In the english language punctuation is used to express meaning. This is more obvious for exclamation points and question marks, but it also applies to the lowly comma. Where you place a comma and how you use it determines much of what a complex sentence means. As is commonly said, a comma is all that stands between an invitation like, “It’s time to eat, grandma” and cannibalism like, “It’s time to eat grandma”.

The bible is full of punctuation, and all of it is meaningful. However it must be kept in mind that the greek language does not use punctuation and so every semicolon, every exclamation mark is actually interpretive, it is provided by the translators to convey meaning. Sometimes translators use a comma to replace actual greek words and particles. For example if you look at Ephesians 4:11 in the ESV

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers

Every comma in this verse represents the greek particle “de” which simply means “and” or “moreover”. Which is why the NKJV translates it this way:

And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers

There are other times however where a comma is added to convey meaning beyond what is reflected in the the greek particles. Because greek sentences can be much longer than the average english sentence, especially in the writings of Paul (Ephesians 1:3-14 is a single sentence in the Greek!) translators often use punctuation to make the passage more readable or easy to follow. This is all well and good but sometimes this organization takes on the form of theological convictions. I am not saying that translators are out to deceive you, what I am saying is that in places of ambiguity your current theology will manifest in how you handle it. Getting back to Ephesians 4 we have a perfect example. Lets look at verse 11 again with the verses that follow it, this time in the King James Version:

And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:

The way this punctuation is laid out, God has given these 5 offices to do three things:

  1. to perfect the saints (equip in newer translations)
  2. to do the work of ministry
  3. to build up the body of Christ

However look at a modern translation, like the NKJV:

And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ

At first glance it seems exactly the same, but notice a comma is missing, between the word “saints” and the word “for”. This DRASTICALLY changes the meaning of this sentence. The way this punctuation is used, God has given these 5 offices to do one thing:

  1. equip the saints  in order that the saints may do the ministry and even build up the body of Christ.

To sum up the difference in these two possibilities consider this question, who in the church is to do the ministry? Is ministry something that pastors do, or is it something that Christians do? The KJV greatly manifest the difference between the laity and the clergy. The clergy does the ministry, the laity receives it. The NKJV (with most modern translations) sees ministry as the responsibility of the whole church, but God has given pastors to equip them to do so.

The modern punctuation is almost guaranteed to be more accurate, just look down the passage at verse 16:

from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

This passage rightly reflects what the reformers called the priesthood of all believers. It is easy to see where the mistaken comma came from in the KJV. Assume that ministry is something that pastors do, and it makes sense to see it as one of a list of three. This is why it is worth thinking through what punctuation conveys as you read the Bible, as well as investigating why the translators used it.

There is a relationship between punctuation and theology. Learn how our theology sometimes informs the way we use (and read) punctuation in the Bible.