If you were to listen to modern Christmas radio these days and didn’t know anything about the history of the holiday, you would be justified in concluding that it is primarily a romantic event. There are innumerable songs on the theme of “all I want for Christmas is you”, more about how awful it is that the singer’s jerk significant other dumped them for the holidays, still more about being lonely during Christmas, and so forth.
Interestingly, this represents not only a departure from discussing the birth of Jesus as traditional carols once did but also a departure from the spirit of Christ. Like most modern songs, these modern Christmas songs are self-centered, which Jesus was not. Selfishness and godliness are opposites. To the extent that one exists in a human heart, the other cannot.
We, of course, do not honor Christ only during this season, nor do we seek to imitate Him only during the holidays. All day, every day, He is both our Lord and our example. This morning, then, let’s consider what we can learn from Paul’s discussion of Jesus’ birth about having the mind of Christ.
In pursuit of this goal, we’re going to take a familiar text and rearrange it a little bit. First, we’re going to consider WHAT CHRIST DID. Let’s read from Philippians 2:5-7. I believe that this is the single longest discussion of the birth of Christ in any of the epistles, and the perspective it takes on that event is revealing.
If somebody asked us what the meaning of Christ’s birth is, we might talk about the joy and wonder of God becoming flesh. We might discuss the way that he fulfilled the prophecies concerning His birth—born of a virgin, born in Bethlehem, and so on. However, Paul doesn’t go in any of those directions. Instead, he says that the spiritual essence of Christ’s birth is His humility.
We see this humility most spectacularly displayed in v. 6. I think that many of our translations here are opaque. They translate the words of the Greek without giving us much insight into its meaning. We struggle to figure out, for instance, what it means when our Bible says that He did not regard equality with God as a thing to be grasped. In English, is equality a thing? Can we grasp it?
I think that some of the freer translations can help us out here. The NLT says that Christ didn’t think of equality with God as something to cling to. The NIV tells us that He didn’t consider it something to be used to His own advantage. My favorite, the CSB, reports that he didn’t consider it something to be exploited.
Taken together, they give us a new and challenging insight into the nature of humility. We think of the humble person as one who does not thrust himself forward and demand credit for his achievements. That’s not what Christ did, though. Instead, He was in a position of immense privilege, but He didn’t use that privilege for His own advantage.
Today, the people of our country love to talk about their rights. Indeed, the Constitution grants us many rights, but as we contemplate those rights, we also must remember that we serve One who had the right to equality with God in heaven and gave it up. If we follow Him, we often will find ourselves turning our backs on the rights that we have in order to better serve others.
Next, let’s consider Paul’s thoughts on BEING LIKE CHRIST. Look at Philippians 2:1-2. Notice first of all that Paul is pulling out the heavy artillery in his efforts to get the Philippians to live in harmony. He lists several of the greatest blessings we have as Christians then says that if we have enjoyed any of these things, we should seek like-mindedness with each other.
This too is an attempt to jar us out of the self-seeking mindset of the world. Even as Christians, we like getting the good stuff from others, but we struggle with dishing it back out. We love it when others encourage us, but it’s easy for us to go through life in our self-centered little bubble and never think to encourage others. We’re so appreciative when others show us affection and compassion in our failure and sin, but when somebody lets us down, too often our first instinct is to throw the book at them! Brethren, the only right measure of the grace we show others is the grace we want to receive. I need mercy from God and others so often, and when I am tempted to be unmerciful, that is the very thing I must remember.
Next, Paul urges us to a level of unity that seems impossible. We live in a deeply divided country, in the midst of a deeply divisive pandemic. We are separated by differences of race and gender. We have different backgrounds and different life experiences. For that matter, we study the same passage or Scriptural topic and reach different conclusions.
In the face of that, Paul tells us that we must be of the same mind, maintain the same love, be united in spirit, and seek the same goal. Surely he’s living in la-la land if he wants us to do all that, amirite?
Before we get too dismissive, though, we ought to remember that the divisions in the first-century church were, if anything, even worse. Consider, for instance, the devout Jew who becomes a Christian and, next Sunday morning, finds himself rubbing shoulders with a Gentile who is a former homosexual prostitute. There was no rehabilitation for guys like that under the Torah; instead, they were stoned to death. Do you think that such people found it easy to be of the same mind?
In fact, the answer for us is the same as it was for them: we learn to see one another through the eyes of Christ. We don’t always agree about everything, but our attitude toward one another never changes. We press on together toward the goal, and we show the world by our love for one another that we are His disciples.
Finally, Paul points us toward ACTING LIKE CHRIST. Consider Philippians 2:3-4. The first part of this, though it is very difficult, at least is plain. Christ never did anything selfish. We shouldn’t either. Christ never acted out of vain conceit. Neither should we.
Instead, the attitude that our actions should shout is humility. Everybody who looks at our behavior should be able to tell whom we think is most important, and that person should never be us. That’s what a Christian looks like, and if this verse doesn’t make us feel about six inches tall, we probably don’t understand it.
Last, we learn that we are supposed to look out for the interests of others as well as our own. This seems like a relief from all the toe-stepping in the previous verse, but it isn’t. There are few things in this life that are harder than loving others and being deeply invested in their welfare.
It means that you’ve got a lot of people on your heart, all the time. It means that you spend sleepless nights worrying and praying about them. It means that when they sin, you feel worse about it than they do. We might ask why on earth anyone would take up a burden like that. The answer is simple: because Jesus did.
Even among the Pauline epistles, there are elements in each that distinguish them from all the others. Sometimes these differences are due to different scribes (Paul the scribe of Galatians has different diction than Tertius the scribe of Romans or Sosthenes the scribe of 1 Corinthians), but sometimes they’re due to the unique interaction between the spirit of Paul and the Holy Spirit at that particular moment.
In this latter category we must put the parentheticals of Ephesians. The entire epistle gives the impression of a man who is thinking far faster than he is able to talk and has so many important things to say that they keep crowding in on each other. Consequently, there are many places in Ephesians where Paul abruptly abandons an idea, only to return to it a dozen verses or even a few chapters later.
One such place is Ephesians 3:1. He begins the chapter by saying, “For this reason, I, Paul”, but in 3:2, he never says what he, Paul, is doing. Instead, he begins a digression about his apostleship to the Gentiles and its role in God’s eternal purpose.
The digression doesn’t end until 3:14, which begins in the same way that 3:1 does. Finally, we find out what he, Paul, is doing. He is bowing his knees before the Father.
If we don’t recognize 3:2-13 as a parenthetical, we’re going to have trouble following Paul’s argument. “For this reason” in 3:14 doesn’t refer back to 3:13. Paul is focused on much more important things than the Ephesians remaining faithful despite his tribulations.
Instead, it refers back to the closing verses of Ephesians 2, which immediately precede the first “For this reason” of the third chapter. Contextually, “this reason” is the work that Christ has done in breaking down the division between Jew and Gentile and incorporating the latter into God’s household, as per Ephesians 2:19.
“This reason” motivates Paul because he is the apostle to the Gentiles (which is why the digression of 3:2-13 is relevant) and cares about the Ephesians even though they’re Gentiles. They’re part of his family now, which is why the first item in the prayer of 3:14-21 is the observation that every family in heaven and on earth derives its name from the Father.
Even after the prayer is over, Paul continues the theme of unity. According to 4:1-6, the Ephesians are to walk worthy of their calling (the calling that brought them together with Jews in a single holy temple) by pursuing the things that make for unity and peace. If Christ brought all Christians together, the least we can do is stay together!
This point is profound, but if all we ever do is plod through Ephesians verse by verse, we’ll miss it and many other similar treasures. We must remember that Scripture originally was not divided by verse. It was divided by context and argument. The more effort we invest in following the latter through all their twists and turns, the more we will benefit.
The Biblical plan for the New Testament church is simple. There are a few things we are supposed to do in our assemblies, a few more that we are supposed to do with our money, and that’s it. The scope of the Biblical pattern is extremely narrow.
It is unsurprising, then, that since the beginning, God’s people have been unsatisfied with that pattern and have wanted to depart from it. The church of the first century became the Catholic Church of later centuries, which bears little resemblance to anything in Scripture. In our own time, whenever churches have gotten wealthy and powerful, they’ve started coming up with all these other ideas for other things that the church might do, especially with money. However, there is no Biblical precedent for these new works.
What do we do with that? Is it OK, for instance, for us to alter our singing by bringing in a band to help us worship? Is God pleased when churches start spending money on whatever they think is right? Or is there another way that we should be looking at things? Today, let’s use a story from 1 Samuel 8 to guide us as we consider the subject of departing from the pattern.
The first part of the story concerns A DEMAND FOR A KING. Let’s read from 1 Samuel 8:1-5. The fact pattern here is straightforward. Samuel’s sons are corrupt judges, so the people come to him and ask him to appoint a king instead.
This process reveals several important truths to us. First, people want to abandon the pattern when they think it’s failing. The Israelites didn’t want a king when Samuel was in his prime. They only sought change when Joel and Abijah started messing up.
So too today, people want to change the worship and work of the church when they perceive that the church is failing. The singing is rotten, so bring in the band. The poor are hungry, so start up a food pantry, and so on. We abandon the pattern when we think the pattern isn’t working.
However, both the Israelites and people today make the same mistake. We like to blame the pattern when people are at fault. In the Israelites’ time, the problem wasn’t with the judgeship. It was with the judges. Sadly, rather than removing the judges, their solution was to abandon the judgeship.
We too, when God’s work isn’t getting done, prefer to blame the pattern instead of ourselves. We don’t fix the rotten singing by singing more enthusiastically. We don’t care for the poor by using our own money. Instead, we want the church to change because that’s a quick fix that doesn’t require us to grow in Christ.
Finally, departures from the pattern generally are influenced by the world. The Israelites didn’t only want a king; they wanted a king like the nations around them. When the Lord’s people abandon the pattern, they also are not very original. Our progressive brethren think they’re breaking new ground, but really, they’re becoming exactly like the denominational churches around them. 3000 years later, things still play out the same.
Next, we see GOD’S REPLY to the Israelites. Consider 1 Samuel 8:6-18. In this section, He identifies three problems with their demand.
The first is that departing from the pattern rejects Him as king. They didn’t want to be ruled by God anymore. They wanted to be ruled by one from among themselves.
The same holds true for us. When we reject God’s pattern, we reject God’s kingship. If we truly want His will to be done in all that we do, we will confine ourselves only to what we read in the Scriptures.
On the other hand, when we start doing things that aren’t in the Bible, that’s no longer God’s will. It’s our will. We only go along with God when He tells us to do what we want to already. That’s not obedience. It’s coincidence.
Second, God says that abandoning the pattern is the same thing as idolatry. This seems like a strange claim for Him to make, given that the story contains no graven images. However, the idol to which He is referring is the most dangerous idol of all: the Israelites themselves.
For us too, self-idolatry is a deadly spiritual danger. Let’s be honest for a moment. When we abandon the old path of the New Testament for a new path of our own invention, whom are we exalting? Whom are we lifting up?
Is it God and His wisdom and authority? Or is it we ourselves, with our human ingenuity and cleverness? How wonderful it is, that in our wisdom we have come up with this great new work for God’s church that surely He would have included. . . if only He’d been a little smarter!
The idolatry’s not hard to see, is it?
Finally, God points out that the Israelites haven’t thought through the consequences. Once they get a king, he is going to take their children, their property, and their own selves. Even though God doesn’t mention it here, there are going to be severe spiritual consequences too. Ultimately, the kings will lead Israel into apostasy and captivity.
Historically, leaders in the Lord’s church haven’t been great at anticipating consequences either. When the second-century church started appointing single bishops over cities, I’m sure that no one foresaw it eventually would lead to the appointment of a pope, but it did. In our own time, I doubt that the leaders of the institutional split thought their teaching would lead to female preachers, adoption of the instrument, and downplaying the necessity of baptism, but it has.
Brethren, none of us are God. We’re rotten at seeing the end from the beginning. Rather than striking out on our own, we’re much better off confining ourselves to His revealed will. He’s thought His ideas through, and we haven’t.
Last in this story, we see THE PEOPLE’S DECISION. It appears in 1 Samuel 8:19-21. Despite God’s warnings, they persist in their demand for a king.
Notice, though, that a new motivation has appeared. The people don’t just want a king to judge them. They want a king to go out before them and fight their battles for them. That way, they don’t have to do anything.
In the same way, I fear that a lot of Christians want the church to fight their battles for them. They don’t want to embarrass themselves with heartfelt singing, so the church needs to bring in the instrument. They don’t want to be hospitable, so the church needs to build a fellowship hall. They don’t want to interact with the poor, so the church needs to do that for them. By the end of this process, the church does everything, and the disciples do nothing. It’s perfect for people who want to be do-nothing disciples.
Finally, though, notice what God tells Samuel to do with the people who want to depart from His will. He tells him to give them the king they have asked for. They don’t want to do right, so He will allow them to do wrong.
So too today. God doesn’t force any of us to do right, and we don’t force anybody to do right either. We can warn others, we can point them to the word, but we can’t control them without abandoning the pattern ourselves. All we can do is make sure that in our lives and in our congregation, we remain faithful.
One of the most fascinating exchanges in the New Testament appears toward the end of Paul’s defense before the Jerusalem mob, in Acts 22:17-21. The incident that Paul relates took place shortly after his conversion, after he had fled from Damascus and returned to Jerusalem, still preaching the gospel. While he is praying in the temple, Jesus warns him that he is going to have to flee Jerusalem too.
Paul is bewildered by this. The Jews of Jerusalem know that he used to be Church Persecutor No. 1. He beat and imprisoned all the Christians he could catch. When the Sanhedrin mobbed and murdered Stephen, he cheered them on. Surely somebody like that, whose convictions have changed so spectacularly, is worth listening to! Surely if Saul of Tarsus, persecutor of the church, now testifies that Jesus is the Christ, the Jews will find that testimony persuasive!
Paul is both right and wrong. He’s right about the power of the evidence he offers. Even now, 2000 years later, his witness to the resurrection is strong confirmation of our faith.
However, he is wrong about its persuasiveness to the Jews of Jerusalem. His testimony would be enough to win over reasonable people, but those Jews aren’t reasonable. Jesus’ response implies that their hearts are so hardened against the truth that they will respond with violence instead of conversion. Incredible though it may seem, the gospel will find a better hearing among the pagan Gentiles than among God’s chosen people in God’s holy city.
Ironically, the reception to Paul’s speech proves Jesus right. Prophets had been predicting for a thousand years that the Messiah would save the Gentiles too. Nonetheless, the mob finds this notion so hateful that they begin to riot as soon as the words pass Paul’s lips. The Roman commander, who doesn’t have a dog in the fight, is so baffled by their reaction that he is willing to torture Paul to figure out what in the world is going on.
Even today, we still struggle with the illusion that others are reasonable people with honest hearts. We show them enough proof to persuade them three times over, and we are bewildered by the negative responses we get. Look at all the evidence for the existence of God! Look at how many Bible verses testify to the importance of baptism! Often, we react by doubling down, by presenting more evidence, by pointing out more verses.
What we fail to understand in such cases is that we aren’t dealing with a proof problem. We’re dealing with a heart problem. Usually, people reject the truth because they don’t want to be Christians. If we press the point, we might make them angry, but we won’t make them believe. The sooner we recognize the heart problem and stop arguing, the better.
What about us, though? What about the truths we aren’t willing to hear, the Scriptures we aren’t willing to consider, the sacred-cow beliefs that we can’t bear to challenge? The devil is happy to harden the hearts of Christians too. If we do not love the truth ourselves, especially when it is difficult and painful, we may find ourselves no better off than the Jews who heard Paul’s speech. After all, every one of them thought they were faithful servants of God—just like we do.
Marshal McLuhan, one of the greatest communications theorists of all time, is famous for saying, “The medium is the message.” In other words, the way in which you present information is fully as important as the information itself.
This would not have been news to our brethren in the early church, who adopted the new-to-them format of the codex for the gospels and epistles of the New Testament. Codices were different than scrolls (and both, of course, were equally different from oral tradition). Compare, for instance, the ease of flipping back and forth in a codex with the laborious unrolling and rerolling of a scroll. You’re a lot more likely to use a codex as a reference work, and Bible-as-reference work versus Bible-as-narrative was a truly titanic paradigm shift!
We live in a time that has focused attention on the medium as never before. During the late pandemic, many churches engaged with the Internet in a way that they never had before. If in lockdown, either you were livestreaming services somehow, or you weren’t feeding your people at all!
However, now that life has more or less gone back to normal, the impact of the livestream seems to have faded somewhat. There are still a dozen or so people who tune in regularly to the Jackson Heights livestream: shut-ins (who I’m sure are thrilled that they now have a robust connection to assemblies), the sick, people who are traveling but want to worship with the home folks, and so on. Most of us, though, have reset our assembly and worship experiences to 2019.
I tend to believe the livestream has had only a transitory impact because we weren’t asking what new and different thing we could do. We wanted to do the same old thing: church, except virtual and not quite as good. As we might expect, the medium of “in person” is ideal for many spiritual pursuits. The question that we ought to be asking, though, is whether there are things we can do better online, especially with online video.
I don’t claim to have the answers here, but I did have a fascinating recent experience that led me to conclude that some interesting answers exist. Throughout my adult life, I’ve been involved with a weeklong hymn-writing seminar called the Hymninar. My first year was 1997, and in the time since, I’ve gradually taken on a teaching and mentoring role in it.
This is something with which I am well familiar. I was teaching hymn theory and analyzing students’ hymns before I started preaching the gospel. However, like all other familiar things, the Hymninar got COVID-canceled in 2020, and in 2021, Sumphonia decided to hold the Hymninar virtually over Zoom.
In practice, though, Zoom Hymninar proved to be about as much like in-person Hymninar as a Bible codex was like a Bible scroll. More people participated, in many cases because time, health, or financial constraints would have prevented them from attending in person. Singing was inevitably nonexistent. Teaching was harder. I don’t know why, but it’s a lot harder to pull interaction out of faces on a screen than from people in a classroom.
The most significant differences, though, appeared in collaboration and critique. In an in-person Hymninar, after the class spends a couple of days going through a manual on how to write good hymns, each attendee is asked to write a quality original verse. They write where they please, either in the main classroom or smaller rooms elsewhere. Teachers circulate and offer suggestions. When a verse is far enough along, it gets projected on a screen in the main classroom, and the assembled class provides more critique. Hopefully, by the end of the week, the verse of each student attains the requisite level of quality.
As much as we could, we tried to imitate that format online, with a main Zoom room and breakout rooms where mentors waited for those who wanted help. However, the online version didn’t function like the real-life version. Rather than passively waiting for doom to descend, online attendees actively sought help. The main Zoom room, rather than being sepulchrally quiet like the brick-and-mortar main room, became a place where students engaged in reciprocal editing without prompting from instructors.
Normally, we expect the last day of the Hymninar to be a race against time, with a last few students struggling to finish verses. Some never get there. Not this year. All the writers were solidly done by early afternoon. They did so well, in fact, that they left us scrambling for things to fill the final few hours of the seminar!
Clearly, then, Zoom is a better venue for collaborative hymn editing and critique than a traditional classroom is. Of course, this breaks down spectacularly when it comes to testing hymn tunes, which must be sung, but for text editing, Zoom is superior to real life. Though I can’t say for sure, I suspect that the layer of unreality imposed by Zoom engages people but makes them less inhibited in sharing and receiving criticism.
I know that the intricacies of hymn production aren’t of interest to most Christians. However, this parable has a point. Rather than only asking how the Internet can solve our churches’ huge, pressing problems (like COVID), we should ask how it might solve our low-grade, frustrating problems too. Are there things we want to do that don’t seem to work very well in real life? Maybe they’ll work better in a virtual venue!
To put things another way, we spent 2020 using online media to do almost as good a job because we had to. In the years that follow, we should ask what we want to do with the electronic tools we have because of the very real possibility that they might be better than what we’re doing now. If the medium is the message, it’s time we started investing thought in the medium.
This article originally appeared in _Pressing On_.