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The Imitation of Christ

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Jack Wisdom and I taught a Lenten series at Ecclesia Houston on the Imitation of Christ.  Jack is an elder at Ecclesia and one of the scholar-writers who helped us with the translation.  He is a lawyer during the day and a New Testament scholar all the time.  He is a good friend, and I admire the way he carefully reads through the Scripture.

One of my favorite biblical texts urging us to follow Jesus and have his mind is Philippians 2.5-11.  It is one of those passages I think about and quote often.  At the heart of it is an early Christian hymn that sets the story of Jesus within poetic verse.  A lot of modern translations obscure the fact it is a hymn.  The New American Standard Version (NASV), for example, formats every verse like a paragraph so you never really know you’re dealing with a hymn.  Now I like the NASV, but that is one of its shortcomings.  In The Voice we decided to take seriously not only the words but the forms as well.St. Paul

The Bible contains more than prose.  It contains poems, hymns, acrostics, and wordplays.  Now, to be honest there are aspects of the original Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic that you cannot replicate in another language; but there are features which you can at least attempt to bring over into the target language—in our case English.  For example, Lamentations is written in an acrostic poem.  So our scholar-writer Dr. Kristin Swenson, research professor at the University of Virginia, did an excellent job at approximating the look, sound, and meaning of the Hebrew acrostic.  An acrostic is a type of poem where each line or set of lines begins with a new letter in alphabetic order: A, B, C, etc.  It’s a challenge to do because English has more letters than Hebrew.  Still we sensed there was beauty and meaning in the form.  Take a look at how we did Lamentations 3.  If you don’t have a copy of The Voice, you can always look it up on www.biblegateway.com.

Back to Philippians 2.  Here is how we translated the Philippian hymn to Christ.

Though He was in the form of God,

He chose not to cling to equality with God;

But He poured Himself out to fill a vessel brand new;

a servant in form

and a man indeed.

The very likeness of humanity,

8 He humbled Himself,

obedient to death—

a merciless death on the cross!

So God raised Him up to the highest place

and gave Him the name above all.

1So when His name is called,

every knee will bow,[a]

in heaven, on earth, and below.

11 And every tongue will confess[b]

“Jesus, the Anointed One, is Lord,”

to the glory of God our Father!

The hymn captures the career of Jesus from his preexistent glory with God to his incarnation, suffering and then exaltation.  Paul urges the Philippians to have the same mind (2:5).  Larry Hurtado, retired New Testament professor at the University of Edinburgh, offered a phrase a few years ago that has helped me think about this.  Jesus, he said, is “the lordly example” of humility and service.  Most lords through history have demanded others serve them.  This Lord emptied himself, humbled himself and ultimately gave his life for others.  We can’t do those actions, but we can strive to have the same mind.  Now that we are beyond the Lenten season, my hope is that we might follow the lordly example of Jesus in service to God, his people, and his creation.

Many thanks to David Taylor and Paul Owen who hosted me recently at Montreat College in western North Carolina.  I had a wonderful time sharing with hundreds of students, faculty, and staff in class and in chapel.  Their students asked some great questions.  Some of which I’m still pondering and hope to answer later, here on this blog.  Montreat College is a great school in one of the most beautiful settings I’ve ever seen.  I can see why people want to go there to study, hike, and do life together.

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