by Lance Hawley
The short answer to this opening question is “God.”
I was first moved to study the Old Testament by a scholar who exhibited a communion with God through the text. He was a poet and convicted me of the inexhaustible wealth of the Hebrew Scriptures. He showed me that it was more than just a series of books that talked about God, but it was a meeting place to come face to face with the Creator of the universe.
The purpose of Bible study is experiencing God and growing into his mission. This goes for scholarly and devotional reading alike. No matter our exegetical abilities, when we read the Bible we ought to concern ourselves with knowing God. Ideally, close readings, attention to detail, and scholarly inquiry only deepens our understanding. Certainly, God is beyond our comprehension, but we are not left without a clue. The more we study Scripture, the more opportunity we have for knowing the fullness of God.
I seek to know Scripture like I know an old hymn. I want to know the lyrics, the historical references, the metaphors, the poetic rhythms. But it is not just for study sake; I want to sing the song. As the great Zion song says, “I heard their song and strove to join.”
Admittedly, I sometimes find myself devoting vast amounts of time to the study of the minutia of Scripture that does not seem to have much to do with knowing God. I sometimes miss the forest (God) for the trees (particular texts), but the right corrective to this is not to ignore the trees. Even the minutia, properly framed, filters up to knowing God more fully. I will attempt to illustrate with a few examples.
Wrestling with God through text criticism
Text criticism gives us a window into ancient interpretation. Sometimes variants in the manuscripts are just scribal errors, but often variants reveal disagreements or shifts among interpreters. For example, Job 13:15a, is translated by the NRSV as “See, he will kill me; I have no hope,” but the ESV has “Though he slay me, I will hope in him.” The reason for the difference is a textual variant: the Hebrew word here is lō’ meaning “not,” but another ancient tradition reads lô meaning “to him.” The two Hebrew words sound identical. So does Job say that he does not have hope or does Job say that he will still hope in him? I think that it is fairly clear that the NRSV is more in tune with the book of Job and the variant “in him” is a later effort to make Job seem less despairing. But back to our question, what does this variant have to do with knowing God? Simply put, we cannot make the big points without observing the details. In this case, we get an insight into how our ancestors in faith heard and wrestled with the character of Job. Job is a book about the human experience of suffering and how one relates to God in the midst of suffering. This small little word matters to the portrayal of despair. In my experience, it contributes to my own wrestling with God as I observe injustices and resolve to speak to God without restraint. So the text critical question filters up to wrestling with God when the realities of injustice hit home. One can certainly wrestle with God without knowing Hebrew or this text critical issue, but the closer we look the more we bring to the table.
The awe and wonder of wordplay
I love wordplay and a good poetic turn of phrase. For example, in Isaiah 5:7, a parabolic song about a failed vineyard concludes with God expecting mishpat (justice), but getting mishpaḥ (violence), expecting ṣedaqah (righteousness) but getting ṣe‘aqah (an outcry). This pair of wordplay is obvious in the Hebrew and contributes to the richness of the poem. What I love about close study of the Old Testament is that it slows me down and draws my attention the creative detail of Scripture. God is a poet. The better we understand His poems, the fuller our communion with Him.
I do not study the Old Testament to prove or disprove its history or to contradict science. In my experience, these are unfruitful and misguided pursuits for the most part. Additionally, my primary reason for studying the OT is not to establish doctrine. Doctrine is important, no doubt, and the Old Testament certainly espouses doctrines, but these are typically secondary gleanings from the primary story of God among His people.
I study the Old Testament to learn from Israel’s witness to the character and actions of God, so that I might more fully understand the wonders of God’s work in the present. I want to sing the song of the Old Testament, which not only requires me to learn the lyrics and the tune, but also to join the chorus. The text hymns its King in strains divine. I hear the song and strive to join.
Lance Hawley is an Assistant Professor of Old Testament and biblical Hebrew at Harding School of Theology in Memphis. His research focuses on the book of Job and Hebrew poetry. He also has a major interest in biblical law and biblical canon as essential topics of study for followers of Jesus. Before joining the HST faculty, Lance served as a church planter in Madison, WI for ten years. He has a passion for the spiritual formation of missional communities. Lance and his wife, Laura, have three children.
Today’s reading has me thinking about 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 in which Paul expresses concern about what the Corinthians have come to believe and practice. It seems that the gift of grace that God provided has been used to perpetuate a notion of liberty that was not intended in the gift. What I mean to say is that Paul is concerned that ideas about the body, sexual relationships, and our relationship with Christ must be addressed among the Christians at Corinth.
They seem to love maxims, short sayings to live by, or proverbial statements. Paul references a few in our passage:
“I am allowed to do anything!” or “Everything is permissible for me!”
“Food was made for the stomach, and the stomach for food!”
These slogans or maxims were referenced by Paul, we assume, because the people knew them and lived by them. Yet, Paul qualifies these sayings because, as you probably already know, a proverb or maxim is helpful in certain contexts and situations, but are not entirely universally true. And so Paul qualifies “I am allowed to do anything,” with “but not everything is good for you,” and “I must not become a slave to anything.” Paul goes on to qualify the maxim, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food,” with a more chilling response, “someday God will do away with both of them.”
Yet, this moves Paul to what seems to be the real point. Apparently some of Corinthians christians live by a maxim that says, “Our bodies are made to have sex, and so having sex is what our bodies must do!” And there were many opportunities for sexual activities in that city. If you would like to understand more about the city of Corinth and sexual practices, there has been much study done about that. But for this moment, Paul is not concerned with the cultural practices surrounding the Christian church, but Paul asserts the reality that they have entered into a relationship with Jesus. This relationship is not haphazard nor is it flippant…it is a covenant relationship that looks a lot like marriage (see Hosea 1-3; Ezekiel 16). Here is the entire passage from the New Living Translation:
12 You say, “I am allowed to do anything”—but not everything is good for you. And even though “I am allowed to do anything,” I must not become a slave to anything. 13 You say, “Food was made for the stomach, and the stomach for food.” (This is true, though someday God will do away with both of them.) But you can’t say that our bodies were made for sexual immorality. They were made for the Lord, and the Lord cares about our bodies. 14 And God will raise us from the dead by his power, just as he raised our Lord from the dead.
15 Don’t you realize that your bodies are actually parts of Christ? Should a man take his body, which is part of Christ, and join it to a prostitute? Never! 16 And don’t you realize that if a man joins himself to a prostitute, he becomes one body with her? For the Scriptures say, “The two are united into one.” 17 But the person who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with him.
18 Run from sexual sin! No other sin so clearly affects the body as this one does. For sexual immorality is a sin against your own body. 19 Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, 20 for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body.
I like this contemporary reflection on the passage: “In our individualistic society and culture, Paul’s claim that ‘you are not your own’ will seem decidedly alien. Are we not in charge of our own lives? Can we not do as we see fit? Our own self-control is a fiction that we struggle to maintain. For Paul and indeed for everyone in his time, nobody was without a master, a lord to whom they were in some measure responsible…Some modern people, giving lip service to equality, find a horizontal image preferable; but in reality modern culture is stratified—and that not just economically—much more severely than we sometimes may want to acknowledge.” (J.P. Sampley, New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. X, 866-67)
I think modern Christians must wrestle with the same notion that our ancient brothers and sisters did…We are not as independent and strong as we think we are, and perhaps sex and sexual experiences have us torn between faithfulness to Jesus and thinking that we are just participating in what our bodies were made to do. Paul’s words still ring true, “Glory God in your body!” Freedom is not without a lord (aka “is not free”), but the Lord offers freedom in that you, me, the self, our bodies, can be rescued from shame to the splendor and magnificence of that which God created! For Christians: your body is a temple, a sacred space where God lives.
I have been reading a little book by Lois Malcolm on the Holy Spirit. I met Lois at the Rochester College Streaming Conference, and her book, Holy Spirit: Creative Power in our Lives would serve small groups well if you have a group that is interested in thinking about the Holy Spirit and its representation in the Bible. In chapter 3, she starts off by stating, “Something happened after Jesus’ death. His disciples experienced his presence among them as one raised from the dead. They announced that God had vindicated him by raising him from the dead, making him both ‘Lord and Messiah’ (Acts 2:36). And, they experienced the presence of the Spirit within and among them. They affirmed that the same Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead also dwelled within them and gave life to their mortal bodies(Romans 8:11). As they reflected on their memories about Jesus in light of the Scriptures and what they remembered about his life, they interpreted Jesus’ death to be something he offered through ‘the eternal spirit’—the indestructible life of God—so that they could, with clean consciences, worship the living God (Hebrews 9:14).” (35)
She continues, “Throughout Acts, we read how members of the new community were ‘filled with the Spirit’ to move and act in certain ways. The Spirit directed the affairs of the community (Acts 5:3; 9:31), guiding through prophetic utterance (Acts 11:28; 13:2; 20:23; 21:4,11) and through mutual discernment (Acts 15:28). And the Spirit gave individuals power to perform certain tasks for the community…” (38)
As I think about Dr. Malcolm’s writing that connects the church with the Spirit as an extension of Jesus, I find myself deeply drawn to this ecclesiology (that is a way of “doing church”). Here are a few of my observations to think about:
Malcolm asserts, “As Jesus’ living presence with us, the Advocate will give us a deeper and an even more expansive—a more vital and more life giving—understanding of the truth. Jesus told his disciples, the Advocate will not only ‘teach you everything’ (Acts 14:26), but also ‘guide you into all the truth;…and…declare to you the things that are to come’ (John 16:13). Nonetheless, what the Advocate will disclose would always be rooted in Jesus, reminding the disciples of all Jesus has said to them. The Advocate would always only ‘testify’ on Jesus’ behalf (John 15:26). Just as Jesus did not speak on his own but only the Father’s words, so the Advocate would not ‘speak on his own,’ but only ‘speak whatever he hears’ (John 16:13)—from Jesus and the Father.” (45)
Jesus is portrayed in the Bible as our older brother…that is the one who goes before us to show us the way home to the Father. Whenever we are described in the Bible as “children” we are the children of God and never the children of Jesus. Those of us who are not Jewish, and are in fact Gentiles, are described as adopted children, or chosen children, of God.
Listen to the words of Romans 8:
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.
Again, hear the words of 1 Corinthians 15 which show the relationship between the work of Jesus the Son and the ultimate victory of God the Father:
20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. 28 When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.
I think the Bible displays Jesus as a peer, one of us…even being from God and being a part of God…but God is so high and holy and other that it is difficult to view God as the one who has chosen to be among us. Interestingly enough, whether it is God or Jesus who is among us, both have consequences. When God is among us, the holy one in our midst, then sin must be dealt with and we must be worthy to receive such a presence. When Jesus walked among us, we have a decision to make in regard to his presence—namely, is he the one sent form God like he claimed to be?
To be in God’s family is to make God your Father and to make Jesus your elder brother who shows you an example by which to live and die. To live the life of Jesus is to live in the family of God, to be connected to the church, and to participate in the divine mission empowered by the Holy Spirit. Jesus is portrayed as Lord and Messiah, the Christ, and the one who ultimately brings the world back to God…but it is the Father who stands alone, the one Jesus serves, and in the end it is God the Father who fulfills promises and brings the family home.
As promised, I want to take a look at Philippians 2, a passage of Scripture that recounts Jesus’ journey to the right hand of God. Here is the text:
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,
being born in the likeness of men.
8 And being found in human form,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God has highly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
The Emptying of the Son and the Power of the Father
In Philippians 2:6-11 we find what some scholars suggest is the oldest surviving piece of writing on Jesus. We have what appears to be either a song or an informal creedal statement that we assume the church at Philippi either knew, had memorized, or even used in worship. Paul reminds them of a picture of Jesus that they need to carry with them during their time of struggle. Paul shows us that Jesus is the ultimate example of true service to God.
Equality with God:
But he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. Grasped in this sense is not “comprehend” with the mind, but indicates an actual physical grasping. The Greek word means more like “exploited, grabbed, taken for one’s own advantage.” The NIV editorial board updated the translation here to read “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage.” Therefore, Jesus was not willing to use his divine nature for his own benefit. He refused to exploit his divine authority.
Jesus chose to make himself nothing. He “emptied” himself. This one word has been the subject of so much debate among theologians, “kenosis” in the Greek. It comes from the Greek word for to pour. He pours himself out. He gives himself and his authority away as he becomes born in the form of a human.
Becoming a Servant:
He takes on the form of a servant. There are two words for servant- “diakonos" (where the church gets the transliterated word “deacon”) which is an administrator, server, waiter, attendant. But then there’s “doulos;” a bondservant, slave, one without any authority. Jesus becomes a “doulos” not a “diakonos.”
I want you to notice something extremely important…this is the end of Jesus’ action in the text. In other words, Jesus’ part is over at the emptying, humbling, and serving. Paul is going to use the all important transitional word, “therefore” and so there is a continuation of the story as a result of what just happened…And you might notice that at this transition, it is “God” or the Father that takes over the action in the text.
Again, we might ask the question where Jesus receives his power, and we might also discover that in this text Jesus, the Son, makes himself into a vulnerable servant of God to which God responds by exalting him. It should not strike us as odd since Jesus himself made statements about God opposing the proud and given grace to the humble. Yet, in this text we see the power of the Son being the ability to empty himself, and the power of God being to exalt and bestow honor. While this text does indicate an equality of nature in the Father and Son, that is the same form…a reader of this text must see a striking contrast between the function of Father and Son. The Son reigns by the Father’s power, and the Father is pleased by the Son’s unwavering character.
I want to share thoughts, insights, and scriptures that lead us in the direction of Christ.