John D. Barry
“Help” is a word of desperation. It’s what we say when we think we can’t go on. That’s not the case for the biblical writers. For them, it’s a war cry.
The psalmist said: “I lift my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (Psa 121:1–2).
In the ancient world, people thought the gods dwelled on the hills. The author of the Psalms looks to the hills not to flee, but for aid. He then acknowledges that his help comes from Yahweh (the LORD), who made heaven and earth. What is there to fear on earth if everything in it is God’s?
But here’s where it gets interesting: God empowers us to do His work. That means that His gifts and abilities become our gifts and abilities. That’s what Paul talks about in his first letter to the Corinthians:
“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts” (1 Cor 12:27–31).
The Greek word for helping (ἀντίληµψις, antilaempsis) only occurs this one time in the New Testament. The ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, the Septuagint, gives us some clues about its meaning. It renders Hebrew words meaning “shield” (Psa 89:18), “helmet” (Psa 108:8), “strong arm” (Psa 83:8) and “strength” (Psa 84:5) as antilaempsis.
For our shield belongs to the LORD, our king to the Holy One of Israel (Psa 89:18). Gilead is mine; Manasseh is mine; Ephraim is my helmet, Judah my scepter (Psa 108:8). Asshur also has joined them; they are the strong arm of the children of Lot (Psa 83:8). Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion (Psa 84:5).
How the Septuagint translators understood antilaempsis suggests that it means much more than “helping.” In many ways, “helping” is a war cry: Look to the hills where God comes from, and pick up your shields—for the spiritual battle is at hand.
We often think of the gift of helping as something we move up from: You start by cleaning tables and making the coffee, and then you graduate to higher spiritual gifts.
But cleaning up messes is not a spiritual gift for kind people. We’ve been misappropriating the label of helping. We need to use the term properly, which may require a vocabulary shift to “protecting.”
Antilaempsis is about protecting others by pointing them back to Christ. We all need restoration, and we all need protection and strength. Understanding this term as the psalmist used it, and as Paul repurposed it, suggests that we need to invest in people who have the gift of strengthening others.
John D. Barry is the CEO and founder of Jesus’ Economy, a nonprofit dedicated to creating jobs and churches in the developing world. To empower the extreme poor, Jesus’ Economy also has an online fair trade shop. John is also the general editor of Faithlife Study Bible and the former editor-in-chief of Bible Study Magazine. Learn more about John’s work with Jesus’ Economy at www.jesuseconomy.org.