Whoso offereth praise glorifieth me: and to him that ordereth his conversation aright will I shew the salvation of God. (Psalm 50:23)
We engage in conversation on a daily basis. If there is no one around with whom to converse, we sometimes hold a conversation with ourselves or with the dog or cat. Conversation can be completely mindless or profound.
The modern dictionary defines “conversation” as: “informal interchange of thoughts, information, etc., by spoken words; oral communication between persons; talk; colloquy.” In addition, noted as “obsolete,” conversation can mean “behavior or manner of living.” That “obsolete” definition is what we find throughout the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible; therefore, we must grasp this meaning of the word. Otherwise, Scripture, like the passage above, becomes confusing, and the deeper meaning of the text is lost.
Before considering the biblical application of the word, let us consider its etymology.
Conversation (n.) mid-14c., “place where one lives or dwells,” also “general course of actions or habits, manner of conducting oneself in the world,” both senses now obsolete; from Old French conversacion “behavior, life, way of life, monastic life,” and directly from Latin conversationem (nominative conversatio) “frequent use, frequent abode in a place, intercourse, conversation,” noun of action from past-participle stem of conversari “to live, dwell, live with, keep company with,” passive voice of conversare “to turn about, turn about with,” from assimilated form of com “with, together” (see con-) + versare, frequentative of vertere “to turn” (from PIE root *wer- (2) “to turn, bend”).
Considering that the KJV was first published in 1611, the original meaning of the word should be applied in the reading. Basically, the word “conversation” in the Bible (and here I mean the KJV Bible) refers to the way one conducts one’s life. Our “conversation” is how we live, conduct, or carry on our lives. Each person’s conversation will differ and will reflect either who he/she really is or who he/she pretends to be. With that in mind, let us look at some passages from Scripture that provide instruction for our “conversation.”
The English word “conversation” appears 20 times in the KJV Bible, twice in the O.T. and 18 times in the N.T. In some instances, “conversation” may translate different Hebrew or Greek words and may obscure a deeper meaning. We shall see.
Both O.T. occurrences of the word appear in Psalms and translate the same Hebrew word, derek, which literally means a “road” or a “path.” By implication, it is the course of one’s life. Psalm 37:14 says that “the wicked” target those who live an “upright” or “righteous” life. “The wicked have drawn out the sword, and have bent their bow, to cast down the poor and needy, and to slay such as be of upright conversation.” That is not much incentive for living a godly life, however, Psalm 50:23 offers great encouragement from God. “Whoso offereth praise glorifieth me: and to him that ordereth his conversation aright will I shew the salvation of God.” (By the way, taking the “whole counsel” of God’s Word into account, simply living a “good life” will not earn anyone salvation. Ordering your “conversation aright” begins with trusting Jesus as your Lord and Savior.)
As previously stated, “conversation” appears 18 times in the N.T., but it translates different Greek words. The most frequent Greek word translated is anastrophē, which means “behavior.” We find this first in Galatians 1:13. Here, Paul describes how he behaved before meeting the Lord Jesus. “For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews’ religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it.” Paul’s life changed radically after meeting Jesus face-to-face. He went from being a zealous persecutor of the Church to being persecuted for preaching the Gospel – equally as zealously. Thus he encourages believers to follow his example: “That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; And be renewed in the spirit of your mind; And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24). A “Christian” that continues in the sin of his/her former life does not carry on a new “conversation” indicating that no change has transpired in his/her life.
As followers of Christ, our lives should be examples to others as Paul encouraged Timothy. “Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). James says that our good behavior demonstrates “wisdom” and “knowledge.” “Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom” (James 3:13).
Peter uses anastrophē eight times in his letters. Our behavior must be “holy,” i.e., “set apart” (for God’s use). “But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation” (1 Peter 1:15). What God has done for us deserves our very best. “Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot: (1 Peter 1:18-19).
Relate to anastrophē is anastrepho, the verb form, which means “to overturn; also to return; by implication to busy oneself.” In other words, these are the “actions” one takes. This Greek verb is used twice in the N.T. by Paul. In 1 Corinthians 1:12, he refers to his “conversation in the world,” that is, the “work” he is doing. In Ephesians 2:3, Paul refers to the sinful activities in which we once participated. “Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others.”
In the Epistle to the Philippians, “conversation” translates both the noun and verb form of politeuma (n.) meaning “a community” and abstractly referring to “citizenship.” “For our conversation [citizenship] is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20). The verb form, politeuomai, means to “behave as a citizen.” When we come to Christ, we are no longer citizens of this world; we are “citizens” of heaven. Therefore, we ought to act the part.
Finally, “conversation” translates the Greek noun tropos meaning “a turn, that is, (by implication) mode or style. It is synonymous with anastrophē, and it refers to “deportment or character,” i.e., the way we conduct ourselves. We find this one-time use in Hebrews 13:5, “Let your conversation [deportment] be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.”
Jesus paid a high price to give us eternal life. We who have placed our faith in Him are now “children of God” (John 1:12) and citizens of heaven; we are not of this world (John 17:16). Therefore, our “conversation” should reflect our status, not pridefully, but with humility and meekness, as children of the King and citizens of His Kingdom!