Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts


Maranatha! What Difference Does It Make?

posted by Mark D. Roberts

Sometime in the mid-50s A.D., the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the church in Corinth. He concluded this epistle in the following way:

I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Let anyone be accursed who has no love for the Lord. Our Lord, come! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. My love be with all of you in Christ Jesus (1 Cor 16:21-24).

This passage this reads smoothly in English. But if you were to read the original Greek, you’d stumble upon a mystery. What you’d find is this:

I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Let anyone be accursed who has no love for the Lord. Marana tha. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. My love be with all of you in Christ Jesus

No matter how well you knew Greek, you would not be able to understand the words, marana tha because, though they appear in Greek letters, they aren’t Greek words.

In fact, marana tha are Aramaic words. They mean “Our Lord, come!” or possibly, “Our Lord is coming”. The use of the prayer “Our Lord, come!” in Revelation 22:20 (in Greek) and in the Didache 10:6 (in Aramaic) points to the prayerful use of the Aramaic phrase in 1 Corinthians 16:20. Aramaic was the language spoken commonly in the eastern Roman Empire, in lands such as Judea and Syria. But it was not the language of Corinth. In fact very few of the Corinthian Christians would have known what marana tha meant, unless Paul had taught them this meaning in an earlier visit to Corinth. The fact that he employs it in his letter suggests that this was in fact the case. The Corinthians knew this Aramaic phrase because Paul had taught it to them during his first visit to Corinth, which took place around A.D. 52. (Photo: Maranatha Baptist Bible College, in Bangalore, India.)

maranatha-bible-college-india.jpg

So, you may be thinking, that’s all well and good. I now know something about the origin of “Our Lord, come!” in 1 Corinthians 16. But why does this matter? Whatever does this tell us about the earliest Christian belief about Jesus and his divinity? Let me explain.

First of all, the fact that marana tha are Aramaic words suggests that they came at first, not from the quill of the Apostle Paul, but rather from the life and liturgy of the Aramaic speaking church. This means that their origin can be dated, not to the mid-50′s A.D., but earlier. Marana tha comes from the 40s or 30s. In other words, this phrase preserves one of the earliest Christian prayers we have.

Second, the fact that Paul actually taught these Aramaic words in a letter to the Greek-speaking Corinthians suggests that they weren’t some incidental phrase Paul picked up somewhere in his early days as a Christian. Rather, they were important enough and used enough in the earliest church that Paul actually passed them on in their original tongue. This situation would be somewhat like that of the Hebrew words amen and hallelujah, which we know in the original language because they have played such a crucial part in Christian worship.

So, the phrase marana tha is both very old and very important. But what does it show us about the earliest Christian understanding of Jesus?

First, it’s quite clear from the context in 1 Corinthians 16 (and elsewhere), that the “Lord” being addressed as “Our Lord” (marana) is Jesus in particular, not God (the Father). Jesus is the one the early Christians are asking to come.

Second, consider the fact that the earliest Christians, most of whom were Jews, were calling out to Jesus as if in prayer. Not only did they believe that he rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, but they also believed that he could hear their requests. So, as they worshiped the one true God, they also prayed to Jesus. This is quite a surprising development when you consider that it happened within a monotheistic Jewish context.

Third, the word “Lord” in Aramaic (mar) had a variety of meanings. It could be used as a term of respect for a human being. But it was also the word used by Aramaic-speaking Jews when they spoke to the LORD God. During his earthly life, Jesus was sometimes addressed as “lord” by people who meant simply to show respect to him as an honorable human being (for example, Matthew 8:6). But, after Jesus’ resurrection, the Christian use of “Lord” began to change. We see this illustrated powerfully in the story of “doubting Thomas.” When he finally realizes that Jesus is truly risen, Thomas exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). While Thomas is not espousing Trinitarian theology here, his language suggests an association between Jesus and God that is striking.

So when the earliest Christians, who still maintained their Jewish identity and central belief in one God, spoke in prayer to Jesus, calling him “Lord,” this indicates that they thought of Jesus in most exalted terms. Though it would be going beyond the evidence to conclude that the earliest, Aramaic-speaking, Jewish Christians believed that Jesus was somehow “fully God,” in the language of the fourth-century Nicene Creed, they were clearly moving in that direction. (In fact, it may well be that some of those who prayed to Jesus with marana tha did indeed think of him as God, while others did not. Early Christianity showed considerable theological diversity, which is one reason I entitled this series Was Jesus Divine? Early Christian Perspectives, not The Early Christian Perspective.)

We have seen that two small words in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians turn out to reveal quite a bit about the earliest Christian belief in Jesus. They show that some of the first Christians prayed to Jesus, as if to God, and referred to him with a title they used for God. These words also show us that the phrase “Our Lord, come!” was important enough and used so commonly among some of the earliest Christians that Paul taught the Corinthians both the Aramaic words and their meaning. Clearly, therefore, many of the earliest Christians regarded Jesus as far more than simply an inspired, human teacher of wisdom. He was someone to whom they prayed as if they were praying to God.

In my next post in this series I’ll consider another piece of early Christian evidence that confirms and develops what we have seen in this post. 



  • Ed Choy

    Good article and I agree with your translation. I wrote my master’s thesis on three aramaic words in the NT, one of them being maranatha, and I took it as “our lord, come!” My study was based primarily on the Aramaic use in the Targums and also cited the didache.
    Thank you for your insights and contribution!

  • Mark D. Roberts

    Thanks, Ed, for your comment and affirmation.

  • MARTIN S.

    The early Christian believers
    would often greet one another
    with the word “Maranantha.”
    O, that we might live in the
    light of this glorious truth
    and with this hope ever in
    our hearts:
    JESUS IS COMING VERY SOON!!

  • Paul Grabill

    Wow. What an amazing article, Mark.
    I never heard anything close to your thesis before. I think is even a stronger argument than the one made by Geisler earlier in the chapter (vv.3-8).
    Thank you!

  • Wole Dedeke

    Mark,
    Thank you for your exposition on the word ‘Maranatha’. I have seen this word used a lot in the Christian world without knowledge of its origin or meaning. I think in this sense, the prayer “Our Lord, come!” means more than His physical second coming but that of inviting Our Lord to manifest His Grace and Glory in our daily living. May the Lord Jesus grant you more revelations of who He is.

  • Gary Mac

    God does not come as a man God comes as a Spirit and He resides in man. Behold the kingdm of god is withn you just as Jesus said it is. As long as you seek God as flesh, a man, you will never ever see the God of Spirit that was in that man. YOU are suposed to recieve from God the same as Jesus did in Matt 3:16 when heaven was opend to him as well as me. God didnt tell you he is flesh, youre carnal understanding does. It is YOU who is suposed to be that person of Christ and until you let Him COME to you and be in you, you wll never see God at all.

  • Mark D. Roberts

    Gary Mac: Thanks for taking your time to share your thoughts on this topic. I take that you must think the Gospel of John is wrong when it asserts that the Word of God became flesh in Jesus. Yes? Or do you understand John 1:1-18 in a different way? Peace.

  • http://flipperthedolphin Phillip Smith

    We our priest occasionally uses “Maranatha” in our liturgy, and I find it quite powerful,as can all, if you understand it, (and this is important), metaphorically, and historically, in the context of the earlier tribal communities,who were looking forward to a coming Messiah, who would rescue them from the tyranny of the Roman Empire. Also, today, in respect to the second coming, here and now, when we recognise that first non-violent coming as the only one, and live out our calling to help those less fortunate than ourselves(something we could learn very well, particularly here in Australia). Otherwise, there is a danger of worshipping a “God up-there”. Thanks and all the best.

  • Gary Mac

    OH yes I agree totally with John that Gods word became flesh in Jesus, and the reason I know that He did is because He is in my flesh the same as He was in Jesus, same spirit in me, same mind in me, we are one, same everything. The living God is within me just as He was in Jesus and John and Peter and Paul and all of us who recieve from God His Spirit. If one is not His living word then that person has never met Him. He came to Jesus in Matt 3:16 and opend heaven to the him, same thing happens in us all who recieve the same as he did. Jesus refered to is as born again.

  • Gary Mac

    Perhaps I was not clear in my comments. God sent an example for us to follow, a standard. Jesus was sent by God to us to teach us to be like him, immitate him, walk as he walked, pick up that cross and continue where he left off, be ye perfect even as youre Father in heaven is perfect. This mentality of we can never be like Jesus was is contrary to everything God sent Jesus to teaches us to be. The anointed one, Christ, is suposed to be you, Christ in you, Gods anointing in you. Jesus said I am the way, the truth and the life and no one come to the Father but by me, meaing, you must be like Him or you will never see the kingdom of God which Jesus said in Luke 17:21 is withn you.
    What would Jesus have said if he wanted us to be like him, maybe someting like — be one witht the Father as he was one with Him. He in you and you in Him as one. Let this same mind be in you who was in Christ Jesus, or maybe walk as i walk, do as I do, follow my example. 1 John 3:6 says in Christ we are without sin and if one is in sin he doent know Him at all. And verse 9 says in Christ we cannot sin.
    Personally I think mans laws has made their god what they want Him to be instead of being like Him themselves. Christ simply means to be anointed of God, Christ in you, you being anointed of Gods Spirit Just as Gods example sent to us to teach us to be — Christ like.

  • Maggie

    It is great to find words and prayers that are in the early Aramaic because we know that they have not been mistranslated or in any way changed from the original form. However, when I read this verse from Paul he sounds no different than some of the radical Islamists who vow death and destruction on all who do not follow their narrow view of Islam. To say “Let anyone be accursed who has no love for the Lord;” is Paul asking for a curse on people who have never heard of Jesus. That was not Paul’s place to do, but God’s. God believes in us and would not curse those who do not know him.

  • Abambagibus

    ‘Herr’ Ruprecht [ie Robert(s)]:
    The word ‘Lord’, in most languages, if not all, did not necessarily refer to God, especially in Biblical Greek. A connotation such as this was generally a personally meaningful attribution. Otherwise, the vocative ‘Kurie’ (Greek for ‘Lord’) was a common form of reverential address and still is. Any extrapolation as to the general usage of its ancient Aramaic equivalent as referring only to God and not to Jesus alone bears a significant measure of uncertainty.

  • Mark D. Roberts

    Abambagibus: Well, I have never before been called Herr Ruprecht, but I get your point. You may have noticed that I said about the word “Lord” basically the same thing you said. It has a range of meanings, from “sir” to “LORD.” Context alone will tell us what it means in a given text. Thus, when Christians are praying to Jesus a Lord, that points in the direction of something much more than “sir,” does it not? My next two posts will offer more clarity. Peace.

  • Abambagibus

    Sir Roberts, Mark D :
    Since the word ‘Herr’, as you may know, is German for Lord as well as for Mister in reverence, I chose to address you as Herr in conjunction with the German equivalent for Robert(s). I was playing with your thoughts as expressed in your blog. But, beside all of this, I must thank you for responding to my thoughts on the matter. Lesser bloggers would have taken umbrage at my inquisitive incisions and they have. They have chosen to ignore me and, on rare occasion, to attack. But you, dear Sir, in my estimation, are a student of honest dialectic. You have a Christian mind in the manner of Thomas and a faith most probably, I’m sure, in the manner of the One to whom we aspire.

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