A Simple Study of the Word “Must”

Words are vehicles of information; even the smallest words can be packed with meaning. Such is the case with the term “must.” Often overlooked; more often ignored, this important word must be studied carefully.
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

No narration available

God has communicated somewhat of himself abstractly through the created order of things (Psalm 19:1). He has made his will known concretely by means of words. Christ rebuked the Jews for ignoring the logical connection between Moses’ “writings” and his own “words” (John 5:46-47). He declared that his “words are spirit, and are life” (John 6:63). Paul affirmed that the things revealed of God to man are made known by “words”—not words derived from “man’s wisdom,” but by means of words from God (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:13; 1 Thessalonians 2:13).

Words that are found in “community” forms are regulated by word rules relatively common to all languages in some form or another. If, therefore, one is to extract maximum benefit from words employed in communal forms (i.e., in phrases or sentences), he must attempt to have some appreciation for relational significance of words. Today’s lesson, therefore, is in grammar. You will be tested. Not by this teacher, but by the Lord.

Verbs are words that convey action or state of being. John wrote that Mary: “came [action] where Jesus was [state of being]” (John 11:32). There is a type of verb that is called an auxiliary verb; it is a verb that serves to help express the meaning of another verb. In this study, I want to preliminarily consider three auxiliary verbs—“can,” “may,” and “must.” Let us reflect momentarily on these words.

  1. “Can” expresses ability. It says nothing about the “oughtness” as to whether one should or should not do something. A man can drive his automobile at the speed of 100 m.p.h., if he is reckless enough to do so. One person has the ability to murder another, but he should suffer the legal consequence of such if he does (Genesis 9:6).
  2. “May” combines ability with permission. A father instructs his daughter, “You may stay out until eleven o’clock.” She has been granted the option to linger that long in her outing.
  3. “Must” goes farther even. It combines ability with permission, and yet imposes obligation. The charge of the watchful father may be: “You must be home by eleven o’clock.”

A Consideration of the Verb “Must”

The Greek verb dei (101 times in the New Testament) is a term that carries a variety of meanings, depending upon the context in which it is found. It may be rendered into English by such expressions as “must,” “ought,” or “should.” Our discussion will not be exhaustive, but hopefully it will be illustrative of some important points.

The Irresistible “Must”

First, there is that which I would designate as the irresistible “must.” In the realm of physics one might say: “What goes up [within the earth’s gravitational field] must come down.” Physiologically speaking, one must breathe or he will die. Theologically considered, “We must all appear before the judgment-seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due for what he had done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10). This is a “must” that does not involve human choice; it will happen no matter what. It is an inevitable “must.”

The Redemptive “Must”

Second, there is a common New Testament use of “must” that might be called the compelling “must.” This is something that is absolutely necessary in the divine scheme of things. It is that which is essential in the implementation of the sacred plan of redemption. Several illustrations will be helpful.

  1. When Jesus was but twelve years of age, he and his parents went to Jerusalem to observe the feast of the Passover (Luke 2:41ff). After the festivities were completed, Joseph and Mary started homeward, assuming that Christ was in the larger company of pilgrims. However, the lad had remained behind, conversing with dignitaries in the temple. When the worried parents found him, Mary expressed intense concern, rebuking her son who had caused them considerable anxiety. But the boy respectfully responded: “Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” (Luke 2:49, NKJV). The term “must” does not imply “a case of external compulsion—His whole nature yearns to serve and obey His Father voluntarily” (Geldenhuys 1956, 128).
  2. The ministry of the reclusive John the Baptizer was wildly popular. Vast multitudes flocked to hear him; they came from Jerusalem, throughout Judea, and from the region of the Jordan River (Matthew 3:5). John, however, was ever mindful that he was but a “voice crying in the wilderness,” preparing the way for the Lord (Isaiah 40:3; cf. Malachi 3:1). He never sought to usurp his Savior’s place. Thus, he said of Christ: “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). Those two “musts” reflect the meticulous and measured development of Heaven’s sacred program. God’s schedule was in place, not man’s. In this connection study the passages where the Lord speaks of his coming “hour.”
  3. The normal Jewish route from Judea to Galilee (or vice versa) was to go eastward beyond the Jordan, and thus detour that despised “foreign country” (as the Hebrews viewed it) known as Samaria. Oddly, John records that en route from Judea to Galilee, Jesus “must needs pass through Samaria” (John 4:4). This was not a geographical “must”; it was a redemptive “must.” It was in this connection that Jesus encountered the Samaritan woman, convinced her that he was the promised Messiah, and visited with the people of that area for two days (4:39-42). Little wonder, then, that a great harvest of souls was later garnered from that region (Acts 8:5-6,12,25).

The Obligatory “Must”

There is a frequent use of “must” that acknowledges man’s freedom of choice, yet urges submission to the will of God in view of a promised hope (heaven), or threatened punishment (hell). Consider the following points.

The early days of the church were fraught with controversy. In Jerusalem apostolic preaching stirred the wrath of the Jewish authorities, who charged the apostles to cease preaching in the name of Christ (Acts 4:1ff). But compromise was no option for the servants of the Lord. Peter declared: “And in none other is there salvation: for neither is there any other name under heaven, that is given among men, wherein we must be saved” (v. 12). In an age in which it is popular to claim there is religious validity to all theological systems; that their differences are merely cultural, the Christian must contend otherwise. With love in his heart for all souls, he must insist that Jesus Christ and Christianity are the exclusive depositories of sacred truth (cf. also “must” in Hebrews 11:6).

When the apostles were thrown into the Jerusalem prison for preaching Christ, an angel of the Lord delivered them. Immediately they returned to the temple precincts and taught again. When further threatened, they declared: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). The Lord God is sovereign and there is no appropriate substitute for obedience to his commands.

In the Protestant community it is common for clerics to allege that salvation is “by faith alone,” and there is nothing the sinner can or must do in order to obtain salvation. One writer dazzled his constituents with his logical acumen by claiming: “Faith is the only thing you can do without doing anything.” However, in that remarkable interview on the Damascus road, the persecuting Saul of Tarsus was instructed to proceed to the Syrian city, and “it shall be told you what you must do” (Acts 9:6). A survey of the related facts reveals that he was placed under obligation to: “Arise, and be immersed, and wash away your sins” (Acts 22:16). The modern denominationalist changes “must” to, “need not.” Such is a travesty.

In a conversation with a Jewish ruler, Nicodemus by name, Christ declared: “You [plural—people generally] must be born anew” (John 3:7). The new birth process was said to consist of two elements, “Spirit” and “water.” “Spirit,” of course, is a reference to the Holy Spirit, and his role in spiritually “begetting” a person through the instrumentality of the “word” of God (cf. Ephesians 5:26; 1 Peter 1:23), which, in a metaphorical manner of speaking, is the “seed” (Luke 8:11). “Water” is a clear reference to immersion in water as an act of faith, in obedience to the authority of Christ (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16). The resurrection from the burial of baptism is viewed as a birth, just as Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is designated as a “birth” in Colossians 1:18; he was the “firstborn from the dead.”

Noted scholar G.R. Beasley-Murray has called attention to the fact that: “In both Titus 3:5 and John 3:5 baptism is associated with regeneration.” He continues: “The latter passage affirms the necessity of a ‘new beginning’ from God (‘from above’) through submission to baptism and through the recreative work of the Holy Spirit” (1975, 147). Documentation for the connection between the “water” of John 3:5, and that of Christian baptism, is so amply demonstrated in scholarly biblical literature that it is beyond dispute.

In his work, The History of Infant Baptism, William Wall, a leading scholar in the Church of England, asserted that not a single writer of antiquity denied the identification of the “water” of John 3:5 with baptism. He suggested that John Calvin (1509-64) was the first to disassociate the two items, and that Calvin even conceded that his interpretation was “new” (1862, 443).

We live in a world of modern Nadab and Abihus who think nothing of offering “strange” worship to God (Leviticus 10:1-2). Autocratic Jeroboams construct worship systems “devised” after their own hearts (1 Kings 12:33). Like the heretics of Colossae, they are “will-worshipers” who have no reservations about concocting worship arrangements that either are “forbidden” or “unbidden,” manifested in an arrogant “self-ordered” piety (Colossians 2:23; cf. Vine 1991, 881; Kittel 1985, 337; Thayer 1958, 168).

By way of vivid contrast, Jesus Christ emphatically declared: “God is Spirit: and they that worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). The method of one’s worship is not one of culture, personal taste, or religious preference. It must accord to truth, as authorized by the word of Christ through his New Testament revelation (cf. John 17:17).


How wonderful it is that such powerful lessons can be conveyed in such small “word packages.” And yet, sadly, these words are far too frequently not understood, overlooked, or just ignored. The spiritual person must recognize that no word in the Holy Bible is insignificant. It will be by the “word” of Christ that one will be judged in the last day (John 12:48). Let him who has ears, listen carefully and reverently.

  • Beasley-Murray, G.R. 1975. Baptism. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. Vol. 1. Colin Brown, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Geldenhuys, Norval. 1956. Commentary on the Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  • Kittel, Gerhard. 1985. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. G. Bromiley, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  • Thayer, J.H. 1958. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Edinburgh, Scotland: T.&T. Clark.
  • Vine, W.E. 1991. Amplified Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. Iowa Falls, IA: World Bible Publishers.
  • Wall, William. 1862. The History of Infant Baptism. Vol. 1. Oxford, England.