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One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating… (Mark 12:28).
The “them” in this verse are the Pharisees, the Herodians, the Sadducees, and Jesus. Mark especially loves this Greek word syzeteo, using it six times in his Gospel. Neither Matthew nor John uses this word at all. Luke uses it four times: twice in the Gospel of Luke and twice in the Book of Acts. This word appears nowhere else in the New Testament.
Syzeteo is a compound word that means a joint pursuit. Check out some of the ways this word is translated:
- debating (NIV)
- arguing (NASB)
- disputing (AMP)
- lively exchanges of questions (MSG)
- reasoning together (NKJV)
The phrase “reasoning together” may sound familiar to you. It appears in the Old Testament when God says, “Come now, and let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18). This is just one word in Hebrew (yāḵaḥ), which is defined as making something clear by demonstrating or proving.
Whether in the Old or New Testaments, this is not considered to be one-upmanship, or attempting to get the knockout punch, or trying to prove one’s superiority. It is a legitimate journey of discovery—asking good questions, truly listening to the answer (not just listening to respond or counter), and then processing the other’s words before responding. Plato defined syzeteo as seeking or examining together.
The teacher of the law noticed “that Jesus had given them a good answer.” He then asked a follow-up question. After hearing the reply from Jesus, he said, “Well said,” and reiterated Christ’s answer. To this Jesus noted “that he had answered wisely” and said to the teacher, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:28-34).
The word “argue” used to mean the presenting of premises that led to a conclusion. Then the other person would perhaps challenge one of the premises to maybe show a different conclusion. These arguments or debates weren’t screaming matches and they certainly weren’t intended to be over trivial matters.
So should Christians debate? I would say yes IF all of these conditions are true:
- …IF this isn’t a trivial matter which has no impact on eternity.
- …IF I can ask good questions and truly listen to the other person’s answer.
- …IF I can have an attitude of journeying together toward the truth found in God’s Word.
- …IF I can humbly receive the truth that is spoken to me by the other person.
True Christian debating is not bantering with the other person, not attempting to score a “gotcha!” against the other person, not wanting to win an argument. The only true win comes when both parties arrive at the truth given to us in Scripture. This is true reasoning together.
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