Abba In Mark 14:36, Jesus is quoted as saying, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee,” as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. The Aramaic Abba means “father” in the way that daddy or papa mean “father.” One of Jesus’ most distinctive contributions to our understanding of God was this intimate cry of a child, “Abba!” The early Christians followed Jesus’ example by using the word to address God in prayer. In Romans 8:15, for example, Paul says it is the Spirit of God who allows us to “cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ ”

Alpha and Omega In Revelation 22:13, Jesus calls himself “the Alpha and Omega.” These letters, the first and last of the Greek alphabet, are used now as symbols in stained-glass windows. But archaeologists have found the letters scratched in plaster dating from times when it was dangerous to be known as a Christian.

alleluia (hallelujah) One of the best-loved words in the Christian vocabulary, it is also perhaps the most spoken and sung. There is no mystery as to what it means: The Hebrew halelu is the imperative “Praise!” and the final syllable (jah) is a shortened form of God’s sacred name Yahweh (translated as Jehovah in the KJV).

amen The word appears 30 times in the Old Testament and 150 times in the New. Most Christians say it several times a day. It is a Hebrew word of affirmation: So be it. Verily. Jesus’ stern formula for introducing his sayings, “Verily, verily, I say unto you,” used this word twice: “Amen, amen, I tell you,” some translations say. But Jesus employed this common word in an unusual way. In his day, amēn was something other people said to show their agreement with what you had just said, to bind themselves to your oath or to agree with your prayer. From extant records it seems that Jesus was unique in saying amēn to his own words, and in prefacing his own pronouncements with these words of utter certainty. Since Jesus’ time, Christians followed Jewish practice in joining in prayers of their worship leaders by uttering the amēn. And in still later times, they appended it to their own prayers as an affirmation. In Revelation 3:14, Christ is revealed as the true amēn and as “the faithful and true witness.” He is the word of certainty behind all our prayers and hopes.

anathema This word is used in the most common Greek translation of the Old Testament to translate cherem, the Hebrew word that described the cities, peoples, and cattle that God commanded the Israelites to destroy. It also referred to holy things that were God’s alone. But in the New Testament and in modern English, it refers to people who are cursed and doomed to destruction. Thus Paul wrote in Galatians 1:8 that if anyone should preach a different gospel than the one he had preached, “let him be anathema.”

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cherub Say “cherub and most people picture a chubby child with diaphanous wings. But the proper name for that rosy-cheeked image is putto, and no one imagined a cherub like that much before the Renaissance.

In the ancient Near East, a cherub was a supernatural winged creature, often represented as half-human and half-animal, like the winged bulls with human heads that have been excavated at the site of ancient Nineveh.

The psalmist described God as “enthroned upon the cherubim” (Ps. 80:1), and God told Moses to make two golden cherubim for the top of the ark. It was from the mercy seat between these cherubim that God would speak to Moses (Exod. 25:18–22). Apparently Moses knew what a cherub looked like, but the Bible does not describe the cherubim until we come to Ezekiel. He does not actually use the word, but in his vision of the Lord’s glory, Ezekiel describes “living creatures” with human bodies and animal faces.

Cherub may come from a word root meaning “intercede”; placing the cherubim on either side of the mercy seat fits that notion well. Or it may come from a root meaning “guard.” The posting of the cherubim at the entrance to the garden of Eden supports that notion (Gen. 3:24). God’s angels, of course, perform both functions.

koinonia Derived from the Greek word for things that are held in common, koinōnia refers to the communion, the brotherly bond, that exists among people who have something important in common. In Acts, it is used to describe the common worship life of the early church. But when Paul adopted the term, it took on a special meaning: not a human society, but the relation of faith to Christ. Thus we have Paul’s typical phrases “the fellowship of his Son” and “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.” Modern Christians tend to use the word much more like the author of 1 John: the fellowship in the faith that Christians share because of their belief in the apostolic teaching, their common walking in the light, and the cleansing blood of Jesus.

maranatha A rare Aramic word found only in 1 Corinthians 16:22, maranatha either means, “Our Lord has come,” or “Our Lord, come!” Other early Christian literature (ca. 100) uses the word in prayers connected to the Lord’s Supper. It seems to be an ejaculatory prayer like the cry Abba!—a heartfelt plea for the Lord to come in judgment and set right all that is wrong with this world.

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Sabbath God gave his people a Sabbath (the word means “rest”) every seven days. Alone among the ancient nations, the Israelites marked off their time in weeks of seven days. Their worship and their work cycle was determined by simple arithmetic, rather than by any natural event, such as a phase of the moon or a season of the year. Did God thus seek to protect his people from idolatry of the Creation, and to turn them toward the Creator himself?

Like circumcision, the Sabbath was a sign of Israel’s covenant connection with their God. It was a time to remember that in six days the Lord had created the world and rested on the seventh. And it was a time to recall that their ancestors had been slaves, but that the Lord had liberated them (Exod. 20:8–11; Deut. 5:12–15). Thus they were to do no work, and their servants and the “strangers within their gates” (migrant workers?) were to have the day off as well. The Sabbath commandment sets a theological precedent for modern labor laws.

Jesus argued with the strict Sabbath keepers of his day. His two principles were simple: the Sabbath was made for the good of people, not people for the sake of the Sabbath; and he was the Lord of the Sabbath and had authority to define its proper observance (Mark 2:27–28).

The early Christians did not immediately abandon Sabbath observance, but they soon came to understand that the Sabbath, like many aspects of Jewish worship, was fulfilled in Jesus and symbolized the eternal rest God has for his people (Heb. 4:9–11).

Satan In ancient Persia, there were royal officials known as “the king’s eyes,” who roamed the kingdom and brought accusations of misdeeds to the imperial court. “The Satan” described in the prologue to Job seems to perform a similar function: he roams the earth, reporting to the heavenly court on the behavior of the Lord’s human subjects.

The word satan originally referred to any “adversary,” anyone who attempted to block your way or oppose your goals. But by the time the Jews returned from exile, the word had become a name and not just a title for God’s supernatural archadversary, and the definite article had been dropped (see 1 Chron. 21:1).

After the Babylonian exile, Judaism showed much curiosity about angels and demons, and Middle Eastern religion developed a strong theme of a supernatural struggle between eternal powers of good and evil. While the New Testament authors show a great deal of caution when it comes to Satan, they do not fall into the dualistic trap, because they believe in God’s victory over the Devil and report his fall from his position of heavenly prominence (Luke 10:18; Rev. 12:7–9).

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shalom our Israeli friends say shalom the way Hawaiians say aloha and Italians say ciao. But this Hebrew word for “peace” means something that is far deeper than “hi!” or “see ya later.” Bible scholars tell us it includes not just the absence of war and tension, but also well-being, wholeness, individual health and safety, and communal harmony and prosperity.

“The effect of righteousness will be peace,” writes Isaiah (32:17), and the Bible repeatedly stresses the connection between shalom and obedience, fairness, and justice. False prophets prophesy, “ ‘Peace, Peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jer. 8:11), but true prophets know that genuine peace can be achieved only by passing through judgment.

Having passed under God’s judgment for his followers, the risen Christ greets them with a simple “Peace be with you” (John 20:21). Sin disrupts, but the Prince of Peace restores shalom.

torah “Oh, how I love your law!” exclaims the psalmist (119:97). While only the seriously neurotic could become so enraptured with a modern law code, this psalmist was well balanced. When he says he loves God’s torah, he is using a term closer to our English words instruction and guidance than to our words code, statutes, or rule book. The torah is what keeps people on the right path, what protects them from vanity, what makes them wise.

In the New Testament, the word law has varied meanings, reflecting the many ways torah and its synonyms were used: the five books of Moses, the sacrificial system, and the wise counsel of God are just a few. But Paul understood that ultimately it was not the Law (whatever you mean by the word), but Jesus who could rescue us from sin; it was not the Law, but the Spirit of God that could give new life. Partly as a result of Paul’s revolutionary rhetoric and partly because of anti-Judaism in the Roman Empire, some streams of early Christianity had no respect for the torah. The psalmist would have said their hearts were “fat” and “gross” (119:70).

Eugene H. Peterson is pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church, Bel Air, Maryland, and author of A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (InterVarsity) and Answering God (Harper & Row), both of which are about the Psalms.

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