Within the universal church we receive the gift of ministry and the light of scripture

Within the universal church
we receive the gift of ministry
and the light of scripture.

“The gift of ministry and the light of scripture…” These could easily stand alone as independent messages, as both carry significant importance and there is much to say. Let us consider first a few words about each one separately, and then the pair of them in relation to “the universal church.”

The gift of ministry is found throughout scripture. Adam and Eve are given to tend the garden and serve as shepherd stewards of all living things (GN1 & 2). Abram and Sarai are commissioned to bless all people (GN12 & 18). Under the leadership of Moses are appointed Elders (EX18), Priests (EX28) and Levites (perhaps like New Testament Deacons?) (NM8) along with Skilled Craftspeople (EX35). All the Israelites were commanded by God to love family, friend, neighbor and stranger alike as God loves them (LV19).

In the Gospels we of course witness the ministry of Jesus who preaches that the time has come for all people to experience the kingdom of God (MK1) and that this kingdom means liberation, freedom, healing and peace (LK4). As evidence of this kingdom Jesus’ manifests the power of the Spirit of God in healing the blind, deaf, mute, cripple, lame, sick, epileptic, mentally ill, demon possessed, dying and dead (MT11). Jesus feeds the hungry (MT15) and calms the storm (MK4). When he teaches, it is almost always in metaphor or parable that are open to various interpretations, and at times he explicitly does not want his hearers to catch on right  away (MT13). This is a curious ministry indeed.

We learn that all followers of Jesus are a part of one another, together forming one Body of Christ on earth, and that we have gifts for ministry to church and world as part of this body (1COR12, RM12).  Because we are reconciled to God, we have the ministry of reconciliation (2COR5). Together with the people of Israel, we are a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation (EX19, RV1).

In the image of the church as a body we clearly see that not all skills, gifts, tasks or ministries are for all people. All are deserving of equal honor and worth, regardless of appearances or the human measure of importance. This was true in Israel, and is true also in the church. These ministries do not belong to a sect or denomination, not to the traditionalists or the reformers or the charismatics, not to the spiritual or the intellectual or the physical. The belong to the whole people of God. I particularly appreciate how Paul describes this relationship in Ephesians 4:12: “…to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the Body of Christ…” The “saints” are all followers of Jesus. The work of ministry belongs to all of us and is meant to build all of us up – not some, or part, or those we choose. ALL.

The light of scripture is another phrase that has a complex meaning. The Old Testament (also called the Hebrew Scriptures) does not include the word “scripture”. It speaks of “The statutes and the ordinances and the law and the commandment that [Moses] wrote for you” (2K17:37). We read about other scrolls of history, such as “the annals of the kings” (1K14). Within the Hebrew Scriptures themselves there seems to be less emphasis on the written word than on the spoken word as preaching or  teaching on the Torah, often interpreted as “law” but more accurately translated “teaching and instruction” (EX13). Psalm 119, the longest book in the Bible and the middle of the bible, is an acrostic poem praising the importance of God’s word for people of faith. It includes the well-known verse “your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (PS119). Again, the focus is less on written text than the message the text conveys that is heard, lived, and shared (DT11).

Somewhere along the way Israel forgot God and God’s ways, and turned to worshipping things made rather than the maker (2K17). They had stopped reading the scrolls of Torah/Instruction. This seems to have played a part in their falling away and being taken into captivity (2K22). Reading the record of God’s relationship with Israel is important to our continuing to worship, love and serve God. When Israel returns to the land from their captivity in Babylon, they also return to studying the scrolls of the Torah. We read: “They read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” (NEH8) Study requires reading, hearing, interpreting and explaining in order to experience understanding and thus have the text “mean” something and “do” something in our lives and through us in the world.

Jesus does some interesting things with the scriptures. In his preaching he reinterprets old texts to have new meaning, using the phrase, “you have heard it said…but I say to you…”and that he had not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (MT5). Yet in fulfilling it, he does change if not abolish it. When “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy” becomes “love your enemy” that is a significant shift in meaning. He takes old stories and uses them as metaphors in new ways, such as the story of Jonah representing the death and resurrection of Jesus (MT12).

John’s gospel makes the most provocative shift when he says that the Word of God – which had meant the direct communication of God through the Spirit to various leaders of Israel – has now become a living human being (JN1). This is a very different form of direct communication. The word itself becomes the human mediator from God to humanity, rather than the priests, prophets and kings. In the Hebrew Scriptures the phrase “Word of God” is not used in reference to written scrolls, but to name the message conveyed from God in whatever form it comes. The Word of God is the content, not the instrument. The situation changes in Jesus, when the content and the instrument become one. It is similar to our saying that “God is love” (1JN4).

Paul gives us the most familiar New Testament passage regarding scripture:          All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, (2TIM3:16). This is a beautiful and strongly worded statement. What does it mean? In order to understand its meaning we must look at the larger context. Paul is writing to Timothy about a conflict in the churches over the interpretation of scripture and what it means to be a faithful believing Christian. Some in the church are guilty of, as he says, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power (v5). He refers back to his experience in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra. To understand this we turn to Acts 14 where we read that he traveled through this region teaching in the Jewish synagogues that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the Messianic hopes. He did this by studying the Hebrew Scriptures with them and teaching out of those texts. The point, Paul says, is which scriptures “are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ” (v15).  For Paul everything focuses on Jesus, on his death and resurrection, and on our faith in him. In his ministry he fought against people who tried to completely ignore the Law, claiming that “salvation by grace through faith” (EPH2:8) was all that mattered. He also resisted those who came and tried to enforce a legalistic reading of the law, what he here describes as “an outward form of Godliness.” For Paul, Christ is the beginning, middle and end. Anything that draws our attention and conversation away from Christ is to be avoided. At best it is a distraction, at worst it is destructive.

When Paul says that “all scripture is inspired by God” his original intent did not include to the New Testament writings, because they did not yet exist. The bible read by first century Jews was the Septuagint – the Greek Translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, which included these books not found in most Protestant bibles, though included in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Bibles, and in protestant bibles as the Apocrypha. Most importantly, perhaps, is that when Paul, or Jesus, spoke of the scriptures, they would have meant the Septuagint. So the Bible that Jesus read included books not in our bible, and of course did not include books in our bible, namely the New Testament itself. (A good resource is here.)

We should note too that the word bible is actually a translation of the word biblios, which means library. The bible is a collection of books, originally scrolls contained in a box. Different communities would have different scrolls in their boxes in the synagogue, in part because of the great cost of transcribing one book, which could take months or years.

Paul’s argument could be taken in at least two ways. He could be stating things that are true of those writings already mutually agreed upon as scripture. There was wide agreement, and the Septuagint represents that. Alternately, he could be saying, “If you want to know what should be considered scripture, then look for these qualities: “Does it live and have power as though it is inspired by God? Is it useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness? If so, then you have scripture before you.” This is exactly what the church has done in deciding what would be considered part of the mainstream orthodox New Testament canon. Those decisions were made in the second through 4th centuries, long after anyone who knew anyone who knew Jesus was gone. No one could say, “Yes, this is exactly as Matthew described it when we were together.” Why four gospels? Why these and not others? Why not the gospel of Thomas, for instance?

One early impetus for deciding which Christian writings were authoritative was the need for a response to Marcion (c140) who taught that the God of Jesus was different from the God of the Jews as described in the Hebrew Scriptures. Thus, in order to affirm the continuity between the God of the Jews and Jesus, work began on forming a canon. Irenaeus (c175-195) led this campaign by seeking to identify those writings that could reasonably be taken as having been written by the apostles – Matthew, John, Peter – or companions of the apostles – Mark, Luke, Paul. Irenaeus, Tertullian and others developed an early list that represents the core of what came to be the agreed upon New Testament Canon, though several generations would pass before the matter was settled. Among second century writers the criteria was whether a book clearly represented the apostolic authority and teaching passed down from Christ and the apostles, based on the oral tradition that accompanied the texts over the preceding 150 years. In the third and fourth centuries the primary criteria became how these early church fathers treated the authority of writings  – whether Irenaeus, Tertullian and others considered them scripture.(A good article for further study is here.)

For us as Christians, the central question is how the text of scripture helps us to understand who God is and who we are. Jesus is the center of that conversation – he speaks of divinity to humanity, and of humanity to divinity. The writings contained in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Apocrypha, and the New Testament present the record of human reflection on the revelation of God through the Abrahamic covenant as fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. By hearing, reading, studying, and praying these texts we are formed by them. The reading and hearing of them is the primary place where the Holy Spirit’s work is revealed as words on paper come alive and have the ability to give us life, if we will but receive it. We also can be deaf, dumb, blind and lame, even dead to the life-giving power found in them. They are an indispensable source of guidance for the Christian life.

Within the universal church…There is one church on earth. “4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (EPH4) We divide by geography, and by culture, and by language, and by doctrine. All of these divisions existed in the first century, as illustrated in the different descriptions in the Acts of the Apostles, in Paul’s letters, and in Revelation 1-3. There is little indication as to whether these distinctions are bad or good. They simply are. They become bad when we make them of more importance than our common faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. When we stop looking to Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith (HB12), then we end up where the Israelites did when they stopped listening to the Word – in a cycle of idolatry that leads to destruction (MT7).

Paul writes that we must learn to “discern the body” (1COR11:29) by which he means that we must recognize that all followers of Jesus are part of Him, and thus we are part of each other. “We are the body of Christ, and individually members one of another.” (1COR12) We all belong to God, so we belong to each other. And the Ministry and the Scripture are God’s, not ours. Because they are God’s, God gets to choose to whom they are entrusted. God did not name this group or that – no culture or language or ideology gets to say that they are the keepers and trustees of the truth. We all, together, are the keepers. We need each other, because each of us see and hear new things. Each of us are also blind and deaf. When we call someone a heretic and refuse to listen because we disagree, we have failed to discern the body. When we reject their voice, what they hear and see, we are rejecting them. When we reject them we reject God. Pentecost is about each of us learning to hear in our own language; it reverses the chaos of Babel. It is much easier to claim our truth as truer and purer. But this is to set ourselves as God, and to claim the ministry and scriptures as our own possession.

They are entrusted to us, but are not ours to possess, any more than we can possess Christ or the Holy Spirit. They possess us. The ministry possesses us. The scripture possesses us. We are to be possessed by God. This is what it means to follow Jesus Christ. When we follow him, “within the universal church, we receive the gift of ministry and the light of scripture … so that we may serve the one whose kingdom has no end.”

Some thoughts regarding “The Word of God”

At its most basic level, a word is a symbol used to express and idea, and perhaps to communicate that idea from one being or group to another.

When we think about God as represented in the Bible, we see a God who speaks to express ideas and who seeks to communicate. Genesis tells us that through speech (presumably of words) creation experienced order, distinction and categorization arising out of chaos. Thus we learn that words, or at least the words (Word?) of God has the power potentiality to create. “God said, “Let there be…” and it was so…and God saw and said, “It is good” (Genesis 1). God then turns the divine word toward relationship with humanity by offering the blessing of orientation, direction, counsel and boundaries that would constitute the divine/human relation. “Do this… don’t do that” (Genesis 2). Words are next used to disorient and deceive, and then to rebuke, correct, and warn (Genesis 3). From just the first three chapters of the bible, we learn that words are spiritual, powerful, and that they shape life.

With the second call of Abram/Abraham (Exodus 15) we encounter the phrase “the word of the LORD”. The all caps “LORD” is a place holder for the tetragrammaton “YHWY” which is the unpronounceable name of God derived from the encounter with Moses on Mount Horeb (Exodus 3:14). This word of the LORD comes to people, as an almost physical presence of God in speech – see the encounter of the boy prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 3.

Through the call, the word/speech of God continued to create/form a unique people (Isaiah 42:6). The calling/creating word/speech beaconed Israel back from captivity and restored them as a nation in Jerusalem and Judea. The word came and spoke through the prophets. The word had always been known by the Hebrew people as active in the world, and among them speaking and calling and creating.

Then, “the word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The New Testament theologians understood that through this same word-made-flesh all creation came into being and continues to exist (1 Corinthians 8:6; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2, 2:10). They recognized in the Incarnate One the same creating word which they believed was spoken (and spoken of) in Genesis. In the Hebrew Scriptures “the word of the LORD” is most commonly the direct communication from God to a prophet, priest or king. Similarly, we also encounter “the angel of the LORD” as a reference to God’s direct communication.

That mode changes in the New Testament, as Jesus himself comes to us as God’s Spoken Word – God’s direct communication to the world. “The Word of God” is a New Testament theme – the phrase only appears 3 times in the Hebrew Scriptures and once in the Apocrypha. In the writings of Paul and the other epistles “word of God” most often refers to the proclamation of the message about Jesus (e.g. 1 Corinthians 14:36; Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:12; 1 John 2:14). The notable exception is Romans 9:6 where Paul is discussing the unfolding message of salvation to the Jews throughout their history.

The phrase “word of God” as used by Jesus in the Gospels refers to God’s communication to Israel as witnessed in the faith and testimony of the Hebrew Scriptures – specifically “all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:40). When the same phrase is used by Luke in telling the story of the early church in The Acts of the Apostles, it refers to the testimony about Jesus (e.g. Acts 4:31; Acts 6:2). Here in Acts, as in the epistles, the proclamation of “the word of God” results in creative action – i.e. people become believers in / followers of Jesus and the Church, the Body of Christ, increases. Thus the notion of the Word of God being a creative force continues. Finally, in Revelation the usage shifts again, back to the more broadly understood message of God to the world through the Jews, where we encounter the new phrase “the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 1:2; Revelation 1:9; Revelation 6:9; Revelation 19:13; Revelation 20:4).

Nowhere is the “word of God” a fixed or static thing. As Hebrews 4:12 says, “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” At the time of Jesus there was strong debate among the Jewish leaders over what constituted authoritative scripture and how to interpret them. This is the essence of the conflict between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. Sadducees apparently denied the resurrection (Mark 12:18; Luke 20:27) and possibly the existence of angels – Acts 23:8 lists these distinctions: “The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three.” The Pharisees also held an oral tradition of interpretation that is called “The tradition of the Elders”. An example of this discussion is found in Mark 7

1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles. ) 5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ 8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” 9 Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10 For Moses said, “Honor your father and your mother’; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God )— 12 then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”

Here Jesus enters a discussion of the relationship between the Mosaic Law, the tradition, and the practice of his contemporaries. Clearly there were multiple understandings of “the word of God”, and only Jesus, the “Word of God made flesh”, was able to bring clarity.

What to make of all of this? I want to stress several points:

  1. The “Word of God” and the “Spirit of God” are intertwined, though distinct. We see this in the bible’s first story of creation – the Spirit moving and the Word spoken.
  2. God’s communication with us is creative – this is the active result of the work of the Word of God proceeding forth.
  3. God’s communication with us is ongoing, not closed or static. God spoke, is speaking, and will speak the world and the church into existence and into relationship through love.
  4. We are participants in this loving, creative, sustaining work. We are being made new. And because the Word is in us and we in Him, we are co-laborers with God in creating, redeeming and sustaining the world – the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

Jesus tells his disciples that when the Holy Spirit comes (Who was also at the beginning of creation, moving over the waters of chaos) the Spirit will teach the church (Luke 12:12; John 14:26) which is similar to what is said in Psalm 143:10: “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. Let your good spirit lead me on a level path.” The church taught that we abide in Jesus, and he in us, and that together we abide in God (John 15) “As for you, the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, abide in him.” (1 John 2:27)

Lastly, the writer of Hebrews quotes from Jeremiah the promise that eventually the communication of God with humanity would shift modes yet again, so that we would no longer be in need of an external teacher and interpreter, because the Law/Word would dwell in us.

10 This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 11 And they shall not teach one another or say to each other, “Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. 12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” (Hebrews 8)

31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31)

We have not reached this place, but we are on our way. This is the goal of all spiritual formation and growth, until we come to maturity in Christ (Ephesians 4:13).