Lecture 17: Christological Hymns
Course: New Testament Introduction
Lecture: Christological Hymns
I. Worship elements in Paul’s letters.
We have been talking about the structures of the epistles. We have been talking about the structures in the epistles, the rhetorical structures. What I want to do now is deal with one aspect of some of the worship elements I was talking to you about that you find in Paul’s letters.
We could analyze if we wanted to the following elements that show up in Paul’s discourses. There are prayers, there are benedictions and doxologies, there are hymns and there are creedal statements. We could analyze all of those and these are part of what is going into these discourses. What we are going to focus on now is some of the hymnic material. I am going to talk in general about Christian hymns, Christological hymns.
The place to start this discussion is in Ephesians 5. So let me read to you a couple of verses from Ephesians 5. This is what Paul says in Ephesians 5:18: “Don’t get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled by the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.” There are several aspects of that which are interesting. But first I want you to notice the taxonomy, “psalmos,” “humnos,” and then spiritual songs. Three different kinds of music. “psalmos” is of the course the Psalms. The Pslams are songs. Psalm means a song, the Hebrew is “mismor.” The Book of Psalms is the book of songs, it’s the hymn book of God’s Old Testament people. By the way, it is not the prayer book, it’s the hymn book. Now some of the songs are prayers, but they are songs. When we are thinking about early Christianity, all of the early followers of Jesus were Jews. So quite naturally, we’re talking about Christian worship. There are going to be elements of Jewish worship that come right over into early Jewish-Christian worship because this is what they know and these are the things that they know; in addition to which in synagogue worship, beside all of this in synagogue worship, you would also have a homily based on some sacred text. So if you want to talk about synagogue worship that looks like this, well it’s a homily on some sacred text and there might also be an offering of some kind. So basic synagogue worship goes right over into Christian worship in the context of a household. Christians continued to sing the psalms, just as Jews had done for centuries before. This is why the two most used books of the Old Testament that are quoted or alluded to in the New Testament are Isaiah and The Psalms. The Psalms is the second most frequently quoted Old Testament book. Why? Well for one thing, the Jewish Christians knew it. They sang it all the time. Psalms, they sang. So Paul says to his Christians in Ephesus – this is in Asia, not in the Holy Land – he says, “Speak to one another, sing to one another in psalms, in hymns and in spiritual songs.” Now there is some debate about that third one. Does spiritual songs mean spiritual songs, or does it mean songs prompted impromptu by the Holy Spirit? Some people have thought that it is talking about what I would call jazz improvisation. The Spirit prompts you to sing a song on the spot to the Lord. That is entirely possible. But that third category then would refer to something that is more spontaneous, whereas both psalms and hymns would have pre-existing texts that you were singing.
So, three kinds of material; and what is interesting to me is that he does not simply say, “Sing this in your heart to the Lord and that is where you should do this because the Lord knows you can’t sing out loud.” No, what he says is, “Speak or sing to one another psalms and hymns and spiritual songs and make melody in your heart unto the Lord.” So, here is where I say that singing has both a vertical focus – sing unto the Lord a new song – but it also has a horizontal purpose. It has a pedagogical purpose. People are supposed to sing to one another and therefore learn from what they are singing. As a good Methodist, I am just amening this because as Charles Wesley says, “Theology is more often caught than taught”. The best way to get them to catch it is to put it in the lyrics of a hymn and sing it, then they will be reciting it, singing their little tunes, and this is a good thing.
What we have here and what we want to focus on is not the psalms that Christians used to use. I could point to several of those that were used for Christological reflection. Psalm 2 clearly is one, Psalm 110:1, “You are a priest after the order of Melchizedek.” There are several psalms that were very frequently used by Christians. What we want to actually look at is their new Christian hymns. We are going to look at several and I am not going to just limit myself to Paul. I am going to look at samples that are in Paul’s letters, one sample from the book of Hebrews and also one sample from the Gospel of John.
1. Philippians 2:6-11.
How do we know that this was a song, since what we have in the Greek New Testament is just yet more Greek words. We do not have a footnote that says, “Sing this according to the Led Zepplin tune, ‘Black Dog’” It doesn’t say that. How do we know they are songs? There are several ways. This is where you are going to have to trust the Greek scholars if you don’t know Greek. The form of these Christological hymns is poetic and it stands out from its larger context. For example, Paul is going along in a normal narrative form in Philippians 2 and he says, “Have this mind yourself that was in Christ Jesus” and then he says, “who” and all of a sudden we’re off and running with a poetic ode of some kind. This was a Christian hymn.
The second way we know this is something that is different from the narrative theology is that these Christological hymns all have the same pattern, a V pattern. The Christological hymns have a V pattern. Let me show you what I mean. The V pattern is this: The Son of God pre-existing. He did various things that have to do with the creation of the universe. He took on human form and took on an earthly existence. He humbled himself even unto death on the cross. Because of this, God highly exalted him. He went back to the heavenly existence,. A V pattern. All of these Christological hymns have this V pattern. So we know something is up here. There is a definite form with poetic utterance and there is something else going on. Most of these hymns have at least two stanzas, the downward slope stanza and the upward slope stanza. Sometimes we have more than two stanzas. We certainly have more than two stanzas in John 1; but again, the basic form and the basic character of these things is the same. And the signal that you have gone into the hymn is actually the Greek word “hos,” who, it begins with “who”which is not really necessary in the sense of continuing the sentence that was going before: “Have this mind in yourself that was in Christ Jesus”, you could have stopped there. Instead we have the “who being in very nature God” and you are off into the hymn.
So here is the hymn. Let me read it for you first, then we’re going to unpack it. “Who being in the form of God”. You could equally well translate the Greek, “Being in very nature God”. The word here for form is, “morphe.” What does the word, metamorphosis mean? Change from one form to another. So a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. “morphe” does not just mean the outward form of something. I mean, when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, it is not just that he looked like a caterpillar and then he looked like a butterfly. There was a metaphysical change to him, right? So when we hear that Christ is in the “morphe” of God, it does not just mean he appeared to be God, it means he has the very nature of God. And that is why I really prefer the old RSV translation and the NIV and other translations who say, “Who being in very nature God”did not consider having equality with God something to take advantage of, but stripped himself , emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, or you could certainly translate this, “slave”, it is the same word. The word here is “doulos,” slave, servant, being born in the likeness of a human being, being found in appearance like a human being.“He humbled himself, being obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross”. We are going down, down, down, down, down and the nadir of the V in this hymn is death on the cross. From the highest heights to the lowest depths.
When I was growing up in North Carolina in High Point, back in the dawn of time when the earth was still cooling, they used to have elevator operators. Are any of you old enough to remember elevator operators? Well, Charlie was my favorite. He worked at Altheimer’s, a department store in downtown High Point. He had this wonderful burgundy uniform with gold buttons and the big hat with leather bill, black, black spit shined shoes, and he had a voice like Charlton Heston. My mom loved to shop and I hated it. So when she went to Altheimer’s is I would ride the elevator. I’m five, this is a big trip. I’m never going to get on a NASA moon rocket, so ride the elevator, right? But what I loved was Charlie. He would announce every floor. He would run the whole thing. There was sort of a lever that he worked, going up and down on this old elevator. We would get to the top floor and then he would say, “Fifth floor, furniture, accessories, going down. Fourth floor, ladies’ lingerie and other unmentionables. Third floor, kitchen items, knick-knack and brick-a-brack. Second floor, toys. You sure you don’t want to get off here, Ben? First floor, china. Bargain basement, leftovers, resale items.” I would just go up and down with Charlie. “Going up. Going down.” I always think about that when I think of the Christological hymns because this is talking about divine condescension to the nth degree. He not only condescended to become a human being, he became a slave among human beings. And he not only condescended to be a slave amongst human beings, the lowest of the low, he accepted a slave’s death on a cross. How low can you go? It has been said about our Lord Jesus Christ that he lifts us up by getting underneath us and lifting us up. No-one was beneath his dignity. No-one was beneath his dignity.
This is the first half of the hymn. Then you turn the page. You have the upward V here. The Greek here is actually “therefore” and any time you see the word “therefore” you need to ask, “what is it there for?”. “Therefore God has highly exalted him and given him the name that is above every name in order that at the name of Jesus, every knee will bend, those in heaven, on earth, under earth and all tongues confess publicly that Jesus Christ is Lord unto the glory of God the Father.” Let’s unpack this. Christological hymn. Down, down, down, down, down, up, up, up, up, up. There is a V pattern. Let’s talk about some particulars. Being in very nature God, he did not consider having equality with God, which is something he had, something to take advantage of. You can’t reject taking advantage of something that you don’t have. So it is very clear from what Paul is saying here, he wants to say that the Son of God is God, in very nature, God. He has all of the advantages of God, but he chose before he became a human being, not to take advantage of his heavenly frequent flyer miles. He chose not to take advantage of all of the divine perks, but instead to empty or strip himself. This word is “kenosis.” What you have to ask is, what did he empty himself of? There has to be something he stripped himself of. It is not himself, he remained himself. What did he strip himself of? My suggestion would be, his divine prerogatives, his divine privileges: Omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, the omnis. This was necessary for him to become truly a human being, a human being limited in time, space, knowledge and power. These are the basic human limitations. Jesus did not have to take on the limitation of sin, why not? Because sin is not a limitation that God created us having at the beginning. Now we see another reason why he is the last Adam. Adam was born before the fall, he did not have a sin nature, he was not created that way. But did Adam have limitations of time, space, knowledge and power? Yes he did. These are the limitations that Christ took on in order to be truly and fully human. As I have said to you before, and I will reiterate now, what you need to understand about this is that Jesus had to be fully human in order to not only be our paradigm, but in order to truly die on the cross. If atonement could not be made without the death on the cross, then we have a problem. So, he stripped himself. He limited himself. This means that his life was not a charade. When somebody touches and he says, “Who touched me?” he doesn’t mean, “I know it’s really Suzy with bronze hair and blue eyes, she’s 5 ft 2 in and weighs 115 and her doctors haven’t helped her very much.” No, when he says, “Who touched me?” he means – wait for it – “Who touched me?” His life is not a game, it is not a charade, it is a normal human life. When he says about the second coming, “Of that day or hour nobody knows, not even the angels in heaven, not even the Son, only the Father knows” he means – wait for it – nobody knows, including “moi” [me]. Did he have access to such knowledge? Of course he did. The point is, he limited himself to what he could know as a human being, to what he could do as a spirit empowered human being and so on. Without experiencing human fallenness, he is Adam gone right. The first Adam is Adam gone wrong. So how does he perform his miracles? By the power of the Holy Spirit. He says so: “If I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, you will know the kingdom is coming in your midst”. He performs his miracles by the Spirit of God. How does he resist temptation? He does not say to the Devil, “I’m blowing you off, I’m God, God can’t be tempted, ergo I can’t be tempted, leave”. Nope, he quotes the Word of God and he relies on the Spirit of God, the two resources that we have. “kenosis” is real. He emptied himself of taking advantage of his divine prerogatives and he maintained that limitation all the way to death. After death, not so much. After death, God has highly exalted him and given him a name that is above all names. The name that is above all names is not Jesus. He already had that name. He did not get that name at resurrection. The name that is above all names is the name of God. It is “kurios,” Lord, that is the name above all names. Jesus assumes the role of Lord at the resurrection. This is why the earliest Christian confession was, “Jesus is the risen Lord.”He assumes the role of risen Lord – wait for it – at the resurrection and thereafter. So he is given the name that is above all names, the divine name, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee will bend in heaven, on earth, under earth and all confess, what? That Jesus, the name he already had, is the Lord. That is the point. What is different about the Christian confession is, Jesus is the Lord. Saying Jesus is the Christ, the Jews would debate you about that. He might be, he might not be. We all believe that there is going to be a Christ; but to say Jesus is the Lord, now that is heresy. That is saying that the Messiah is divine, and early Jews were not looking for a divine Messiah, any more than they were looking for a crucified Messiah. They were looking for a king like David, a spirit-empowered king like David, only without David’s moral defects. That would be the Messiah, you see. This is not the king Jesus chose to be.
So we have this Christological hymn. One more aspect of this hymn that I want to stress to you is this whole verb here: He emptied himself. And another form, he humbled himself, it is a verbal action. It is not a character description, it is a verbal action. He humbled himself. Do you notice how the verbs are active verbs here? He did not consider, he stripped himself, he took the form, these were all decisions made by the Son of God. He did not think, he acted this way, he took this form, he was found in appearance like a human being, he humbled himself even unto death on the cross.
Let’s talk about “humbled himself”. The word is “tapeinophrosune.” This is a participial form. It means to be base-minded. It means to act in a slavish fashion. Think about this culture. Thirty to forty percent of the workforce in any given place in the Roman Empire was slaves. And who were the people who were supposed to behave like slaves? Slaves. And this was not considered admirable behavior for anybody else. Nobody was campaigning to become a slave. I just can’t wait to be a slave! So much easier, I don’t have to make decisions in life anymore. Just follow the master, work for him. That is not the way it was. The actual translation, the way we translate it as “humbled himself” does not give you the pejorative sense that this phrase normally has. It normally means “to act in a base or slavish way”. This is not something a master should ever do. It is not something a patrician should ever do. It is not something a freedman or a freedwoman should ever do. They have been set free from acting that way. So when we hear Jesus say, “I did not come to be served, but to serve”, that is, to be a slave, “and to give my life in a slave fashion as a ransom for the many”, you need to understand the shocking character of this language. We kind of gussy it up by using the translation “servant”, but we could just as well translate this word, “slave”.
Now we are getting to the point where it is really interesting. How unconditional is your service to the Lord? Let me put it to you another way. Do you realize that you don’t have any rights? and we live in a culture that stands on the principle that we all have rights, equal rights. Do you realize that when you became a Christian, you gave up your rights? Have this mind in yourself , which was also in Christ Jesus when he decided to become a slave. Emulate him. Humble yourself. Don’t stand on your rights. You were made to serve somebody. That is what it means to be re-created in the image of Christ. That is why the phrase “servant leadership” is not supposed to be an oxymoron. You are meant to serve somebody.
This is a powerful hymn and it is counterintuitive and it is countercultural. You see, that culture, like our culture, everybody wanted to be what? upwardly mobile, not downwardly mobile, upwardly mobile. Slaves wanted to become freedmen. Freedmen wanted to become citizens. Citizens wanted to be come patricians. Patricians wanted to become senators. Senators wanted to become emperors. This was an upwardly mobile society. Jesus says the way up is the way down. Down leads to up. But the thing that is so striking about this is,all of these active verbs here. If you turn the page, the second half of the hymn is all passive verbs. That is why God has highly exalted him and God gave him the name that is above all names. This is about what God did for him. Jesus did not raise himself from the dead. Jesus did not exalt himself. God exalted him. God gave him the name, the Lord. Now this should be a lesson in glory for us. We are not called to be glory grabbers. We are called to be glory givers. Let God do the exalting. Let God be the glorifier. It is your job to serve, to step down. Leave the results in God’s hands. As I told you last time, it doesn’t matter in this life who gets the credit. What matters is who gets the cure. Have this mind in yourself that was in Christ Jesus. It is a powerful Christological hymn.
2. Colossians 1:15-20.
Let’s look at the next one, Colossian 1:15-20. Once again, it begins with “hos,” who. Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn. I do not like this translation. I would prefer, preeminent over all creation. One of the reasons I would prefer it is, it is probably the better interpretation of the Greek, and also it undercuts what the Jehovah’s Witnesses want to do with this verse, which is to suggest that Christ was yet just another creature.
“…who is the image of the invisible God” first over all of creation because in him were created all things in the heavens, on the earth”, the seen, the unseen, whether thrones or dominions or sovereignties or powers. All of these, by the way, are names for ranks of angels. If you were wondering what these are, ,these are Jewish names for ranks of angels. Everything created through him was also created for him. Now here is a corker. He not only was there, creating the universe, it was created for him. You were created for him. The whale was created for him. The songbird was created for him. The beautiful oak tree was created for him. The sun was created for him. Hallelujah! It was all created for him. Everything created through him was also created for him. And he is before everything and everything coheres in him and he is the head of the body, the church. This is by no means all. This Christological hymn is going to focus more on his role as creator. Do you see that? This Christological hymn in Colossians 1:15 is going to focus more on what he did up there before he came down here, his role in creation. What is interesting about all of this is that these very same things that are being said of the Son of God here, had previously been said of God’s wisdom. God’s wisdom was there with God in the beginning of creation and aided him in creating the universe. So the attributes of God’s wisdom are now applied to a person, the Son of God. That is what is going on here. He is before everything and look at this, he is the superglue that holds it all together, everything that makes sense and coheres in him. You want the hermeneutical key to life? You want the hermeneutical key to all of creation? You want to make sense of all of creation’s mysteries? The pre-existent Son of God who made it all, there it is right there.
You can really get wrapped up in this when you start thinking about it. We could be sitting right here and if those linen curtains weren’t there, we could watch the snowflakes hit the window and each of those snowflakes has a different, beautiful pattern. Think about this. God is infinitely creative and he wants us to understand that beauty and truth and goodness and love were meant to be seen as cohering with one another. Because all of that is true of God and it was meant to be true of his creation, when you see beauty out of place, not connected with truth and goodness and love, you know something is wrong. The writer of Proverbs says, “A beautiful immoral person, to what shall I compare it? It is like a diamond ring on the snout of a pig.” There could be hardly a worse criticism from a Jew of beauty out of place. Have you thought about that? Fallenness means the dysfunction of beauty and truth and love and goodness. The things that cohere in God and were intended to cohere in creation have become disjointed. It is powerful.
That is part 1. Here is part 2. “…who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, in order that he might take precedence in all things because in him is pleased to dwell all of the “pleroma,” the fullness, of God. And through him is reconciled everything for him, making peace through the blood of his cross, whether things on earth or things in heaven.” This V pattern is just a little bit different. Yes, we still have the pre-existent, earthly existence thing. But there is something else going on here. He is pre-eminent in creation. Here he is pre-eminent in resurrection. So the first half of the Christological hymn is about his role in creation. The second half is about his role in new creation, resurrection. Do you see what is going on here? First creation, new creation, he is pre-eminent in creation. He is pre-eminent in new creation because he was the firstborn from the dead. There is something else going on here too. We have already heard him mention some of the ranks of angels and here we hear all the “pleroma” is in him. What is being said is that all of the Godness that is not found in the Father is found in the Son. There is not a little bit of Godness in the angels. There is not a little bit of Godness in creation. There is a little bit of Godness in human beings. He is the one full manifestation of the divine nature who ever came to earth. There are no other manifestations of the divine nature that ever came to earth. Then there is the emphasis on the work of the cross. Through him is reconciled everything for him, making peace through the blood of his cross, reconciliation of whether things on earth or in heaven. Maybe you never thought about this, but guess who else needed redemption besides human beings, the angels, the fallen angels needed redemption. What we are hearing is the theology of the cross that says that Jesus atoned for the sins of not only the whole human world, but of the universe. It is a cosmic Christology. He atoned for the sins of the universe. Here is where I say to you in the twenty-first century, that if we ever do find other human beings or other creatures on other planets, these verses are immediately relevant because they are telling us that Jesus paid it all wherever they came from and whatever they have done wrong. He won’t have to go visit other planets. He won’t have to go see other peoples. He has already taken care of the sin problem for the universe.
Listen to this third bit. This is very brief and if we are doing the V thing, notice that it does not do the pre-existence run-up. It simply starts with “who was revealed in flesh”. But this verb implies he pre-existed. Do you see what I am saying? “Revealed” means he already existed, but did not appear on earth yet, “who was revealed in the flesh.” Then it skips right to the resurrection, “vindicated by the spirit”. He is on the way up, isn’t he? “seen by angels”. We are going up, right? And as Jesus ascends, what happens after the ascension? He sends the Spirit, and then what happens? “proclaimed among the nations, believed in throughout the world, glorified throughout and taken up in glory”. It begins with the incarnation, quickly turns to the resurrection and then it focuses on the post-existence of Christ, the upward slant of the V. Some of these are partial, some of them are fuller patterns, but they are all partaking of this pattern.
The next one is detailed. Like the one in Colossians, this author is especially concerned about the downward slope of the V and what Christ did as he pre-existed. What is really interesting about this one, Hebrews 1:2b-4, is that it actually gives us the conclusion before it gives us the V pattern, “whom God appointed heir of all things”, we are talking about Christ, “through whom also God made the universe, who is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact stamp of God’s being, upholding all things by his powerful word, having made purification for sins, he sat down on the right hand of the majesty on high, having become as much better than the angels as he has, he has inherited a more excellent name in comparison to them.” Where did we hear about him inheriting a name after the resurrection? Which other Christological hymn? Philippians 2. He was given a name. Same here. It is possible the author of this had read Philippians. He was inheriting a more excellent name in comparison. The focus is on his pre-existent role. God made the eons through the Son. The Son was the radiance of God’s glory. The Son was the exact representation of God’s being. He is upholding all things by his powerful word. Ephesians talks about this some more and what I would want to say about it is, you may have thought that the universe is held together by entropy. This author says, not so much. The universe is not falling apart, because of the divine word. It isn’t going to fall apart until God says it is going to fall apart, until the Son says it is going to fall apart. It is upheld by his word, his powerful word. The one line in this whole Christological hymn that deals with his earthly existence really is this one: “having made purification for sins.” This language is priestly language. How is Christ portrayed in the Book of Hebrews? As the heavenly high priest. So this foreshadows that right in the prologue to Hebrews, this powerful sermon,”having made purification for sins, he sat down on the right hand of the majesty on high, having become as much better than the angels as he has, he has inherited a more excellent name.” One of the agendas of the first chapter of Hebrews is to make clear that Christ was not, never was, never will be, a mere angel. He is of a higher order of being than angels. Why is this important? It has a lot of theological ramifications. For example, the angel of the Lord in the Old Testament, that is not Jesus, that is – wait for it – the angel of the Lord in the Old Testament. It is the big dog angel of God who is the messenger of God, who represents God. It is God’s Fed-Ex boy, that is who it is, it is not the Son of God. Why not? The Son of God is of a higher order of being than angels and the author of Hebrews goes at great length to make clear, he is no mere angel and he never was. So those three angels that visited Abraham, remember them? They were – wait for it – angels. That was not the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. They were representatives of God, God’s messengers , angels.
Our author says, “Having become as much better than the angels as he has, he inherited a more excellent name.” One of the things that we need to understand about the incarnation is that there was no incarnation before the incarnation. All of those angels and mysterious figures in the Old Testament are angels and mysterious figures in the Old Testament. The way to understand them is that they are part of God’s heavenly court. You can see this in Job 1 and 2. Who else is a member of God’s heavenly court? “ho satan,” The adversary, the prosecuting attorney, the prosecuting angel. “Let me go try your servant Job. We’ll see how he does after that.” The devil is an angel in the heavenly court. He is the prosecuting attorney, he is the tester of brethren.
The second part of this hymn comes after having made purification for sins, and so we have the upward panel of it, the upward part of the V. He sat down on the right hand of the majesty on high. He has a name more excellent than the angels’ names. So the Son of God is the Son of God. We are told two things about him that are exact quotations of what had been said about wisdom and the wisdom of Solomon. In the wisdom of Solomon it is said about wisdom, “Wisdom is the very radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.” I want to talk to you just a minute about this Greek word. Suppose I were to translate the word, “He was the reflection of God’s glory”. What is the difference between radiating God’s glory and reflecting God’s glory? This word implies that the divine essence, God’s glory, the divine presence, is in him, so that he radiates it, he does not merely perfectly reflect it as in a mirror. He has the divine living presence of God, the glory, the Shekinah glory in him and he radiates it. This word is very interesting. This word, which is translated “the exact representation”, you could translate as “the very stamp of his being”. The image is here is of a signet ring and wax. So what happens when the signet ring with the image of the king on it, is stamped in wax? The exact image of the king is in the wax. So what we are saying is that the exact image of God is stamped in the image of the Son. He is the spitting image of the Father, would be another way to put it. That is what our author is saying here.
4. John 1:1ff.
“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made. Without him nothing came to be. In him was life and this life was the light of humankind. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.” This is an interesting thing. It starts in this beautiful, poetic form with echoes of Genesis 1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”, it echoes that. What is interesting about the Christological hymn here is that it introduces the whole Gospel and so, in order for it to introduce the whole Gospel, what does it have to do? It has to stop here. So this Christological hymn focuses entirely on what? the pre-existence of the logos and his taking on flesh. It is only the downward slope of the V that you are going to hinge on because in essence, the whole Gospel of John is going to be the unpacking of the earthly existence part of the story. But when we get towards the end of the story, what does Jesus keep saying? It is necessary that I go back up to the Father. The key to understanding who Jesus is in this Gospel is to know where he really came from, his origin and where he is really going. The V pattern. So here the V pattern, the downward slope of the V pattern is used to introduce the Gospel. “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made. Without him nothing came to be. In him was life, this life was the light of humankind. The light shines in the darkness, the darkness does not overcome it.” This Greek verb here could either be translated as “overcome” or “understood”. In view of the fact that darkness in this Gospel is not just an emblem of the absence of light, but antagonism towards the light, I think the better translation is “overcome”. The darkness has not overcome it.
If you want to see a powerful representation of this whole light and dark imagery put into fictional story form, just read The Lord of the Rings. There we have the battle between darkness and light very, very clearly, and it is a death struggle. And the darkness is in great danger of overcoming the light. And the saddest words that happen in that wonderful drama is, “He has fallen into darkness”. That is the essence of it. What do you say about a lost person? They have fallen into darkness and they cannot see their way out. They cannot see clearly. They are blind.
The third part of the Christological hymn goes like this: “He was in the world and though the world was made by him, the world did not recognize him. To his own he came, yet his own did not receive him, but all those who did accept him, he empowered to become children of God.” Then there is an explanatory sort of parenthesis here about how you become children of God, which is really not part of the hymn. What is interesting about 12b and 13 in the Greek is it goes back into prose. We were at poetry up to here and then all of a sudden we have a parenthetical prose insertion, to explain how you become a child of God.
Then, part 4: “And the Word became flesh.” I actually prefer the translation, “And the Word took on flesh”. The reason is, the Word did not turn into flesh and cease to be the Word. He was still the Word. The Son of God did not become flesh and cease to be the Son of God. So a much better translation here would be, “And the Word took on flesh and tabernacled amongst us.” This verb really does mean “tabernacle”, the image of the Old Testament tabernacle. What was in the tabernacle? The living presence of God. “The Word took on flesh and tabernacled amongst us” because the Word is God. “And we beheld his glory, glory of the only begotten Son of the father, full of grace and truth.” It is a powerful Christological hymn, but it is entirely on his pre-existence and his incarnation because then we are going to hear the story of the life of Jesus. This hymn is used to introduce the Gospel itself. What we have looked at then, is not psalms nor spiritual songs, but “humnos,” from which we get the English word, “hymns”, which is a great direct transliteration from the Greek, from “humnos” to “hymn.” An exalted song with a Christological focus.
Let’s ask, what questions do you have about this powerful, powerful Christological V pattern and the series of hymns it prompted? I have one comment for you to stir up your thoughts, and it is this. These are not like some modern praise songs that kind of go, “yippy, yippy Jesus, yippy, yippy Jesus, hoorah, hoorah”. These hymns have profound theological content that you have to reflect on. You cannot take it all in on one sitting in these Christological hymns. So, what does it tell you about these earliest Christians, that they were composing these as their greatest hits? They were profound reflectors on the theological meaning of the Christ and the Christ event. And we would do well to emulate them, and sometimes we do. One of my very favorite contemporary praise songs is “In Christ Alone”. That really actually is the pattern again. Think about it. It is a modern representation of the V pattern, plus one more. It tells about his return. That is the other aspect that is interesting about these, is there is not a focus on his return in these hymns. There is a focus on his coming and his returning to God on high, but these earliest Christological hymns do not yet reflect on his return, which is very interesting. That kind of reflection took place apparently in other contexts.
II. Pastoral Epistles.
Now we are going to have a chance to see a little bit more of this brave Paul and his missionary work, to give us a better context for understanding Paul. Paul’s road from Caesarea to Rome was a bumpy one. As you know, he went over a sea. He ended up at Rome almost two full years later, after this occasion . This happened I would guess about 58, 59 AD. He was taken to Rome, he was put under house arrest. He was there for two years and he appears to have been released, because there were no definite charges made by Festus against Paul, and because his tormentors did not spend the money it would have cost to go all the way to Rome to accuse him because as a Roman citizen he had a right to trial. He could not be executed without clear charges and his accuser had to appear in person before the emperor to make that good. So it is likely that somewhere around 62 he was released from prison, and what we see in the pastoral epistles is that he had continuous ministry, but that he did not go on to Spain as had been his original intent. He went back east because there was trouble in Greece, there was trouble in Macedonia. There was trouble in Asia, there was trouble in Galatia. Where was there not trouble? There was trouble in Crete, there was trouble in Cyprus.
When we catch up again with Paul in the pastoral epistles, more time has gone by and something really horrible has happened, the fire in Rome, and Nero is looking for scapegoats. This time he is going to appear before the emperor and this time the emperor has something against Christians. He may have been in Mamertine prison when the pastoral epistles were written. Clearly he does not think he is going to escape.
Here are some of his final words, given to his beloved coworker Timothy: “In the presence of God and Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge. Preach the word, Timothy; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears long to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry. For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who long for his appearing.” He goes on to say this, beginning with the 16th verse: “At my first defense, no one came to support me, in fact everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. But the Lord stood by my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And for the moment I was delivered from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
I have fought the good fight. I have run the good race. I have kept the faith. The story of Paul ends in death, but it does not end in tragedy. Now that may seem a contradiction in terms to our culture, for our culture has a different set of temples, they are hospitals. And it has a different set of priests, they are doctors. And it has a different religion that says that this life is all there is; so at all cost and in every way, let it be propped up, for this life is all there is. It is not a philosophy Paul would subscribe to. He considered it an honor to die for the sake of Jesus Christ and the sake of his Gospel. He knew that there would be some who would support him as he went. At one point in these pastoral epistles he says, “Luke alone is with me”. It is my theory that we have these letters at all because of Luke. I believe that Luke wrote down these letters for Paul, for he was in a place where he could not write and he could not see, in a hole in the ground, on the way to the final act of his defense before Nero himself. Then, according to Christian tradition, he was beheaded, which was the right of Roman citizens, not crucified. This probably took place somewhere around 65, 66, 67 AD before the fall of Jerusalem. I am sure that he had plenty of time to reflect in Mamertine Prison about his end and what he had accomplished or not accomplished in his ministry. But he need not have worried. He need not have worried.
III. 2 Peter.
Writing near the very end of the first century AD, probably the latest document in the New Testament in 2 Peter is a conglomeration of material from Jude, material from Peter and material from the final editor of this document, whoever it was. Towards the end of this document our author says this, chapter 3:14 ff: “Dear friends, since you are looking forward to all of this, make every effort to be found spotless and blameless and at peace with God. Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, to which we all say ‘Amen’. Which ignorant and unstable people distort as they do the other Scriptures, to their destruction.” This was written perhaps half of a generation after the death of Paul, somewhere in the 80s or 90s AD. And what we hear about Paul’s letters are, they are still addressing the church. They have been collected into a bundle and they should be treated with the same reverence as the other Scriptures, which is probably a reference to the Old Testament. Paul would have been surprised that the earliest Christian documents had been canonized even before the end of the first century, or at least treated as the sacred text of Christendom.
None of us know the impact we have on other lives, though occasionally we get glimpses. Every now and again I have a student that comes back to me and says, “Dr. Witherington, do you remember that lecture you gave in 1904. You know, it changed my life and here I am before you, to tell you.” We do not know the impact we have. The truth of the matter is that it is our job to sow the seed in faith and trust that the Lord of the harvest can bring it to fruition. It is our job to fight the good fight, to run the full race of Christendom unto death and to keep the faith. This is what Paul would have us do. I have to confess I have a soft place for Paul in my heart. Jesus is my idol, my God, but Paul is my hero, for he is just a mortal man and he has his flaws, but he did not give up. Even when he did not do it perfectly, he did not give up. He left the results in God’s hands.
When you think about your ministry, don’t measure yourself by looking to the right or the left. You are playing to an audience of One and the only voice that matters is the one who says, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Receive the kingdom.” Our world is full of various ways to measure success. I don’t think God measures it anything like the way we do. Adoniram Judson didn’t think so, either, nor did Jim Elliott and his wife, Elizabeth Elliott, who was my teacher at Gordon Conwell. Jim and Elizabeth were missionaries to the Auca Indians in South America along with six other people. They were young, they were enthusiastic and yes, they made a movie about them called “The End of the Spear”. Elizabeth was a truly remarkable woman. You probably know the story, that Jim was martyred by the Auca Indians. He had plenty of chances not to go back to them; but after a furlough, at which time during the furlough, he was interviewed by a newspaper reporter who said, “Don’t you know these people are violent? They could have you for lunch tomorrow.” This is what Jim said: “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” This life is going to go, friends, sooner or later. My word to you about this body and this life is, we’re all terminal. And I don’t mean to dreary about that, but it’s true. Since we know that it is true and since we know in Whom we believe, that he gives everlasting life, we should live our life with the freedom of the Gospel and in service to Christ, even if it results in our life ending in this body sooner rather than later. What a way to go!
To me, the most remarkable part of the story is not just that Jim was killed. The most remarkable part of the story is that his wife, Elizabeth and those other Christians stayed, even though their husbands had been killed. They stayed until the Aucas became Christians. It was not enough to plant the seed, it needed to be watered. And it was not enough to water the seed, they needed to understand the sacrifice that Jim and those other brothers had made who were killed for the sake of the Gospel.
Not long ago in Florida at a Franklin Graham crusade there was a special testimony. It was the chief of the tribe of the Auca Indians. He stood up in front of that congregation, some 60 thousand strong, plus television folks, and he said: “Formerly I lived badly, badly. But when I learned that Mr. Jim had died for me because his Savior had died for him, I realized I needed to live for this Savior for whom he had died. “ So he gave his testimony. “The blood of the martyrs” said Tertullian, “is seed for the church”.
Death is not something for us to fear, for it is in the hands of God. And if our risen Lord can overcome it, so can we. We are the resurrection people, after all. Which side of death do you live in the shadow of, this side, or the side that reflects the sun of the Son, who rose from the grave? I’m saying to you, God’s “yes” for life is louder than death’s “no”.
One of the things about Christianity that I love the most is that we are not in denial about the reality of suffering and sin and sorrow and death and disease and decay. What we are saying is what Corrie Ten Boom said: “No pit is to deep that God’s power of resurrection is not deeper still”. Think about that. This is not a denial of death. We’re not Mary Baker Eddy followers. We don’t deny disease, decay and death. What we are saying is, that greater than the powers of darkness is the power of light. Greater than the powers of death is the power of life. Greater than the powers of wickedness is the power of good. And in the end, God will triumph over all. The kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of our God and of his Christ. This is what Paul lived for and this is what Paul died for. This is what Jim Elliott lived for and this is what Jim Elliott died for. It is a Gospel that takes the world as it is and says, “But here is something better than this world and God has seen to it in Jesus Christ.”
IV. Historical, Not Just Faith.
Some people look at the Christian Gospel and say, “Well, it’s all just a matter of faith, isn’t it?” My answer to that is, “No, it’s not.” For ours is a historical religion. As Paul says, “If Christ is not raised, our faith is in vain.” We are not the most enviable people on earth, we are the most pitiable people on earth. But Christ has been raised from the dead and he was seen for 40 days and beyond by many people, including Paul himself. Paul had to suffer constant reproach, “but you weren’t there, but you didn’t see him before the ascension.” Have you ever thought about that? He says, “I was as one untimely born”. He had a vision of the exalted Christ on the road to Damascus and he said, “I saw the risen Lord”. It was hard for the Jerusalem Christians to accept. When they saw the end of Jesus, they saw him disappear in the air. They thought, “That’s the end of that”. Not quite. Here is the moral to that story. Just when you think God is finished doing miracles, there are always some more, there are always some more, and it changes the lives of people like Saul and you and me. I have fought the good fight, I have run the good race and I have finished the course, a New Testament introduction.
What we have done in this class is to survey the different kinds of literature we have in the New Testament. We have studied the Gospels and their genre. We have studied the epistles and their genre. We have studied sermons. We have studied the revelation. We have studied the structures of these documents, the structures in these documents. We have discussed matters profound and mundane. We have looked at theology and ethics. We have just dipped the tip of our tongues into the great reservoir of The New Testament. My hope is that you have gotten a foretaste of glory divine. My hope is that this drink will simply make you thirsty for more. Jesus said, “The water that I give will well up in you unto everlasting life and will provide an infinite reservoir of faith and hope and love and truth.” In Jesus’ name.
If you study the Gospels in their original context and the letters in their original context and Revelation in its original context, one of the things that becomes clear is the audiences that they shared this with are no more diverse, no more cynical, no more difficult, no more hardhearted, no more sinful than ours. Or, put the other way around, we don’t have a tougher job than they did. In fact, we have an easier one. For we already have this and they did not. And we have the encouragement of our Savior himself, who said, “Thomas, you have believed because you have seen. More blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe”. He was talking of a faith like yours, brothers and sisters. Think of that. You have a greater faith than those who have seen and believed on the basis of what they have seen. Someday you will see, eye to eye, face to face, nose to nose. Someday you will know as you are known. Someday faith will become sight, hope will be realized and love will abound. In the meantime, study to find yourself approved. Prepare yourself for ministry. Go back and read the letters Paul wrote at the end to Timothy and Titus. Put yourself in the shoes of Timothy and Titus and hear and heed the exhortations. If you will do that, you will find encouragement. If a Timothy, who is timid, can do it; if a Titus, who is too tight, can do it, so can we. God is not finished with us yet.
Sometimes when students study The New Testament, they come to me and they say, “You know, it’s just not the same anymore.” My question for them is, is the Holy Spirit at work today somehow less powerful than the Holy Spirit back then? The answer is, no. We do not have Holy Spirit “lite—less filling, tastes great.” [colloquial reference to tv commercial] Has Jesus Christ lost his unction to function? I’m thinking not. He is still the same today, just as yesterday, for he is the same yesterday, today and forever. Has the Father stopped loving us? The answer is, no, he has not. If you have the Father and the Son and the Spirit on your side, that is not only the testimony of three witnesses, that is a majority and you are alright.
John Wesley in his charge to his ministers said this: “Some of the things that God will call you to will be according to your inclinations and you will do it readily. Some will be completely against your inclinations and you will do it anyway. Some things that God will call you to will enhance your own understanding of the faith and you will grow. Some things that God will call you to will be difficult to endure or understand and you won’t know why. Some things that God will call you to in ministry will suit you and your family to a tee and some of them will cause trial and tribulation. Before you took up your cross and follow Jesus, you already knew that the cross is heavy to bear and the way to Golgotha is difficult to follow”. “Understand about ministry, then, “said John Wesley, “that you are called unconditionally, to serve the Lord Jesus Christ”. When Jessie Lee, the Methodist preacher asked Frances Asbury, “What bounty will you give me for riding my horse into the snows of Ohio?” Frances Asbury said, “Grace here and glory hereafter”. He did not say, “Salary now and pension later”. Let me put it to you this way: The eternal rewards are far better than the temporal ones. But then, you should be serving the One who has called you and counting it all a blessing and a privilege to do it.
When I was last in Africa, I was teaching at Wesley College in Praetoria and a man from Zambia came to me. He said, “You must come”. The harvest is ready for the taking. Fields are ripe for the gleaning. I was deeply tempted to do it. There was just one little problem. My wife and my children were in America and they had not gotten the memo about going to Zambia. One of the things that I would say to all of us who are married is, that when God calls someone to a ministry, he does not call him alone. He calls him with his family to do it. That is one of the criteria you need to use in evaluating whether a call is from God, or not. There needs to be unity in the family about what is going to happen. It is not a unilateral call, it is the call of a family to serve the Lord. Like Aquila and Priscilla, like the household of Stephanas and other households along the way. He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose. Those are words worth living by and words worth dying for.