1 Peter 3:18-22 — Suffering and the Meaning of the Christ Event

August 10, 2015

Because Christ also suffered…

If one suffers for “doing good” as an expression of the will of God, Peter writes, it better to suffer for that than suffering for doing evil (1 Peter 2:17).

Why is that? Because Christ also suffered…

The Christ Narrative—the story of God in which Christ suffers for sins—is the reason why it is better to suffer for doing what is right than suffering for doing what is evil.

The Christ Narrative

Christ suffered for sin in order lead others to God,

having been put to death in the realm of the flesh,

having been made alive in the realm of the Spirit

having gone [and preached]

having gone into heaven

having subjugated all powers to his rule,

he announced his victory to imprisoned spirits.

While there are many difficult exegetical and theological issues within this text, the basic point is clear.

Just as righteous Christians suffer for doing good, so Christ also suffered for doing good, and just as Christ was raised and ascended to the right hand of God, so also Christians will be raised and exalted before God.

I will not take the time to rehearse all the subtleties of the debates surrounding this text. However one reads it, Christ is victorious despite his suffering, and this encourages Christians in Peter’s time to endure their unjust suffering. Christ is not only the pattern or model for how we suffer, but the one whom we follow into the heavens as victors over suffering and death.

My understanding of the text stresses the past tense participles (italicized above in the narrative) as a progressive movement of Jesus from death to resurrection to exaltation.

Having been put to death in the realm of the flesh – death

Having been made alive in the realm of the Spirit – resurrection

Having gone – exaltation.

Having gone into heaven — enthronement.

“Having gone” occurs twice—once in 1 Peter 3:19 and once in 1 Peter 3:22. Clearly “having gone” (poreutheis) in the latter text refers to the ascension, exaltation, and enthronement of Jesus at the right hand of God. In the history of the reading of this text, the former text is read in various ways. For example, some believe Christ “went” to Hades in his death to proclaim his victory to the imprisoned angels and/or human dead. Others believe Christ “went,” by the Spirit and through the voice of Noah, to preach to disobedient people at the time of the flood. Both of these views are strongly represented in the history of the Christian tradition.

However, I think it best to understand the second use of poreutheis (“having gone”) as resumptive, that is, he is continuing the story from which he digressed in verse 19. In other words, he uses poreutheis (“having gone”) in the same sense in verses 19 and 22. They both refer to the ascension, exaltation, and enthronement of Jesus at the right hand of God.

From there, Peter says, Jesus heralded his victory to the “imprisoned spirits.” The Greek verb here is not “preach the gospel,” but to announce, herald, or proclaim. His proclamation was not a evangelistic (revivalistic) sermon, but a judicial proclamation. Their fate was sealed, and it could not have been sealed until Christ was raised from the dead. (For a full defense of this understanding, see William J. Dalton, Christ’s Proclamation to the Spirits: A Study of 1 Peter 3:18-4:6 [Roma: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1989]).

Consequently, “made alive in the Spirit” is a reference to the resurrection of Jesus who entered into a new realm, a new existence. He became the standard of new humanity as the Spirit of God animates his resurrected body, just as Paul envisions in 1 Corinthians 15. Through death for sin and resurrection to life, Jesus becomes the pattern of new humanity, new creation.

But who are the imprisoned, disobedient spirits from the time of Noah? Some think this may include or specify human beings, but the contrast between “spirits” in verse 19 and “souls” in verse 20 suggests that “spirits” refers more to “angels” (verse 22) while “souls” refers to human persons. Nowhere in Scripture are postmortem human beings called “spirits” without qualification (and only once with qualification in Hebrews 12:23). “Soul” is Peter’s word for a human person, and here “spirits” most likely refers to disobedient angels in the time of Noah.

The backdrop is an ancient Jewish interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4. 1 Enoch elaborately describes this. There the “Watchers” (angelic beings) are sent by God to care for human beings but they rebel, marry women, and give birth to “giants.” This story was well known in Jewish circles in the first century. Imprisoned angels, who in 1 Enoch are assured of their eternal captivity, are also referenced in 2 Peter 2:4. The Watchers disobeyed God, and the work of Christ has sealed their fate.

Through his victory, Christ subjugated “angels, authorities, and powers.” Enthroned at the right hand of God, all powers and rulers—both spiritual and imperial—bow before the authority of Christ. The enthroned Christ proclaims (announces) his victory to the imprisoned spirits.


The Noah Typology

Inserted into the Christological narrative, almost as a digression but importantly as a typology of the circumstances of Christians within Roman culture, is the story of Noah.

Christ suffered for sin in order lead others to God,

having been put to death in the realm of the flesh,

having been made alive in the realm of the Spirit

having gone [and preached]

having gone into heaven

having subjugated all powers to his rule,

he announced his victory to imprisoned spirit

because they were disobedient in the days of Noah

when God waited patiently

when God saved eight souls through water

and now baptism saves you

not by the removal of dirt from the flesh

but by a pledge of a good conscience

 through the resurrection of Jesus Christ

The story includes God’s patience, “disobedient spirits” now imprisoned, the building of the ark, Noah’s family (“few, that is, eight souls”), and their salvation through water.

Noah’s circumstances parallel those whom Peter addresses. They both find themselves living amid a disobedient generation, and they were both minorities. They both suffer abuse from their contemporaries. They are both righteous sufferers. They both need deliverance/salvation. They both bear witness to the coming judgment of God and experience God’s patience toward their generation. They are both saved, and salvation happens in the context of or by means of “water.” In other words, Peter’s readers should see their own story in the story of Noah.

Jobes (1 Peter), citing Elliott, 1 Peter (2000, p. 669) offers this parallel.

Noah in 3:20 Readers in 3:21
Few You
Were Baptism now
Saved Saves
Through Through
Water Resurrection of Jesus

[The following is from John Mark Hicks and Greg Taylor, Down in the River to Pray, chapter 2.]

The succinct statement that “baptism…now saves you” is astounding. Indeed, it is scandalous for some. Peter attributes to baptism some kind of soteriological function, and his exact meaning has been the subject of considerable debate.

The Noahic Flood is typological of the saving function of baptism. The eight persons who found refuge in the ark from the destructive floodwaters were, in fact, “saved through water” (dieswthesan di’ hudatos), and this prefigured how Christians are also saved through water (that is, water baptism saves us). Baptism, just like the Flood, is a saving event. Just as God saved Noah through cleansing the old world with water, so God saves us from our old lives through baptism. In the Noahic Flood, water judged the old world and cleansed it, and baptism judges the old life and cleanses it. To use a Pauline metaphor, baptismal water (by the power of the Spirit, of course–not literally) kills the old person, buries it, and then renews it. Noah passed through the waters into a new world, just as Christians pass through baptism into a new life.

Peter, however, quickly qualifies his meaning. He does not want to foster a misunderstanding or misapplication of his point. The power of this salvation is not inherent in the water. The water does not literally save, but God saves through the water by the power of Christ’s work. The death of Christ, where the righteous died for the unrighteous, is the power of salvation. The resurrection of Christ, where life overcomes death, is the power of salvation. Baptism saves us, not by the power of the water, but “through the resurrection of Jesus,” just as—as Peter wrote earlier—God gave us a “new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus” (1 Peter 1:3).

Peter’s qualification points us to the significance of baptism. It is no mere cleansing of the outer person. It is not a ritual bath that only cleansed the outer person from ceremonial impurities or like an ordinary bath that only removes the dirt from the body. On the contrary, it addresses the inner person. It is the “appeal to God for a good conscience.” Baptism has an inner dimension—it is a function of conscience.

The exact nature of this function, however, is debated. The Greek term behind the word “appeal” (eperotema) is ambiguous. While the NRSV translates Peter’s phrase as an “appeal to God for a good conscience,” the NIV translates it “the pledge of a good conscience toward God.” In other words, is baptism the appeal for a good conscience (thus, a cleansing of the inner person) or is it the pledge of a good conscience (thus, a commitment of loyalty to God). Is baptism a “prayer” (Moffatt’s translation) for a clean conscience or a pledge of allegiance? Or both, perhaps an intentional ambiguity? Both fit the inner/outer contrast in the text—baptism is not simply an outer act like removing dirt from the body, but it is an inner appeal or pledge of the inner person, the conscience. Both suppose baptismal candidates actively appeal or commit themselves to God through baptism. This would seem to exclude those who cannot make such an appeal or commitment.

The term itself is problematic. It only appears here in the New Testament. In the second century the word commonly appeared in legal contractual documents. It referred to the practice of “answering” the question of whether one would keep the contract. Viewed in this way, baptism is the “answer of a good conscience” which pledges to keep the baptismal covenant. If, however, the noun is viewed through the lens of its verbal form (eperotao), which means “request,” then the word refers to the believers’ request through baptism for a good conscience. This may be a better fit with Peter’s contrast. Baptism is not the cleansing of the outer body, but rather it saves through the cleansing of the inner person as believers address God in that moment. Baptism is the sinner’s prayer for a good conscience; a prayer for the application of God’s saving act to cleanse the conscience.[i] As Colwell writes, “what is a sacrament if it is not a human prayer and promise in response to a promise of God and in anticipation of its fulfillment?”[ii] We go down in the river to pray for a good conscience. We go down in the river seeking transformation.

What is the meaning of “now” in Peter’s statement? Some have thought that perhaps this was part of a baptismal liturgy so that at the moment of baptism this was the pronouncement over the candidate, that is, “baptism now saves you” as you are immersed. But it is better to see this “now” as a redemptive-historical term. It is an “eschatological” (or, apocalyptic) now where we experience the end-time salvation in the present. Just as the Flood was a cataclysmic event that destroyed the old world through cleansing, so the baptismal experience is a destruction of the old person through cleansing. Just as Noah and his family were “saved through water,” so we are saved through water. Just as Noah and his family transitioned from an old to a new world, so through baptism we move from an old world under judgment to a new beginning in a renewed life. The old passed away and everything became new—for Noah, and for us! Baptism is an apocalyptic, or eschatological, moment. We have been born anew (1 Peter 1:23).


Whatever we do with the subtle difficulties of this text, the gist seems rather clear.

Christ has suffered.

Christ has been raised.

Christ has ascended.

Christ has been enthroned.

Consequently, whatever “angels, authorities, and powers” might do to you–no matter how you suffer their abuse–Christ has won, and Christ will reign until, as Paul notes from Psalm 110, he has put all enemies under his feet (1 Corinthians 15:26).

[i] See the discussion by Wayne Grudem, The First Epistle of Peter, TNTC (Downers Grover, IL: InterVarsity, 1988), 163-64.

[ii] John E. Colwell, “Baptism, Conscience and the Resurrection: A Reappraisal of 1 Peter 3:21,” in Baptism, the New Testament and the Church: Historical and Contemporary Studies in Honour of R. E. O. White, JSNTSup 171, ed. Stanley Porter and Anthony R. Cross (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 227.

What Will Become of the Earth: A Nashville Bible School Perspective

August 8, 2015



Second Advent.


New Heaven and Earth.

Nineteenth century Restorationists, from Alexander Campbell to David Lipscomb, spoke and wrote about these subjects. They often disagreed, however.

Alexander Campbell was a postmillennialist. James A. Harding was a premillennialist. Walter Scott changed his mind several times. David Lipscomb was uncertain.

However, these all agreed that the most important aspect of the Christ’s second coming was the regeneration not only of the soul, but the body and the whole cosmos. They believed God will refine the present cosmos by fire and transform (renew) it into a “new heaven and new earth,” just as God will raise our bodies from the grave and transform them into bodies animated by the Holy Spirit fitted for living on the new earth. They believed, as Alexander Campbell put it, that “the hope of the resurrection to everlasting life” in “the new earth and the new heavens” was essential to the Christian vision of life and hope, central to the gospel of grace itself (Millennial Harbinger, 1865, p. 494).

Many are surprised to learn this about our forbearers in the faith because they associate a renewed, material earth with fringe groups and strange ideas. But it was the dominant perspective among churches of Christ in the late nineteenth century, particularly as articulated by David Lipscomb and James A. Harding, co-founders of the Nashville Bible School (now Lipscomb University).

What exactly did they mean by this, and why was it so important to them?

Creation. When God created the cosmos, God came to dwell upon the earth with humanity in the Garden of Eden. This was God’s sanctuary, and God enjoyed fellowship with humanity there. More than that, God shared dominion (rule) with humanity, and, made in God’s image, humanity was equipped to reign with God in the universe. Humanity was designed to reign with God forever and ever.

Fall. However, humanity turned the cosmos “over to Satan,” and a war began between the kingdom of God and the “kingdoms of this world, under the leadership of Satan” (Harding, The Way, 1903, p. 1041). God, in one sense, “left this world as a dwelling place” (Lipscomb, Salvation from Sin, p. 36), and now “Satan dwells upon the earth” to deceive the nations and devour Christians (Harding, The Way, 1902, p. 57).

Messianic Age. Beginning with Israel, but revealed in the presence of Jesus the Messiah, God sought to restore dominion over the cosmos through a kingdom people whose lives reflected the glory and character of God. God drew near to Israel by dwelling in the temple, then came to dwell in the flesh, and now dwells in Christians by the Spirit. God’s restorationist and redemptive mission are presently advanced through the church in the power of the Spirit. God battles the forces of Satan through the church.

New Creation. God’s mission is to fully dwell again upon the earth just as in Eden and restore the full reign of God in the cosmos. On that final day, when the heavenly Jerusalem descends to the new earth (Revelation 21:1-4), “God will take up his abode himself with his great family upon this new, this renovated and purified earth” (Harding, Christian Leader & the Way, 190, 1042). Then the meek will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5), and all children of Abraham—through faith in the Messiah—will inherit the cosmos (Romans 4:13).

The creation—both humanity and the cosmos (heaven and earth)—is lost, then contested, and ultimately won and purified. On that day, Lipscomb writes, “earth itself shall become heaven” (Gospel Advocate, 1903, 328). The creation will again become God’s home. This is the story that shapes the mission of the church for both Lipscomb and Harding.

God’s good creation, then, is regained and renewed. It is not annihilated or eternally lost. The creation, including the children of Abraham, is redeemed.

While there was much diversity on many questions regarding the “last days” among our Restorationist forbearers, they agreed on one thing: God will not give up on the cosmos—God will renew it and come again to dwell within it.

And this calls us to do battle with the forces of Satan for the sake of restoring God’s kingdom to the earth, which includes both a reconciled humanity and a purified, renewed earth. We are called to practice both reconciliation and sustainability. Christians are both peacemakers and environmentalists.

[This article first appeared in Intersections of Faith and Culture (Summer 2015), a publication of Lipscomb University.]


David Lipscomb, Salvation from Sin (Nashville: McQuiddy, 1913).

David Lipscomb, “The Kingdom of God,” Gospel Advocate 45 (21 May 1903), 328.

James A. Harding, “For What are We Here?,” The Way 5 (3 December 1903), 1041-2.

James A. Harding, “Man Was Created to Reign for Ever and Ever, “ The Christian Leader and the Way 19 (6 June 1905), 8-9.

James A. Harding, “The Kingdom of Christ Vs. the Kingdom of Satan,” The Way 5 (15 October 1903), 930-932.

The SCOTUS Decision on Same-Sex Marriage

July 30, 2015

My response to the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States regarding same-sex marriage has been published on the Lipscomb University College of Bible and Ministry page. Originally, it was two separate Facebook posts, but is now a single piece.

You may read it here.


Mark Taylor Interviews John Mark Hicks

July 7, 2015

In this video, Mark Taylor, who is the editor of the Christian Standard, interviews John Mark Hicks about his impressions of the North American Christian Convention of Christian Churches/Churches of Christ (particularly church planting) as well as new developments among Baptists regarding “Baptist Sacramentalism.”

Did Jesus Preach the Gospel?

June 18, 2015

Yes and No.  Check it out at here.

Enter the Water, Come to the Table

May 30, 2015

Below are summary statements that correspond to chapters or sections of chapters in my most recent book Enter the Water, Come to the Table (Leafwood, 2014). They summarize the theology present in the book, which is deeply rooted (I hope) in the story of God as given to us in Scripture.

I am grateful for Highland View Church of Christ (Oak Ridge, TN) and my friend Curtis McClane for requesting these summary statements for their own use this summer.

Sacrament:  God acts through appointed material (created) means to impart grace, assurance, and hope, and God uses these means to enjoy relationship with people and foster relationship among them.

Israel:  Liberated from slavery and baptized into a new community, Israel begins its journey to the land of promise.

Israel:  The sacrificed animal, along with bread and wine, becomes a joyous fellowship meal between God and Israel as well as with each other.

Jesus:  Jesus entered the water to unite with others in their journey toward the kingdom of God and to begin his own ministry in the kingdom of God.

Jesus:  Jesus shared table with others for the sake of witness, reconciliation, and justice; Jesus models table etiquette in the kingdom of God.

Acts:  As with the baptism of Jesus, Spirit-baptism and water-baptism are a united witness to the reconciling work of God that intends to transform the world.

Acts:  When disciples break bread together they eat in the presence of the resurrected Christ, which generates joy and comfort.

Paul:  Through baptism God raises the dead and calls us into a new life characterized by a righteousness empowered through the indwelling Spirit.

Paul:  Through eating and drinking together we participate in the reality effected by the body and blood of Christ wherein we commune with both God and each other.

Eschaton:  Through our union with the resurrection of Jesus in baptism we begin our participation in the new creation as new creatures in Christ.

Eschaton:  Through eating and drinking we experience the new creation in the present as a community nourished by the resurrection life of Jesus, who is the foundation and beginning of new creation.

Practice:  Through baptism we enter into God’s own story, which absorbs our story, and we become partners with God in God’s mission.

Practice:  The table of the Lord is a communal moment where God shares life with us and we share life with each other.

Our Pledge of Allegiance…to the Kingdom of God

May 24, 2015

The Sermon on the Mount is the epitome of Kingdom ethics and discipleship.

The Sermon opens with the Beatitudes, which begin and end with a promise that the blessed belong to the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3, 10). The Sermon ends with a promise that those who “do the will of the Father” will “enter the Kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21). At heart of the theology of the Sermon is the call to “seek first the kingdom and its righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).

Near the center of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus offers a model prayer for kingdom people. Christian tradition has typically called it “the Lord’s Prayer” or the “Our Father.” The prayer, however, is not simply pedagogical; it has a theological function. At its core, the prayer articulates a theology and ethic of the kingdom of God that should shape our lives.

While the Sermon begins with beatitudes and ends with a parable, at its center is a liturgical prayer. From the earliest times of which we are aware, this prayer has served Christians. The Didache, which was probably written in the late first century, suggests Christians pray this prayer three times every day (8:2-3), and in the early centuries the prayer became part of the weekly liturgy of the church.

As a daily prayer, it functions not only as a petition for God’s care, it also as a daily affirmation, a daily pledge of allegiance.

The prayer is a comprehensive, “big picture” view of relationship with God.  In the prayer–at the direction of Jesus–we address the Creator as one who is both immanent in relationship with us (“Father”) and transcendent beyond us (“in heaven”). The prayer proceeds to connect us to both dimensions.

In the first half of the prayer, we commit ourselves to the transcendent God.  We pledge allegiance to the divine name, will, and kingdom. We have no other allegiance. This is the heart of worship itself–a covenant loyalty that transcends everything else in our lives and orders the whole of lives under the sovereignty of God.  Anything else is idolatry. We call upon God to act so as to sanctify God’s name, accomplish God’s will, and bring the divine kingdom to the earth.

At the same time that we petition the Creator to reorder life on earth in conformity to divine purposes, we also commit ourselves to become the instruments of that work. We pray for the sanctification of the name, the accomplishment of the will, and the inbreaking of the kingdom but our prayer is no mere passive waiting for the divine act.  Rather, we pursue those goals as proactive agents of the name, will and kingdom of God. God works through us, and we testify to our willingness to be divine instruments. Empowered by God, we commit to cooperate with the redemptive grace of God at work to bring heaven to earth.

The first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer affirm the petitioner’s commitment to God’s agenda. Prayer commits to the name of God, the kingdom of God, and the will of God. To pray this prayer is to subordinate our agendas and desires to God’s kingdom. We acknowledge that God’s will rather than our own is primary. We pledge allegiance to God’s kingdom rather than to the kingdoms of this world. We seek the will of God.

The prayer, however, is not simply about our allegiance to God, but it is also a testimony of God’s commitment (yes, even allegiance) to us. God is immanent, present to us, in our daily existence. The last three petitions assume God’s benevolence for us and claims God’s promises of daily material sustenance, reconciliation (forgiveness), and power against the evil one.  God is for us and he will not abandon us.

We seek God’s involvement in our daily–one day at a time–life in the world. God feeds us, forgives us, and protects us. We need the divine gift of life (physical, emotional, spiritual), and we need the divine power that overcomes the evil one. When I pray the Lord’s Prayer I sense the renewal of God’s promises in my life–God will sustain me in all my needs whether it is about bread, sin, or spiritual warfare.

However, in the very reception of these gifts is the obligation to share them. When we pray for bread, we commit to share the bread God gives.  When we pray for forgiveness, we commit to forgive others.  When we pray for protection, we commit to protect others.

This is most clearly present in the fifth petition. We seek God’s forgiveness just as we have forgiven others. It is a dangerous prayer to pray. Do we really want God to forgive us as we have forgiven others? Yet, to pray it is to be transformed by it.

Immaculee Ilibaguza, who survived the 1994 Rwandan genocide, powerfully illustrates the transformative nature of this prayer. While over one million of her tribe (Tutsi) were slaughtered over three months, she hid in a bathroom with seven other women for ninety-one days. She prayed the Lord’s Prayer every day, though she struggled with forgiveness. But through praying the prayer she learned to forgive those who killed her family and wanted to kill her. [See her books Led by Faith and Left to Tell].

The Lord’s Prayer, prayed daily with purpose and commitment, will transform us. Through this prayer, we acknowledge God’s transcendence, commit ourselves to God’s agenda, and embrace a new way of living in the world that conforms to God’s will, honor God’s name, and manifest God’s kingdom.

Through this prayer, we trust in God’s daily provisions for our lives, receive God’s forgiveness as we forgive others, and embrace God’s protection against the evil one.

The Lord’s Prayer is our pledge of allegiance.  I pledge allegiance to no other kingdom (including the United States of America).  And the Lord’s Prayer assumes God’s faithful commitment to me–God is for me and not against me.

Morning, noon and evening, I renew my pledge and embrace again God’s pledge to me.

Reconciliation in the Gospel of John, Or Perichoretic Oneness

May 13, 2015

“I suggest that within the Farewell Discourse this ‘oneness’ is expressed in a Eucharistic love feast even where diversity continues. When believers gather together around the table with self-giving love, they experience in a concrete and sacramental way the common bond that unites them; that is, the perichoretic love of the Triune God. Unity, then, is not best expressed in forms, institutions, and extended theological declarations as much as it is in the reality of the Eucharist in a loving community where we are nourished by the life of divine perichoresis.”

One paragraph, near the end, from a recent paper I uploaded. I presented this paper at the Lipscomb Preaching Seminar in February 2014. The seminar was part of an academic course, and that is the reason why it assumes much and not everything is explained.

The full paper is linked Handout for Lecture.

Psalm 58

March 9, 2015

Occasioned by the injustices of the ruling class, the community petitions God to judge their unjust judges. A worshipper speaks for the community in a kind of “cultic prophetic lament.”[1] One might imagine a Jeremiah or some priestly leader voicing this complaint at the temple as Israel’s judges gathered to worship. Jeremiah may have appeared at the temple with Jehoiakim to protest his injustice before God (Jeremiah 22). When human leaders fail to administer justice in the world, the God who judges the earth will judge them. And the people of God appeal for divine action against unjust judges.

Psalm 58 may be divided into three sections:  Complaint (1-5), Petition (6-9), and Praise (10-11). The complaint arraigns the wicked before God (1-2) and describes them (3-5). The petition invokes God’s action (6), and describes the effect of that action (7-9). The praise rejoices in God’s action (10) and confesses the justice of God (11).

The verb “judge” appears in verses 1 and 11 as an inclusio. The so-called “imprecatory” petition of verse 6 is the structural center of the lament. Human judges, who sit in God’s judgment seat, act out of self-interest rather than for the sake of the kingdom of God. Consequently, Israel complains about injustice, appeals for justice ,and expects God’s righteous judgment.

The judges (“gods”) do not act according to covenantal equity, but they devise inequities in their hearts and carry out their design with violence. Equity is a key term (cf. also Pss 9:8; 17:2; 75:2; 96:10; 98:9; 99:4). God is the model for this equity. The Psalmist addresses the enemies directly like some other lament psalms (4, 6, 11, 52). They are like cobras with their lies–they destroy; they intend to do evil. They are like deaf cobras in that no one can charm them–they are incorrigible. They listen to non one. As Mays comments, “They are so enchanted with the lie of their life that they are deaf and blind to any other influence.”[2]

The Psalmist calls upon God to act—to defang the judges or take away their power. “Break the teeth” is a curse/penalty found in legal documents of the ancient Near East. Whoever has not kept their contracts are punished.[3] The metaphor evokes images of a failure to keep covenantal obligations. The judges have not judged according to the principles of the covenant. The “imprecation” is addressed to God who judges the judges. As the sovereign King, God exercises Lordship over earth and executes justice.

Unjust judges deserve to wither rather than blossom. Thus, the lamenter seeks their demise according to the figures (drain, wither, dissolve, miscarry) of verses 7-9 (cf. Psa 52:1-7). But the joy of the righteous is rooted in the defeat of the wicked by a just God. The vivid and hyperbolic language should not obscure the essence of the Psalm’s call for divine righteousness in the world (cf. Deut 32:42-43). The imagery of “feet in blood” does not relish cruelty, but victory (cf. Isa 63:1-6; Rev 14:19-20; 19:13-14).

We must take the reality of a victimized world seriously, especially when structures of power oppress the poor (the likely scenario here). Pauls notes: “The forcefulness and prominence of this complaint, if it is to be taken seriously, must raise the recognition of an equally forceful experience of oppression and anguish lying behind it.”[4] The lamenter seeks justice from God. He/She does not take vengeance in his/her own hands. It is God’s job to meet out vengeance, not ours (cf. Psa 94). The lament will turn to joy when this vengeance is manifested (cf. Psa 52:6-7). This is submitted to God because the God of the covenant takes injustice seriously, and the lamenter trusts that God will act.

The lament evokes a vision of God’s justice which takes the side of the oppressed over against those who abuse their power. It challenges us to enter into their experience and cry to the Lord with them. It challenges us to seek God’s kingdom and divine righteousness. “The words which we have sung,” Augustine preaches, “must be rather hearkened to by us, than proclaimed. For to all men as it were in an assemblage of mankind, the Truth crieth, ‘If truly indeed justice ye speak, judge right things, ye sons of men.'”[5] Consequently, Zengar appropriately comments, “The psalm fights for the indispensable union of religion and ethics. The truth about God that people believe or proclaim can be tested by whether it preserves its adherents from the ways of violence and impels them to a life in solidarity with the victims of violence.”[6]

This psalm functions to express our righteous indignation against structural injustice within society. It laments the wickedness that pervades human social institutions, especially judicial ones. It offers a form by which oppressed people may pray for God’s justice in their land.

Consequently, Psalm 58 functions to call out the wicked who have rebelled against God’s kingdom and sought their own interests through injustice and violence. But it is God’s justice that is offered. We do not originate it, but rather we voice it to one who judges justly and with equity.

Israel’s struggle with injustice continues as our struggle. Just as this Psalm arose out of the narrative of Israel’s oppression by its own leaders, so our proclamation of this Psalm must be placed in our history. Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached this Psalm only days after key church leaders, including Martin Niemoller, were arrested on July 1, 1937. He railed against the injustice that was sweeping his country and called upon God to act.[7] We can hear the cries of African-American churches during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. We can hear the cries of Palestinian mothers whose homes are blown up by Israelis because their sons were involved in illegal activities.[8]

If we proclaim Psalm 58, however, it will make demands on us. It will call us to stand with the oppressed and empathize with the victims of injustice. But as we share the experience of the marginalized, oppressed, and poor, the Psalm calls us to leave vengeance in the hands of God. It is God’s work, not ours. Bonhoeffer made this clear for his own church under Nazi oppression: [9]

It would mean much if we would learn that we must earnestly pray to God in such distress and that whoever entrusts revenge to God dismisses any thought of ever taking revenge himself. Whoever does take revenge himself still does not know whom he is up against and still wants to take charge of the cause by himself. But whoever leaves revenge in God’s hands alone has become willing to suffer and bear it patiently-without vengeance, without a thought of one’s own revenge, without hate and without protest; such a person is meek, peaceable, and loves his enemies. God’s cause has become more important to him than his own sufferings. He knows God will win the victory in the end. “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, I will retaliate” (Deut. 32:35)-and he will retaliate. But we are free from vengeance and retribution. Only the person who is totally free of his own desire for revenge and free of hate and who is sure not to use his prayers to satisfy his own lust for revenge-only such a person can pray with a pure heart: ‘Shatter the fangs of the young lions, O Lord, break the teeth in their mouth’.

Even more dangerously, however, is how Psalm 58 calls us to reassess our own relationship with the oppressed and victimized. Are we certain that we do not participate in the structural realities that oppress the poor and victimize the marginalized? As we proclaim this Psalm we must confront our own life. Zengar offers an important perspective: [10]

In the process, they very often compel us to confess that we ourselves are violent, and belong among the perpetrators of the violence lamented in these psalms. In that way, these psalms are God’s revelation, because in them, in a certain sense, God in person confronts us with the fact that there are situations of suffering in this world of ours in which such psalms are the last things left to suffering human beings–as protest, accusation, and cry for help. It is obvious on the face of it that these psalms are contextually legitimate on the lips of victims, but a blasphemy in the mouths of the executioners, except as an expression of willingness to submit oneself, with these psalms, to God’s judgment.”

The cry for justice against injustice is not unchristian. On the contrary, we cry out for justice (vengeance) as we await the coming Son of Man (Luke 18:7-8). The parable of the persistent widow is particularly appropriate for the proclamation of Psalm 58 as a widow cries out for justice against an unjust judge.[11]

Further, should we not rejoice in the day of justice (vengeance) when God’s kingdom is fully established (Revelation 19:1-4)? Did not the saints under the altar pray for such a day (Revelation 6:10; cf. 18:20).

Christologically, the Son will execute vengeance upon the unjust (2 Thessalonians 1:8) and believers will find rest in that justice. The Thessalonian epistle addresses young, persecuted Christians who find hope in the eschatological vengeance of the second coming of Christ. Preaching “imprecatory” (or justice) Psalms needs both an eschatological perspective and a sense of the present in-breaking of the kingdom of God that establishes justice and righteousness in the earth.[12]

When we empathize with the oppressed, we must also stand in their place and pray for the revelation of God’s justice. Psalm 58 not only cries out for justice, but it invites hearers to stand with the oppressed and act on their behalf.

[1]Hans-Jocahim Kraus, Psalms 60-150 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989) and Marvin E. Tate, Psalms 51-100, WBC 20 (Dallas: Word, 1990) both quoting Jeremias.

[2]James L. Mays, Psalms, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), 211.

[3]Jo Ann Hackett and John Huehnergard, “On Breaking Teeth,” Harvard Theological Review 77 (1984), 59-75.

[4]Gerald Pauls, “The Imprecations of the Psalmists: A Form-Critical Study” (M.A. Thesis, Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, 1992), 39; cf. Pauls, “The Imprecations of the Psalmists: A Study of Psalm 54,” Direction 22 (1993), 75-86.

[5]Augustine, Psalm 58.1, available at http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/NPNF1-08/npnf1-08-65.htm#P1565_1174137.

[6]Erich Zengar, A God of Vengeance? Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath, trans. by Linda M. Maloney (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996), 38.

[7]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “A Bonhoeffer Sermon,” trans. by Donald Bloesch, Theology Today 38 (1982), 465-71, available at http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/jan1982/v38-4-article3.htm

[8]See the homily on Psalm 58 by Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Arab Christian minister in Israel, at http://www.pcusa.org/peacemaking/conferences/2003/psalmsermon.htm.

[9]Bonhoeffer, “Sermon,” 469.

[10]Zengar, God of Vengeance, 85.

[11]John Mark Hicks, “The Parable of the Persistent Widow,” Restoration Quarterly33 (1991), 209-23.

[12]John Mark Hicks, “How to Preach a Curse,” Lipscomb University Preaching Seminar, May 5-7, 1997, available at http://johnmarkhicks.faithsite.com/content.asp?CID=3913 and “Preaching Imprecatory Psalms,” in A Heart to Study and Teach: Essays Honoring Clyde M. Woods, ed. by Dale W. Manor (Henderson, TN: Freed-Hardeman University, 2000), available at http://johnmarkhicks.faithsite.com/content.asp?CID=11789.


Powerpoint presentation on Psalm 58.  20 Psalm 58

Review of Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank (Part 3)

August 22, 2014

[Michael Shank, Muscle and a Shovel: A raw, gritty, true story about finding the Truth in a world drowning in religious confusion (5th edition, 2013; Kindle version). I have cited the book with chapter number first, then the Kindle location. For example, Chapter 1, location 245 is cited as 1:245.]

[My first and second blogs in this series are here and here. I have expanded my three-blog review into a 21,000-word review, which is available here.]

Have You Not Read the Scriptures?

“But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.”  Matthew 12:7

Shank reads Scripture with the goal of getting it “right” in order to be saved. One must be baptized for the “right reason,” and one must be faithful to the “true [right] church.” We have to get it “right” because God does not accept anyone who doesn’t get it right. So, if you don’t get it absolutely and precisely “right”—in teaching and practice—then one is lost and “headed for eternal destruction.”

The Right Baptism and Right Church

What must we get right? Here is Shank’s list, at least as it appears in the book:

  • Baptism is absolutely necessary
  • Baptism for the right reason is absolutely necessary
  • Faithful to the true church of Christ
  • A right name
  • The right organization (autonomous congregationalism)
  • Right leadership (when qualified: elders, deacons, and evangelists)
  • The right “articles of worship” in the assembly
  • Weekly Lord’s Supper and only on Sunday
  • Weekly free will offerings and only on Sunday (no tithing)
  • A cappella singing
  • Teaches the biblical plan of salvation, that is, how to obey the gospel through hearing, believing, repenting, confessing and being baptized.

These are teachings and practices within churches of Christ that have a long history of discussion. I will not take the time to deal with each one in the list in this short blog, though they are important and deserve attention (and I have done some of that in the ebook). Rather, I am more concerned about what lies underneath, that is, the assumptions that shape this way of reading the Bible.

But, first, there are at least two problems with the list itself. Notice (1) what is missing from this list. When Randall seeks to identify the “true church of Christ,” there is nothing about the ministry and mission of the church but only the form and procedures of the church. The list says nothing about what the church does outside the building, how it ministers to the poor, or what the mission of the church is. That is not to say that Shank does not have opinions about these points—I would assume he does and sometimes they come out in marginal ways in the book, but his book defines the nature of what it means to talk about the church in an evangelistic tract. His purpose is polemical—to convince denominationalists that their denominations are wrong. Consequently, it is not ultimately about the fullness of the church of God and its mission in the world, but rather about specific items that, in effect, defend the teaching and practice of the “churches of Christ” (the ones with that name on their signs) in contrast to the denominations.

(2) I also have a problem with the function of this list. Is every one of these necessary in order to have a faithful church? Must one be a member of a group of Jesus-followers who practice Christianity in precise conformity to this list in order to be “faithful to the church”?

If we answer “Yes,” then it is rather strange that the New Testament does not have this list somewhere present within its pages as a list? If this is a prescribed list, then where is the list of prescriptions within the pages of the New Testament?

If we answer “Yes,” then are we an unfaithful church if we are missing any one of these items or fail to do them perfectly? Is this also true if a congregation does not minister to the poor, fails to speak out against injustice in the world, refuses to fully integrate, etc., etc. How perfect does a congregation need to be in order to be “faithful,” and how well must a congregation comply with this list in order to be “faithful”?

Such a list does not appear in the New Testament, and Paul, for example, does not engage congregations through his letters in ways that assume a kind of perfectionism or an assumption of prescribed list of forms that identify the true church of Christ. Instead, he calls us to transformed living, encouraging assemblies that conform to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, living together in love, and a missional orientation to the world. Paul points us to the heart of Jesus rather than to the forms of a legal code.

Consequently, Shank’s evangelistic tract reads quite differently from the New Testament itself. While Shank’s book is filled with prescribed, perfectionistic legal technical lists about how to “do church,” there are no such lists in the New Testament, and what lists there are encourage transformed living (e.g., Galatians 5:22; 2 Peter 1:5-8).

Legal Approach to Scripture

Shank, in effect, uses the Bible to discover the law codes embedded within the story and finds them even where there are no codified prescriptions in the text. Narratives are turned into legal prescriptions. This seems reasonable to Shank because his primary question is, “What does the Bible require us to do?” So, he searches for the requirements and finds them in narratives and letters in order to construct a pattern for the church. And, surprisingly (if indeed the Bible is intended to provide such a pattern), this pattern is nowhere simply and/or fully stated. It has to be pieced together like a puzzle, and we have to find the pieces scattered throughout the Bible. We must connect the dots through inference, assumptions, and expectations of what we think the Bible is supposed to tell us.

Shank expects a pattern and therefore searches till he finds one even if he has to piece it together with examples and inferences. He has to fill in the blanks with more than explicit statements. And where the pieces (specific commands) are missing, we infer their presence (by example or inference). In effect, he finds it because Randall followed an interpretative model (coupled with assumptions) that constructed the pattern for him without questioning the exegesis (interpretation) of the texts utilized and without recognizing his assumptions about how he is reading the Bible.

This is a major concern with Muscle and A Shovel. It reads the Bible with a central concern to discover something it expects to find, and the book assumes that the way to find it is to piece together scattered prescriptions (and non-explicit [even unstated] prescriptions like examples and inferences) in order to construct a pattern that is not explicitly there.

There is a better way to read the story of God in Scripture.

Here lies a fundamental difference between how Shank reads the Bible and how I read it. For Shank, the fundamental question the Bible answers is, “What does God require of me?” For me, the fundamental question is, “What is the story into which God invites me?” The former is a legal question, but the latter is a missional one. The former wants to know what is legal or illegal. The latter wants to know the divine mission and how we might participate in it.

Muscle and a Shovel misses the central story of Scripture. Shank reads the Bible with a legal concern operating at the heart of his hermeneutic. This obscures the missional nature of Scripture itself. There is little to nothing in Muscle and a Shovel that gives us much hint about the grand narrative of Scripture—a loving God who created and nurtured the world for the sake of loving fellowship, who chose Israel as a light among the nations, who became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth to redeem the sin, pain, and hurt of this world, and who poured out the Holy Spirit to sanctify and empower a community that they might be dedicated to good works. As an evangelistic tract, it does not tell the story of the gospel. Rather, it converts people to a church pattern, the data for which is mined out of Scripture, abstracted from its original historical context, and then used to construct something that does not exist in Scripture, that is, a specific legal blueprint for how to do church. It converts people to a plan (a church pattern) rather than to Jesus.

When Paul called Titus to teach sound doctrine (Titus 2:1), that healthy teaching included an ethical life, an understanding of what God has done in Christ, the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit, and the hope of eternal life (Titus 2:2-3:8). It did not include the specifics of a church pattern as outlined in Shank’s book. Rather, telling the gospel story (much like Paul summarizes in Titus 3:3-8) is how one builds communities of faith who are dedicated to good works. I don’t think Muscle and A Shovel followed that pattern, that is, the book does not follow the example of Paul in teaching the great truths of the Christian faith.

The hermeneutical (how we read) shift from “shaped by a story” (regulated by the gospel story narrated in the ministry and life of Jesus, anticipated by Israel, and lived out in the early church) rather than “codified in the prescriptions” (rulebook) is a huge one for many people. The former permits contextualization while the latter is rigid replication. The latter often thrives in fear (did we get that right?) or arrogance (we got it right!) while the former stimulates incarnational, missional practice (how might we embody the story in our context?).

When we read Scripture though the lens of a legal, perfectionistic lens, we have to get it right in order to be saved. We have to be baptized for the “right reason,” and we have to be faithful to the right church. We have to get it “right” because God does not accept anyone who doesn’t get it right.

When we read Scripture through the lens of a missional God, the story unfolds as the divine pursuit of a people whom God transforms into the image of God for the sake of mission to the world. That story is more about direction than it is perfection, and God accepts and welcomes imperfect seekers.

Mercy, Not Sacrifice

When I finished reading Shank’s book, I was neither angry nor enthused. I was sad.

Over my forty-plus years of preaching and teaching I have slowly shifted from reading Scripture as a legal textbook designed to provide a specific pattern to reading Scripture as a story in we participate by imitating God. Rather than servile slaves whose obedience is rewarded and disobedience is punished based on keeping the technicalities of the law, we are God’s partners in the divine mission who are enabled by the power of God to participate in the unfolding story of God. 

The fundamental problem with Muscle and a Shovel is that it exalts sacrifice over mercy (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 12:7). It assumes that humanity was made for rituals (baptism, church patterns, etc.) rather than rituals made for humanity. It prioritizes “sacrifice” (ritual patterns) over “mercy” (transformation).

In other words, Muscle and a Shovel makes the same mistake that the Pharisees made. It does not understand that God desires mercy over sacrifice, that is, God embraces the heart that seeks mercy over the heart that exalts rituals—even prescribed ones!—over seeking, trusting hearts.

May God have mercy!