Happy New Year!
The writers of the New Testament used two different words for “new.” One of them, neos, is more familiar to English speakers. It’s where we get our prefix neo-. Some hospitals, for example, have a special unit to care for neonates, or newborns.
The other word, kainos, is less familiar to us; the only English word related to it is a technical word used by geologists. In the Bible, however, kainos occurs more frequently in the Bible than neos.
What’s the difference between these words? Neos has strictly to do with the age of something. For example, in Luke 15:11-32, the story of the prodigal son, the younger brother is the newer one, the neoteros brother. His brother is presbuteros, is older, than he. (That word for “older”, by the way, is where we get our term Presbyterian, which is used to describe a church governed not by clergy but by elders.)
Kainos has less to do with the actual age of a thing than neos. It refers instead to something’s freshness. When Jesus taught, people marveled not at how young his teaching was, but its revolutionary novelty: “They were all amazed, and kept on asking each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority!'” (Mark 1:27)
The distinction between new/young and new/fresh is a useful one. Not everything new is fresh. In a world of knock-offs and derivative ideas, the easiest thing of all is to come up with something that’s new but not innovative. Look at Hollywood: there are new movies in the theaters every week, but how many of them are tired retreads of the same old stories?
Even in the Old Testament, we hear God alert us that he is doing a new thing (Isaiah 43:19). In the New Testament, we learn its newness is the kainos type: not young but fresh. Jesus brought a new teaching. Paul tells us that those who are in Christ are new creations, and when he proclaimed Jesus, people were eager to hear his new teaching. Near the end of the book of Revelation, John has a vision of the new heaven and new earth, and he records Jesus’ words: “He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!'”
Our God is a God makes things new. He does so not by making those things younger, however: how could even God do that? Instead, God makes things new by refreshing them and giving them renewed vitality.
Which brings me back to “Happy New Year!” 2012 is a new neos/young year, but will it be a new kainos/fresh year? Will the year 2012 be filled with novelty and innovation, or with another twelve weary months of the same-old, same-old? The Bible gives us reason to believe God desires to do new things in us and through us. My hope that 2012 is a new year for you in the very best way.