Three cryptic times in the New Testament (Ephesians 1:14, 2Co 1:22 and 5:5), Paul speaks of the Spirit as an arrabōn, which the KJV translates as “earnest.” But it’s clearly a noun, AN earnest, not an adjective, “an earnest woman.” So what’s Paul talking about?
If you’ve ever bought a house, you know that you start by putting down “earnest money.” It’s a small downpayment to show you are committed to buying the house. As it turns out, this is an entirely accurate modern sense to bring back into the New Testament, because arrabōn is a financial term.
Functioning mainly as a legal term in the language of business and trade, the word refers to a payment deposited by the purchaser to secure a property or article being bought (this money would be forfeited if the balance was not paid); in some cases such a payment served to render a contract legally binding
–New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis (which is accessible to people with no training in Greek, especially in conjunction with free Logos software.)
Further, it turns out the word is fairly rare in Greek, probably because it was borrowed from Semitic languages. In Hebrew (and cognate languages like Akkadian and Ugaritic), we find ‘ērabōn used meaning “a pledge, a deposit, a downpayment, surety.” (Pro 11:15, 17:18, Neh 5:3, etc.) The Greek translation of the Old Testament uses arrabōn in only three places, all in the story of Judah and Tamar, Genesis 38. Judah is carrying no money, but offers his cylinder seal (which is used to validate contracts, sign his name, basically) as an arrabōn or pledge, proof that full payment was forthcoming.
Paul says that the Spirit is the “arrabōn of our inheritance” (Ephesians 1:14); to expand on that, when baptized, we are born again, as God’s covenant children; And “if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Rom 8:17) On the connection between covenant and kinship, like “father-child” see my article here, under Redemption
So as covenant children of God, heirs of the kingdom, if faithful and “victorious” (Gr. nikē), we will “inherit all things.” (*Rev 21:7.) God gives us the spirit as the downpayment on the rest of our forthcoming heavenly inheritance. That is what the “earnest of the spirit” means, which is why the NIV translates it repeatedly as “a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.”
*There’s a great article, “Seven Promises to Those Who Overcome: Aspects of Genesis 2-3 in the Seven Letters,” in The Temple in Time and Eternity, which doesn’t seem available online. There IS a chart here though.
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