“Yes, yes I did.”
The question is why? First, let me say, sometimes it is no more than a slip of the tongue. I am reading one word, while saying another word, while looking ahead to the next word and what comes out is some amalgamation that makes everyone tilt his or her head in curiosity. But sometimes, just sometimes, it is actually on purpose.
Have you ever heard two kids argue about how fast they are or how much better their favorite super hero is than their friend’s?
“No, mine is better.”
“No, mine is.”
“Mine is bigger”
“Well, mine is bigger than the world.”
“Well, mine is bigger than the sun.”
“Well, mine is bigger than the universe.”
“Well, mine is hunormous.”
Well, mine is ginormous”
“Well, mine is infinity big!
“Well, mine is infinity squared!”
Uh, oh. He went and did it. He invoked the “infinity squared” big. Being too young to know about cubing numbers this ends the conversation or receives a reply such as, “Well, so” and they start playing again.
We all know that you can’t square infinity but that is not the point. The one child is taking the superlative size and inventing something to make the point that his super hero is even bigger than the biggest thing in the world. In Ephesians 3:8, Paul essentially does the same thing (although his reasons are different). Let me explain.
He writes, “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ,”
Paul adds a suffix to the end of the word “less”. This suffix turns the word “less” into the superlative “least”. Yet, notice what the translators of the ESV have done. They have added the word “very”. The NIV translators translate it “less than the least”. You can’t be less than the least. This is Paul saying, “I am at the bottom, I am the lowest.” Why do they do this? Because Paul doesn’t stop at turning the word “less” into the superlative “least”, he adds a second suffix, a suffix of comparison. He says, I don’t just consider myself the least, when I compare myself to the least I am still lower. In the Greek this is all captured in one word, so to make the point, I made up a word in English, “leaster”. As in, “you’re the least well I am leaster than you?” In the Pillar NT Commentary, Peter O’Brien explains it this way,
“As if the superlatives ‘least’ (among the apostles, 1 Cor. 15:9) or first and foremost (of sinners, 1 Timothy 1:15) were insufficient to express his unworthiness, Paul creates a new form of this Greek adjective, that is, a comparison of a superlative (‘leaster’, ‘less than the least’).
This is the only time in the NT where this form occurs. The only thing that comes close is the Apostle John’s use of a double comparison in 3 John 4 when he is conveying his joy, “I have no greater joy than to hear my children are walking in the truth.”
Why does this matter? It is important for several reasons. First, to attempt to translate this word in a way that most closely resembles the original forces us to pause and reflect. Paul made up a word to convey his understanding of his own condition without Christ. If we simply read that Paul thinks of himself as the “least” we might quickly move on but when he describes himself as the “leaster”, we immediately pause and say, “Can you even say that?” It forces reflection.
Second, this word serves a small but important role in the argument for Ephesian’s authenticity as Pauline. Modern scholarship has argued for various reasons that Paul did not write Ephesians and that it was written by a later disciple of Paul. One of the sections they point to is Ephesians 3:1-13 as being very “unpauline”. Paul has described himself elsewhere as the “least” or the “chief of sinners” but does it seem likely that a disciple of Paul (someone who no doubt saw Paul as a hero) would decide to add a description of Paul that put him even lower than he described himself? It is unlikely. To quote O’Brien again (p. 35), “ It is even less likely that a Paulinist, who is thought to have penned these words, would speak of his hero in this fashion!” F. F. Bruce adds that the description offered by Paul here is the “very hallmark of apostolic authenticity.” (Bruce, Ephesians, p. 63)
Finally, the unusual nature of the construction that has forced us to pause as we read it, forces us to reflect on how we view ourselves. We see in this model an example to follow. When Paul makes statements such as this, does he believe that he has committed more sins (numerically) than anyone who has ever walked the planet? Does Paul not understand grace? Why does he make these kinds of statements? In short, I think Paul genuinely sees himself as the worst of the worst because he is more familiar with the darkness of his own heart than anyone else’s. He knows the depths of his own depravity. He knows the times that his good deeds were marked by sinful ambition and motive. Paul has a front row seat to his own sin and from where he sits there is no one who could possibly be worse.
This should be our perspective. As we grow in our knowledge of God and as we are able to see more and more clearly into the face of Jesus Christ, the darkness of our sin becomes even darker. We are unable to imagine anyone being a greater sinner than we. And very importantly, this causes us to grow in our understanding of the grace, mercy and forgiveness that we have found in the cross of Christ. To say it another way, as we mature in Christ, we don’t see ourselves as becoming more deserving of the grace we have received but less. As God becomes more glorious and Christ more precious the chasm between my sin and His holiness widens while at the same time I am being drawn closer to Him because I recognize that his grace is glorious enough to bridge whatever chasm my sin has created.
So, Paul, you may be the leastest, but I pray I will see myself as the leastest squared.