The English Standard Version (ESV) was first published in 2001. In the preface to this work it is described as an “essentially literal” translation of the ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek languages in which the original scriptures were written. The goal of this translation is to preserve and convey the exact meaning of the biblical text as originally written, while putting these words into easily understandable modern English. This translation is based primarily on the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of 1971, and has been well received by conservative scholars, commentators, and preachers.
One particularly powerful illustration of the excellent work done by the ESV translators is found in 2 Cor. 4:2. Here the ESV renders Paul’s words in this way: “But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” In the context of this letter Paul was defending his apostleship against some in Corinth who rejected his teaching and his standing as a legitimate apostle of Christ. In this statement Paul both defended himself, and, by implication, condemned the false teachers who were trying to undermine his influence in this church.
An important part of Paul’s defense in this statement is his refusal to “practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word.” In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminded them that when he had first worked among them he had not used lofty speech or human wisdom (1 Cor. 2:1-5). Instead, he had preached the simple gospel of Christ so that their faith would rest on the power of God rather than on the wisdom of men.
The Greek word from which the English word “tamper” is derived was used in the first century to refer to wine merchants who diluted their wares. They “tampered” with their product by selling a watered-down version as though it were pure. This imagery is a powerful illustration of some of the problems that Paul faced in Corinth. His detractors were proclaiming a “watered-down” version of the gospel, but he, “by the open statement of truth”, was proclaiming the unadulterated word of God. Paul could boldly commend himself to the brethren in Corinth because he had proclaimed the pure gospel of Christ to them.
This issue still exists today, and is perhaps even more widespread than it was in the first century. We see it in the current trends to water-down the gospel in order to be more appealing to the unchurched. Some practice what Paul would call cunning by hiding their denominational background or affiliation under the guise of being “non-denominational”. Their teachings are, in fact, the same as those of the denomination from which they received their training and accreditation, but are masked from unsuspecting seekers. In the same way they also water-down the gospel, refusing to teach the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27) with respect to salvation by omitting or denying the importance of baptism for the forgiveness of sins (cf. Mk. 16:15-16; Acts 2:38-41; 22:16).
In the first century Paul renounced such practices and boldly proclaimed that he would not be a party to them. He refused to practice cunning in his preaching. He refused to tamper with God’s word. For this reason he could rightfully commend himself to his hearers. Today we desperately need more men like Paul. We need men who renounce “disgraceful, underhanded ways”, who preach the gospel, the whole gospel, and nothing but the gospel. God’s word will judge us at the last day (Jn. 12:48), and God’s word is truth (Jn. 17:17). Therefore, let us refuse to tamper with it.