September 22, 2014
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
A while back I heard an old Jewish witticism in which someone asks his rabbi, “Why do rabbis always answer a question with another question?” to which the rabbi replied, “Why shouldn’t a rabbi answer a question with another question?”
So also in Matthew 21: Jesus side-steps the question of the Pharisees as to the source of his authority by asking them a related question about John the Baptist. Jesus and John were not only cousins but they were also similar in that each had appeared from out of nowhere and performed a ministry that meant a great deal to a lot of people. So Jesus says, “Let’s back up one step to my predecessor John: if you can tell me where his authority came from, then I’ll tell you where mine comes from.”
Jesus asks this knowing full well that the answer to both questions was the same. Neither John nor Jesus had any human authority. Neither had gone to seminary, neither had been licensed or ordained. If either John or Jesus had any true authority to claim, it had to be from God directly.
But that’s just where Jesus had them: it was a well-known fact that the chief priests had despised John the Baptist. John had, after all, called them names, placed them on a par with everyone else who came out into the desert to see him. Credentials, advanced theological degrees, and their Sanhedrin “Members Only” gold card cut no ice with John nor, John said, did it matter to God. If even the Pharisees wanted to be saved, they had to submit to John’s baptism of repentance the same as everyone else.
They didn’t of course, but a lot of other folks did because they believed John really was a God-sent prophet. So the chief priests were quite neatly stuck. If they said that God himself had authorized John, they would be revealed as opposing God in that they opposed John. Then again, if they said that John had no real authority from anyone, John’s admirers would get mad. Being cowards at heart, they didn’t want to have anyone upset with them and so say to Jesus, “We don’t know.” Since they didn’t live up to their end of this verbal bargain, Jesus then says, “Well, then I’m not going to tell you about my authority, either.”
On one level, it appears that Jesus is merely being cheeky. On a deeper level, though, Jesus is simply recognizing that there is very little sense in talking to people who are so closed-minded. They were not really seeking information. Their minds were made up about Jesus long before they asked their sly question.
Even at that, however, Jesus doesn’t drop the conversation. He goes on with a little parable. We have one father and two sons. When the father orders the one son to go to work, he replies, “Forget it, Pop! I’ve got plans, things to do, people to see. Pick your own grapes!” But then, sometime after his father walks away looking rather wounded, the young man’s conscience gets the better of him. So he changes out of his fancy going-to-town clothes, throws on his overalls, and heads out to the vineyard. Meanwhile the father has approached his other son and made the same request. “You got it, Dad! I’m on my way!” The father walks away from this exchange feeling good that at least one of his boys knows how to treat his old man with respect. But then, unbeknownst to the father, this boy high-tails it over to the mall to spend some time with his friends and so never does go into the vineyard.
“Which son would you rather have?” Jesus asks. “Who really did what his father wanted?” The answer is obvious, so the chief priests give it, but the meaning of it all was a little less clear, so Jesus spells it out for them. John the Baptist really had come from God and, as such, he really did tell people what God wanted them to do. The people who looked like lowlifes and spiritual losers–the folks who had, by all outward appearances, said “No” to God–they ended up coming around to God’s message after all. They admitted their sins, let John baptize them, and so did what God wanted in the end.
But there were others in Israel who had for so long been saying “Yes” to God outwardly yet ultimately didn’t follow through. They looked like fine and upstanding sons of God. They dressed right. Said all the right things. Made all the right promises. But when push came to shove (as surely it did when John the Baptist confronted everyone with his fiery message of repentance), these same folks turned away from God. Their former “Yes” was undercut by their having said “No” at what turned out to be the pivotal point in God’s plan of salvation.
Not all parables are allegories, of course, at least not in the sense that you can (or even should) try to line up each parabolic character with a real-life person. Sometimes you can even ruin a parable by over-interpreting it. In this case, however, the parable lends itself to an allegorical reading.
But I wonder if there isn’t a deeper meaning beyond just identifying who is who. After all, when precisely was it that the tax collectors and prostitutes and others said “No” to God? Wasn’t it more the case that they had never had a chance to answer God one way or the other precisely because the religious authorities never even addressed them? Because furthermore, although we can quite well understand that the Pharisees had said “Yes” to God, what exactly was it that they had agreed to do but then didn’t end up doing?
After all, from the outside looking in, it surely looked like the chief priests were following through on their “Yes” to God. Who followed the law better than they did? Who did more acts of piety and more stringently avoided sin than the Pharisees? How could Jesus compare them to the son who said “Yes” but then didn’t follow through? The entire existence of these folks looked like one giant effort at following through. Yet Jesus seems to indicate that when it came right down to it, they were missing something so fundamental that it was apropos to compare them to the duplicitous son who said all the right things but who finally failed to do what his father wanted.
How so? Because, I would suggest, they missed the core of God: grace. All throughout the Bible, including the New Testament, Israel is often compared to a vineyard. So in this parable, I suspect that when we hear the father asking his sons to work in the vineyard, it is the equivalent of asking people to do good work among the people of Israel, whoever they were. That’s where the chief priests failed. Think about it: why did it take an outsider like John the Baptist to issue a kingdom invitation to marginalized folks? John did it first, but then Jesus himself continued giving this invitation in his own ministry. Jesus was always hanging out with what the chief priests considered “the wrong crowd.” Indeed, the very fact that Jesus associated with “sinners” counted against Jesus’ being on God’s side.
But first John and then Jesus reached out to these lost, wayward, sorry souls and they did so because until then, no one else had reached out to them. What John essentially said and what Jesus went on to confirm is that it was precisely those people who constituted the vineyard in whose midst holy work was to be done. If you ignored those folks, wrote them off as hopeless and so not worth the Temple’s time, then it was the equivalent of telling God you would work in his vineyard but then never doing it. Because vineyard work is grace work; it is compassionate and merciful work. Vineyard work is not about focusing on yourself and other upstanding, good folks like you.
No, vineyard work was always supposed to be first and foremost about others, starting with the folks you feel the most tempted to overlook (if not outright condemn). The reason John and Jesus found so many people who were hungry for the message of salvation by grace is because no one else had been proclaiming that message. The Pharisees actually avoided these people. God, they thought, likes only certain types of folks, and so if a given person did not appear to be in that likeable category to begin with, then the duty of the devout was to steer well clear of such a greasy character. But John declared that God wanted exactly those fringe folks. We all get into the kingdom the same way: by the grace of baptism.
What’s more, if you really understand that your own salvation depends on that gift of grace, you are only too happy to share this good news with anyone who will listen. You won’t wait for other people to clean up their acts and become more buttoned-down like you before you share the good news. You won’t wait for anything before getting out into that vineyard of needy people so as to minister to them however you can.
When you say “Yes” to God the Father, Jesus claims, you are simultaneously saying “Yes” to the least, last, lost, and lonely people God holds dear. So if you say “Yes” to God but then focus only on your own piety or on other people who are already just as religious as you are, then you are essentially being like the son who said all the right things when Daddy asked but who turned right around and did nothing that the father really wanted.
The New American Standard Bible reverses the order in the Parable of the Two Sons. In the accepted Greek text (as reflected in most translations like the NIV and NRSV), the first son says “No” to his father but then does the work anyway and the second son says “Yes” but never goes to the vineyard. The NASB, however, based its translation on another Greek manuscript and so, based on that, reverses the order found in places like the NIV. The point of the parable is the same but if a preacher were not aware of the switch (and found him- or herself in a church that uses the NASB in their worship services), it could lead to confusion!
In verse 31 Jesus indicated that the tax collectors and prostitutes were entering the kingdom of God “ahead of you,” referring to the religious leaders. Commentator Dale Bruner believes that this is an example of a form of argument called meiosis by which the upshot here is that these other people will enter the kingdom of God not just first but rather they would enter the kingdom instead of the religious leaders and others of their ilk. The Greek verb there is prosagousin. So does Jesus indicate that the leaders would never get into the kingdom or is there hope held out here that they would/could do so, albeit only after these others? Is this an extension of Matthew 20:16 of “The first shall be last and the last first”? Calvin Theological Seminary New Testament Professor Dean Deppe comments on this as follows:
The common meaning of the verb in verse 31 is “to go ahead” of someone, not necessarily “to go instead of.” This is brought out in Matthew at 14:22 where the disciples go ahead of Jesus across the sea. He does join them later, walking on the sea. Or in 21:9 the crowds go ahead of Jesus into Jerusalem with him then following them. Or in 26:32 Jesus will go ahead of them into Galilee. They will join him later.
But the context of Mt. 21-23 does need to be held in mind. In Mt. 21-23 Matthew is demonstrating that God did not forsake his people, Israel, even though the Jewish leadership has not accepted Jesus’ claims. Instead the Jewish leaders forsook God by not receiving the servants that God sent. Psalm 118 is placed at the beginning, middle, and end of this section as proof from Scripture. Jesus shows that he is the rejected stone of Ps. 118:22-23 so that the expected Messiah needs to be seen as a suffering, rejected Son of David. So there is an “instead of” idea in the passage. But it is not that Gentiles replace Jews. It is those who believe in God’s messengers and produce fruit (both Jews and Gentiles) that replace unbelieving Israel.
So in summary, the verb in Matthew 21:31 does mean “to go before,” but for those who do not repent, accept Jesus’ ministry, and produce fruit, it becomes “go instead.” Still the invitation to be gathered like a hen gathers her chicks remains as well. God has not rejected his true people.
Some while back I read an article by a pastor who had grown frustrated with something his parishioners often said to him. When people got into a difficult stretch of life, sometimes they would drop out of church completely. The pastor would, of course, call on them to see why they had disappeared from the fellowship but so often the answer he would receive went something along the lines of, “Well, pastor, as soon as I get this mess all straightened out in my life, then I’ll come back to church.” But, this pastor wrote, that is a little like saying, “My stomach ulcer is real critical just now but I’m thinking it might calm down and as soon as it gets better, I’ll check into the hospital.”
That’s a backward way to think but I would suggest we turn this analogy in a slightly different direction: because if it is wrong to avoid church when we find ourselves in a bad situation, it is equally wrong to say that we aren’t going to minister to people outside the church until they have first pretty much been cured of whatever has been ailing them spiritually. But that changes the church from a hospital (where sick people should be able to come) into a Club Med where only the already healthy are welcome.
That was the problem Jesus was targeting in Matthew 21: Jesus came to remind everyone that as bearers of spiritual healing, the first task God’s people must do is to stay with the sick (and with even the chronically ill, with those who struggle repeatedly with sin and temptation). The problem was that the chief priests and others had long since made their religious inner circle into a kind of “Members Only” club–a place that did not tolerate the messiness of people who did not keep the rules as neatly as the Pharisees could do.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
A casual reading of Exodus 17 seems to yield no more than yet another story about the people of Israel getting hot and thirsty in the wilderness, and so complaining to Moses about their lack of libations. In that sense, this looks like a mirror image of Exodus 16. Is there anything new here as opposed to the previous chapter? Commentator Terrence Fretheim thinks so.
Fretheim highlights one little word that one could miss seeing quite easily. It is the word “Horeb” in verse 6. The so-called “rock of Horeb” on which Yahweh said he would stand when Moses and the elders of Israel arrived is apparently a reference to the region at the foot of Mount Sinai. Horeb is the same place where Moses was said to have been in Exodus 3 when God appeared to him in the Burning Bush. It is the same place to which at that time Yahweh told Moses he would return one day with the people of Israel in tow. And it is the location where ultimately God will give his law, chiefly the Ten Commandments. Horeb is, in short, a key location freighted with meaning.
In truth, this reference to Horeb in Exodus 17:6 creates a textual problem. We are not entirely clear about any of the precise desert locations referred to in Exodus. We don’t fully know exactly what constituted the Desert of Sin, the region of Rephidim, and other such places. What we do know is that Exodus 19 will tell us that the people will have to journey some distance from Rephidim (where they are when chapter 17 opens) to Mount Sinai. If that is so, then how can the place that eventually got dubbed “Massah and Meribah” also be Horeb? If the people don’t get to Horeb/Sinai until chapter 19, how is it that Moses gives them water in that same place in chapter 17? In the end we’re not sure, though some have proposed that maybe “Horeb” was the name of that entire region–perhaps the whole area of foothills and mountains in the Sinai range was broadly referred to as the region of Horeb. That is a plausible enough explanation for the geography of this chapter.
But the geography is less vital here than the theology. The fact of the matter is that “Horeb” is a theological shorthand for the mountain of God, for the place where God revealed himself to Moses in the Burning Bush and the place from which God will definitively dispense his laws, commandments, and statutes very soon. Yet in this chapter Horeb also becomes a place of grumbling and testing. As we read in verse 7, the people are looking for an answer to the question, “Is Yahweh among us or not?” As proof that Yahweh is indeed among his people in also this desert and dangerous place, God once again graciously provides the people with life-giving water from the rock (and he does so without even the slightest hint of a rebuke.
God causes streams of water to flow in the desert, not only proving his presence to the people but preserving their lives again as well. But why might it be significant that this living water flowed from the rock called Horeb? Because this means that when the law of God also “flows” out from that place called Horeb, that law will likewise be a sign that God is among his people. What’s more, it will mean that all things being equal, the people should eventually be able to see in that law a blessing that is every bit as much about bringing and preserving true life as are streams of water in a desert place. The water gives life, the law gives life. The water shows God’s love, the law shows God’s love. Whatever flows from the Rock of Horeb, whether it is water or laws, is to be seen as a sign of God’s presence and blessing.
Exodus 17’s reference to these streams of water flowing from Horeb is a clever way to remind us that there are more ways than one by which God can show his presence and more ways than one by which to perceive just what constitutes a true blessing of God. But already by the time you get to Exodus 19-20 when God gives his law from Mount Sinai, from the Rock of Horeb, you know right away that the people of Israel did not see law and water as being at all similar.
When God begins to thunder his law, the people stop up their ears and run for cover, telling Moses to go fetch the law in private. Once Moses does this, and then takes a good long while doing it, the people get impatient, conclude Moses is dead, and so revert to pagan revelry around a golden calf. When waters flowed from Horeb, the people lapped it up gratefully and happily. When the law flowed from Horeb, the people were alternately bored and scared and finally also impatient.
They were like little children who defined worthwhile things rather narrowly. When I was in Kindergarten, I remember going trick-or-treating on Halloween. At most of our neighbors’ houses I got exactly what you would expect: candy bars, suckers, milk duds, and M&Ms. But I vividly recall the one house we went to. This man was very well-meaning but ultimately highly disappointing to a 6-year-old. After opening the door in response to my “trick or treat,” he began not to give me candy but rather a small lecture on needy children in other parts of the world. I found this to be merely odd and not a little boring even as it delayed my getting at other houses. In the end what this man dropped into my little pumpkin bucket was not a piece of candy but a brochure telling about the work of UNICEF.
As a little kid, I no more saw a blessing in that UNICEF brochure than Israel perceived initially any blessings coming from God’s catalogue of laws, rules, and regulations. Candy in your bucket and streams of water in the desert are one thing, discourses on life are a rather different thing.
But by telling us that the waters of Meribah flowed from the same place as the law of God, the author of Exodus is reminding us to recalibrate our perceptions. Eventually in the Hebrew and Judaic tradition, this happened. The Torah or Law of God was later viewed by Israel as indeed a great gift. It is finally a loving thing that God did by giving Israel a heads-up as to how life operates the most smoothly. When my father taught me how to drive the tractor and run the manure spreader on our farm when I was young, he was very careful to warn me about the dangers of the power-take-off shaft, about being careful not to jackknife the spreader when backing up the tractor, and other key safety rules for operating the machinery. It was first and last a loving thing he did. Obviously it would have been not just careless but very unloving had my Dad cut me loose with potentially dangerous equipment yet without giving me a clue as to what the dangers were and how to avoid them.
So also for Israel in the wilderness: when God told them how life works as reflected in his list of Do’s and Don’ts, he was trying to protect them from the harm that could come were they ignorant of life’s pitfalls and dangers. But this aspect of law is something many people forget about, not just these days but all through history.
What we too often forget is that in the main, rules such as you find in the Ten Commandments are not little hoops to leap through like some trained circus animal and they are not something God invented out of thin air just because he likes to spoil our fun or watch us dance to his little tunes. When God lays down some universal absolute, it is a reflection of the ways things are. And if the good Lord takes the time to let you know about all that, then it is finally a loving and life-giving thing he does–just possibly as loving and life-preserving as streams in the desert.
Exodus 17 may well be claiming that the laws of God are every much a blessing as streams of water in a parched and hot place. But neither the Israelites nor contemporary people see things quite that way, do they!? When was the last time you heard someone pray something along the lines of, “O Lord God, if you truly love me and want to reveal yourself to me, send me some rules to follow!” Indeed, when was the last time you yourself looked for a blessing to come in your life in the form of laws? In truth what most people, preachers included, want from God is on a par with streams of water in a wilderness place. We want health and wealth, we want good food and drink, we want to get a meaningful job that allows us maybe to buy a nice house, take some nice vacations, and sock some money away for our retirement years.
Although I don’t watch too much religious television on cable, I have seen enough over the years to know that when those televangelists get rolling in promising people this or that great blessing of God–this or that sign that God is really present in their very lives–the kinds of things that get mentioned tend to be material blessings and not the great joy that can be found when God hands you a list of rules to follow. The Ten Commandments are things to post in public schools, according to some people, as a way to make kids behave, shape up, and get serious. And if showing people this list of rules really does manage to make a difference in how they behave, then that’s wonderful but even still we would not see that on a par with having God answer our prayer that we can get that promotion we put in for at work. Rules may whip you into shape, but a promotion is a true blessing of God.
The God of Exodus seems to have a different take on this matter!
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests one helpful approach to preaching and teaching psalms is to ask what an “anti-psalm” might look like. What, in other words, might be the opposite tone of that expressed in a particular psalm, whether it’s trust, praise, complaint or something else?
So what might an “anti-Psalm 25” sound like? Might the poet say something like, “I’m on my own in this mess. I have to somehow dig myself out of this trouble. Since I can’t count on anyone else for help, there’s no point in paying any attention to God either. God doesn’t care anyway”?
Psalm 25 alternates between pleas for help and expressions of confidence in God. This may make it difficult to preach and teach because it’s difficult to track any kind of development or movement within it. Yet its structure reflects the shape of much of human life. After all, because God’s children are confident in God’s good purposes and plans, we dare to plead for God’s help. And when God graciously gives that help, the Spirit fuels our confidence in God’s loving ways.
On top of that, daily life often seems to alternate between situations that fuel such pleas for help and situations that cause us to express confidence in God’s loving care. So those who preach and teach this psalm may want to give hearers an example of a day and its developments that move back and forth between pleas for help and expressions of confidence. Or they may want to invite hearers to reflect on such a day in their own recent past.
Psalm 25’s author completely depends on the Lord. So we might think of her as a baby bird stretching her hungry mouth toward a feeding mother, a little child pleading for a grandparent’s help or a servant standing at his boss’s pay window. The psalmist, after all, recognizes that only God can give her the help she desperately needs.
Christians are familiar with pleas for such provision. We offer them for things like our daily bread, health and strength, safe travels and protection. We beg God to bless ourselves, our families, friends, neighbors, co-workers, leaders, various needy people and even our enemies. We plead with God to bless our nations and world – all because we recognize that we depend on God for every good thing.
After all, as the psalmist professes in verse 2, “No one whose hope is in [the Lord] will ever be put to shame, but they will be put to shame who are treacherous without excuse.” The psalmist can plead for God’s help because he’s confident that God cares for God’s children. He may even have past experiences of God’s upholding as he recites this psalm. It’s as if he says, says James Mayes, “In the midst of all the troubles of life, I place my hope in you, and you alone, O Lord.”
Yet Psalm 25 stretches our common conception of dependence. We tend to assume we only depend on God to make things better. Yet in verse 1 the psalmist intimates that we completely depend on God for guidance as well. After all, in commenting on the poet’s prayer, “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul,” Karl Jacobson notes that the psalms always at least loosely link such “lifting” to the need for teaching and guidance.
So those who preach and teach Psalm 25 may challenge hearers to ask themselves how often they plead for God to lead them. Do we realize just how much we depend on God not just for some kind of deliverance, but also for God’s guidance? We sometimes ask God to guide us as we make hard decisions about family members, friends and jobs. Yet how often do we simply ask God to teach us how to live faithful lives of love, obedience and mercy?
Such pleas for leading certainly pack Psalm 25. “Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths,” the psalmist begs in verse 4. “Guide me in your truth and teach me,” he prays in verse 5. In verses 8 and 9 the psalmist goes on to profess that the Lord “instructs sinners in his ways. He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.”
Such “guidance” imagery may be familiar to hikers. Psalm 25’s God is like an expert who helps lead novices through unfamiliar territory or up a treacherous mountain. It suggests that Christians are completely dependent on God because we’re lost without God’s loving and expert guidance.
Yet verses 4 and 5 seem to add another dimension to God’s guidance. The psalmist knows he needs to learn God’s way. To use the guide/hiker imagery, he realizes that he’ll never get to the end of the trail or top of the mountain unless his guide shows him how to get there. However, the psalmist also realizes that he won’t arrive at his destination unless his guide also actively leads him there. It’s as if he knows that he needs God the guide not only to show him the trail map, but also to lead him along that trail.
The psalmist sees God’s instruction as part of God’s saving work. God graciously frees God’s children from slavery to sin, Satan and death. But how will we use that freedom? The psalmist recognizes that we can only live in true freedom if God shows us how to live in the ways for which God creates us.
Yet the psalmist isn’t finished when she confesses her dependence on God for deliverance and guidance. She goes on to publicly recognize how much she depends on God to both remember and forget. “Remember, O Lord, your great mercy and love,” she prays in verses 6 and 7. “Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways; according to your great love remember me.”
So it’s almost as if as she reflects on her need for God’s teaching and guiding, the psalmist remembers that she hasn’t always followed those ways. As a result, she basically begs God to forget her rebelliousness. However, the psalmist also pleads with God to remember God’s great love and mercy, as well as the psalmist herself. So she pleads for God to exercise what we might call selective memory. After all, even as we beg and depend on God to forget our rebelliousness, we also plead with and rely on God to remember God’s loving care for us.
This God on whom we so completely depend is a good God. God is, according to verse 8, “Good and upright.” God is, in other words, characterized by God’s compassion and mercy. The God to whom the psalmist prays is trustworthy (1) because of God’s is merciful, loving, good and upright.
In July, 1986 Life magazine dubbed the stretch of US Route 50 that crosses the center of Nevada “The Loneliest Road in America.” That particular section of Route 50 spans mostly desolate terrain that’s pockmarked by several large valleys and basins. Life called it lonely because there are long distances between the few small towns on the road and relatively low numbers of people travel on it.
Psalm 25 talks a great deal about God’s “ways” and “paths.” Yet those who seek to travel in faith along those ways sometimes feel like they’re the loneliest highways, not just in America, but in the whole world. Those who wish to let God teach them about and guide them along God’s ways may feel as though no one is traveling in obedience with them.
Ironically, those who travel US Route 50 through Nevada from east to west end their lonely journey alongside one of North America’s most dazzling natural wonders, Lake Tahoe. In that way it’s a bit like the sometimes lonely road that is God’s way that, by God’s amazing grace, ends up in the spectacular new heaven and earth.
Author: Stan Mast
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
At the heart of this passage is the magnificent Christ hymn of verses 6-11 that teaches arguably the highest Christology in the New Testament (with Colossians 1:15-23 giving it stiff competition). It is a preacher’s dream or nightmare, because its elevated claims about Christ are stated in language that is legitimately controversial. I’m not going to say anything about all that controversy because I already wrote about it in my March 18, 2013, posting on the Center for Excellence in Preaching (http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/viewArticle.php?aID=788).
Here I want to focus on the practical use Paul made of that soaring hymn. This is a perfect example of what some might call task theology or pastoral theology, theology in the service of practical Christian living. Paul soars to the top of this theological Everest to make a very important point about life in the valley of the shadow. The text is all about unity in the church. Paul uses this hymn to motivate the church toward the humility that is central to unity. He shows how Christ is the model par excellence of such humility.
Some preachers may well ask, why does Paul wax so eloquent about Christ for the sake of unity? I mean, what’s the big deal with unity? Unity certainly hasn’t been a big deal in my ecclesiastical tradition. We’ve been much more concerned about being right, theologically correct, even if our desire to be doctrinally orthodox results in church splits. One of my favorite literary scenes is in Peter DeVries’ The Blood of the Lamb, where a newly enlightened college student challenges the theological bickering of two staunch Dutch Reformed uncles. One of the uncles replies that theological soundness is more important than anything, including church unity, thundering in a brogue as thick as Dutch pea soup, “Rotten wood you can’t split.”
Other traditions focus on different aspects of the faith. Pietists emphasize a personal relationship with Christ and the holy living that should result from a “closer walk.” Charismatics treasure the supernatural experience of the Spirit’s presence in the exercise of gifts and the ecstasy of worship. And today much of the church is focused on justice, particularly of the social variety. A church that doesn’t change society along Kingdom lines isn’t a faithful church.
All of those are legitimate and important concerns for the church, but here Paul pulls out his biggest gun to march the church to unity. What’s the big deal with unity? I suspect that Paul is governed here by those famous words of Christ in his high priestly prayer of John 17. In verses 21 and 23, he says, “I pray … that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me…. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me….”
A united church in a divided world is the clearest proof that Jesus really was God in the flesh come to save the world. The world is splintered into billions of screaming, bleeding shards of humanity, and there seems to be no solution to the brokenness and division. Who can possibly unite Palestinians and Israelis, Sunni and Shiites, Republicans and Democrats? Only God can, and he has begun his work of reuniting a fallen creation by creating one new body called the church. Composed of Jew and Gentile, slave and free, rich and poor, male and female, it is the proof that God can actually bring all things back together in Christ. No wonder Jesus prayed for the church’s unity. The progress of the Gospel and the future of the world depend on it. No wonder Paul uses such high Christology to motivate the church to unity. It’s what Christ himself prayed for as he began the last leg of his journey to the cross.
This doesn’t mean that unity trumps everything else. The centrality of the Christ hymn here demonstrates that the church’s unity must be centered on the truth about Christ. If we lose the truth because we stop caring about correct doctrine, we cease to be the church. And Paul’s subsequent call to holy living demonstrates that the church’s quality of life is central to its witness. If we Christians don’t exhibit Christ like qualities in our lives, we won’t be much of a witness to the saving power of Christ. Even if it ruffles feathers, the church must strive to be the “holy catholic church.” And we can’t let our passion for unity blunt our efforts to change the world by pursuing justice and peace. If we don’t bear witness to God’s mission of recreating a world filled with shalom, our witness will seem unworldly and uncaring. But here Paul emphasizes that the unity of the church is central to all of those other concerns. If we battle each other as we defend the truth and seek holiness and pursue justice, we will look just like the world. And they won’t believe us.
I want to focus on two phrases in this passage that summarize Paul’s concern. These are also the parts of this text that will yield the most fruit for the preacher. They are both problematic. Paul’s call for unity is summarized in verse 2, where Paul calls the church to be “like-minded.” After anchoring that call to like-mindedness in the Christ hymn, he follows the hymn with a call to “work out your salvation.” What do those two phrases mean and how are they connected to each other?
After listing many of the blessings Christians enjoy because of their union with Christ and the presence of the Spirit and love of God, Paul encourages us to complete his joy by “being like minded.” What on earth can that mean? Surely he doesn’t expect us to think alike about absolutely everything. That would destroy the blessed diversity of the body that gives it texture and color and shape. Paul is not encouraging what sociologist Irving Janis back in 1972 labeled “Group Think.” Janis was referring to group pressure that results in flawed or senseless decisions that might hurt others. Nor is Paul encouraging the kind of post modern promotion of diversity that devalues truth. Think of the bumper sticker that uses the symbols of the world’s great religions to spell the word COEXIST.
In grappling with this phrase, some scholars have tried to distinguish between uniformity and unanimity. Uniformity is lockstep, unthinking sameness. Think of “The Stepford Wives.” Unanimity, on the other hand, is the pursuit of common goals even though we may disagree about some aspects of the pursuit of those goals. Think of those rare church Council/Board/Session meetings in which vigorous debate is concluded with a closing of the ranks and an agreement to move forward together. (I know, that doesn’t always happen, but I saw it often enough to remember it with joy.)
Paul tells us what he means by “like-mindedness” with four phrases in the verses that follow: “having the same love, being one is spirit and purpose, considering others better than yourselves, looking not only to your own interests but also the interests of others.” Even a cursory study of these 4 aspects of unity reveals that Paul is not saying Christians have to think the same way about everything. But as we disagree, we must love each other, be united in spirit and purpose, and put the concerns and interest of others on an equal level with our own.
In all my research on this nebulous call to be “like minded,” I found nothing better than these words by Dr. Brad Littlejohn. “The four phrases thus all mutually interpret one another, leading us simultaneously away from a wooden intellectualistic uniformity of belief and a wooly sentimental unity of feeling. What they point us to, instead, is a common object of love, which is one-another-in-Christ, a common strategy for life, which is self-sacrificial other-regard, and a common vision of history, which is that the Son of God died for his people, and is coming to reign over the earth.”
That last clause about Christ’s reign is, of course, an allusion to the last part of the Christ hymn, where Christ is proclaimed Lord over absolutely everything. After humbling himself, and, in fact, precisely because (“therefore,” verse 9) he did humble himself to death on the cross, Christ will be exalted to the highest place, given the highest name, and receive the highest praise of the entire universe. What an astonishing reversal for the one who humbled himself! That humility and subsequent exaltation is the motivation and model for the humility that is the key to unity in the church. That is why Paul opens the next part of his plea (verses 12 and 13) with “therefore,” or “so then.” Because of what Christ did and because of how that worked out for him, we should do the same with each other.
That will not be easy. It will take hard work. You will have to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Even though a large portion of the Christian church has taken this to mean that we must work for our salvation, contributing something to the work of Christ, it cannot mean that. The NIV translation gets it just right when it says, “work out,” not “work for.” We have been given salvation as a gift paid for by the work of Christ. What Paul now calls us to do is develop that salvation, Think of working out in a gym to develop the muscles you’ve already been given. Or think of working a field so that you can gain the full harvest.
God has given us salvation in the form of unity with himself (in justification and reconciliation) and with each other (in the creation of the church and the sanctifying work of the Spirit). Now we must work out what God has worked for us and in us. We must do that with “fear and trembling,” not because we feel guilty and fear the loss of salvation, but because we feel awe and wonder at the humiliation and exaltation of Christ, and because of what Paul says next in verse 13.
We can and must do this hard work, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to act according to his good purpose.” Even as Paul began this call to unity with a reminder that God has already worked for us (verse 1), he ends it with a reminder that God is always at work in us. God in us does two things. He works on our wills, to make us want what God wants, and he gives us the power to do what God has convinced us to do.
I remember a TV evangelist concluding his “altar call” with a strong urging to choose for Christ, assuring people that “God is a gentleman who will never impose on you, never violate your will. You have to exercise your will and decide for Christ.” Maybe that is a helpful bit of persuasive rhetoric, but it sure doesn’t sound like our text. Here Paul encourages us to choose by lifting up the truth that the Holy Spirit does, in fact, work on our will. Indeed, it is precisely because God is at work in us that we ought to and are able to choose for Christ-like living.
This text confronts us with the ancient mystery of the relationship between human responsibility and divine sovereignty. The interweaving of those apparently contradictory truths has mystified ordinary Christians and inflamed partisan theologians. How are we to fit the two together? We don’t really have to; we must simply do what Paul says here: “work out… for it is God at work in you….”
If we do want to explain this mystery, I don’t think we can do better than the Canons of Dort. For all its craggy 17th century severity and tangled syntax, it is a credible attempt to honor both aspects of what Paul says here. “[God] infuses new qualities into the will, which though heretofore dead, he quickens; from being evil, disobedient and refractory, he renders it good, obedient and pliable, actuates and strengthens it, that like a good tree, it may bring forth the fruits of good actions…. Whereupon the will thus renewed, is not only actuated and influenced by God, but in consequence of this influence becomes active.” (Canons of Dort, III and IV, articles 11 and 12)
Not only does God call us to unity, not only does he motivate us to that unity by the model of Christ’s humble sacrifice, but he also works in us individually and corporately to create that unity. The Triune God is fully and personally committed to reuniting all that sin has divided. That is God’s good purpose/pleasure. As Paul says in Ephesians 1:9 and 10, “And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” After Christ came in the fullness of time, the birth and growth of the church was the first stage in that master plan of unification. No wonder Paul makes such a big deal of the church’s unity.
The next book I read will be Micha Boyett’s Found: A Story of Questions, Grace, and Everyday Prayer. A wonderful review in Christian Century says it is a lovely memoir of Boyett’s yearning for God, her deep desire to find God. As she seeks God, she discovers again that God is already and always there. We are already “found.” Listen to her words in the light of Philippians 2:12, 13. “We are all being written together by a generous Author. My story is here in that bigger story, the story of a God who comes to the fainthearted, the bored, the bitter-spirited, the ones who cannot prove themselves worthy. I have spent much of my life clutching tightly to the bitter spirit, keeping the gate of God’s grace closed tight. I have worked hard but denied myself the mystery of grace.”
The reviewer summarizes Boyett’s memoir with this. “The beauty of Found is that it isn’t about finding God; it’s about how God finds us.” Or as one of my favorite old Reformed hymns puts it: “I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me. It was not I who found, O Savior true; no I was found, was found of thee.”