The Greek Geek

Επιθυμία: Desire

By Kevin Stone

It was the Last Supper. Jesus reclined at the table with His beloved disciples. And He shared with them His heart:
" Ἐπιθυμίᾳ ἐπεθύμησα to eat this Passover with you before I suffer" (Luke 22:15). The two words that begin Jesus' statement are the noun and verb forms of the same word, epithumia, usually translated "desire." Young's Literal Translation puts Jesus' words this way: "With desire I did desire to eat this passover with you before my suffering."

Epithumia is the most common Greek word for "desire" in the New Testament. The word refers generically to a "strong desire" of any kind, without consideration of its being a good or bad desire. The context of the word is what sets the tone. Obviously, in Luke 22:15, Jesus speaks of having a "good" desire. He yearned for something noble and worthy.

The other places epithumia is used in a positive context are Philippians 1:23 and 1 Thessalonians 2:17. In other passages epithumia is not so wholesome. In fact, every other occurrence of the noun epithumia in the New Testament is in a negative context. The verb form of epithumia is often translated "covet."

It's usually the adjectives that make the difference. Scripture warns against "sinful" desires that "wage war against your soul" in 1 Peter 2:11. We must also beware of "evil" desires (Colossians 3:5); "foolish and harmful" desires (1 Timothy 6:9); "worldly" desires (Titus 2:12); "ungodly" desires (Jude 1:18); and "corrupt" desires — or, as the ESV has it, "the lust of defiling passion" (2 Peter 2:10).

First John 2:16 is the classic description of sin's categories: "Everything in the world — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life — comes not from the Father but from the world." Both times, the word lust in this verse is a translation of epithumia.

"Fleshly" desires, also called the lusts or the "cravings" of the flesh (Ephesians 2:3), make for a constant struggle. According to James 1:14, we all possess "evil epithumia" of our own, and that's what makes resisting temptation so difficult. "The flesh desires [epithumeō] what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other" (Galatians 5:17).

But we can overcome: "Clothe yourself with the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. And don't let yourself think about ways to indulge your evil desires" (Romans 13:14, NLT). We have this instruction as well: "As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do" (1 Peter 1:14–15). A wonderful detail in this command is that the "evil desires" — the "evil epithymiais"—that seek our conformity are former desires. They are part of the old life lived in ignorance of God and His holiness. The evil desires of the flesh are pre-salvation; we have been called to something better.

Jesus' "strong desire," His epithumia, was to eat that last Passover meal with His disciples. It was an important time. Jesus infused the ancient ceremony with a new meaning so that we can remember His sacrifice for us. And He used the occasion to make a promise that continues to comfort our hearts: "For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God" (Luke 22:16).

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Sin-Evil

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Published 5-22-15