiritual and universal "powers". The translators of the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) used the word to describe something that originated from, and was distributed by, God. Among other usages, Luke primarily used "power" to describe something God the Father and Jesus possessed.

*A lexicon is an in-depth dictionary about a specific corpus of writings. Because of this, lexicons can contain more lengthy and detailed entries than dictionaries.

Koine (Common) Greek

The New Testament was written in Koine Greek (Κοινὴ Ελληνική). Koine Greek, or Common Greek, was a dialect that began during the reign of Alexander the Great (336-323 BC) and continued to be spoken until about 500 CE. Unlike many of the philosophical works before it (written in Attic Greek), the New Testament was addressed to a popular and diverse audience, comprised primarily of lower class individuals. Thus, it was written in the dialect of the people.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Logos Bible Software. Each issue of Bible Study Magazine provides tools and methods for Bible study as well as insights from people like John Piper, Kay Arthur, Mark Driscoll, Randy Alcorn, John MacArthur, Barry Black, and more. More information is available at Originally published in print: Copyright Bible Study Magazine (Nov-Dec 2008): pg. 37-38.

Publication date: March 17, 2010