Scribal Kingdom

Living in the light of the Kingdom of God

Menu Close

Author: Joshua Nielsen (page 1 of 7)

Angels and Humans: Fellow Bondservants and Witnesses

If I didn’t tell you what book of the New Testament the following quote was from, or who said it, who would you initially guess that this sounds the most like?

“I am a fellow bondservant with you (σύνδουλός σού εἰμι) and your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus.”

For me, it immediately brought to mind Paul’s writings. Paul was all about the theological acknowledgement that he was formerly a slave (δοῦλος) to sin but now a slave (or bondservant) to Christ, and sometimes introduced himself as a slave/bondservant in his letters. He also referred to his fellow ministers as fellow bondservants (σύνδουλός; Colossians 1:7; 4:7).

Yet today I encountered the above quoted verse not in Paul’s letters but in Revelation 19:10. The one who was speaking was an angel! It called itself a bondservant —a slave— and a “fellow” one with a human! And while not identical, the circumstance in which it was spoken bears some similarity to aspects of another situation which Paul and Barnabas once found themselves in (as described in Acts 14) which can help us understand why the angel called itself a bondservant. While the words used by each party in the two accounts are not the same, the responses are essentially consistent with one another. We will examine that below.

A Comparison of Responses

We must ask: what is the importance of the angel’s confession, “I am a fellow bondservant with you”? What truth is it emphasizing? Let us compare the stories in Revelation 19 and Acts 14 briefly to see.

In the angel’s case, John had fallen down before it and began worshiping it (Revelation 19:10). Its response showed deference to God as the higher power and the rejection of the worship. In an instructive account to compare, Paul and Barnabas on one occasion were in Lystra, and after a man was miraculously healed the Lyconians began calling them both gods and started sacrificing to them (Acts 14:11-13). They faced a situation where they encountered an audience awed with the revealed power of God and they too were being worshiped.

Notice how each responded to this improper worship by repudiating it:

Do not do that!” [NASB] (Ὅρα μή – Literally “see that [you do] not” [NASB footnote]) — Rev. 19:10

Men, why are you doing these things?” [NASB] (Ἄνδρες, τί ταῦτα ποιεῖτε;) — Acts 14:15

They both also affirm equal status (as either fellow servant or fellow humans) with whom they are speaking to set themselves clearly below God:

I am a fellow bondservant (σύνδουλός) with you and your brothers.” [NASB] — Rev. 19:10

We are also men, of the same nature (ὁμοιοπαθεῖς) as you.” [NASB] — Acts 14:15

Then they point to testimony of who is truly worthy of worship and worthy of turning one’s life over to: God. They also associate the testimony/witness with revelatory evangelistic and prophetic proclamation:

…who hold the testimony (τὴν μαρτυρίαν) of Jesus; worship God! (τῷ θεῷ προσκύνησον) For the testimony (ἡ γὰρ μαρτυρία) of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy (προφητείας)” [NASB] — Rev. 19:10

…preaching the gospel (εὐαγγελιζόμενοι) to you, to turn from these useless things to a living God (ἐπιστρέφειν ἐπὶ θεὸν ζῶντα)… He did not leave Himself without witness (οὐκ ἀμάρτυρον)” [NASB] — Acts 14:15, 17

How interesting that the angels as well as the apostles and their fellow workers sharing the Gospel are each represented as fellow bondservants whose task is to point to the revelatory witness of God. Such is their role as God’s creations, to act as ministers to Him (Romans 15:16; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Hebrews 1:7) and to elevate Him rather than themselves. This is something in God’s divine plan that humans and angelic beings alike share in their purpose and designated roles within the cosmos in order to bring glory to Him.

Some Observations on Psalm 23

As I was thinking over Psalm 23 today, I noticed two things which I never had before pertaining to its form, flow, and characteristics that I think are worth sharing. Before commenting, I will share the ESV’s translation here for reference:

1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
3 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
    for his name’s sake.

4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
    I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord

Psalm 23 (ESV)

First observation: While there is not necessarily a chiasmus of content, there is one of indirect address and direct address:

A – Verses 1–3 — Indirect address / confession
   B – Verse 4 — Direct address / confession
   B’ – Verse 5 — Direct address / confession
A’ – Verse 6 — Indirect address / confession

The reason I separated verses 4 and 5 instead of lumping them together as a single segment of direct address is explained by and leads into my second observation.

Second observation: During the brief two verse span in which David turns to address Yahweh directly (“you”, “your”) he switches from images of dwelling outdoors (using animal imagery for himself) to images of dwelling indoors (using human imagery for himself).

I will briefly expand on the significance of these observations with a few notes here.

Even though David turns from indirect confession in verse 3 (“he leads me”) to the first instance of direct confession in verse 4 (“you are with me”), the theme and imagery has not changed. Verse 4 continues the thought of verse 3 of walking in paths (cf. “paths of righteousness”) by describing more path-walking (yet through a very dark valley) in God’s presence.

When we come to verse 5 we see the theme of God’s presence and provision persist, but the imagery noticeably switches to that of tables, cups, and anointing (more human and often indoor imagery). I think that these images proleptically look forward (in verse 6) to a new setting for dwelling: inside Yahweh’s house. What do you do inside a house? Eat, drink, and cleanse/anoint the body. The direct address then drops off again after verse 5, and in verse 6 reverts to the kind of indirect confession that the Psalm began with.

While in verse 2 the sheep dwells outdoors in green pastures, the psalmist in verse 6 now dwells inside a house. The mention of dwelling in verse 6 I believe mirrors a similar picture of “dwelling” (lying down and being beside) used earlier, where it is the psalmist in pastures (with still waters) that was in view there. Even if the terminology in verse 2 is more descriptive (as poetry is wont to do) of “dwelling” rather than actually using the word, I believe it still describes the same essential reality of abiding in God’s presence wherever it may be (in pastures or in a sacred house) and the blessings that attend that abiding.

There is possibly another kind of parallelism between the ideas of being beside still waters (if this signifies a source of quenching thirst) and the indoor imagery of the cup overflowing, although that association is less certain and structurally linked.

One of the most interesting parts of the above observations though is the function of the “bridge” verses of 4–5 in that they turn directly to Yahweh and also serve as the transition point of the metaphors employed. I think if we notice that convergence point through direct confession it helps us conceptually and thematically tie the whole Psalm together, even though the imagery changes.

Bonus observation:

If you remove the English word “will” (signifying future action) from most common translations of Psalm 23 in two places then you can see the more immediate effect of the indirect confessions:

  • I lack nothing (currently) — Hebrew Professor Dr. Bill Barrick of The Master’s Seminary drew my attention to translating it this way.
  • Goodness and lovingkindness follow me all the days of my life (currently)
    (Note: Indeed “all the days of my life” gives the sense a forward look into the future as well, but we must not override the present sense which is there.)
  • For the third statement though the verb’s aspect is different and signifies the future: I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

So much to meditate on in Psalm 23!

Ridderbos on the Gospel as rooted in History

Herman Ridderbos in his book When the Time Had Fully Come explains how the gospel is more than just that which is concerned with man’s stake in it through justification, but is in its fullness rooted in the historical and factual reality of the incarnate Christ who lived, died, rose again, ascended, and poured out the Spirit. The warning that Ridderbos issues accords with warnings I have seen in more recent years by the likes of Scot McKnight, Darrell Bock, and others that we must not preach a “truncated gospel” that only is concerned with justification but rather that we should preach the gospel that proclaims the whole historical story of the good news that Jesus came to bring. Indeed, rejoice in the provision and work of justification, but remember the king and recount all of the works which he accomplished.

(Emphasis below in bold is my own.)

If asked what the functioning of this wider approach to the Pauline kerygma could mean with respect to preaching in our day, I would reply: It can be a mighty support for us in the present crisis of certitudes. In Reformation times, too, a life and death struggle was carried on, with the ultimate certainties of the Church at stake. Today that crisis is perhaps even deeper and more fundamental. Then the question was whether man shall be justified by faith or by works. It was then that the Pauline kerygma of the justification by faith saved the Church. Now the issue is whether man in general has any need of justification at all. The question is presented whether truth and certainty can be found anywhere except in the true existence of man himself, and whether truth is not simply subjectivity and no more. Thus the whole history of salvation is thrown into the crisis. It is more than mere accident that in our time the battle about the existentialist interpretation of the gospel overlaps for the greater part that of the demythologizing of the facts of salvation. Put in a simple way, the issue is whether this history of salvation is something more than what takes place in man himself. And this issue concerns not only theologians and philosophers. With ever increasing force it is required that the preaching of Christ should make clear to man how he is existentially concerned in the gospel. And the criticism of preaching is largely bound up with this, although most people may never have heard of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, or Bultmann.

Now this demand that preaching should bring home to man his being concerned in the gospel, is a decidedly legitimate one. But it is also a dangerous one. For great is the temptation for the preacher to approach this involvement of man and gospel not from the gospel but from man. When the approach is made from man, then it is no more the analysis of the history of redemption in Jesus Christ which reveals the real existence of man, but it is the analysis of man in his actual situation which serves as the criterion for what is acceptable in the history of salvation. In this crisis of certitudes, in this struggle of the being or not being of the Church, the gospel of the apostle Paul can once more save the Church from destruction. The apostle preaches the gospel in a really existential way. He preaches not only the facts of salvation which once have happened in the history of Jesus Christ; he also points out in an incomparable way man’s concern in God’s beneficial deeds in Christ Jesus. For he places man in the facts of salvation, man in Christ, in His death and resurrection, in His ascension into heaven, and consequently man in the Holy Spirit. But this means that for the knowledge of man in his real existence as-well as for his salvation there is no other way and possibility than in what once has happened in the history of Christ. This history reveals the very existence of man in its distress and in its redemption. And it is only in the involvement in this history of salvation, in the death and glorification of Christ, that the existence of man can be saved and has been saved.

Ridderbos (pgs. 58–60)

Herman Ridderbos. When the Time Had Fully Come: Studies in New Testament Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957.