Living in the light of the Kingdom of God

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Category: Biblical Studies (page 1 of 3)

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!

Jesus the Blasphemer, or Blasphemed?

Recently I discovered what I believe to be a notable feature of the description of Jesus’ trial before the Jewish leaders in the Gospel of Luke as I was reading through it in Greek. An attentive reader of a translation could also pick up on this, but reading it in Greek simply made it stand out to me more — as I find so often happens. This is the text that initiated my observation:

καὶ ἕτερα πολλὰ βλασφημοῦντες ἔλεγον εἰς αὐτόν. (Luke 22:65)

“And they said many other things against him, blaspheming him.”

I noticed that Luke the Evangelist does something remarkable in telling the story of the trial of Jesus before his crucifixion compared to the other Synoptic Gospels. Bear with some relevant observations below.

In Matthew and Mark, they tell how the High Priest —upon hearing Jesus’ own testimony during his first “trial” before the Jewish leadership where he claimed that he was the Son of Man— tore his garments and said:

What further witness do we need? You have heard his blasphemy (τῆς βλασφημίας). What is your decision?” (Mark 14:63b-64a)

He has uttered blasphemy (Ἐβλασφήμησεν). What further witness do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy (τὴν βλασφημίαν). What is your judgment?” (Matthew 26:65b-66a).

Keep in mind here that the text reports to the reader that Jesus is the one being accused of blasphemy.

It is clear from context that the Jews here are picturing blasphemy as an offense specific to God as its recipient. While there are occurrences of blasphemy elsewhere in Scripture which are simply directed toward another human or even angelic beings (Jude 8), the context tips the balance here in favor of understanding this to be blasphemy of the divine. They were premising their accusation on Jesus’ identification with the divine Son of Man (Matthew 26:64), and calling for judgment on the basis of the Law of Moses which declares that those guilty of the specific crime of blasphemy against God should be killed (Leviticus 24:16).

Given that context, let’s observe what Matthew goes on to say and then compare his account to Luke:

They answered, “He deserves death.” Then they spit in his face and struck him. And some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?” (Matthew 26:66b-68).

In Luke’s account we see an amazing “reversal” take place in what is reported. He omits something Matthew includes in 26:65, but also includes something Matthew did not in 26:66-68.

Firstly, observe what is absent as Luke reports a summary of the agreement of what all of Christ’s accusers said (“they said” vs. 71), instead of specifically reporting the words of the High Priest: “What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips” (Luke 22:71). No mention of Caiaphas’ accusation of blasphemy is given here, as Matthew had reported. Secondly, look where we notably do find an indictment of blasphemy in his account instead. Luke adds a comment that Matthew did not: “They also blindfolded him and kept asking him, ‘Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?’ And they said many other things against him, blaspheming him (βλασφημοῦντες)” (Luke 22:64-65).

Luke has intentionally reported his account in such a way that he reveals that Jesus is clearly not the blasphemer, but rather that it is the Jewish leaders and their associates who are blasphemers. Compared to Matthew especially, this is an opposite portrayal or “reversal” (so to speak) of what is reported about blasphemy; even though it would be clear even to the readers of Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus was not blaspheming either, since he truly is the Danielic Son of Man that he claimed to be.

Also, significantly, the statement that Luke makes in 22:65 has one further major implication: Jesus is God. Blasphemy against the Son of Man (Luke 22:22, 48, 69) denotes speaking against God. As mentioned above, the context of Jesus’ trial makes it clear that blasphemy is divine blasphemy (blasphemy against God). It was Jesus’ very identification with the Son of Man before Caiaphas that led him to accuse Jesus of blasphemy (Matthew 26:64), because of that title’s association with divinity. Yet in Luke, where we see this reversal of the assertion of blasphemy, it carries with it the implication that Jesus is truly divine; thus, that they are the ones blaspheming him as God. I had never before noticed this passage as a testimony to the divinity of Jesus, yet as I examine it closely: there it is.

The revelation that the Jews were blaspheming their divine Messiah is a remarkable thing for Luke to highlight, which is worth pondering on. It leads his readers to more intentionally draw their thoughts to consider whose claims truly dishonored, offended, and misrepresented the true God during Jesus’ passion. Luke is crystal clear: it was not Jesus’ claims and actions which were amiss but rather those of his accusers.

1 Pictures from FreeBibleImages provided under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 Deed