Getting Ahead in God’s Upside-Down Kingdom: An Appeal for a Consistently Pro-Life Ethic

[MP3: Getting Ahead in God’s Upside-Down Kingdom]

[PDF Sermon Manuscript: Getting Ahead in God’s Upside-Down Kingdom]

Opening Prayer

God, our Refuge, I ask that your Holy Spirit would move in our lives, so that we would:

  • promote your justice
  • embody your steadfast faithful love
  • and humbly obey Your will,

even if it costs us our reputations, and even if it costs us our lives.

I ask that this transformation would begin with me. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


Introduction

I’d like to start off with a very basic question: Do you want to get ahead in life?

Do you want things to get better? Do you want your life, and your children’s lives, to improve?

I mean, despite the many things that divide us humans, don’t we all want progress? When it comes right down to it, don’t we all just want to get ahead?

I know I do.

In fact, as the students in our youth group could tell you, this is one of the reasons why I love “life hacks”!

Have you heard of life hacks? They’re these little tips and tricks to get ahead in life while saving time, money, and effort.

Like, one of my favorite life hacks is the “coffee nap.” You drink a cup of coffee, then immediately take a 20-minute nap, so that the caffeine kicks in right as you wake up.

Life hack. Try it sometime. Thank me later.

ANYWAYS, we all want to get ahead in life. Right?

But there’s a problem: How do we know what getting ahead looks like?

I mean, think about it. Getting ahead can look quite different in different contexts. Right?

Perhaps this is too crude of an example for a sermon, but getting ahead in a drinking game looks totally different than getting ahead in Alcoholics Anonymous!

Getting ahead in the NBA Finals hopefully looks different than getting ahead in playing basketball with your kids.

Getting ahead on Wall Street as a day-trader hopefully looks different than getting ahead in running a charity.

In order to get ahead,

  • you have to know the context,
  • you have to know the rules,
  • you have to know the goal.

Otherwise, no matter how hard you try, you’re not really going to get ahead. You’ll just be getting ahead at the wrong thing. Which means you’ll fail.

So here’s the kicker: Getting ahead in God’s eyes looks a whole lot different than getting ahead in the world’s eyes.

The world is a different context. The world follows different rules. And the world has a different goal than God’s Kingdom.

The Main Point

In fact, and here’s my main point if you want to write it down:

Because God’s Kingdom is an “upside-down” Kingdom, getting ahead in the Kingdom of God will frequently look foolish in the eyes of the world.

God’s Upside-Down Kingdom – 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Now, this is the message of all of our readings for today, but I’d like to start with the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:18. (You can find it on page 952 in your pew Bible.)

1 Corinthians 1:18 says:

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing (that’s what I’m calling “the world,” by the way – those who are perishing), but to us who are being saved (that is, to us who are a part of God’s Kingdom) it is the power of God.

You see, God’s not against getting ahead. In fact, you could even say that God is on a mission to “Make Creation Great Again”!

I’m not kidding! He made it great in the first place – a perfect universe with perfect relationships between God, humanity, and all of creation.

However, ever since we humans rebelled against God – ever since Sin shattered the relationships between God, humanity, and all of creation – God has been on a mission to put everything back together again.

Sounds great, right?

So why is Paul saying that the good news of God’s rescue mission is foolishness to the world?

Because God makes creation great again in a totally unexpected way!

This is what I mean by “God’s upside-down kingdom.”

In order to make the world right again, God shows up and reverses the ways the world has gotten used to working. And the greatest reversal of all in God’s upside-down kingdom is when the eternal Son of God becomes human and gets himself killed for the sins of the entire world.

The world expects

  • power,
  • might,
  • strength,
  • and victory,

and we receive instead a

  • naked,
  • abandoned
  • Middle-Eastern man,
  • brutally executed
  • as a political criminal.

We receive a bloody example for those who would dare challenge the kingdoms of this world.

We receive a Crucified Savior. And the world calls that absolutely RIDICULOUS.

Because, to the world, you don’t get ahead by laying your life down (like Jesus did). You get ahead by taking what’s yours.

You don’t get ahead by hanging out with the wrong crowd (like Jesus did). You’re supposed to rub shoulders with the rich and the famous, not the poor and the homeless.

You’re not supposed to focus on the people at the bottom and at the border (like Jesus did)!

For crying out loud, you’re supposed to get out there and hustle!

  • Climb the ladder!
  • Make deals!
  • Take no prisoners!
  • Make demands!
  • Get ahead!

…And get right back where we need to be saved FROM!

That’s where the world’s ways get us.

Where every human is

  • an egotistical island,
  • competing with God,
  • alienating other humans,
  • and abusing creation.

Thankfully, as Paul tells us in [1 Cor 1:25],

the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God saves us through what looks like foolishness and weakness.

Why? So that we would not boast in our pathetic “wisdom” and “strength.”

Instead, we are to boast only in the true wisdom and strength of God.

Paul continues in [1 Cor. 1:27]:

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wiseGod chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

This, then, is the upside-down Kingdom of God.

Blessed are the “Losers” – Matthew 5:1-12

And it’s the exact same Kingdom that we find in the Beatitudes of Matthew 5.

(FYI: We call them the “Beatitudes” because of the Latin word for “blessed/happy” – beatus.)

Now, remember: God isn’t against getting ahead. He really does want what’s best for us.

But the danger is that we’ll try to get ahead on our own, in our own way. And if we do that, we’ll miss the point in at least two ways.

  1. First, we won’t realize that we desperately need a Savior, and that we cannot save ourselves.
  2. Second, we will ignore the very people that God wants us to care for in order to really get ahead in his Kingdom!

That is, on our own, we’re going to focus on those at the center and height of power. You know, “The Winners.”

But God focuses on those at the bottom and at the borders, the edges of society. You know, “The Losers.”

These are the people who will experience God’s favor in his Upside-Down Kingdom. Take a look at [Matthew 5:3-12].

Notice how Jesus declares God’s favor, His blessing, to what the world would call the “wrong kind of people.”

  • To the poor in spirit
  • Those who mourn
  • The meek
  • Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
  • The merciful
  • The pure in heart
  • The peacemakers
  • The persecuted
  • And the reviled

And notice as well, that the blessings frequently involve reversals. The world is giving them one thing, but God is going to give them another.

Now, this is important: these famous words are a mixture of encouragement and instruction.

That is, Jesus isn’t just giving us a TO-DO LIST in order to get as much blessing as possible. He’s not saying “Go out there and try harder to be poor, persecuted, hungry, mourners.”

Now, Jesus IS instructing, more on that in a second. But he is first offering divine encouragement to those who are already in those situations.

The Beatitudes: An Interpretive Translation

Here’s my interpretive translation of the Beatitudes. Follow along with each one if you’ve got a Bible in front of you.

Jesus is saying:

  • (1) “Take heart! Things aren’t what they seem! If you lack resources and realize that God alone can save you, then you might not feel like a part of the Roman kingdom. But you’re a part of God’s Kingdom.”
  • (2) “Be encouraged! If you bear and grieve the sufferings of the world, then the kings of the world probably won’t give you much comfort. But God, your true King, will.
  • (3) Take heart! If you humbly and gently refuse to seek vengeance or power, then you probably won’t inherit much from the world’s kingdoms. But God will give you an inheritance in His Kingdom.
  • (4) Be encouraged! If you pursue God’s will above all else, then you’ll probably go hungry in this world. But you will be satisfied in God’s Kingdom, where His will is obeyed.
  • (5) Take heart! If you show mercy and compassion to a suffering world, you might not receive much mercy back! But you yourselves will be shown mercy by God.
  • (6) Be encouraged! If you single-mindedly pursue God’s will, then you probably won’t experience the world’s glory. But you will experience God’s glory and presence.
  • (7) Take heart! If you pursue reconciliation and reject violence, then you probably won’t reflect the character of this world. But you will reflect the character of God.
  • (8) Take heart! Because when this world rejects you, insults you, lies about you, and persecutes you, then it may not look like it, but you’re in good company! You’re in the company of your Savior, Jesus Christ.

Friends, if you’re here today and you’re at the bottom of this world, then I encourage you to cling to the divine promises of blessing in the Beatitudes.

God is in the process of making all things new – reversing every wrong in this world. Take heart.

However, and perhaps this is uncomfortable to talk about, what if we’re NOT on this list?

What if we’re NOT

  • poor,
  • mourning,
  • meek,
  • hungry,
  • merciful,
  • pure-hearted,
  • peacemakers
  • who are persecuted?

What if we’re

  • reasonably well-educated
  • and wealthy,
  • comfortable,
  • powerful
  • American
  • Christians?

How should we respond to the Beatitudes?

While I DON’T think that the Beatitudes should be read like a TO-DO list,

I DO think that the Beatitudes are an instructive challenge to followers of Jesus.

There is a reason why the Beatitudes are at the beginning of Jesus’ quintessential sermon.

It’s almost like Jesus is saying,

“OK, you want to follow me?

You want to be a part of my coming Kingdom? Then let’s get really clear on what this Kingdom is going to be like.

It’s not going to be the kind of Kingdom you’re used to in this world.

You know, the kind of kingdom where the wealthy, wise, and powerful get rewarded.

Instead, in MY Kingdom, the people who get chewed up and spit out by the kingdoms of this world will be rewarded and honored.

SO,

  • if you want to be a part of my Kingdom,
  • if you want to “get ahead” in my Kingdom,
  • then you better show concrete concern for
    • the oppressed,
    • the marginalized,
    • and the weak!

And, as you do so, you’d better be prepared to end up among the oppressed and the marginalized, because the world is going to think you are out of your minds!”

Fear is NOT a Valid Excuse

Brothers and sisters, remember:

Because God’s Kingdom is an “upside-down” Kingdom, getting ahead in the Kingdom of God will frequently look foolish in the eyes of the world.

But there is no escape clause from the rules of God’s Kingdom!

That is, you can’t just ignore Jesus and the Bible because you’re SCARED.

  • Because you’re scared of how a congregation is going to respond to your sermon,
  • Because you’re scared of looking foolish,
  • Because you’re scared of losing your job,
  • Because you’re scared of a terrorist attack.

It’s not that Jesus doesn’t care about your fears. He does.

But let’s not kid ourselves!

FEAR is not a valid excuse for ignoring the Bible’s repeated commands for God’s people to show faithful concern for the kinds of people the world ignores and mistreats!

Want to read more about what the Bible has to say about these kinds of issues? Read this book! (Affiliate Link)


Application: Consistently Pro-Life, for the Unborn AND the Refugees

So, let’s get practical here. How should we respond to these passages about God’s Upside-Down Kingdom?

We must show concrete concern for the powerless. And two recent issues come to mind, that I would be a coward not to mention.

Abortion

First, in light of the 44th March for Life held this past weekend, I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that we must continue to stand up for the unborn.

Abortion is a gruesome evil. And like other forms of evil, it is complex – not easily eradicated.

As Christians, we must wage war against this evil. And that will involve caring not only for the unborn child, but also the mother, and the child after it is born, and the entire family.

Repealing Roe v. Wade isn’t going to completely solve the problem.

Christians will have to step up to the plate and be consistently pro-life in order to fix things.

If you’re passionate about this issue, I encourage you to check out the organization Anglicans for Life at AnglicansForLife.Org.

So, first, we must stand up for the unborn.

Refugees

Second, given President Trump’s recent executive actions to halt the acceptance of all refugees to the USA, including a temporary moratorium on seven predominantly Muslim countries,

I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that, if we are to be consistently pro-life, we must also stand up for the refugees.

Next to the unborn, refugees around the world – but especially from Syria – are among the most vulnerable and powerless people in the world.

Christians should be standing up for and supporting these people. And, to their credit, many Christians are doing so.

I’d encourage you to check out the great work being done by organizations like World Relief and We Welcome Refugees. Talk to me after the service if you’d like more ideas and reading recommendations, by the way.

However, many Christians in this country are falling prey to the fear excuse.

We’re being tempted to turn away these vulnerable people because of the supposed risk of a terrorist attack.

I’m here this morning to plead with you: Do not fall prey to this nonsense.

Even if the fear were legitimate, it is no excuse for Christians not to show concrete love to the powerless.

Whoever said that following Jesus would not involve any risks?

We dare not worship the American gods of comfort and security while neglecting to follow the True God’s commands.

However, these fears of refugees are VASTLY overblown.

According to a September 2016 Policy Analysis from the CATO institute,

  • “the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year.”
  • The chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack committed by an asylum-seeker is 1 in 2.73 billion per year.
  • And “the chance of being murdered in an attack committed by an illegal immigrant is an astronomical 1 in 10.9 billion per year.”

For comparison: according to the National Safety Council, your chance of dying from a lightning strike is 1 in 174,426.

That means it’s about 20,868 times more likely that you will get killed by lightning than by a refugee terrorist attack.

While we’re worried about astronomical odds, these people are dying. The death toll from the Syrian conflict is approaching half a million, including 50 thousand children.

Brothers and sisters, please don’t mishear me. I’m not saying that the USA shouldn’t change anything about its policies. Surely there are many problems which need fixed.

However, I beg you: please do not fall prey to the fear-mongering. Please think and reason as Christians first.

After all, you can only give your “total allegiance” to one thing.

Jesus Christ will not settle for second place to the United States.

So, stand up for the unborn and the refugees, not to mention the countless other marginalized, oppressed, and powerless people around us.

And I don’t even have time to get into how Christians should be concerned for religious liberties for all faiths. That’s a whole other sermon…

Because God’s Kingdom is an “upside-down” Kingdom, getting ahead in the Kingdom of God will frequently look foolish in the eyes of the world.

But, if our Gospel is true, then we of all people should be willing to put our lives and our reputations at risk for the sake of others – especially for the poor and the needy.

Closing Prayer

So, again, God, our Refuge, I ask that your Holy Spirit would transform us from the inside out

  • So that we would promote your justice
  • So that we would embody your steadfast faithful love
  • and so that we would humbly obey Your will,
  • even if it costs us our reputations,
  • and even if it costs us our lives.

I ask that this transformation would begin with me, and that it would extend to the ends of the earth. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Christians and Wealth

(The following post originally appeared on May 08, 2011.)

In our current context of wealth and poverty existing side by side in a milieu of materialistic consumerism, the Christian gospel of denying ourselves and making much of God is being abandoned for the American gospel of denying others and making much of ourselves.

American Christians have become content to live a baptized version of the American dream, a hollow faith that is about maximizing your earthly portfolio once your salvation is secured.

My main contention is that Christians in the United States should lower their standards of living to what is necessary for human flourishing and give their excess resources beyond this standard to the poor. In doing so, they will remain faithful to Scripture and discover a more satisfactory way of life.

Isn’t That Asceticism?

At this point some may claim that I am trying to advocate for a form of asceticism. Continue reading “Christians and Wealth”

Following Jesus Beyond the Bandwagon

(A chapel message in a Christian school.)

There are a few things you should know about me:

  • I am a student at a Christian seminary.
  • Before that, I went to a Christian college.
  • Before that, I went to a Christian high school, and a Christian middle school.
  • Before that, I was home-schooled, and I grew up in a Christian home.

Oh, also: I’m the world’s worst sports fan.

I’m serious. The students in my youth group give me a hard time about it. Every week, they’re like, “Josh, did you see the game?!” “Josh, are you going to watch the game?”

And I’m like, “Game? What game? I don’t even know which sport’s season it is!”

World’s. worst. sports fan. I’m telling you.

The one redeeming quality about my sports fandom is that I’ve stuck with one team through thick and thin: the University of Michigan Wolverines. Go Blue!

Now, I know that the rivalry between the Wolverines and the Ohio State Buckeyes is but a pale imitation of the rivalry between Alabama and Auburn down here. But up North, this rivalry was and is a big deal.

And it was really interesting, back when I was in middle school and high school, to observe what would happen each year in November when the Wolverines and the Buckeyes went at it.

I’m from Toledo, OH, which is on the border with Michigan, so the fan split was about 50/50 – Wolverines on one side, Buckeyes on the other.

And each year, on the day after the big game, you could tell who the true fans were…

It was the people still cheering for the team that lost. Continue reading “Following Jesus Beyond the Bandwagon”

The Feast of St. James the Apostle: A Homily for Ministers

Readings: Psalm 34; Jeremiah 16:14-21; Mark 1:14-20

Like so many other feast days – scheduled, as they are, on the days of the namesakes’ deaths – the feast day of St. James the Apostle is a strong rebuke to our aspirations. To our aspirations as human beings, and especially to our aspirations as ministers of Christ’s Church.

Saint James the Greater *oil on canvas *92.1 x 74.9 cm *signed b.r.: Rembrandt f. 1661
Saint James the Greater, by Rembrandt

James & John: Fishermen No More?

You see, James started off as a mere fisherman. An admirable one, to be sure, because he and his brother John answered Jesus’ call in Mark 1. They left behind their father, their family, and – they grew to hope! – their family’s fishing profession.

James was off on a new adventure, hopeful and headstrong. So much so that, along with his brother John, he earned the nickname “Son of Thunder”! Coming from the Son of Man, that’s no small compliment!

But their headstrong passion proved to be a weakness as well. In Luke 9, after getting rejected in Samaria, the Sons of Thunder offer to call fire down from heaven to consume the Samaritan village! This earns them a stern rebuke from Jesus.

And, even more famously, they approached Jesus with the following request in Mark 10:37:

Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.

Princes? Or Fishermen?

Now, their request is, in effect: “O King Jesus, would you please make us princes?”

And, granted, this is Apocryphal, but I imagine Jesus putting his arms around them and saying the following:

“Princes? Princes?! Boys, if I had wanted princes, I would have called princes! But, I don’t need princes!

No, no, no. What I need are new fishermen! And that’s why I’ve called you!”

You see, James had been hoping for a new position. And instead he received his old professiontransformed!

James was no longer to be a mere fisherman, but a fisher of men.

And not even just a fisher of men like Jeremiah 16 spoke of – for there the fishermen and hunters are instruments of judgment and exile.

No! Instead, James was to go fishing with, go fishing for Jesus, to bring people back from exile.

Now, undoubtedly, this is a step up from fishing for literal fish.

Or is it?

Not necessarily. At least, not in the world’s eyes.

The Death of St. James the Apostle

Here’s Jesus’ actual answer to the “prince” request:

Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”

And they said to him, “We are able.”

And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

Now, granted, this isn’t one of the assigned lectionary passages for today, but I’d like us to look at the beginning of Acts 12:

About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also.

Swept aside, in just one verse! I doubt that sort of an abrupt, violent end awaited most of the fishermen working for Zebedee’s family business.

Was it worth it?

Was it worth it? Did James receive any sort of a promotion, after all?

Of course, we know the right answer. But do we live it out?

Are we thankful, are we satisfied with our roles as servants within Christ’s Church?

Are we willing to be “just” fishermen, even if it costs us our ambitions? Even if it costs us our lives?

Guido_Reni_-_Saint_James_the_Greater_-_Google_Art_ProjectBy God’s grace, I hope so.

By God’s grace, may we – with the Apostle James – be able to confess the final words of Psalm 34 with open eyes, and open hearts. Perhaps it will help to imagine the following words on the dying Apostle’s lips:

Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
but the Lord delivers him out of them all.
He keeps all his bones;
not one of them is broken.
Affliction will slay the wicked,
and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.
The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

Amen.

Concerning Romans

Well, judging by my blog stats for the past 48 hours — as compared with the past few months — I’d get many more views on this post if it concerned the chaos at Cedarville University!

However, my schedule and blood pressure won’t allow me to devote any more time to my shameful alma mater at the moment. I’ve got a presentation at the 2014 Southeast Regional Meeting of ETS tomorrow (see my previous post, and come to my presentation at 5:00pm in room S009!), and even though Beeson Divinity School’s Spring Break is right around the corner, I’ve still got a fair share of reading to get done. 

Nevertheless, given the current discussion in my New Testament Theology — two classes on Romans — I thought I might re-post two of my previous works: 

  1. Romans. Revisited. (or “The Argument-Story of Romans”): my final write-up for Dr. Chris Miller’s course on Romans and Galatians at Cedarville University. We were due to have an oral exam on the last day of class, in which we talked-through the logic of the epistle. I wrote this summary the night before the exam, and was given the opportunity to present it to the class. I now present it to you! Feel free to give me some push-back! 
  2. Romans 13:1-7 — A Contextually-Appropriate Reading: a paper I wrote for the same course as mentioned above, in which I defend the following thesis: “Far from being a comprehensive condensation of the apostle’s beliefs regarding any and all governments past and present, [Romans 13:1-7] is a specific and historically-conditioned pastoral address to the Roman believers, discouraging them from political unrest, disobedience, and rebellion in order to protect their testimony and the effectiveness of the Roman church in the gospel mission.”

That’s all for now. Grace and Peace. 

~Josh

My Regional ETS Presentation: Reconciliation and the Lack Thereof

If you’re in the Birmingham area from March 21-22, 2014, and you’re interested in evangelical theology, please consider attending the Evangelical Theological Society’s Southeastern Regional Meeting at Beeson Divinity School! This year’s theme is “the theological interpretation of Scripture,” and the plenary speaker is Wheaton’s Daniel J. Treier (incidentally, Dr. Treier and I are both alumni of Cedarville…go figure). 

Furthermore, if you’re free from 5:00-5:30pm on Friday, March 21, consider swinging by room S009 to hear me present “Reconciliation and the Lack Thereof: Atonement, Ecclesiology, and the Unity of God.” The atonement and the unity of the Church are topics that I’m passionate about, and I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to give my first ever conference paper. Here’s the abstract: 

This essay endeavors to demonstrate the theological and exegetical legitimacy of viewing the atonement as the act in which the one God fulfills his creative purposes by bringing his uniqueness and simplicity to bear on our sinful, divisive condition through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah in order to save a people to robust unity with himself, each other, and the entire creation. Given Adam Johnson’s thesis regarding God’s triune being-in-act, the fullness of the divine perfections, and the unity and diversity of Christ’s saving work, I draw upon the theology of Karl Barth and pertinent biblical data to frame a theory of the atonement based on the unity of God. Although the lack of ecclesiological unity is the impetus for my study, I choose primarily to emphasize the synthesis of God’s unity and the doctrine of reconciliation. That is, I focus on the theological explanations within the atonement of why the church is to be unified. However, after framing a unity-based theory of the atonement, I conclude this study by casting a vision for the ecclesiological implications of such a theory.

If you can’t make it to my presentation, but you’re interested in the topic, check out my previous series of posts and the undergraduate thesis paper from which this conference paper is drawn. Also, consider buying the new paperback edition of Adam J. Johnson’s God’s Being in Reconciliation: The Theological Basis of the Unity and Diversity of the Atonement in the Theology of Karl Barth (T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology). It’s much cheaper than the previous hardcover edition, and without his fresh insights into the doctrine of the atonement and Barthian theology, my paper would not have been possible. 

Finally, please attend the entire conference at Beeson if possible! Here’s the full schedule.

Grace and Peace

~Josh

 

Silence and Violence

Silent Cross by Margot Krebs Neale

 

“Violence is not human destiny because the God of peace is the beginning and the end of human history…

“Granted, pushing the stone of peace up the steep hill of violence … is hard. It is easier, however, than carrying one’s own cross in the footsteps of the crucified Messiah. This is what Jesus Christ asks Christians to do. Assured of God’s justice and undergirded by God’s presence, they are to break the cycle of violence by refusing to be caught in the automatism of revenge.” (Volf, E&E, 306)

“Silence,” a sonnet for Remembrance Day written by Malcolm Guite:

November pierces with its bleak remembrance
Of all the bitterness and waste of war.
Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance
Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for.
Our silence seeths instead with wraiths and whispers,
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
The shells are singing as we sing our vespers,
No moment is unscarred, there is no pause,
In every instant bloodied innocence
Falls to the weary earth ,and whilst we stand
Quiescence ends again in acquiescence,
And Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God.

Then, Volf on violence:

“Religions advocate nonviolence in general, while at the same time finding ways to legitimate violence in specific situations; their representatives both preach against war and bless the weapons of their nation’s troops. And so the deep religious wisdom about nonviolence boils down to a principle that no self-respecting war-lord will deny, namely that you can be violent whenever you cannot be nonviolent, provided your goals are just (which they usually are for the simple reason that they are yours). Religious dialogue or no religious dialogue, without the principled assertion that it is never appropriate to use religion to give moral sanction to the use of violence, religious images and religious leaders will continue to be exploited by politicians and generals engaged in violence.” (Volf, E&E, 286).

Finally, Volf’s conclusion (E&E, 306):

It may be that consistent nonretaliation and nonviolence will be impossible in the world of violence. Tyrants may need to be taken down from their thrones and the madmen stopped from sowing desolation. […] It may also be that measure which involve preparation for the use of violent means will have to be taken to prevent tyrants and madmen from ascending to power in the first place or to keep the plethora of ordinary kinds of perpetrators that walk our streets from doing their violent work. It may be that in a world suffused with violence the issue is not simply “violence versus peace” but rather “what forms of violence could be tolerated to overcome a social ‘peace’ that coercively maintained itself through the condoned violence of injustice” (Suchocki 1995, 117). But if one decides to put on soldier’s gear instead of carrying one’s cross, one should not seek legitimation in the religion that worships the crucified Messiah. For there, the blessing is given not to the violent but to the meek (Matthew 5:5).

There are Christians who have a hard time resisting the temptation to seek religious legitimation for their (understandable) need to take up the sword. If they give in to this temptation, they should forego all attempts to exonerate their vision of Christian faith from complicity in fomenting violence. Of course, they can specify that religious symbols should be used to legitimate and inspire only just wars. But show me one warring party that does not think its wars is just! Simple logic tells us that at least half of them must be wrong. It could be, however, that simple logic does not apply the chaotic world of wars. Then all would be right, which is to say that all would be wrong, which is to say that terror would reign — in the name of gods who can no longer be distinguished from the devils.

Volf on Gender

Re: “The Hole in Our Complementarianism*,” discussions on gender roles and the sacraments, and this piece by C.S. Lewis (Priestesses in the Church?) — I’ve gone back to Miroslav Volf’s indispensable chapter on “Gender Identity,” pp. 167-190 of Exclusion and Embrace. Everyone should drop what they’re doing and go read the chapter in its entirety as soon as possible. But, in the meantime, consider the following:

“The only way the gender of God language can provide guidance for construction of gender identity is if we first ontologize gender in God, that is, if we take a particular understanding of femininity or masculinity, project it onto God, and then let that projection shape our social practice. Irigaray is able to avoid such ontologization only by a sleight of hand. She postulates a female God but claims that this God holds no other obligation and gives no other task to women except to help them “become divine, become perfect” (Irigaray 1986, 9). The femininity of God is asserted in order to connect God with women, but God’s femininity does no real work because it has no concrete content. There are good reasons for the vacuity of divine femininity. For if we were to give it concrete content, we could not avoid freezing a particular cultural construction of gender and then infusing it with divine powers and claims. The same holds true, of course, of the postulated divine masculinity which Irigaray affirms as a complement to divine femininity.

The ontologization of gender would ill serve both the notion of God and the understanding of gender. Nothing in God is specifically feminine; nothing in God is specifically masculine; therefore nothing in our notions of God entails duties or prerogatives specific to one gender; all duties and prerogatives entailed in our notions of God are duties and prerogatives of both genders. This, I think, is the significance of the fact that, as Phyllis Bird has shown, gender distinctions are unrelated to the image of God according to Genesis 1 (Bird 1981; Bird 1991). Men and women share maleness and femaleness not with God but with animals. They image God in their common humanity. Hence we ought to resist every construction of the relation between God and femininity or masculinity that privileges one gender, say by claiming that men on account of their maleness represent God more adequately than women (with LaCugna 1993, 94ff.) or by insisting that women, being by nature more relational, are closer to the divine as the power of connectedness and love.

(Volf 1996, 173-4; emphasis added).

De Trinitate

BY: JOSHUA P. STEELE // NOVEMBER 4, 2013. Click here for PDF.

INTRODUCTION: THE NATURE OF THE TRINITY

One God. Three persons. The orthodox paradox of this Christian confession confounds many, due to its apparent contradictions, abstractions, and absence from Scripture. From Arius to Augustine and beyond, trinitarian debates have raged even among those who agree that God exists, that the Bible is true, and that it is therefore worthwhile to consider what the Bible says because it reveals the existent God. Although the best discussions of the Trinity begin with an acknowledgment of its inscrutable mystery which eludes the grasp of human reason’s highest reach, a sober analysis of the doctrine’s canonical presence and historical outworking may help to answer the charges that the Trinity is a nonsensical, unbiblical abstraction worthy of abandonment. 

Although it is precisely the Trinity’s classical formulation that receives the criticisms just noted, it is important to begin at the end, so to speak, by introducing the operative terms before analyzing the scriptural context out of which and the historical context in which these trinitarian terms grew. The definitive statement of trinitarian belief is the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 CE, discussed below.1 In brief, however, Christians confess belief in one God who eternally and only exists in one divine substance, essence, or ousia, and in three divine subsistences, Persons, or hypostases.2 One in three, three in one: Father, Son, and Spirit – each Person equally and essentially God, and yet each distinct from the other two.

CANONICAL PRESENCE

A common objection to the doctrine of the Trinity as just stated is that it nowhere appears within the pages of Scripture. And indeed, despite the favorite trinitarian proof-texts in which Father, Son, and Spirit appear together, “no doctrine of the Trinity in the Nicene sense is present in [even] the New Testament.”3 However, as Jenson persuasively argues, “the doctrine of the Trinity is indeed in Scripture, if one abandons modernity’s notion that statement in so many words as formulated is the only way that a doctrine can appear there.”4 Instead, the narrative of Scripture portrays the Trinity “by telling a history of God with us that displays three enactors of that history, each of which is indeed other than the other two and yet is at the same time the same God as the other two.”5

These three dramatis personae Dei, or “persons of the divine drama,” appear throughout Scripture as God – “as a persona in Israel’s story – of which he is simultaneously the author.”6 YHWH – the God of Israel who created the world and delivered through the Exodus – is the Father by virtue of Jesus’ address of him as such.7 The Son is Jesus of Nazareth by virtue of this same address, but also in light of passages such as Psalm 2, appropriated in Hebrews 1 to identify Jesus as the divine Son.8 Finally, the Spirit appears as a persona of the story, first in the OT as the Spirit of YHWH which gives life and “keeps the creation moving toward its fulfillment,” and then in the NT as the one in relationship between the Father and the Son, who is poured out upon the Church.9

The significance of trinitarian “proof-texts” mentioned above is that they portray the three persons of the divine drama in close proximity. Most significant of these is the baptismal formula of Matthew 28:19, spoken by the Son himself: “…baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Although the earliest Christians used poignant trinitarian phrases before the full implications of such had been thoroughly considered, these biblical patterns provided “the raw data from which the more developed descriptions of the Christian doctrine of God [would] come.”10 The classical formulation of the Trinity did not arise from a scriptural vacuum.

HISTORICAL OUTWORKING

Neither was the doctrine formed in a historical vacuum. Instead, as Wainwright notes: “the classic creeds were being formulated at the same time as the canon of the Scriptures was being recognized and determined; there was interaction between the two processes, and the Scriptures and the creeds continue to function reciprocally.”11 The ecumenical creeds – such as the Apostles’, Niceno-Constantinopolitan (381), and the Chalcedonian Definitio Fidei (451) – serve as an interpretive key to the complex Scriptures, and yet also distill the divine drama of the Bible into a concise summary.12

A crucial facet of trinitarian doctrine in which this dialectic took place was the distinction between the immanent and the economic Trinity – the former referring to the Trinity within itself, and the latter referring to the Trinity’s external relationship to the universe. While the majority of Scripture provides portrayals of the economic Trinity interacting with creation, it also offers enticing glimpses into the immanent relationships between the persons of the divine drama.13 The doctrine that developed from such glimpses offered a way of distinguishing between how God relates to himself and to everything else, but also concluded that “the immanent Trinity lives no other plot than that displayed in the economic Trinity, that when you are taken into the story told in Scripture, you are taken into God himself.”14 In other words, “there is no deeper reality of God lurking in the background” behind the three Persons of the Godhead.15 Although many of the disagreements took place before the distinction between the economic and immanent Trinity was formalized, the contours of the historical trinitarian debates revolve around where the conceptual boundary lies between the two.16

A concern for the preservation of God’s unity motivated many of the early controversies. For example, Paul of Samosata collapsed the immanent Trinity to the Father alone, pushing the Son and Spirit into the economy, in their respective relations to the human being Jesus and the apostles – the view known as adoptionism.17 Similarly, Sabellius pushed all three divine Persons into the economy, positing that the immanent Godhead was one God who exists in three modes or roles of being to the external creation – the view known as modalism.18 Finally, it was Arius’s commitment to monotheism that led him to shrink the immanent Trinity down to the Father alone – concluding that, because God is the indivisible cause of all that exists, he must have existed prior to the Son, who is “not everlasting or co-everlasting or unbegotten with the Father.”19

Although each of these views would ultimately find condemnation in the creeds of the Church, it was Arius’s conception of a created Son that ignited the controversy that led to the Council of Nicaea (325), which refuted Arianism by declaring that the Son is “begotten, not made, being of one substance [homoousios] with the Father.”20 However, the trinitarian debates continued, in part because of the relative ambiguity of the term homoousios and the ability of different factions to interpret it as they wished.21 The years between the Council of Nicaea and the Council of Constantinople (381) were theologically chaotic as Athanasius of Alexandria and the Cappadocian fathers (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa) fought for the Nicene view of the Trinity against its detractors, Arian and otherwise.22

However, along the lines of Arius’s original concerns, if the Son and the Spirit are granted full divinity along with the Father (as they are in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed), why do Christians confess one God and not three? Gregory of Nyssa addressed these concerns first by appealing to the differences between the trinitarian terms ousia (common essence) and hypostasis (distinct personal subsistence). Belonging to the category of collective or common nouns – which unite by referring to the common nature shared by diverse members of the same category – ousia refers to the divine essence or substance, shared equally by the three hypostases of the Godhead so that they are properly homoousioi, or of the same substance, with one another.23 However, belonging to the category of individual or proper nouns – which distinguish by referring to only one member of a particular category – hypostasis refers to the individual identity or subsistence of each divine Person which demarcates it from the other two.24 The divine hypostases are distinguishable in that “the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost are one in all things save in the being unbegotten [Father], the being begotten [Son], and the procession [Spirit].”25

The distinction between a common ousia and distinct hypostases therefore prevents the collapse of the Trinity, yet through a crucial difference between the distinction-in-unity with regard to humanity and with regard to the divine. After all, it is difficult to ascertain the unifying ousia of humanity because the distinct hypostases both appear and behave in such discordant ways. Due to their myriad differences and a merely conceptual unity, humans are not properly referred to as one human but many. In contrast, the unity of the three divine hypostases is actual, by virtue of the trinitarian rule opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt.26 As Gregory of Nyssa notes, “every activity which pervades from God to creation and is named according to our manifold design starts off from the Father, proceeds through the Son, and is completed by the Holy Spirit.”27 Christians worship one God, because although each divine Person is God, “by the same proclamation God is one, because neither in regard to nature [or ousia] nor activity is any difference viewed.”28 Unlike the diverse and discordant human hypostases, the divine persons are completely unified in their will and operations. Therefore, in the words of Gregory of Nazianzus: “the Godhead exists undivided in beings divided.”29

CONCLUSION

To return to what was mentioned at the outset, the best discussions of the Trinity also end with an acknowledgment of its inherent mystery which eludes the grasp of human reason’s highest reach. Theological modesty is always in order, in part because of the unavoidable limitations of finite human speech about anything, much less about the infinite God. Granted, certain ways of framing how God can be one and yet three are better than others, not only based upon their coherence with the traditions of orthodoxy, but also with regard to their impact on other areas of theological concern – such as the atonement and interpersonal relationships.30 And yet, because true theology is not learning how to speak about God in order to master him intellectually, but in order to worship him faithfully, a persistent lacuna in trinitarian understanding is surely acceptable. For, although the gracious condescension of the triune God enables our faith to seek understanding successfully, the inscrutable mysteries of the same triune God ensure that some understandings will ever transcend our faith’s reach.

======== NOTES =========

1 All dates CE, unless otherwise noted. Wainwright notes that the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed “has remained the most widely affirmed statement of trinitarian faith in both East and West.” Geoffrey Wainwright, “Trinity” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer et al.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 815.

2 The three terms in each of these two sets will be used synonymously throughout, unless otherwise noted. Substance = essence = ousia. Subsistence = person = hypostasis. Capitalized “Person” will refer to divine, and not human, personality.

3 Rusch notes that the binitarian NT formulas are: Rom. 8:11; 2 Cor. 4:1; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:20; 1 Tim. 1:2; 1 Pet. 1:21; and 2 John 1:13. The trinitarian NT formulas are: Matt 28:19; 1 Cor. 6:11; 12:4ff.; Gal. 3:11-14; Heb. 10:29; 1 Pet. 1:2. William G. Rusch, trans./ed., The Trinitarian Controversy (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980), 2. Without denying the importance of such passages, Jenson rightly laments those who “scrabble around in the Bible for bits and pieces of language to cobble together into a sort of Trinity-doctrine – usually with intellectually lamentable and indeed sometimes heretical results.” Robert W. Jenson, “The Trinity in the Bible,” CTQ 68 (2004): 196.

4 Jenson, 197. Emphasis original.

5 Jenson, 199. The divinity of the Father is perhaps the easiest to note throughout the Bible. On the divinity of the Son, see John 1, 10; Col. 2; Phil. 2; and Heb. 1. On the divinity of the Spirit, see 1 Cor. 2:11; Heb. 3:7-10; and 10:15-17. I have here stuck to the contours of Jenson’s argument in lieu of the common arguments for the divinity of Son and Spirit, e.g.

6 Jenson, 198-202. The phrase “dramatis personae Dei” is Jenson’s adaptation of Tertullian’s verbiage.

7Cf. John 5:16-23; Jenson, 199. Although this is almost assuredly an oversimplification, cf. Marshall’s claim that “the Father is the God of Israel, the Son is the God of Israel, and the Holy Spirit is the God of Israel, yet they are not three Gods of Israel, but one God of Israel.” B. Marshall, “Do Christians Worship the God of Israel” in Knowing the Triune God (ed. J. Buckley and D. Yeago; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 258; quoted by Wainwright, 817. However, Jenson’s main point still stands, by virtue of Jesus’ address to the Father establishing both Fatherhood and Sonship within the Trinity.

8 Cf. Ps. 2:7; Heb. 1:1-14. In addition, Jenson (200-3) focuses on showing the presence of the Trinity in the OT, where it is so often neglected, by positing that the Son shows up via the themes of the angel of the Lord, the name of the Lord, and the glory of the Lord..

9Jenson, 199, 204; cf. Gen. 1:2; Ps. 51:11; Isa. 11:2; Ezek. 37:1-14; John 14:15-31; Acts 1:7-8; 2:1-41; Rom. 1:4; 8:11.

10 Rusch, 2. Gregory of Nazianzus captures the progressive nature of this scriptural trinitarian revelation well: “the old covenant made clear proclamation of the Father, a less definite one of the Son. The new covenant made the Son manifest, and gave us a glimpse of the Spirit’s Godhead. At the present time, the Spirit resides amongst us, giving us a clearer manifestation of himself than before.” See Gregory of Nazianzus, Fifth Theological Oration (Oration 31): On the Holy Spirit, 14, in On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius (Popular Patristics Series 23; trans. Frederick Williams and Lionel Wickham; Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 26.

11 Wainwright, 815.

12 Jenson, 205; Wainwright, 815.

13 Cf. Jesus’ “high priestly prayer” of John 17 and the glimpse of the relationship between Father and Son.

14 Jenson, 206.

15 Jenson, 205.

16 That is, while the debates did not originally or chronologically take place in terms of “immanent/economic Trinity,” the concept provides a helpful analytical framework when considering the trinitarian controversies. .

17 Adoptionism is also known as “dynamic monarchianism.” Rusch, 8.

18 Modalism is also known as “modalist monarchianism.” Rusch, 9.

19 Arius’s “Letter to Alexander of Alexandria,” §4, in Rusch, 32.

20 “The Creed of the Synod of Nicaea (June 19, 325)” in Rusch, 49.

21 Rusch, 20.

22 Rusch, 22.

23 Gregory of Nyssa, “To Peter his own brother on the divine ousia and hypostasis,” 2a-c. in Anna M. Silvas, Gregory of Nyssa: The Letters (Boston: Brill, 2007), 250-1; “Concerning that We Should Think of Saying That There Are Not Three Gods to Ablabius” in The Trinitarian Controversy (trans./ed. William G. Rusch; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980), 149-51.

24 Gregory of Nyssa, “To Peter,” 3a, 4d-f in Silvas, 251,3.

25 John of Damascus, “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” I.2, in Saint John of Damascus: Writings (trans. Frederic H. Chase, Jr.; Washington D.C.: The Catholic University Press of America, 1958), 167.

26 “The external operations of the Trinity are indivisible.”

27 Gregory of Nyssa, “To Ablabius,” in Rusch, 155.

28 Gregory of Nyssa, “To Ablabius,” in Rusch, 159

29 Gregory of Nazianzus, Fifth Theological Oration,127.

30 In fact, feminist critiques have helped to address trinitarian sloppiness in theological explorations of the atonement and interpersonal relationships. See Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2007), 40-3 and Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1996), 27, 167-190. 

Psalm 2: Quare Fremuerunt Gentes?

(Here’s my paper on Psalm 2, submitted to Dr. M. Sydney Park in partial fulfillment of my Biblical Interpretation course here at Beeson Divinity School. Although I don’t consider this the best thing I’ve ever written, I’d love for you to check this piece out and let me know what you think, because no matter the limitations of the assignment, there’s always room for improvement. Plus, I didn’t have space to talk about all the issues whirring around in my head while writing this paper, and your constructive feedback might very well help me take my next intellectual steps. Click the title below for the .pdf version.)

Psalm 2 – Quare Fremuerunt Gentes?

As the first royal psalm of the Psalter, Psalm 2 exhorts rebellious world leaders to serve Yahweh in wisdom by submitting to his anointed Davidic king who has been granted a global kingdom.1 Comprehension of the psalm’s original message first requires an examination of its constituent parts, with an eye toward its poetic features and original context. Furthermore, an understanding of the enduring significance of Psalm 2 necessitates a consideration of its canonical and redemptive-historical context, including the New Testament’s typological interpretations of the passage. This essay will provide both aspects before concluding with a brief discussion of how best to interpret and apply Psalm 2 to the contemporary Christian Church.

Original Message

Psalm 2 is arranged in four stanzas of three verses each that follow a loosely chiastic movement from the rebellious rulers of nations (2:1-3), to Yahweh (2:4-6), to his anointed king (2:7-9), and back to the rulers (2:10-12).2 The psalmist opens with a twofold rhetorical question that uses synthetic parallelism to express indignant astonishment at the nations’ rage (2:1a) and the peoples’ vain plots (2:1b).3 The rest of the first stanza clarifies the scene: the “kings” and “rulers” of the earth are rebelliously conspiring “against the Lord and against his Anointed” (2:2), using the metaphor of “bonds” and “cords” in their reported direct speech (2:3) to express comparatively the implied rule of the Israelite king.4 The second stanza shifts the focus upward from the limited earthly sphere of influence of the rebellious kings to the unlimited heavenly kingdom of Yahweh (2:4), who anthropomorphically responds to their machinations with laughter and derision, “just as humans would mock something ridiculous.”5 As Ross notes, the two verbs “he will speak” and “[he will] terrify them” (2:5) are respectively a metonymy of cause and of effect to portray the full divine response, arranged in chiastic order (“speak + wrath // anger + terrify”) to emphasize God’s wrath.6 At the heart of the passage’s chiastic structure, bridging the second and third stanzas, is a dramatic shift of scene from Yahweh speaking while seated in the heavens (2:4-6) to Mount Zion and the Davidic king’s recounting of the divine decree (2:7). Both divine speeches emphasize that the authority of Israel’s king proceeds from his divine installation and sonship.7 As Mays notes, although the human ruler in view is not equal or identical to the deity, this unique appearance in the Psalter of “son” as the Davidic king’s title (cf. 2 Sam 7:14) reveals the close correspondence between God and the king.8 This powerful polemic against the rulers who would dare to rebel against such an authoritative king continues through the third stanza (2:7-9), where the son/king is granted a global kingdom (2:8), described with synonymous parallelism between (1) the “nations” and “ends of the earth” and (2) “your heritage” and “your possession.” The section concludes with a vivid image, utilizing “a rod of iron” as a metaphor for the Davidic king’s divinely-granted authority and “like a potter’s vessel” as a simile for the relative vulnerability of the rulers of nations sans divine installation and protection.9

In the final stanza (2:10-12), the psalmist appropriately begins with “now therefore,” a common phrase from Hebrew wisdom literature, before exhorting the rebellious kings and rulers of the earth to “be wise” (2:10) by serving the Lord in reverential fear (2:11) and submitting to his anointed son/king (2:12a).10 The urgency of the exhortations is “met by the warning that he may be angry” (2:12b-c).11 The ambiguity of the subject (“he”) of the descriptions of anger in these two clauses serves to illustrate the close link between Yahweh and his king throughout the entire psalm. As Ross rightly notes, the result of either interpretive option would be the same – “the king will put down their rebellion, but it will be God giving him the victory. To rebel against the one is to rebel against both, and to submit to one is to submit to both.”12 The psalmist concludes by promising blessing to those who take refuge in “him” (2:12d) – an again ambiguous referent, but contextually describing those who demonstrate reverential faith for Yahweh by submitting to his anointed king.13

Contextually, the parallels between this passage and the promises spoken to David in 2 Samuel 7:8-16 clarify the content by identifying the psalm with the coronation of a Davidic king, in addition to the Davidic covenant’s continuity with the other covenant commitments of Yahweh throughout the OT.14 Despite Gunn’s creative proposal that Psalm 2 refers to the anointing and not the coronation of the king, Ross offers a balanced perspective when he views the psalm’s original occasion as a time of crisis due to the vulnerability of the nation to foreign attack at the time of a new king’s coronation.15 Within the Psalter itself, Psalm 2 comprises an introduction along with Psalm 1 – focusing “on the victory of the LORD’s anointed king over the nations” after Psalm 1’s emphasis on the wise way of the righteous.16 Because the final editing and compilation of the Psalter took place in absence of a Davidic king, this fitting introduction “served as a reminder of God’s plan” to its earliest audiences.17

However, as VanGemeren rightly emphasizes, “the juxtaposition of Psalm 3 [a Davidic lament psalm] with Psalms 1 and 2 creates a sense of dissonance” which refocuses “the hope of the godly from David to the Lord, who has made the promises to David.”18 That is, the tension between the idealized portraits (of the individual and Davidic king) in the first two Psalms, the “canonical understanding of the failure of David and of the Davidic dynasty,” and the “real world of failure and exile” experienced throughout the rest of the Psalter and Hebrew Bible encourages a christological and eschatological reading – one which looks for the fulfillment of the expectations of Israel and David in a coming anointed king who is both Son of David and Son of God.19

Enduring Significance

It is reasonable to assume that Psalm 2’s uniqueness as the only psalm to use “son” as a title for the Davidic king and the only OT combination of “anointed/messiah,” “king,” and “son” in one passage contributed to its frequent use in the NT.20 The redemptive-historical context of the second psalm suggests its meaningful relevance (1) during the Hebrew monarchy when a Davidic king was on the throne, (2) during the post-exilic absence of a king, and (3) as the psalm’s circle of context extended into the New Testament and the nascent Church – taking on a typological significance in its portrayal of the anointed Davidic king as the type of which Jesus the Messiah was the antitype.21 Based on the NT evidence, as VanGemeren notes, “from the perspective of typology, Jesus is the fulfillment of the psalm,” because “he is born of David’s lineage (Mt 1:1; Lk 2:4, 11), has a right to David’s throne (Lk 1:32), is the Son of God in a unique way (Mt 3:17; Lk 9:35; Heb 1:5), and will ultimately subdue all enemies under his feet (1Co 15:25-27; Heb 2:5-8).”22 Although a full discussion of messianic typological interpretation exceeds the purview of this paper, a discussion of the quotations of Psalm 2 in Acts 4:25-26 and twice in Hebrews (1:5 and 5:5) will suffice to demonstrate the NT sensitivity to the contours of God’s redemptive mission and the uniqueness of his Messiah – an awareness which contemporary interpretative methods should embody.23

Following the reprimand and release of Peter and John from the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:1-23), the believers to whom they are reunited quote Psalm 2:1-2 (Acts 4:25-26) as they confess to God (4:24) a poignant interpretation of the resistance the anointed king of Psalm 2 faced from the “Gentiles,” “peoples,” “kings,” and “rulers” (4:25-26) in terms of the lethal opposition Jesus received from “Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the people of Israel” (4:27). Of note is the intimate awareness of not only the content but also the eschatological bent of Psalm 2 that such a typological interpretation of the text required. In a profound interpretive dialectic, familiarity with the passage’s unmet expectations, the patterns of God’s redemptive work, and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus enabled these believers to bring Psalm 2 to bear on the very resistance their messianic interpretations were creating for themselves.24 Because Psalm 2 teaches that “the declaration of the Son of God is God’s answer to the opposition of the world’s powers,” the early Christians used the passage to bolster their proclamation of the gospel in the face of external threats, not by directly identifying themselves with Psalm 2’s Davidic king, but by taking refuge in him, so to speak, by proclaiming their experience of the passage’s unique fulfillment in the person of Jesus and trusting in Yahweh’s promised blessing (Ps 2:12).25

The uniqueness of Jesus’ fulfillment of the second psalm is further accentuated in the quotation of Psalm 2:7 at Hebrews 1:5a and 5:5. The former quotation follows immediately after the introduction to the epistle (1:1-4), and is paired with a quotation of 2 Samuel 7:14 (Heb 1:5b) in order to emphasize the Son’s superiority to the angels, a theme which is then carried forward through a litany of OT quotations which collectively emphasize the same point.26 The latter occurrence of Psalm 2:7 (Heb 5:5) is the first use of an OT passage in the lengthy central discussion of the priesthood of Christ in Hebrews 5:1-10:18, explaining his appointment as high priest in terms of his divine sonship – with an emphasis on the humility of one who “did not exalt himself,” (5:5a) but rather was installed by God. In answer to those who would overlook the Son’s unique status, both uses of Psalm 2:7 together emphasize that “the same one who exalted the Son above the angels (Heb. 1:5) has also glorified him to become high priest (5:1-9).”27 Significantly, the typological use of Psalm 2 in terms of Jesus Christ’s fulfillment as antitype coheres with the central point of the passage in its original context: the indissoluble link between Yahweh and his anointed son/king.

The interpretation of Psalm 2 in the contemporary Christian context should demonstrate the same sensitivity the NT does to the contours of God’s redemptive mission and the uniqueness of his Messiah. This does not denigrate the passage’s relevance to Christians today, but rather guards against identifying oneself with the king of Psalm 2 and usurping the uniqueness of God’s Son in the desire for authority, blessing, and protection. Although Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard claim that “royal psalms [such as Psalm 2] relate best to the modern counterparts of Israel’s kings: the leaders of the Christian community,” this approach, seems to risk a gross misinterpretation of the passage if Christian leaders fail to show due concern for the uniqueness of Jesus as the passage’s fulfillment.28

Instead, interpretations of Psalm 2 best emphasize the “crucial inherent differences between monarchs and church leaders” when they cohere with the passage’s original exhortation to demonstrate wisdom by submitting to God’s authoritative and anointed king.29 This is a warning to those who rebel against God by neglecting the authority of his anointed king – either by spurning him or, perhaps even more dangerously, by trying to take his place.30 Christian leaders need to heed this warning just as much as anyone else. And yet Psalm 2 is simultaneously an encouraging comfort to those who follow Jesus the Messiah as the King of Kings, especially in times of fierce opposition when the future of God’s mission seems most vulnerable. The promised global kingdom (Ps 2:8-9) will one day be fully given to the Son of David who is the Son of God – and although the rulers of this world will continue to rise up against Yahweh and his king, those who take refuge in the Son (and therefore in Yahweh himself) will still receive the promised blessing (Ps 2:12) as faithful citizens of the Son’s kingdom.

=== NOTES ===

1 All consulted commentators classify Psalm 2 as a royal psalm, the first example of their remarkable agreement throughout the passage. See P.C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, WBC (Waco: Word, 1983) 64; D.J. Estes, Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005) 179; J.L. Mays, Psalms, IBC (Louisville: John Knox, 1994) 45; A.P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms, Vol. 1:1-41 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011) 199; and W.A. VanGemeren, Psalms, EBC 5, Rev. Ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008) 89. The main, notable exception is a certain facet of Gunn’s analysis. See fn. 15 below; cf. G.A. Gunn, “Psalm 2 and the Reign of the Messiah,” BSac 169 (2012) 431-2.

2 Craigie, Mays, Ross, and VanGemeren all agree on the verse divisions of the stanzas. Craigie and VanGemeren note the chiastic structure of the Psalm as a whole. See Craigie, Psalms, 64; Mays, Psalms, 45; Ross, Psalms, 200-1; VanGemeren, Psalms, 89.

3 “Psalmist” will refer to the unknown author of Ps 2 throughout this paper. As Gunn notes, “though the psalm is anonymous, it is accorded Davidic authorship in Acts 4:25. […] Whether the psalm is of Davidic authorship has little bearing on the interpretation of the psalm.” Gunn, “Psalm 2,” 427.

4 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations come from the English Standard Version [ESV].

5 Ross, Psalms, 205.

6 Ross, Psalms, 206.

7 Cf. Craigie, Psalms, 66-7.

8 Mays, Psalms, 47-8. Ross agrees, noting that “you are my son” is “a pure metaphor. The statement makes a comparison between what a son is to a father and what the king is to God to describe the special relationship between them.” Ross, Psalms, 207.

9 Cf. Ross, Psalms, 209-10.

10 VanGemeren, Psalms, 97. For the Wisdom use of “now therefore,” see Prov 5:7; 7:24; 8:32. For kissing as a sign of “homage and submission,” see 1 Sam 10:1; 1 Kgs 19:18; cf. Craigie, Psalms, 68. Finally, for a discussion of the phrase “kiss the Son” as the crux interpretum of the passage at hand, see the discussions in Craigie, Psalms, 64, fn. 12.a; and VanGemeren, Psalms, 97-8, fn. 12. I agree with Ross when he notes that “in addressing leaders of other countries where Aramaic was spoken, using the Aramaic word [for “son”] made sense.” Ross, Psalms, 198-9, fn. 6.

11 Ross, Psalms, 212; emphasis added.

12 Ross, Psalms, 213.

13 Cf. Craigie, Psalms, 68; Ross, Psalms, 213;

14 Craigie, Psalms, 64. The Davidic covenant of 2 Sam 7 stands in elaborating continuity with the Abrahamic (Gen 12-17) and Mosaic (Exod 19-24) covenants, and is itself intensified and elaborated upon in the “new covenant” of Jer 31. This context of covenantal continuity is extremely important to the interpretation of Ps 2 because, without it, Yahweh’s exclusive, close relationship with the king (Ps 2:4-12) is inexplicable.

15 Ross, Psalms, 200. VanGemeren rightly notes that “any attempt to link the psalm with an actual coronation of a Judean king…finds little support in the text.” VanGemeren, Psalms, 89. Gunn’s proposal, while heeding VanGemeren’s caution and offering a creative explanation of the already-not-yet dimensions of Jesus Christ’s current kingly reign, seems more driven by the concerns of a presupposed eschatological system than by a straightforward exegesis of the passage at hand. Although the gap between David’s anointing as king (1 Sam 16) and his coronation as such (2 Sam 2, 5) is instructive for considerations of the Hebrew monarchy, it does not mean that such a gap was normative for the kingly sons of David for whom the psalm at hand was probably composed. Furthermore, there are other, better ways to explain the unique kingdom reign of Christ during the current age than this kind of artificial reverse interpretation of Psalm 2. See Gunn, “Psalm 2,” 431-2.

16 Ross, Psalms, 200.

17 Ross, Psalms, 200.

18 VanGemeren, Psalms, 90.

19 VanGemeren, Psalms, 90,8; cf. Pss 19:13; 25:7, 18; 31:10; 32:3-5; 38:3-4, 18; 39:1, 8; 40:12; 41:4; 51:1-2.

20 Mays notes both aspects of Psalm 2’s uniqueness. The OT/NT assumption is my own. Mays, Psalms, 40,7. According to the UBS Greek New Testament, 4th Rev. Ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2001) 887,95, Psalm 2 is quoted in the NT at Acts 4:25-26 (Ps 2:1-2); 13:33; Heb 1:5, and 5:5 (Ps 2:7). Furthermore, there are allusions and verbal parallels to Psalm 2 at Mt 3:17; 17:5; Mk 1:11; 9:7; Lk 3:22; 9:35; Jn 1:49 (Ps 2:7); Heb 1:2 (Ps 2:8); Rev 11:18 (Ps 2:1); and 19:19 (Ps 2:2). Gunn notes that “based on New Testament quotations, allusions, and verbal parallels, Psalm 2 is one of the most frequently referred to of all the psalms.” Gunn, “Psalm 2,” 427.

21 Ross, Psalms, 213, fn. 31, citing J. Clifford, Psalms 1-72 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002) 46.

22 VanGemeren, Psalms, 91.

23 As noted above (fn. 20), NT quotations of and allusions to Psalm 2 abound. The three examples have been chosen based on this essay’s prompt and the author’s prior familiarity with the thought-flow of Hebrews.

24 As Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard note, “the use of typology rests on the belief that God’s ways of acting are consistent throughout history. Thus NT writers may, in places, explain phenomena in the new Messianic era in terms of their OT precursors.” W.W. Klein, C.L. Blomberg and R.L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Rev. Ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004) 183. A familiarity with the consistent patterns of God’s redemptive work throughout history would have undoubtedly involved an intimate knowledge of the covenantal continuity throughout the OT, reference in fn. 14 above.

25 Mays, Psalms, 50.

26 Cf. “angellwn”as a “hook-word” between Heb 1:1-4 and 1:5-14. The other OT passages cited are, in order: Deut 32:43; Pss 104:4; 45:6,7; 102:25-27; and 110:1.

27 Gunn, “Psalm 2,” 438.

28 Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 358. Christian leaders who desire instruction in the biblical ways of leadership do well to look to Jesus the Messiah as an example of humble servant leadership (cf. Jn 13:12-20), but should not feel the need to identify themselves with the Messiah himself in order to secure the respect and obedience of those under their instruction. No messianic interpretation of Christian leadership is necessary in order to follow Paul when he exhorts his readers to imitate him as he imitates Christ (cf. 1 Cor 11:1).

29 Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 358-9.

30 Cf. Ross, Psalms, 214.