Biblical Figures of Speech: Ellipsis

Text: Galatians 4:21-31


I.         In our everyday speech, we employ figures of speech constantly and rarely think about what we are doing.

            A.        Figures of speech are important tools because they make points standout in a statement.

            B.        When we recognize that a figure of speech in use, it helps us understand what is being said more quickly and more accurately.

            C.        It also helps in dealing with arguments that are based on the twisting of a figure of speech.

II.        Ellipsis

            A.        The leaving out of something that is normally in a sentence.

                        1.         “In the grammar of a sentence, an elliptical construction is a construction that lacks an element that is recoverable or inferable from the context.” [LinguaLinks, “What is an elliptical construction?”,]

                        2.         “ The elliptical construction is a sequence of words in which some words have been omitted. Because of the logic or pattern of the entire sentence, it is easy to infer what the missing words are.” [English Plus, “Elliptical Clause,”]

                        3.         These gaps force the reader to supply the missing information and thus causes to stand out in the reader’s mind.

                        4.         Ellipsis come in several forms

            B.        Absolute Ellipsis

                        1.         A word is left out of the sentence.

                        2.         “Fire when ready!” is understood as “Fire when you are ready!”

                        3.         Example: I Corinthians 15:53-55

                                    a.         Corruptible and mortal are adjectives describing something.

                                    b.         What is being described? A body

                                    c.         Thus it is saying “For this corruptible body must put on incorruption and this mortal body must put on immortality.”

                                    d.         Leaving out the word “body” puts emphasis on it.

            C.        Relative Ellipsis

                        1.         The omitted words come from related words used in the context.

                        2.         “John can play five instruments, and Mary can play six.” is understood as “John can play five instruments, and Mary can play six instruments.”

                        3.         Example: Galatians 4:24-26 (Gaps more noticeable in KJV and NKJV): “which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar--or this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children– but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.”

                                    a.         “These” what? Answer: two women (from verse 22)

                                    b.         How does one give birth to bondage? Answer: gives birth to children who are in bondage. (From verse 25)

                                    c.         What does “the Jerusalem above is free” mean? Answer: The Jerusalem which is above is the free woman. (From the last half of the verse)

            D.        Ellipsis of Repetition

                        1.         The omitted words are supplied from a clause before or after

                        2.         Example: Romans 13:7

                                    a.         “Taxes to whom taxes” is not a complete phrase – there is no verb!

                                    b.         But it is found in the preceding “render to all their due

                                    c.         Thus it is saying “Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom custom is due, fear to whom fear is due, honor to whom honor is due.”

III.       Not ... But

            A.        Some ellipsis are used so often that they become idomatic, a way people speak in a particular era or region.

            B.        We will focus on one that appears frequently in the Bible and has given people difficulty when they don’t recognize its use.

                        1.         You will find statements that contain “not” followed by a “but.” Both the “not” phrase and the “but” phrase modify a common verb.

            C.        I Peter 3:3-4

                        1.         Notice the “not” and the “but.” What verb is being modified? “Let ... be”

                        2.         In the Greek, the “let ... be” is not present after the “but”, it is supplied by ellipsis.

                        3.         But there are more words left out. Depending on your translation, notice that “merely” is added in verse 3.

                        4.         This is because “not ... but” involving a common verb imply “not only ... but also

                        5.         Read this verse without the “merely” or “only” and you could think that Peter is saying that women are not to braid their hair, wear gold jewelry, or put on clothes!

                                    a.         Actually, Pentecostals almost read this as this. “Our women in the Assemblies of God denomination are not to wear jewels of god. They’re not to wear braided hair, I Peter 3:3-4"

                                    b.         But they left out the last one!

                        6.         But in biblical days a “not ... but” with a common verb meant “not only ... but also.”

                        7.         Therefore Peter is say that women are not to just braid their hair, wear gold jewelry, and put on clothes, but they are to also have hidden qualities in the heart.

            D.        John 6:27

                        1.         Again there is a “not ... but” with a common verb of “work”

                        2.         If we ignored the ellipsis we walk away with the conclusion that Jesus is commanding that we shouldn’t work for food.

                                    a.         But this contradicts II Thessalonians 3:10

                                    b.         And I Timothy 5:8

                        3.         But recognizing the idiom, we realize that Jesus is say “Work not for food only which perishes, but also for the food which abides unto eternal life.”

                                    a.         In other words Jesus is teaching that the emphasis should be on the spiritual life, so don’t get caught up focusing only on the physical life.

            E.        Romans 6:14

                        1.         This is one people use to say “See you think we are still under law, but we under grace not law.”

                        2.         But this contradicts Galatians 6:2 and I Corinthians 9:21

                        3.         However, reading this properly: “For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not only under law but also under grace.”

                        4.         Did the Israelites not have grace? Of course they did, but the emphasis was on the law.

                        5.         Do Christians not have law? Of course they do, but the emphasis is on the grace given to them.

                        6.         It is not one or the other but where the emphasis is placed.

            F.        I Corinthians 1:17

                        1.         This one is commonly misused by people who just can’t believe that baptism is necessary in God’s plan of saving men.

                                    a.         “See,” they will say, “Paul didn’t think baptism was important. He even was thankful that he hadn’t baptized the Corinthians (I Corinthians 1:14).

                        2.         There is a “not ... but” with the common verb of “did send”

                        3.         Thus the proper way to read this is “For Christ did not send me to only baptize, but to also preach the gospel.”

                        4.         You see, Paul did think baptism was important

                                    a.         Paul went to Corinth (Acts 18:1) and as a result of his teaching, people were baptized (Acts 18:8).

                                    b.         Paul wasn’t sent to only baptize people. He had a broader duty of also teaching the gospel.

                        5.         What was the problem? People were dividing over who they were following - I Corinthians 1:11-13

                                    a.         Paul was thankful that if the Corinthians were going to play that game, that he hadn’t personally baptized most of them, otherwise they would be claiming to be following him instead of Christ.

                                    b.         But notice that verse 13 is a strong argument for baptism. “Were you baptized in the name of Paul?”

                                                (1)       The answer is not that they were not baptized at all.

                                                (2)       The answer is that they were baptized in the name of Christ

                                                (3)       Romans 6:3

                                                (4)       In order to be called after a person, that person must first be crucified for you and then you must be baptized in his name.

                                                (5)       Unless both are true, we have not business calling ourselves followers of Christ.

                        6.         Why the emphasis on preaching?

                                    a.         Before the New Testament was written, not everyone could deliver the gospel message.

                                    b.         But once that message was accepted, basically anyone could baptize a believer.

            G.        I Corinthians 7:3

                        1.         Two “not ... but” with “has power” as the common verb

                        2.         Thus, “the wife does not only have power over her own body, but the husband also has power; and likewise, the husband does not only have power over his own body, but the wife also has power.”

                        3.         Therefore this verse is not teaching that one spouse has absolute power over the body of the other spouse.

                        4.         This is a recognition that each spouse has a need to share his or her body with the spouse. Each to satisfy the need of the other.

            H.        I Corinthians 7:10-11

                        1.         Many people read this as saying Paul is not giving his personal thoughts, but just the Lord.

                        2.         Notice the “not ... but” with common verb of “command.”

                        3.         Thus, “Now to the married I command, yet not I only but also the Lord”

                        4.         If you say Paul did not command, then we have a contradiction because at the start of the verse Paul said “Now to the married I command”

                        5.         Paul is not the only one commanding this. Jesus also commanded it.

            I.         I Corinthians 14:22

                        1.         Two “not ... but” with the common verb of “are a sign”

                        2.         Thus, “Therefore tongues are for a sign, not only to those who believe but also to unbelievers; but prophesying is not only for unbelievers but also for those who believe”

                        3.         Otherwise would we claim that the prophecies in the Old Testament were only given to believers?

                                    a.         The answer is “no.” It was given to both believers and unbelievers.

                                    b.         The point is that given to both, it was mainly for believers, while tongues are given to both, but it was mainly for unbelievers.

            J.         II Corinthians 3:6

                        1.         A “not ... but” with the common verb “sufficient”

                        2.         This is often used to say that members of the church put too much emphasis on the Bible. “You should be going by the Spirit instead of the letter of the law.”

                        3.         “who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter only but also of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”

                        4.         The emphasis is regarding what is sufficient for Christians.

                                    a.         Emphasis on the law alone is not enough, we also need to know the Spirit

                                    b.         It is not enough to know the do’s and don’t’s. We also need to know the reasons behind them - Romans 13:9-10

                        5.         We can see this in the Pharisees who had many rules, but lost the view of the principles behind those rules - Matthew 23:23

                                    a.         Notice that Jesus didn’t say they should toss out the rules

                                    b.         But they lost sight of the weightier matters – the Spirit of the law.

            K.        I Peter 1:10-12

                        1.         A “not ... but” with the common verb of “unto”

                        2.         Consider this: did the Old Testament prophets not speak to themselves?

                                    a.         In other words, did the words of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or Daniel have nothing to do with themselves or the Israelites living during their times?

                        3.         “To them it was revealed that, not to themselves only, but to us also they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven--things which angels desire to look into.”

                        4.         Again there is a placement on emphasis. While the prophets were speaking to the Israelites of their day, their words were more for Christians than for the Israelites - Romans 15:4

IV.      Every “not ... but” is not an Ellipsis

            A.        Hebrews 10:24-25

                        1.         Notice that there are two verbs involved: not forsaking, but exhorting.

                        2.         If we apply an ellipsis you could have the writer saying we are not only to forsake our assemblies, but also exhort one another. An obvious fallacy.

            B.        In order to have an “not ... but” ellipsis, there must be a common verb between the two parts.

V.        It is important to recognize when the Bible uses figures of speech.

            A.        Sometimes translators will note when a figure of speech is being used and either mark it in the margins or add words to ease the understanding.

            B.        However, all figures of speech are not so marked because these figures are prevalent in our own language.

            C.        Failure to recognize a figure of speech can lead to misunderstanding or, worse, false doctrine on a particular subject.

            D.        It is important for Bible students to know how figures of speech operate.