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The first generation of Christ followers gathered regularly in house churches for instruction, encouragement and worship. A central part of these gatherings was the chanting and singing of hymns. Explicit reference to the use of hymns in the Christian church is found in Paul’s admonition to sing psalms (psalmoi), hymns (humnoi) and spirituals songs (ōdē) with gratitudeto God (Col 3:16; cf. Eph 5:19-20). These three terms likely refer to the practice of using the biblical Psalter along with distinctly Christian compositions. The worship of God with hymns had its immediate background in Jewish synagogue practices. Psalms, particularly messianic psalms, were used by early believers to express uniquely Christian perspectives on God’s recent actions in the world. Likewise, Eph 1:3-14 is constructed on a Jewish hymn-pattern known as the berakah (“blessed is . . . “). While the pattern is clearly Jewish, the author used it in a way that is explicitly Christian. Gentile believers too would have also been accustomed to hymn-singing in the ethos of Greco-Roman religion.
Scholars have detected hymns and hymn fragments throughout the Gospels, Acts, letters and Revelation utilizing various criteria including introductory phrases (e.g., “therefore it says,” Eph 5:14), poetic parallelism, special uses of relative pronouns and participles, the presence of unusual vocabulary and rhyming features, and disruptions to the context. Although not all scholars agree, there is a general consensus that the following passages represent early Christian hymns: Rom 11:33-36, Phil 2:6-11, Col 1:15-20, 1 Tim 3:16, 1 Pet 2:21-24, Heb 1:3-4, Rev 4:8-11 and 19:1-4. These hymns may have been preformed traditions quoted or alluded to by a writer or spontaneous compositions understood to be Spirit-inspired. Some hymns are so clear and self-contained that later generations of Christians name them (e.g., the Magnificat = Luke 1:46-55; the Benedictus = Luke 1:68-79). The New Testament contains both hymns to Christ and to God the Father demonstrating a binitarian shape to early Christian devotion. Furthermore, the content of early Christian hymns is directed to soteriological themes such as creation, incarnation, and redemption. For early Christ believers hymnic praise was essentially a response to God’s saving actions in Christ.
Though not all agree, many scholars think that the earliest extant Christian hymn is the hymn to Christ found in Phil 2:6-11. The hymn consists of two parts. The first narrates the descent and humiliation of the pre-existent Jesus to become a man and to suffer a merciless death on the cross. The second describes the ascent and exaltation of the crucified Jesus by God to receive the adoration of every creature and confession “Jesus Christ is Lord.” This hymn functioned to recall the essential story and therefore had a didactic purpose. Paul utilized it further to make Jesus the lordly example of humility and service (cf. 1 Peter 2:21-24).
By its nature poetic or hymnic language appears to affect those who use it in significant ways. Whether it was chanted or accompanied with musical instruments, hymns were easier to memorize and recall than other forms of instruction. Therefore, it seems that early Christians used NT hymns for several purposes: (1) to instruct, (2) to express praise and thanks to God, (3) to confess faith, (4) to form communal identity, and (5) to provide an example for proper behavior.
Dr. Jonathan Pennington, associate professor of New Testament and director of the doctoral program at Southern Seminary, has written an important, new book on the Sermon on the Mount. The title is The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary (Baker Academic, 2017). You can find a link to Amazon here. The book is not exactly new; I’ve known about it for about a year now. But it is new to me and perhaps to many of you.
Pennington is regarded broadly as an expert on the Gospel of Matthew. Now, on the way to writing the prestigious Pillar Commentary on the whole Gospel, he paused and wrote an extensive theological commentary on the Sermon. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is probably the best known sermon of Jesus. Oscar Brooks called it “the inaugural address” of Jesus because it laid out the platform for the kingdom of God.
At the heart of Pennington’s book, as the title shows, is an interpretation of the beatitudes and the Sermon as what we would call today “human flourishing.” Essentially, what wisdom is needed and what virtues must be cultivated in order for humans–or in this case, Jesus-followers–to flourish. He begins by re-translating the beatitudes (Matt 5.3ff) in a manner like: “Flourishing are the poor the spirit, . . . “; “Flourishing are those who mourn, . . . ” You get the idea. He moves the Greek word makarios out of the category of “happy” or “fortunate” or “blessed.” While the term “human flourishing” may be anachronistic, it is heuristically valuable and gets at the heart of what is the good life and good society.
One of the most important features of the book is Pennington’s commitment to join together the Jewish wisdom tradition with Greco-Roman virtue ethics. Rather than seeing these as discrete aspects of Galilean/Jewish culture, Pennington invites us to see these as mutually instructive. He makes a good case for it. But wisdom here is not just “this worldly,” it also has an eschatological dimension as well. It is thoroughly Christ-centered and kingdom-focused.
Pastors and scholars have been writing on the Sermon for years. My first encounter with a book devoted largely to it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book The Cost of Discipleship. I am not sure the trend will end, but I do think that Pennington’s book is likely to become one of the most significant books on the sermon for years to come.
First appeared in print in Christianity Today, December 2018, under the Title “Prepare for the ‘Day of the Lord'” (p. 76)
Matthew Aernie & Donald Hartley. The Righteous & Merciful Judge: The Day of the Lord in the Life and Theology of Paul. Studies in Scripture & Biblical Theology. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018.
These days it is out of fashion to talk about judging and judgment. Ours is a much more “tolerant” day—or so we’re told. But as our authors, Aernie & Hartley, correctly describe, throughout the counsel of Scripture the idea of God coming in judgment to right all wrongs and settle all scores is at the heart of God’s revelation. Yet the specter of Marcionism is still with us in the church especially when we divide the Scriptures into parts and imagine that the first is dominated by justice and wrath, the second by mercy and grace. As our writers point out, such mischaracterizations undermine the unity of Scripture and subverts the true story of God in the world. Some of the most wonderful passages of forgiveness, restoration, and grace are found in the Old; some of the most unsettling about justice, wrath, and judgment are found in the New.
The project Aernie and Hartley pursue in this book is to consider the theme of “the day of the Lord” in Paul’s letters. They argue that it is not some subsidiary crater to Paul’s theology, but it stands as a major motif in his thinking. They stop short of calling it the center, but they do make it central by arguing that “every aspect of his theology was in some way affected by the concept” (p. 5) So their book examines the theme of “the day of the Lord: in scholarship, the Old Testament, extracanonical Jewish literature, Paul’s call/conversion on the Damascus Road, and the language of the day of the Lord and associated themes in Paul’s letters. As a result, they shed much needed light on an ignored and marginalized feature of Paul’s theology.
Like most scholars Aernie and Hartley pursue their task systematically working through time, asking first: where this concept came from? But, of course, scholars don’t tend to agree on much and that includes how and where the notion of “the day of the Lord” entered into Jewish consciousness. Some think it came from the holy war tradition; others from enthronement ceremonies when YHWH is installed as King. Some think it came from within Israel itself; others imagine it was adopted and adapted from the Canaanites or the Babylonians. The starting point remains elusive. What is clear is that the OT is rich in associations around the notion that God will visit the nations, including Israel, in judgment, power, and restoration.
While the phrase “the day of the LORD” is not found in the Books of Moses, our authors claim the theme sits just beneath the surface in passages that portray YHWH as coming to visit his people in blessings and curses. The prophets developed the language of God’s visitation into the language we know, “the day of the LORD.” Only later, among the prophets does the phrase “the day of the LORD” become a technical term for a day of final judgment. As such, depending on how a people are currently situated toward YHWH—whether faithful to the covenant or not—it is a day that prompts fear or a day awaited with joy.
In the past, periods of famine, scarcity, war and ultimately exile could be construed as “days” of judgement in typological patterns of what is to come: the final, definitive, eschatological day of the Lord. When that day comes, God will make the world right. In the final assize of history anything wrong in Israel or the nations must be judged. All that is right is destined to be redeemed and restored. These patterns are found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures but they are also present in later Jewish collections such as the Pseudepigrapha and the Dead Sea Scrolls. This was the symbolic world that Paul inherited.
One of the more interesting features of the book is how Aernie and Hartley interpret Paul’s Damascus Christophany as “a proleptic day of the Lord.” In other words, Paul had his own day of judgment when he encountered the risen Lord. Instead of getting what he deserved, i.e., wrath, he found mercy. Instead of being marked out for destruction, he was transformed, converted, and called to a new mission. In this encounter the persecutor replaced the false identity of Jesus he had developed for the true identity as Messiah, Son of God, and Lord. Now that the moment of Paul’s own judgment had arrived and he had found grace, he began to think that the final judgment for all was closer than he ever imagined.
The last portion of the book goes deeply into Paul’s language associated with “the day of the Lord.” For Paul, “the day of the Lord (YHWH)” had become “the day of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess 5.2) or more simply “the day of Christ” (Phil 1.10). Words of coming (Parousia), “revelation” (apocalypsis), and “appearing” or “manifestation” (epiphania) season his discourse as he likens the coming of Jesus to judge the living and dead to various manifestations of God in the Scripture. The final chapter offers the most detailed exegesis in the book.
The big idea Aernie and Hartley pursue offers an important corrective for the academy and the church. The current western mood is to avoid anything that smacks of judgment. We want a merciful, forgiving, anything-goes kind of god, not one who demands something of us and will ultimately judge us. We cannot adequately deal with Paul’s life, mission and theology until we grasp where he believed the telos toward which history was moving. The next thing we await is the final, definitive coming of Christ in glory, power, and judgment.
One of my favorite features of our book, Rediscovering Jesus (InterVarsity, 2015), comes in the Gospels themselves. In each chapter we ask the question: Who does Mark/Matthew/Luke/John say that I am? In effect, we take a look at how each evangelist tells the story of Jesus. Here is an excerpt from the chapter on the Markan Jesus.
WHO DOES MARK SAY THAT I AM?
And who is this Jesus? He is the Messiah (Christ) and Son of God—that is, God’s end-time agent whose task is to liberate the world from evil, oppression, sin, sickness, and death. The world that Jesus enters is hostile and contrary to the human race. The Messiah appears in order to claim all that God has made on behalf of heaven. In Mark’s account Jesus moves quickly along “the way” challenging and disrupting demonic powers, disease, religious authorities, storms and, ultimately, the power of Rome itself.
But Jesus does not appear from nowhere; prophets such as Malachi and Isaiah have written of him long ago. They foresaw his coming, and John the Baptizer arrived right on schedule to prepare his way. If John is God’s messenger (Mal 3:1) and the voice crying out in the wilderness (Is 40:3), then surely Jesus is the “Lord” whose paths must be made straight (Mk 1:2-3). But the word “Lord” here is no polite address to an English country gentleman or a simple affirmation of a person in authority; it is the way Greek-speaking Jews uttered the unspeakable name of the one, true God of Israel. Jesus the Christ is no ordinary man, for the very name of God—a name protected by the Ten Commandments—belongs rightly to him. As Mark’s story unfolds, it is apparent why this is so.
When Jesus heard that a prophet had again appeared in Israel, he left Nazareth to see for himself. As he entered the Jordan River to be baptized, onlookers would have thought that Jesus was becoming a disciple of John. But it was what Jesus heard and saw next that dramatically changed his life. He saw a vision: the heavens were ripped open, and the Spirit descended on him like a dove. Then he heard a voice from heaven: “You are my Son” (Ps 2:7) and “with you I am well pleased” (Is 42:1). Whether or not anyone else saw or heard what was going on in the heavens that day is unclear. Mark tells us only that Jesus saw and heard; perhaps Jesus’ special sonship was a secret that needed protecting for a while. But it was enough for Jesus to see and hear it, because it was about him and him alone. He knew what he must do next. He must leave behind Nazareth and the anonymity of the workshop for a public life in Galilee and beyond. He must trade a builder’s tools for the skills of a traveling rabbi.
To read more, check out our book here.
I had the privilege in 2014 of giving the Hayward Lectures at Acadia Divinity School in Nova Scotia. While there I met a young scholar who is working on various topics in the Gospels. His name is Danny Zacharias. He had recently finished a project on the question of why Matthew (ch. 1) and Luke (ch 3) have different names in their genealogies of Jesus. Some point to this as a contradiction which cannot be solved, thus undermining the reliability of the Gospel accounts. Others see the differences as a matter of purpose and focus. Matthew starts with Abraham and moves forward to Jesus to show that Jesus is the true son of Abraham, the embodiment of Israel. Luke starts with Jesus and moves back through Abraham to Adam, demonstrating that Jesus is the Savior of all sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. One traditional “answer” has been that Matthew has Joseph’s genealogy while Luke records Mary’s. Not all, of course, think this is the case.
Dr. Zacharias offers an intriguing approach to the question. Here is a link to a brief video he did a few years back:
I think you may find it helpful. If so, please let him know.