Think Rightly About Yourselves

[This is a repost from 2013 with an additional translation added to the list below]

Text

Λέγω γὰρ διὰ τῆς χάριτος τῆς δοθείσης μοι παντὶ τῷ ὄντι ἐν ὑμῖν μὴ ὑπερφρονεῖν παρ᾽ ὃ δεῖ φρονεῖν ἀλλὰ φρονεῖν εἰς τὸ σωφρονεῖν, ἑκάστῳ ὡς ὁ θεὸς ἐμέρισεν μέτρον πίστεως. (Rom 12:3 BGT)

Translation

Upon first glance the obvious translation/meaning is, “For, I say to all of you through the grace which was given to me, do not think about yourselves more highly than it is necessary to think, but rather think [w/respect to yourselves] in a manner that leads to temperance; each one as God has given a measure of faith. (Romans 12:3)

Other Common Translations:

For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith. (Rom 12:3 KJV)

 

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.  (Rom 12:3 ESV)

 

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone who is among you not to think more highly of yourself than what one ought to think, but to think [sensibly], as God has apportioned a measure of faith to each one. (Rom 12:3 Lexham English Bible)

 

For by the grace given to me I ask every one of you not to think of yourself more highly than you should think, rather to think of yourself with sober judgment on the measure of faith that God has assigned each of you. (Rom 12:3 International Standard Version) [Here, they catch that ‘thinking of yourself’ is implied due to the nature of the contrasted modes of thought.]

 

For by the grace given to me I say to every one of you not to think more highly of yourself than you ought to think, but to think with sober discernment, as God has distributed to each of you a measure of faith.
(Rom 12:3 NET)

Syntactical Comment

Every translation takes the Greek preposition εις to mean “with” and they translate the stative verb (verb about a state of being) adverbially. I’m going against a trend in translations here, but εις rarely means ‘with’ and not ever, that I can think of, with an infinitive. But εις το + [infinitive] often (always?) connotes purpose.  

Paul is contrasting to ways of thinking about yourself. One is haughty, the other is a form of self-reflection that leads to sober-mindedness or temperance. 

Reflections

Paul wants Christians to think about themselves so that they can judge their own capacities soundly. But it’s not just that he wants them to think soundly. It’s that he wants them to think about themselves in a way that leads to sound judgment in interpersonal matters. What this means, if you go on to read the rest of Romans 12, is that we consider just what our gifts are and we use them in a way that is in line with unhypocritical love (Romans 12:9).

This is an interesting way of looking at things. Be utterly realistic about how wretched, weak, and malicious you are (Romans 1-3). Also, be utterly realistic about what God’s grace has done in you (Romans 7-8). Realize that God has a plan that uses even the most dire of circumstances to bring his will to pass (Romans 9-11). Now, use your gifts with circumspection and confidence. That’s what he’s saying, or something like that.

A Recent Translation That Got Things Right

David Bentley Hart Translates the verse:

“For, by the grace given to me, I say to everyone among you not to be more haughtily minded than your thinking ought to be, but rather to let you thinking conduce to sober-mindedness, as God has apportioned a measure of faithfulness to each. (Romans 12:3 DBH NTT)

Ephesians 4:1-6

Text

Παρακαλῶ οὖν ὑμᾶς ἐγὼ ὁ δέσμιος ἐν κυρίῳ ἀξίως περιπατῆσαι τῆς κλήσεως ἧς ἐκλήθητε, μετὰ πάσης ταπεινοφροσύνης καὶ πραΰτητος, μετὰ μακροθυμίας, ἀνεχόμενοι ἀλλήλων ἐν ἀγάπῃ, σπουδάζοντες τηρεῖν τὴν ἑνότητα τοῦ πνεύματος ἐν τῷ συνδέσμῳ τῆς εἰρήνης· Ἓν σῶμα καὶ ἓν πνεῦμα, καθὼς καὶ ἐκλήθητε ἐν μιᾷ ἐλπίδι τῆς κλήσεως ὑμῶν· εἷς κύριος, μία πίστις, ἓν βάπτισμα, εἷς θεὸς καὶ πατὴρ πάντων, ὁ ἐπὶ πάντων καὶ διὰ πάντων καὶ ἐν πᾶσιν.
(Eph 4:1-6)

Translation

Therefore, I (the prisoner in the Lord) urge you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called; in all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, working hard to keep/obey the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace: one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all, through all, and in all. Eph (4:1-6)

Interpretation

“calling” in Paul’s letters is a synecdoche for the personal event of hearing and believing the gospel message. It carries the same connotation as conversion does for us today. To walk worthy of the calling is to live in a way that reflects the dignity of the one who has called you. It is important to note that for Paul and Jesus in the gospels, the calling is to a particular form of community life. Jesus used the phrase “kingdom of God.” Paul said “church.” The idea is still important. Our conversion is personal and individual. Yet, it is not alone because it is a whole person conversion, and our social self is part of who we are. To be called as a Christian is to be identified with God’s elect people. But this calling is more than individual or social. Paul does speak of the evangelist calling people in his letters and of the individual’s responsibility to respond to the gospel. But even more, for Paul, the gospel call is a call from Jesus himself. So to walk worthy of the calling is to live in a way that honors Jesus with respect to his office and character. He goes on by listing character traits as to how this may be done. 

unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” means divinely inspired unity which comes from the teachings related to the gospel. Paul tells them to be working hard to maintain this. There is a unity in the church which has its origin in God’s Spirit. But, this original unity must be maintained by God’s people in the sphere of “the bond of peace.” The bond of peace refers to the peace which Christ preached to those near and far. What Christ preached is the gospel (Ephesians 2:17). More evidence for this is that Paul uses this summary of the gospel story, “one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all, through all, and in all.”

Application

Christians must break certain habits. Habits of impatience, rudeness, and an inability to forgive all have to go. To do this, I think we must radically transform our approach to time, we spend to much time rushing that we’re short with God’s people. Instead, we need to slow down to learn to be patient with others. I also suspect that learning about our own sinfulness and not resenting it, but knowing it will help us to be compassionate and forbearing to others. 

Also, this passage tells us that Christians need to know the gospel well enough to have unity with other Christians based on our shared faith. To live worthy of the gospel, we must know it. Why? Because it’s principles are principles of peace. Once we know those principles, we must work hard to practice them so that we can have unity.

Finally, it is the calling of every Christian to put on these character traits. 

Recommended Reading:

Barth, Markus. Ephesians. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974.

Bruce, F. F. The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans, 1984.

Hoehner, Harold W. Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2002.

Headship and Submission in Marriage

The Glass of Wine – Jan Vemeer I have no idea if they’re married or not, but this picture always struck me as a relaxing vision of an evening in the good life.

A friend recently asked about this topic, so I thought I’d give a sketch of my thoughts. I won’t be citing any sources, but hopefully what I cite as evidence is either self-evident or easily obtainable.

The basic question is this:

What does is mean to submit to your husband as the head of the household in the Bible?

Put more theologically:

Does being a Christian mean that a woman loses her autonomy to her husband?

And here is the question with a twist toward defending the faith:

If male/female equality is true and the Bible teaches husband/wife hierarchy, does that mean the Bible is wrong?

So there are three layers of discussion here:

  1. What does the New Testament actually teach about husband/wife relationships?
  2. What does it mean to be a Christian?
  3. Is the biblical picture of a well functioning marriage true/workable today?

Question 1: What does the NT actually teach about husband/wife relationships?

If somebody asked me, “does the Bible say wives should submit to their husbands,” my straight forward answer would be, “Yes.” If they said, “What do you think that means?” I’d say, “She should respect him, in public and private.”

If I were asked to give further explanation, I’d elaborate like this.

For the sake of argument, let us assume we’re talking about married Christians who aren’t having significant problems worthy or counseling or legal intervention (being physically assaulted is a problem for police and the legal system, the church can excommunicate an abusive spouse but can do relatively little to get them out of your life).

First, the Bible is clear about the core behavioral principle of Christians toward each other:

“Love one another even as I [Jesus] have loved you. ” (John 13:34)

“Whatever you wish others would do for you, you do unto them.” (Matthew 7:13)

The first principle of all relationships between Christians is love for one another because the first aim for the Christian is to seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness (Matt 6:33).

The second principle for understanding the Christian instructions regarding husbands and wives is that the household was seen as a microcosm of society in the ancient world, as such a household was in competition with other households for prestige and resources and all human societies had a leader or, as the Bible says, “head.” This is just how things were conceived, or at least how they were written about. For instance, in Ephesians 1:22-23, Jesus is the head of the church and all spiritual reality. And so families/households had a head, the husband.

For the husband to be the head of household usually means four things:

  1. He is the provider for the family.
  2. He is the protector of the family.
  3. He is the representative of the family’s needs in the broader society. (this fits well with the previous two)
  4. He is the de facto leader of the group.

Now, in the case of Jesus Christ and his church, submitting to him as the head of the church means obedience, worship, and persistent deference to his will. In the case of Christian marriage it means what you might see in Proverbs 31. The woman there submits to her husband’s headship by ensuring that the well being his household is achieved:

  1. she cares for his health
  2. she raises their children
  3. she manages the in-house financials
  4. she uses her resources to improve the financial situation of the house in the market
  5. she seeks to maintain the honor of the household among the neighboring families.

In other words, to submit to your husband is to promote his interests and those of the family generally. Paul puts it this way: “…let each wife respect her husband.” In other words, submission isn’t a matter of obedience as it is toward Christ. Instead, submission is meant in the sense of admiration and pursuit of his well-being and honor.

Now, the interesting thing in the New Testament is that no specific rules are set forth for how husband/wife relationships should be pursued, but rather general principles. Husbands are to put extra effort into loving their wives and wives into respecting their husbands. My guess is that the general temptation of a wife is to gossip about or mother her husband and that the general temptation of a husband is to treat his wife harshly (like one of the fellas), neglect her needs, or talk down to her. So Paul give instructions to address each of these in Ephesians 5:33, “Let each husband love his own wife as himself and each wife respect her husband.”

As a tip, I recommend that men go out of their way to be admirable (to make your wife’s job of respect easier), and that women go out of their way to be sweet/lovable (to make your husband’s job easier).

As an aside, there is a sense in which husbands are to respect/honor their wives (Proverbs 31 says that a good husband praises his wife in the gates) and wives are to love their husbands, as the general command to Christians is to respect each other, encourage one another, listen to one another, and love each other.

Briefly, nowhere in Scripture is a husband instructed to boss his wife around, abuse her, or run her down as a function of his headship. That has happened in history and been perpetrated by Christians, but is forbidden in Scripture (1 Peter 3:7).

Question 2: What does it mean to be a Christian?

Some people feel that women might lose their autonomy in a marriage that uses the language of ‘headship’ or ‘submission.’ I want to address a few things here:

  1. People are justified by faith in Christ. So one does not become a Christian by figuring out how to be a spouse. Rather, one learns to be a better spouse by discipleship to Christ. This particular issue, while important, is secondary. Not only is it secondary, it’s disputed. The picture I painted above may not be accurate.
  2. One loses and gains autonomy as a Christian. When you become a Christian, you’re committing to be crucified to the world with Christ. But in doing so, you can find your life and find it to the full.
  3. When you get married, whether you’re a husband or a wife, you’re more specifically defining who you are. To define oneself at all is a simultaneous gain and loss of autonomy. If you become Jackie’s husband or Jerry’s wife, then you’re making a choice to be a specific person bound to another specific person. In that sense, you put on an identity within which to make a wide range of previously unavailable choices (gained autonomy) and you’ve severely limited your choices as well (lost autonomy).

Converting to Christianity or getting married is to lose/gain autonomy, but this is how all choices are. I do fear that certain quarters of the feminist movement want a world in which choices lead only to gained autonomy:

It would appear that while no woman needs a man for companionship, women need men and other women to pay for their birth control.

Thankfully, such a world is impossible.

Question 3: Is the picture of headship prescribed in Scripture good or workable?

I think the answer is yes. Most of what comes next is just a sketch, and maybe even speculative, though the psychological (esp. evo-psych) and anthropological research is there.

The notion that headship means domineering is clearly wrong. The notion that it means to protect, provide, represent, and lead is generally what children want in a dad and wives in a husband. In cases wherein things are different, the Bible is clear that people should treat others as they want to be treated and discussion and compromise are necessary. But I think that in the majority of civilizational history, women have had particular duties which made it difficult for them to be, in any sense, “head” of the family. Once a baby was born, mom became attached to the duties of feeding, educating, and otherwise caring for baby. This did not mean that they weren’t leaders, influencers, creative thinkers, or productive. It just meant they did it as mothers.

Insofar as biological sex differences are products of divine creation and/or evolutionary processes, the development of the headship model is rather natural and the Paul’s method of attaching the mutual ethics of love and respect to that model help to make it work in a fashion, not of biological necessity, but of Christian spiritual formation.

Concluding Thoughts

It’s best to remember that the New Testament commands all Christians to love and honor/submit to one another and that the character of married couples must include both of those traits, because in many places those characteristics are encourages without reference to gender roles or any roles in particular. So, Christian wives ought to respect their husbands and Christian husbands ought to love their wives.

The other details (the nature of roles) are definitely cultural, but culture comes from human beings whose behavior comes from their nature. And so it’s best to determine if the roles mentioned in the New Testament work before rejecting them outright. And like many of the social rules in the New Testament, there are likely exceptions.

Jordan Peterson and the Psychology of Redemption

Psychology of God Belief

In his excellent talk on the psychology of redemption in Christianity, Dr. Jordan Peterson explains how the Christian vision of God creates balance in the people’s minds. It does do by allowing for them to pursue an ideal without treating their own personal interpretations or reductions of that ideal as absolute in themselves. How? Because God is beyond our understanding, except as the highest possible good.

A New Testament Theological Take

What Peterson’s take might mean for the Christian is that our vision of God provides an ideal to pursue. But what idea? Primarily, it is that of the virtue revealed in Jesus and his teachings. Secondly, it is the Old Testament, interpreted through Christ. Finally, the virtue evident through the study of nature. But, since God and even the highest human character possible are ultimately incomprehensible, conversations with truth-telling as the goal must occur so that we can make the course corrections necessary to attain to the ideal. This is why Paul can say that he presses onward toward the goal, but also that he does not think he has attained to the goal of perfect participation in God or in the character of Jesus Christ.

The Jordan Peterson Video:

Here’s my own take on that concept:

Here are some of the relevant passages of Scripture:

Matthew 6:25-34 ESV “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? (26) Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (27) And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? (28) And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, (29) yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. (30) But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? (31) Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ (32) For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. (33) But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (34) “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

 

1 Corinthians 13:1-13 ESV If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. (2) And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. (3) If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (4) Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant (5) or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; (6) it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. (7) Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (8) Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. (9) For we know in part and we prophesy in part, (10) but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. (11) When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. (12) For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (13) So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

 

Hebrews 1:1-4 ESV Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, (2) but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. (3) He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, (4) having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

 

Philippians 3:12-14 ESV Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (13) Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, (14) I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

John Calvin on Good Teaching

In a remarkable little comment on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, John Calvin made these remarks:

Imitators of me…Paul had [in the previous chapter] there brought forward his own example in confirmation of his doctrine. Now, in order that the Corinthians may understand that this would be becoming in them, he exhorts them to imitate what he had done, even as he had imitated Christ.

Here there are two things to be observed—first, that he prescribes nothing to others that he had not first practised himself; and, secondly, that he directs himself and others to Christ as the only pattern of right acting. For while it is the part of a good teacher to enjoin nothing in words but what he is prepared to practise in action, he must not, at the same time, be so austere, as straightway to require from others everything that he does himself, as is the manner of the superstitious. For everything that they contract a liking for they impose also upon others, and would have their own example to be held absolutely as a rule. The world is also, of its own accord, inclined to a misdirected imitation, (κακοζηλίαν)1 and, after the manner of apes, strive to copy whatever they see done by persons of great influence. We see, however, how many evils have been introduced into the Church by this absurd desire of imitating all the actions of the saints, without exception. Let us, therefore, maintain so much the more carefully this doctrine of Paul—that we are to follow men, provided they take Christ as their grand model, (πρωτότυπον,) that the examples of the saints may not tend to lead us away from Christ, but rather to direct us to him.[1]

In sum:

  1. Good teachers prescribe nothing that they do not practice themslves.
  2. They direct others to the ideal, not just to their own practice.
  3. Good teachers must not require others to immediately become exactly like themselves for they might fall short of the ideal or be expecting unrealistic transformation.

[1] John Calvin and John Pringle, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 349–350.

Philippians 4:2-9 and Gospel Conflict Resolution

TLDR: Philippians 4:2-9 is about conflict resolution in a Christ centered way rather than general ethical advice.
Note: I’m fairly sure I wrote a post about this a few years ago. I do not know where it went.

Philippians 4:2-9

(4:2-3 GST) )I am urging Euodia and I am urging Syntyche to have the same way of thinking in the Lord. Yes, I am even asking you, true yoke-fellow, assist these women. They struggled in the gospel alongside me with both Clement and the rest of my co-workers whose names are in the Book of Life.

(4:4-7 GST) Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say: rejoice! Let your reasonableness be made known to all people, the Lord is near. Do not make a habit of fretting about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. Then the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

(4:8-9 GST) Finally, brothers, whatever is honest, whatever is noble, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever causes affection, whatever is commendable, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy take account of these things; and that which you learned and received, and heard and observed in me, put these things into practice and the God of peace will be with you.

Translated from Kurt Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), Php 4:2–9.

The Dominant Interpretation of Philippians 4:2-9

The passage of Scripture above is often (in the majority of commentaries) interpreted as a paraenesis or a collection of general and miscellaneous ethical advice. There are good reasons for accepting this view. Several Biblical scholars accept this view (Bruce, Barth, Cohick, O’Brien, Fee, and Witherington) as does my pastor, whose judgment about such matters is very well reasoned. The take away of this perspective is essentially that Paul wants us to think about positively virtuous and God honoring things (which elsewhere he clearly does say to do). I totally agree with the ethical idea that comes from the majority interpretation. It is Pauline advice, it is reasonable advice, it is advice that accords with the sort of meditation that has been prescribed throughout the Christian tradition for centuries, and it seems to be advice that helps people who receive cognitive psychological therapy (thinking about different things to manage bad thought patterns). So don’t hear me being mean about people who see the passage in the more traditional way.

Instead, I simply think that there is a more compelling and rhetorically sensitive interpretation that makes the letter itself more cohesive. I’ve become convinced that Philippians 4:2-9 is an attempt on Paul’s part to resolve a conflict in the church at Philippi. The passage above is Paul’s application of generally wise advice on Christian living (4:4-9) to the specific issue at hand (4:2-3): a conflict between two notable members of the church leadership. It is notable that David Alan Black suggests a similar point of view for verses 4:2-7 in his book Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek.

Why would I think such a thing?

In Philippians 4:2-3, Paul urges two women to start working together or at least to come to have “the same way of thinking” that Paul has urged elsewhere in the letter which is summed up in the humility of Jesus demonstrated in the gospel story (see especially 1:27-2:11). So, Paul rhetorically hooks this section directly to 1:27 and 2:1-5.

It may not matter, but Paul does use the present tense of the word translated above as “I am urging” which could mean one of two things:

  1. Paul is performing a speech-act (like saying, “I pronounce you husband and wife”) wherein Paul is urging, in that very sentence, for them to get along.
  2. An introduction to a new line of thought: “I am urging, in what follows, that you be of one mind.”

If we take 4:2-3 to be the end of Paul’s instruction about getting along (option 1), then the rest of the passage is simply general moral and spiritual advice. But if 4:2-3 is introducing what follows (option 2), then we have Paul’s vision of Christian conflict resolution. There are four main reasons for seeing 4:2-3 as an introduction to the material that follows all the way until verse 9.

  1. It allows this closing material to fit with the apparent thesis statement of the letter (1:27-30).
  2. It helps make sense of the fact that several of the things Paul says to “take account of” are characteristics of persons, not mere ideals to be comprehended.
  3. Paul’s instructions all result in something pertaining to peace.
  4. It is generally true that the New Testament Epistles are more concerned with group cohesiveness than individual spiritual disciplines (although group cohesion almost always relies upon the spiritual health of the members).

So the practical take away from this slightly shifted perspective is that Philippians 4:2-9 is first and foremost a rhetorically crafted set of instructions for having civil and charitable disagreements amongst God’s people and it is secondarily a set of instructions about joyful living.

Here is what the conflict-resolution interpretation of the Philippians 4:2-9 would look like:

Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say: rejoice!
In order for these women to get along, Paul challenges them to rejoice in the Lord. The idea here is that when dealing with disagreement, if both of you think about the reasons that Jesus Christ has given you to rejoice, then this will set the tone for your own approach to the issue.

Let your reasonableness be made known to all people.
The idea here is that being open to reason and dealing with a conflict in a winsome and evidence based way not is not only the right thing to do, but it goes a long way in preserving the public image of the Christian church for its members as well as for its opponents. In other words, think about the issue enough to talk about it well, have a discussion and deal with it in a self-controlled and moderate manner. Paul will go on to tell them not to let the issue occupy their minds constantly as human beings are wont to do.

The Lord is near. Do not make a habit of fretting about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.
Conflict has a tendency to create anxiety or annoyance. So, remembering that the Lord Jesus Christ is near, Christians ought to pray when they have conflict rather than letting the distress of the difficult occupy and distract their minds until it foments into a terrible argument. Instead, it is better to pray and move on.

Then the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Paul then says that if these steps are followed on both sides, that the peace of God, which is impossible to grasp for outsiders, will protect their hearts and minds from needless divisions, grumbling, and conflict. Do note the focus on peace in relationship to the conflict mentioned above and that it comes up again at the end of verse 9.

Finally, brothers
This address is the biggest piece of evidence against the conflict resolution interpretation (that and the fact that as far as I can tell, no commentary agrees with me). But I think it is possible for his advice to Euodia and Syntyche, to include an address to the whole church. This makes sense when you consider that 4:2-7 are already in a letter which was to be read aloud to everybody.

whatever is honest
Assuming the conflict-resolution-interpretation, whatever is true would mean whatever integrity and fidelity is apparent in somebody’s life. This makes sense when one considers that αληθη can mean “honest, truthful, or right.”

whatever is noble
Here, then, Paul is challenging them to think about whatever it is in somebody that is noble of character. Presumably, the focus is on character traits which pertain to achieving honorable status in God’s kingdom and in society in general. There is also such a thing as ascribed honor, but σεμνος seems to me to be focused on character traits, not offices or birth.

whatever is just
Whatever this person does toward God and man that is right.

whatever is pure
The word pure carries weight of ancient rites of sacrifice and ceremonial washing that pertained to the difference between the realm of the gods and man. In the case of Christians this word was transformed into a word about the status of those who have been received into God’s family and into a word about morality rather than about ritual cleansing. So, think about that this person is cleansed by Christ and that this person refrains from this or that sin that they used to do.

whatever causes affection
Whatever causes you to have warm feelings toward somebody, think on these things. Think about their laugh, their kindness to others, a moment when they were pitiable before God and contrite about their sins, and so-on.

whatever is commendable
Here, the idea is concerning that which others speak highly of them about. What are they good at? What moral traits go before them? Do they dress well, manage their family well, are they eloquent, and so-on? Think about these things.

if there is any virtue
If anything in them lines up with the classical virtues: courage, prudence, justice, and self-control. Think about these things.

and if there is anything praiseworthy
Does this person have any trait that makes them a figure worthy of public appellation, not just private conversation? Are they a patron, a benefactor, a broker, of good blood? In the case of Christians, are they a member of a good nation or an important family (yes and yes)?

take account of these things;
Paul wants them to consider all of these factors in one another when they are having disagreements. The practical reason for this is obvious. It allows for rhetorical and dialectical charity in the leadership affairs of those who are “citizens of heaven” (3:20, cf. 1:27).

and that which you learned and received, and heard and observed in me, put these things into practice
Here, Paul is using his gospel message (2:5-11) and his own example (1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1 and 2 Corinthians 11-13) to show them how to deal with conflict with those inside the group. Paul is reminding them to that only by putting these things into practice will they make progress, since Paul is a designated representative of the Jesus whom they mutually claim to be their Lord.

and the God of peace will be with you.
The take away here is that once these habits of thought are put into practice, then God’s presence will be manifest or made clear.

Bibliography

Aland, Kurt et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012).

Arndt, Danker, and Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

Liddell, Henry George et al., A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).

Reflections on Colossians

I had a discussion with my pastor and a mutual friend today about Colossians 1:15-20 the other day. The ESV translates it like this:

Colossians 1:15-20 ESV He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. (16) For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things were created through him and for him. (17) And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (18) And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. (19) For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, (20) and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

There is a lot to say about this passage. Scholarly debates multiply like loaves, though they may not be as filling. Indeed, of the writing of books about Paul’s theology there is no end and reading them all is a great weariness, especially in comparison to reading the works of the interesting, infuriating, and often opaque apostle. But what came up was this question, “If this is true, so what?”

Paul answers this very question in the letter. He does it in steps:

  1. Paul notes that in Christ, all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hid (2:3). This is a huge claim, but it is meant to help the Colossians see that theoretical disputes and philosophical rhetoric has a definite terminus: Jesus. Why is this so? Because of what 1:15-20 say and more succinctly, what 2:9 says, “For in him, the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily…” In some way, then, to be connected to Christ through the gospel, is to be directly connected to ultimate reality or God.
  2. Because of this, Jesus is superior to philosophical reasoning as well as to divinely inspired regulations of which Christ is the form which gave a shadow to the regulations (2:11-23).
  3. But, since Christ is seated at the right hand of God, Christians are to focus on the things above (Colossians 3:1-4). These things above are not, as is commonly supposed, heaven instead of earth, but rather the truths of the gospel about Jesus: self-denial, God’s love, compassion, and so-on instead of destructive and evil habits like greed and wrath.
  4. Then, before Paul gives advice to people in different social spheres, he ends his general instructions with this:
    “Col 3:16-17 (ESV) Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (17) And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
    The command in bold has two possible meanings, “let the message about Christ…” or “let the teachings of Christ.” In my mind, it is both because “the word of Christ” to the New Testament authors seems to be what ended up in the four gospels.

While Paul certainly says more in his letter to the Colossian Christians than, “Here is how you connect with ultimate reality,” he definitely does not say less. If we are to apply Colossians 1:15-20 to our lives, then the way Paul says make the most sense. We keep our minds focused on the facts of the case concerning Jesus and the things he taught and then put them into practice in our churches.

Walking in the Spirit and the Four-Fold Gospel

TLDL

The things of the Spirit in Romans 8:1-17 are actually the same sorts of things we find in the four gospels. This is what Paul wants us to be mindful of in our day-to-day life with Christ and his church.

Whole Thought

Romans 8 is, by many accounts, one of the most beautiful passages penned by Paul and by some accounts, perhaps the most beautiful passage in Scripture. What has always intrigued me about Romans 8 is Paul’s notion of the Christian life on a moment by moment basis.

Paul describes the Christian life as

  1. Walking according to the Spirit
  2. Living according to the Spirit
  3. Setting the mind on the things of the Spirit
  4. Putting to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit
  5. Being led by the Spirit

But if this is so, then a very important line of questioning must come up. What is the meaning of doing all of these things according to or by the Spirit? What are the things of the Spirit? The common initial reaction is to equate the things of the Spirit with the things of the religious institution of which we are a part or to equate the things of the Spirit with the inner world of emotions and non-rational experiences and behavior. Such a divorce of “the things of the Spirit” from New Testament history has led to sad legalistic abuses (people who think that spirituality is purely about external/denominational ideals) and to sad emotion based Christianity wherein one’s discipleship is always a quest to have a certain feeling (feeling liberated, feeling loved, feeling worshipful, feeling authentic, etc). In both or these errors, one can spend so much time trying to conjure up this or that feeling or denominational distinctive (what if I’m Presbyterian but don’t like tobacco?), that they literally miss the teachings and person of Jesus.

There is an historical lineage to both types of error. Essentially in an effort to deal with the rationalist and empiricist turn in philosophy, many turned to nature and the feelings as a replacement for religion. This became associated with terms like spirit and spirituality. In turn then, many Christian movements began to focus more and more on their own institutional life and continuance as the proper form of spirituality. This is not a perfect sketch, but it is helpful. I recommend the brief article below:

Marie Mansouri and Vafa Keshavarzi, “Spirituality, a Conceptual Break: The Romantic Revolt and the Rise of a New Spirituality,” International Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Society 4, no. 1 (July 2014): 11–16.

So, when we come with this baggage to Paul, we miss out on what he’s getting at. What does he mean by doing things according to the Spirit, living by the Spirit, etc?

There are some very important tips about this in Romans 8. Read 8:1-17 below and focus upon the bold text:

Rom 8:1-17  There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  (2)  For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.  (3)  For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh,  (4)  in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.  (5)  For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.  (6)  For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.  (7)  For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.  (8)  Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.  (9)  You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.  (10)  But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.  (11)  If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.  (12)  So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.  (13)  For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.  (14)  For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.  (15)  For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”  (16)  The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,  (17)  and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

Notice that in the bold text, Paul attributes certain things to the Holy Spirit and all of them are about the life, ministry, teachings, death, resurrection, and present reign of Jesus Christ.

  1. The Spirit set us free from the law of sin and death in Christ (and from elsewhere in Romans we know that this is from Jesus’ act of obedience (his whole life).
  2. The Spirit dwells in believers. All four gospels say that this will be the result of his ministry. He will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8), he promises power and the Spirit (John: 6:24, Luke 24:49, Matthew 28:16-20), the living water is equated with the Spirit (John 7:39), and conversion itself (John 3:1-16) is attributed to the work of the Spirit.
  3. The Spirit is the Spirit of the God who raised Christ from the dead.
  4. The Spirit given to us helps us to call God ,”Father” when we pray. This is a very important aspect of early Christianity and a central facet of Jesus’ teaching. Paul essentially says here that being led by the Spirit is the same thing as obeying Jesus when he says, “When you pray, pray like this, ‘Our Father…’

So, it appears that “the things of the Spirit” are not merely institutional trappings of this or that church (though those can be good things) and they are not merely emotional experiences and intuitions (though those can be good things). The things of the Spirit are the things revealed by the Spirit in the gospel message.

Minding the Spirit, it would appear, is the crux of walking by the Spirit. It is Paul’s way of saying that living you life based upon Jesus and his teachings is the proper way to live with God’s Spirit as we await God’s renewal of creation.

A notable aside by Tom Wright

That is the point at which Paul found himself inventing and developing this new discipline we call, in retrospect, ‘Christian theology’. The radically new worldview in which he and his converts found themselves was bound to face the question ‘why’ at every corner, and in order to answer it, and to teach his churches to answer it for themselves, he had to speak of one particular God, and of the world, in a way nobody had done before.

This had an important result: the life of the mind was itself elevated by Paul from a secondary social activity, for those with the leisure to muse and ponder life’s tricky questions, to a primary socio-cultural activity for all the Messiah’s people. The interesting question of whether one thinks oneself into a new way of acting or acts oneself into a new way of thinking will, I suspect, continue to tease those who try to answer it (not least because it is of course reflexive: should you answer it by thinking or by acting?).

N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, vol. 4, Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 27.

 

Many do not understand the historic importance of Christianity. That importance does not make it true, although I’m convinced it is true. We often forget that the life of the mind, thinking about ultimate reality, ethics, and the nature of knowledge itself were activities of a very numerically limited elite. The Christian message, at every turn, exhorted the commoners to think carefully about reality. This does not mean that there were not missteps along the way, but it was this very notion that thinking was a sport for everybody that lead to many of histories greatest developments (Luther, for instance,may have started the first publicly funded school for boys and girls).

 

On Greek, Lexicons, and the LXX

It should be a truism that knowing Greek (or at least being familiar with it) is useful for preachers. I would go further and say that it is necessary for a long term ministry because knowing the Scripture in the original gives allows the preacher to explain the Bible not only in terms of his or her experience of obeying Jesus, but by genuine descriptive knowledge of its contents. Both kinds of knowledge are important.

Case in point:

NAS 27 Romans 3:25 ὃν προέθετο ὁ θεὸς ἱλαστήριον διὰ [τῆς] πίστεως ἐν τῷ αὐτοῦ αἵματι εἰς ἔνδειξιν τῆς δικαιοσύνης αὐτοῦ διὰ τὴν πάρεσιν τῶν προγεγονότων ἁμαρτημάτων

NET Romans 3:25 God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed.

NRS Romans 3:25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed;

ASV Romans 3:25 whom God set forth to be a propitiation, through faith, in his blood, to show his righteousness because of the passing over of the sins done aforetime, in the forbearance of God;

Note the bold text. These are related, but nevertheless different notions expressed by three English words. All of them translate one Greek word (ιλαστηριον). It certainly is true that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice (Ephesians 5:1) and it is true that Jesus’ death propitiates/atones for/expiates God’s wrath in some way related to priestly sacrifices (Hebrews 9).
But, these are not the direct import of Romans 3:25. The referent for the Greek word there is pretty clearly the mercy seat. For instance Daniel Bailey looks to Philo, Jewish Apocalyptic Literature and to the LXX (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and IV Maccabees) to find help:

Applying the biblical sense of ἱλαστήριον to Jesus in this theologically pregnant way would not have been entirely unprecedented for Paul, since Philo thought of the mercy seat as σύμβολον τῆς ἵλεω τοῦ θεοῦ δυνάμεως, ‘a symbol of the gracious power of God’ (Mos. 2.96; cf. Fug. 100). Perhaps this shows that Philo traced the term ἱλαστήριον etymologically not to ἱλάσκεσθαι (‘to propitiate or expiate’) but to ἵλεως, ‘gracious’ or ‘merciful’. This would then support the translation by ‘mercy seat’, though the vaguer expression ‘place of atonement’ is also in common use (NRSV mg. at Rom. 3:25 and Heb. 9:5). The old objection that Paul cannot have alluded to ‘the’ well-known ἱλαστήριον of the Pentateuch without using the Greek definite article is baseless, since Philo clearly uses anarthrous ἱλαστήριον to refer to the mercy seat (Mos. 2.95, 97; Fug. 100).
158 TYNDALE BULLETIN 51.1 (2000)

In other words, at this juncture Paul is making the point, not that Jesus is the atonement, but rather that he is the place of atonement and revelation. The mercy seat in Exodus was both a place of where sacrificial offerings were made, but it stood as a symbol for God’s kindness revealed to the Israelites. This is very important because Paul is arguing that Jews and Gentiles who come to Jesus are justified in the same way (because they are both sinful) and need not judge or places extra strictures upon one another (even ones from the OT law). Jesus is the place where they are both made right with God. Not simply a sacrifice that different kinds of people have access to, but a metaphorical sacrificial site. To him must different kinds of people come together to be declared righteous by God. But they must come together to him or they have not yet come. Not only so, but his cross represents and reveals God’s mercy to us in that it is God’s mercy to us.

This is in keeping with Romans 1:16-18: the gospel reveals God’s righteousness. In the story of Jesus, crucified, buried, risen, and reigning, the hopes of the ancient Israelites were fulfilled, including the promise to be a blessing to the whole world.