the power of poetry and song (the Christ-kenosis/self-emptying hymn)

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:1-11

In Jeff Manion’s message to us this past weekend in the series “Choosing Joy Under Pressure,” through the book of Philippians, entitled “The Servant Mindset,” he touched on the power of song. Yes, most Bible scholars believe this was a hymn which Paul included in this letter. And that we do well to play that song again and again in our heads until it becomes the theme to which we live.

Notice that although it’s about Jesus, it is to be applied by us who are in Jesus in our individual lives, and in the context of the letter, especially in our relationships with each other. We are to take on ourselves the same humility and servant mindset that Jesus took on himself.

This doesn’t mean trying to perform great heroics. Of course what Jesus did in the eyes of the world was exactly the reverse of that. There was nothing more humbling than a cross, probably not much higher from ground level than one would stand, likely hung naked, and just outside the city where the populace could walk by, say anything they wanted to say, and spit in one’s face.

Jesus’s attitude was one of humility, service, and obedience. It ended up being great since he stooped to the greatest depths possible: God becoming human, and then subjecting himself as a man to the death of the cross, all out of love, as a servant. And for our salvation, but in this context specifically as the example we’re to follow. And therefore God raised Jesus to the highest heights, giving him the name above every name, so that all might bow the knee to him.

We do well to read both what precedes this poem, and what follows, the context, because this poem is followed by a “therefore” as well as the call to value others above ourselves.

But again, this needs to be the kind of song playing in our heads. Which acclimates us over time to grow in the depths of the life we’re to live in Jesus. Toward each other, and toward the world. In and through Jesus.

Advertisements

the righteousness of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and “hyper-grace”

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:17-20

There are some within what is called the hyper-grace camp of the church who relegate Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount to his ministry to the Jews and as a function of the Law, simply to condemn them in their sin. Ironically what Jesus actually is doing is talking about a righteousness which can only be realized by grace, and comes from the inside out.

There are aspects of the old covenant in the sermon, such as Jesus’s reference to offering gifts at the altar. But the heart of the sermon is plainly the difference in the righteousness that comes with Jesus and the gospel of God’s grace and kingdom in him. Of course this is fully realized through Jesus’s death and resurrection followed by his ascension and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. But to relegate the Sermon on the Mount to the old covenant and the Jews, and essentially what we’re delivered from is a misreading of scripture, and a terrible loss.

And for that matter there is much that is rich for us in the Old Testament. God has always had his people, a remnant by grace (Romans 11:1-6). Abraham and David are held up as exemplars for us of God’s grace through their faith (Romans 4). Abraham who God promised to be the father of many nations is called the father of us all by his faith as both an example to us, and the one through whom would come God’s blessing of the Seed who would bless the world, the Messiah, Lord and Savior Jesus (Romans 4; Galatians 3).

The Sermon on the Mount is a centerpiece, perhaps the centerpiece of Jesus’s teaching in the gospel accounts: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6 the parallel to it, and Jesus’s Upper Room discourse the eve of his crucifixion also central to his teaching. Of course his teachings are sprinkled all throughout the gospels as in his parables (like the Good Samaritan, and the Lost/Prodigal Son), separate sayings, and his teaching on the destruction of the temple and the end times.

We read to some extent how Jesus’s teaching is fulfilled in the letters which followed after Pentecost. But Jesus’s words stand on their own, as well. To miss them by waving them off as a function of the law is a great loss to the church, not only in terms of losing the teaching, but in the failure to handle accurately the word of truth. Something we all have to keep working at, and hold each other accountable to, in and through Jesus.

what does scripture say?

These things happened to them as examples for us. They were written down to warn us who live at the end of the age.

1 Corinthians 10:11; NLT

Theology and Biblical interpretation is neither easy nor optional. A definition of theology here might be what paradigm we accept in understanding what we’re reading. I’m not thinking of a necessarily simplistic paradigm, either. There is the Arminian and Calvinist examples, as well as Dispensational and Covenantal. Biblical interpretation is perhaps more basic yet, though each can inform and form the other. Simply put, it’s how we understand any given passage in its own context, and for us today.

One of the best remedies against the weaknesses of theology and biblical interpretation is to simply keep reading all of scripture. I find something like N. T. Wright’s division of creation, fall, Israel, Jesus and church to be helpful, maybe with an additional Jesus’s return and the eternal state added on. To realize what part of the overall story we’re in is surely important. We have to take it as a whole, but appreciate the parts.

I take it that every theology as well as practice of biblical interpretation has its strengths and weaknesses. We can probably learn from each, even if in some cases it might be an example of what we ought not to do, like eisegesis instead of exegesis, which simply explained means to read into a passage what isn’t there, instead of letting a passage speak for itself.

Again the remedy is to read scripture ourselves, and the best case, to do so along with others. Last evening I read the book of Hebrews and found that refreshing in terms of letting that letter speak for itself. Something I want to continue to do, certainly a priority as a Christian who seeks to be a believer and follower of Jesus. All of this in and through him.

understanding scripture’s story

One of my favorite biblical scholars and theologians, N. T. Wright has explained scripture in terms of a five part story:

  • Creation
  • Fall
  • Israel
  • Jesus
  • Church

I would like to add a sixth part which would would have to do with Jesus’s return, sometimes called the Second Coming, and maybe a seventh part could be added (to make it seven parts in all?) which would have to do with the final outcome, the eternal state.

To understand any part of scripture, one needs to see it in context, its immediate context, certainly, but also in the context of the whole, the entire Bible and witness of scripture.

I am leery of simply writing off any scripture as completely irrelevant for us today, since the New Testament, including the letters written to the churches clearly suggest otherwise. At the same time, we obviously don’t read the story well when we read it in what has been called a flat way, as if all of it has precisely the same application as when it was written. For example the rules in Leviticus 14 about mold in homes certainly do no apply in the same way for us today.

The cross, Jesus’s death is certainly a “game changer”, but what leads up to it does impact what follows. For our application today, we may need to especially emphasize what follows, but to understand that well, we need to see what preceded it. There is so much here that Christians don’t quite see or apply in the same way. But it’s a grave mistake on the one hand to think for example that the gospel accounts: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John don’t have profound meaning for our understanding of the faith today, and even how we understand the letters written to the churches. Jesus was speaking mainly to Israel, but he was pointing out to them just what kind of kingdom he was bringing, certainly clearly anticipating what was to follow. On the other hand, it’s also a grave mistake to think that the cross in Jesus’s death did not make a profound difference in what followed: no less than the beginning of the new covenant of course in Jesus’s blood.

We have to keep working at, which means taking it all seriously, but seeing it in the context of the whole. The fulfillment coming, of course, in and through Jesus and through his death, the resurrection following.

we know Jesus, but more importantly, he knows us (and a lesson in the importance of reading the Bible in context)

“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.

John 10:14-15

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.

John 10:27-28

I had another good reminder just this morning of the importance of reading in context, and specifically, I’m thinking of scripture. At work, and at home, I have an ongoing practice of going over scripture slowly during the course of a day, sometimes too slowly, especially if I’m at home, occupied with other things. There is good in this in that it seems like scripture itself advocates a meditation which comes from reading, likely slow reading at that, rather than the emphasis on studying scripture. Thanks to an old acquaintance and servant of Christ, Jim Egli, who pointed this out to me. Not to say that normal reading, or listening to scripture isn’t good, even important and necessary. Along with occasionally studying something, such as the meaning of a word.

Recently at work I was impressed with Jesus saying at a certain key part in his dispute with the people of his day that he knows his sheep. That was a rather cloudy day for me in my spiritual vision, so to see that what is most fundamental when all is said and done is that the Lord knows us, even if we are struggling to have the sense of knowing him, was an encouragement. And actually these words from Paul line up with that:

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?

Galatians 4

I realized in looking at John 10 this morning, that actually there is a strong emphasis on us knowing the Lord, as well as the Lord knowing us. Both are important. Sometimes like sheep, we can and will indeed feel lost. During those times it is good to take as much comfort as we can gather in the knowledge that the Lord knows us through and through, even if we are struggling to sense our knowledge of him. But we do know the Lord as well, even though, unlike him, our spiritual vision will at times be weak.

A good point, I take it, and also a good lesson in the importance of reading scripture in context. May we meditate, as we read scripture slowly, but may we also read all of it, and keep doing both, so that we might grow together with others in Jesus in an interactive relationship with God through the Spirit.

Jesus’s nonsensical message

I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.

John 10

For us raised in church and in Sunday school, we often shake our heads at how slow Jesus’s disciples were to understand Jesus. But to their credit, and certainly because of God’s grace and the work of the Spirit, they hung in there. And the Pharisees who were considered among the most religious Jews of Jesus’s day, and in fact are considered by scholars to be the group within Israel that were most like Jesus, were divided over Jesus, but the majority of them it seems were obstinate against Jesus’s message. We think they should have known better. And we wonder why they didn’t understand that Jesus had to die for their sins, as well as the sins of the world. And we shake our heads, thinking that they just didn’t understand God’s grace, and sought salvation by works. After all, that’s what we were taught from the cradle, so we take it for granted. And there is actually a grain of truth in it.

But reality was that what Jesus said did not line up with their teaching at all, not in the least. And what the disciples had been taught did not prepare them for Jesus’s teaching, either. At least not very much. Sometimes we pick up from some sources like in the Apocrypha, that there was a bit of what Jesus would bring seeping in. But by and large it made little sense against the backdrop of their Judaism. Though if one took their scriptures, they could find hints of it throughout, that something different was coming. Their view of God was not complete, in fact one might argue even off track to some extent. Jesus did tell the Pharisees that they didn’t know the Father. It’s interesting how the NIV (click link above) begins this section with Jesus addressing these words to the Pharisees.

John 6 is another more stark example of Jesus’s message making no sense to his disciples, so that many of them no longer followed him.

We don’t read the scriptures well enough ourselves, if we don’t see the difference between Jesus’s teaching, and what had come before him. Jesus was bringing in a new covenant which in some respects fulfilled the old, but often cancelled out what was in it. What the New Testament tells us about that is a mixed bag, actually reflecting what had been said in the Old Testament prophet. The Law given through Moses was of a covenant which was not perfect, and not the end. A new covenant was to come, something which would fulfill the words and aspirations of the old covenant, but in a new way. Jesus is the one who brought that, and fulfilled it in and through his death. The resurrection following in which the new life of the new covenant is ultimately to be lived in the Spirit and by the grace of God.

Jesus’s life, teaching, death, and resurrection, with the ascension and promise of his return following is what marks us as Christians, no less and no more. We read and treasure all of scripture, but we find where we fit in the story in the New Testament, particularly after the pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost, and the spread of the gospel throughout the known world of that time, and even then into remote places.

And hence just a hint of the difference that the faith through Jesus brings. And why we should no longer be surprised at how unprepared anyone was during Jesus’s time to make any sense of his ministry and words, particularly his death on the cross. Yes, hints were in their scripture, those hints teaching us to read those scriptures differently, even as we see them interpreted quite differently in the New Testament.

All of this in and through Jesus.

a biblically grounded faith

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3

Scripture is the written word of God. Every line, and every word is important within it. Of course it’s not flat. It has to be read in context, and from Genesis through Revelation as a story, essentially the story of God. We understand this from scripture itself, and from Jesus’s witness to it. Jesus considered scripture to be God’s word, of course Jesus himself being the Word, just as scripture says.

We don’t pick and choose what to believe and what not to believe, but we do read scripture in context. And in so doing, we find that new light does bring changes both in people’s understanding, and actions. As well as a new day dawning when Jesus appears with the kingdom of God in him being at hand.

But all of scripture is God-breathed and useful. So we need to be committed to reading all of it, and praying through it. And understanding it through its fulfillment, Jesus. And where we live now as followers of him.