I’m sure some of them will say, “Well, what about Philippians 2:5-6?”
5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
See? It says we should have the mind of Christ Jesus and think it is not robbery to be equal with God.
Problem is that reading is out of context. Context is so important to understanding the Bible, so let me explain what that means. Reading in context is about trying to figure out what the author meant when he wrote it, and what it meant to the audience it was originally written for. When I say something is being read out of context, I’m saying that is not what the author meant when he wrote it, and/or that is not what it would have meant to the original audience. When the author of Genesis 1:26-27 said the first man and woman were made in God’s image and likeness, he did not mean they were equal to God. The original audience would have thought of an image or likeness in the same way they would have thought of a statue, drawing, or painting of a person. It can look just like the person, but it is not the person. Therefore, reading image and likeness as equality is out of context.
With that in mind, does Philippians 2:5-6 say we should think of ourselves as equal to God? What does it say in context? That’s what I am about to examine.
Context: What does the verse really say?
To answer that, we have to dive into the Greek a little bit. If you didn’t know, the Old Testament was written in Hebrew—except for a few chapters of Daniel that were in Aramaic—and the New Testament was written in Greek. Or maybe they thought Paul wrote in King James English. If so, you need to know he wrote in Greek, because that was the language of the people of his congregations. And because King James English was over a thousand years and hundreds of miles removed from even one person speaking it, but I digress. For us trying to understand today what any of the Biblical authors wrote, it is inevitable that some things will get lost in translation.
In Greek the word translated robbery in the KJV is harpagmos, which could mean “robbery” but also could mean something taken, plunder, a prize, or a thing to be taken or held onto forcibly. Most other translations say “a thing to be grasped.” So should we consider it not robbery to be equal with God, or should we consider equality with God not a thing to be grasped? More context is needed.
Context: What does it mean within this particular section?
In this case the section we are looking at is Phil 2:5-11. Here is the World English Bible’s translation, which I am using because it is not copyrighted.
5 Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, existing in the form of God, didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, yes, the death of the cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave to him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
So Paul starts with “Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus” (v. 5). I prefer the NRSV, which says , “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phi 2:5 NRSV). What does it mean to have the same mind as was in Christ Jesus? That is what Paul explains in the rest of the passage. We believe verses 6-11 were a hymn. If so, it could be the oldest Christian hymn we have record of. They didn’t know how to write music then, so we can only guess how it was sung. But the Christians in Philippi would have known and probably sung along in their minds as it was read to them.
Having the mind of Christ means humility and love that is willing to sacrifice oneself for others, even if it means suffering and death.
The hymn starts by describing Jesus as “existing in the form of God,” but then goes on to say in verse 7, he “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men.” So the hymn begins by contrasting his existence before he became a man with the human form he took as a man called Jesus of Nazareth. And when he was “in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, [even] the death of the cross.”
In between his being in the form of God and in human form, verse 6b says he “didn’t consider equality with God” harpagmos. In that context, which is more likely, that he did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, or did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped? Considering how verses 7-8 stress how in his human form, he humbled himself, taking the form of servant, becoming obedient to the point of death, that does not sound like someone going around saying, “I don’t consider it robbery to call myself equal with God.” That sounds like someone who did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped. Unlike us, he already existed in the form of God. He had the right to claim equality with God. But instead, he humbled himself, taking the form of a servant. Paul is saying that is the mind of Christ that you should have.
Context: What else does the Bible say about this?
I’ve already talked about Genesis 1:26-27, where it says human beings were created not equal to God but in God’s image and likeness. This passage from Philippians makes the point more powerfully by saying even Jesus did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped. That particular phrase also connects this passage with the Creation story in Genesis.
First, God placed them in a Paradise and gave only one restriction.
15 Yahweh God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate and keep it. 16 Yahweh God commanded the man, saying, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but you shall not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; for in the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.”
They can eat from every tree in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They should consider that poison, because “in the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.” They were fine with that until a serpent told them,
4 … “You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
(Gen 3:4-5 NRSV)
They probably never thought about being like God before. But now that the serpent put that idea in their head, they thought, “That would be awesome.” So at a tree on a hill, they considered equality with God a thing to be grasped, and they grasped it. Because of that, they were banished from the Garden. God would still be with them, but it would never be the same.
The Second Adam
In Romans 5:12-21, Paul describes Christ as a second Adam. When he was brought to a tree on a hill, he did NOT consider equality with God a thing to be grasped but humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross—the perfect act of faithful obedience to God and loving self-sacrifice for us. And in so doing, he reversed the curse and restored our broken relationship with God.
Having the mind of Christ means humility and love that is willing to sacrifice oneself for others, even if it means suffering and death. He had a right to claim to claim equality with God, but instead he submitted himself to God’s plan to redeem humanity. How much more then should we stop grasping for equality with God and show God’s love through service and humility?
God Highly Exalted Him
That was the first half of the hymn. The second half describes how God highly exalted Jesus in response to his perfect obedience. He gave Jesus a name that is above every other name, confirming his status as Christ and Lord. Because God glorified him, he can be called equal with God. We cannot expect to be glorified in the same way. But Paul said in the book of Romans we are children of God and heirs with Christ “if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:17 NRSV). If we share in his suffering to redeem the world, we will also share in his glory.
Furthermore, he said, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18 NRSV). We still won’t be equal to God. But whatever we are, it will be awesome.
Jesus is not a model for us to claim equality with God. He is the model of a servant who submits to God’s will, even when it means suffering unjustly at the hands of others. God’s will was for the redemption of humanity, even those who persecuted him. God’s will was to show the extent of God’s love in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Only after Jesus’s death and resurrection did the disciples understand what it meant for him to be the Messiah. It meant suffering and death, not for its own sake, but to save others.
A Suffering Messiah
It was foreshadowed in one of Isaiah’s songs of the suffering servant. God prophecies of someone called “My servant,” who is beaten so much that he does not even look human anymore. People see his suffering and think it must be the wrath of God on him. The servant does not demand justice, because he understands they do not know what they are doing. They are like lost sheep who have gone astray. Somehow they see God glorify him, and their conscience is pricked. They seek the one whom they once despised and rejected and want him to teach them the ways of justice and righteousness (Isa 52:13-53:12).
And the irony was he could have rescued himself. He could have grasped the equality with God that was already his. Before he came to us in human form, he was in the form of God. But he willingly surrendered that status as Son of God to become the suffering servant. If you want the mind of Christ, meditate on that for a while.
So if you think this verse is about how you can become equal with God, you have missed the point entirely.
Thanks for reading. I hope you’ll come back next time. Until then, remember these words from Matthew 7:12.
In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.
When I started college, one of the first things I did was rededicate my life to the Lord Jesus Christ. It did not turn out like I expected.
I had a couple of friends from high school at that college. Hanging out with them led me to a fraternity. I pledged and made it through. One of my fraternity brothers, Dave, was an atheist. He respected my faith but made it clear any efforts to convert him would be wasted, except he made this challenge. Another fraternity brother (Paul) was legally blind. Dave said if I healed Paul, he would believe.
Most of us have at least heard stories of Jesus and the disciples healing sick people just by laying hands on them, making the blind see, the deaf hear, and the lame walk. Dave certainly had heard those stories, even if he didn’t believe them. Have you ever wondered why we don’t see anyone performing miracles like that today? If God did it then, why not now? If you had asked me back then, I would have repeated what I heard from my favorite televangelists. People stopped believing in miracles and divine healing, so the gifts of healing and miracles the Bible talks about dried up. In other words, it only works if you believe in it.
I was involved in a movement of Christianity called the Word of Faith. Today, it’s more likely to be called “Prosperity Gospel,” but I think Word of Faith is more accurate. Here is their view of faith and how it works is based on this passage from the Gospel of Mark.
For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith. Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.
(Mar 11:22-24 KJV)
You have to believe and not doubt. No doubt. Even a mustard seed of doubt will stop you from receiving what you pray for. You must believe you receive what you pray for when you pray—not some time in the future, right now. If you believe you receive it when you pray, you will have it. So when you pray for healing, do you believe your body, do you believe what you see, do you believe your symptoms, do you believe the doctors, or do you believe the Word of God that says by his stripes you are healed (Isa 53:5; 1 Pet 2:24)?
You also have this definition of faith from the book of Hebrews.
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
(Heb 11:1 KJV)
Faith is what gives substance to your prayers. Faith is like the God Particle that causes prayers to manifest into reality. The more your faith grows, the greater things you can manifest. So when you say it and believe it (hence the label “word of faith”), and do not doubt but believe what you say will come to pass, your faith will manifest it into physical reality. That is how you receive healing, according to the Word of Faith. That is how you get your prayers answered. Growing in faith means being able to manifest more and more what you pray for. And don’t look for evidence. Faith is the evidence.
If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like “the Secret” or similar philosophy that says you create your own reality, because whatever you think, believe, and/or desire will manifest in your life, you are right. The difference is they use believing and saying in place of thought and desire. In fact, one of the pioneers of the Word of Faith movement copied directly from E.W. Kenyon, the founder of New Thought, which formed the basis of the Secret and other similar philosophies.
So going back to Dave’s challenge, the question was whether my faith had grown to the point where I could manifest healing for Paul, the same way Jesus manifested healing for a man born blind (John 9). But I didn’t want to tell Dave I wasn’t sure I believed in gifts of healing, so I said something about not being filled with the Holy Spirit yet.
Why was that important? One of my Word of Faith preachers used this analogy. When you are born again, you have the authority to use the name of Jesus, who has been given authority over all of heaven and earth (Mat 28:18). When you come up against sickness and disease, you have authority over it like a traffic cop. When the cop holds up his hand for the car to stop, the car stops because he has authority behind him. But what if one driver defies that authority and drives through anyway? The cop does not have the power to stop the car. Now imagine that cop is inside a Sherman tank. If he says stop, he not only has the authority of the city behind him. He has the power to blow you out of the road if you don’t. That’s the difference being filled with the Spirit makes.
When I heard that, I was like, I’ve got to have that. After you get filled with the Holy Spirit, they said, you have to speak in tongues. But even after I started speaking in tongues, I still wasn’t sure I was ready to heal him. Especially since I could not manifest healing for myself. I had a condition called Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), which causes intense abdominal pain and diarrhea at random times. I did what they told me. I did not believe my symptoms—no matter how painful. I spoke only healing, not sickness or pain. Through gritted teeth I kept saying, “By his stripes I am healed. By his stripes I am healed. By his stripes I am healed.” No matter how bad my symptoms, no matter how bad the pain, I refused to speak doubt or consider my symptoms. I only considered the word of God that says, “By his stripes I am healed.”
Eventually, it would subside, as happens with IBS. But each attack just showed I didn’t have enough faith to manifest healing for my own condition. How could my faith manifest healing for blindness? As I got closer to graduation, I couldn’t see the path to healing Paul and thus convincing my atheist friend that God was real.
I got to my final semester. Time was running out. If I was going to help Paul receive his sight, I had until the end of the semester. I had received the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues, so I didn’t have that excuse anymore. But I still had way too little confidence and too much doubt. So I prayed more than usual. I went through the reasons why I was afraid. I had a conversation with the Holy Spirit in my head that went like this.
“What if it doesn’t work?”
“Why are you worried it won’t work? Didn’t I promise in my Word?”
“But I’ve prayed for people to be healed before, and they didn’t get healed.”
“I told you, ‘And these signs will accompany those who believe: … they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.’ (Mar 16:17-18 NRS) Did you lay hands on him?”
“No, but don’t I need permission from him? All the preachers who have taught this say you can’t usurp anyone’s free will.”
“So you need to convince him. Did you tell him how to be saved and healed?”
“You need to have that conversation with him then.”
“He might be offended.”
“Did Jesus ever offend people?”
“Then what makes you think you can follow me without offending people?”
I was afraid if it didn’t work, it would make God look bad. The Holy Spirit told me to just obey and let God worry about his own reputation. So I had to admit the real reason. I was afraid if it didn’t work, I would look foolish. The Holy Spirit said that was the reason my faith was not working. I had to get to a place where I did not care what people thought of me. I only cared what God thought of me. That was what it took. So I decided then and there when I heard the voice of the Holy Spirit, I would obey, even if it was crazy or made me look foolish. I was going to be ready when the Spirit said it was time to have the conversation about being both saved and healed.
That’s another thing about Word of Faith. They claim that if you are born again, you have a right to be healed because the Bible says so. If it’s in the Bible, you have a right to believe and receive it. This was sometimes called, in a derogatory way, “Name it and claim it.” But I didn’t care what the critics said. I only cared what God said.
I prayed and prepared myself to have that conversation. I still had some doubts, so I prayed until I felt no more doubt. And I promised God if the opportunity presented itself, I would not let it slip by, like I had in the past. Then I found out Paul did not return that semester, because he had graduated early. He didn’t tell me. I had to hear it from someone else. I couldn’t believe it. It never occurred to me he would graduate early and leave without saying good bye. I would have been angry with him, except I believed this was orchestrated by the Devil. I must have really been ready to help Paul receive his healing, because the Devil made sure I would never have that opportunity.
I felt so guilty. I never took the opportunities to teach him the way to salvation and healing, because I always assumed I would have another chance. Now I had lost the best chance I had to convince Dave, convince Paul, convince all my fraternity brothers and every student at the school, even some professors, that God was real. Satan must have been laughing at me. It left me feeling like a failure. I had failed Paul, I had failed Jesus, and I had failed my own faith. I was a coward.
That was how I felt then. But …
Since then I have learned a few things that totally changed my perspective.
Faith or Placebo?
I learned that all that time I was beating myself up for not having “enough faith” to get healed or lay hands on people to be well, for not being obedient to the voice of the Holy Spirit, for being afraid of looking foolish, while I saw my favorite televangelists healing people left and right because they weren’t cowards, and they didn’t care what other people thought of them, no one was really getting healed. All those healings I saw, all those people who fell down under the power of the Holy Spirit, were nothing more than a placebo effect.
The placebo effect is when, for example, a boy out in the countryside where medicine is hard to come by breaks his arm. The doctor gives him some pills and says they will kill the pain. The boy takes the pills, and minutes later the pain is all better. The mother asks the doctor what he gave her boy, and it turns out to be sugar pills. How could sugar pills relieve pain? Placebo effect. It worked because the boy believed it would work.
If it works, why should we care if it’s real medicine or a placebo? Here’s where it gets tricky. Some conditions can respond to the placebo effect, and some cannot. In medical terms, functional illnesses can respond to a placebo. Organic illnesses cannot.
When you watch the healing part of these meetings, you will see people on stage who are legally blind and deaf, not totally. You will see the preacher pray then go through demonstrations of Can you see this? Can you hear me? How many fingers am I holding up? Repeat what I say. They respond, and it looks like they are healed. People cheer and shout, Praise the Lord!
The reason you don’t see totally blind or deaf people up there is that is an organic condition. It cannot respond to the placebo effect. I would not have thought partial blindness or deafness is functional. It turns out, though, partial blindness and deafness can respond to the placebo effect. In these meetings, the legally blind and deaf might experience temporary improvement in their seeing or hearing. But when they get home, away from the energy, away from all the talk of faith and expectation of miracles, i.e., away from the placebo, the blindness or deafness returns.
Paul was legally blind. I don’t know all the details, but he could see some things in a fuzzy way. If he got up really close to the television, he could see enough to follow what was happening. He could make out shapes of people but had to rely mostly on the sound of their voice or smell to know who was talking to him. He had a computer that would magnify words to where he could read them, and he could type papers on his computer. That kind of blindness can respond to the placebo effect. Any modern faith healer knows how to use the placebo effect to make it appear they are healed. Here’s a video of someone demonstrating how they do this.
If I had convinced Paul to go to one of these meetings with me, he could have experienced just that. To have him go through that moment of ecstasy when he could see more clearly, and believe that his eyes were being healed, then lose it. And then listen to me or those preachers tell him to resist the Devil, keep believing, don’t give in to the Devil who’s trying to convince him he wasn’t really healed, and nothing come of it. And then have him think this healing thing isn’t real, and therefore God isn’t real. Or like me, come to believe over time that God is real but a cruel prankster, to heal us and then take it away. Thank God I never put him through that just because someone dared me to. In the end, God worked good out of my cowardice.
Admitting that was difficult. It meant letting go of what I thought was proof of God. I realize now it is not my job to prove God’s existence. And even if it is, we are not going to find that proof by clinging to false signs and lying wonders. If Dave asked me again to prove God’s existence somehow, I would just have to admit I can’t. I might have stopped believing in God altogether except for one thing. Jesus and the disciples warned us repeatedly this would happen.
Jesus answered them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah!’ and they will lead many astray.
(Mat 24:4-5 NRS)
And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.
(Mat 24:11 NRS)
Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘There he is!’– do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.
(Mat 24:23-24 NRS)
They will produce great signs and omens, and people will think they are anointed. If you say, “I won’t be led astray. I’m saved, sanctified, holy ghost filled, fire baptized. I’ve got Jesus on my side,” he said it was possible for even the elect to be deceived.
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.
I could go on, but I will just add this for now.
Take note, I have told you beforehand.
(Mat 24:25 NRS)
He told us beforehand. And not just him. 26 of the 27 books of the New Testament include warnings against false teachers, false prophets, false “anointed ones,” and wolves in sheep’s clothing. I used to think this was very intolerant, to call anyone who disagrees with you a false teacher or false prophet. But if you look at how they are described, the false teachers they condemned were using people’s desperation and sincere desire to please God to defraud them. They used fear and greed to manipulate people. They told them what they wanted to hear in order to exploit them.
“Sow a seed for your need.” That means God will answer your prayers if you give me money.
“Sow the best seed you have.” You need to give more.
“Don’t consider your symptoms.” Ignore the obvious signs that you were never healed.
“Only believe the Word of God.” I’m quoting the Bible out of context.
“Do not believe what the doctor says. Only believe the Bible.” I’m not a doctor, but I’m playing one in the pulpit.
“Don’t believe those dead church traditions.” Because if you do, you’ll see this is not really the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
“I’m not the healer. Jesus is the healer.” So don’t blame me when it doesn’t work. It’s your fault for not having enough faith.
“We believe God is a good God.” So don’t criticize my multi-million house, luxury cars, private jets, and designer clothes, all tax-free and made possible by your donations.
“That’s why I drive a Rolls Royce. I’m following in the footsteps of Jesus.” That money you sent me may not have answered your prayers, but it answered mine.
They will quote scripture after scripture, so they can claim they are speaking the Word of God. I will say this a thousand times if the Lord lets me live long enough. The Bible is only the Word of God when it is rightly read, rightly interpreted, and rightly applied. And rightly doing all that begins with three things: context, context, and context. If they tell you the Bible promises you perfect health, abundant wealth, protection from pandemics, control over the weather, and success in all your endeavors, I’m telling you they are reading it out of context. That message is a parody of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Yes, there are many promises in the Bible, but most of them are to the community as a whole. They are not to you and me as individual believers. When you read the Bible in context, I see only two promises to you and me as individual believers: Forgiveness for our sins, and nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ. That’s it. That’s all we are promised.
So are you saying God wants me to be sick, broke, and a failure?
No. I don’t know what God wants for you. I don’t even know what God wants for me. Maybe God will bless you with wealth and success. Maybe God will answer your prayers for healing. I’m saying God never promised to do that for you. God never promised to give sight to my friend, Paul, whether he was born again or not. God never promised that I could personally lay my hands on Paul and give him perfect vision, even if I had perfect faith with zero doubt and spoke in tongues.
A Cowardly Lion’s Moment of Truth
I haven’t seen Paul since he unceremoniously left me to wrestle with my doubts and feelings of failure. What would I say to him today? If I were honest, I would say I was mad at him for leaving without saying goodbye. But it was probably a good thing he did, because I was about to do something I would have regretted, and he probably would have regretted too. I would have to explain everything I just explained to you. And I would ask him how he would have reacted if I had said everything I was planning to tell him. I don’t know how he would answer, but I would also have to tell him my faith is very different now from what it was when he knew me.
I used to believe I might be able to heal his eyes if I had perfect faith. I no longer believe that. I can’t lay hands on him and heal him the same way Jesus did. It turns out I’m not Jesus. Go figure.
I might tell him about a pastor I found online. He was blind in his right eye and raised in a charismatic church that taught this Word of Faith doctrine. From the time he was eight years old, he began praying for his eye to be healed. He came forward for his church to pray for him nearly every Sunday. He was told to fast and pray, so even as a child he would fast two days at a time. The pastor there talked constantly about wholeness and healing, and how God wanted to heal every sickness and disease. When he came forward for healing, he would close his eyes, receive the prayers from the elders, and open them fully expecting to see. He would pray before going to sleep at night, fully expecting to wake up seeing.
After several years of this he still wasn’t healed. Then an elder spoke to him, and this is how he described the encounter.
“When I heard that story,” I might tell him, “it made me think of you and what I was planning to do. What that elder did to him, I would have done to you if I had gone through with my plans. And when I think of how I wanted to bring you with me to one of those faith healers, and what I know now about the placebo effect, I am so glad I never did. Because what could have ended up happening is you would go up there and see better temporarily because of the placebo effect. We would both think God was healing your eyes, and the fake healer would have promised 20/20 or better eyesight. But when the placebo wore off, and you lost that healing, which would have been inevitable, I would have thought either you or I didn’t have enough faith.
“For years, when I thought I didn’t have enough faith, I would double down. Like that boy, I would keep praying, fasting sometimes, until I expected healing, and over and over again healing never came. It was the worst possible thing for my faith and mental health. When you graduated early, I beat myself up for being a coward because I never had that conversation with you. And when I think that I, your friend and fraternity brother, almost put you through all that, all I can say now is …”
Paul might say at that point, “Thank God you were a coward?”
I would laugh and agree. Paul was a philosophy major, while I was a religion major. We had some pretty in-depth discussions about the two subjects, especially where they intersected. I imagine he might ask, “So why aren’t you a coward now?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you just made a heavy confession to me, but I didn’t hear any fear in your voice. Why not?”
“I don’t know. For some reason, I just felt the need to say I’m sorry for thinking the way I did and what that almost made me do to you.”
“You were afraid back then, even though you felt the need to tell me about getting healed. So why aren’t you afraid now?”
“Because I really believe in this.”
“So you’re not afraid now, because you really believe in this.”
“Oh, I see where you’re going. At the timeI could not have admitted this, but I didn’t totally believe the whole Word of Faith theology, even then. And I thought that was the problem. It only works if you believe in it, so I tried all kinds of ways to make myself believe. Because I thought if I could get ‘enough faith,’ I would see the miracles I wanted to see.”
“What is ‘enough faith’?”
“I don’t know, but apparently, I never had it.”
“And you disobeyed the Holy Spirit. How do you feel about that?”
“That wasn’t the Holy Spirit. I know that now because it sounded just like the Word of Faith preachers I was listening to at the time. I don’t believe anymore that that was the Holy Spirit. I believe that is what happens to me when I commit myself to a particular ideology, any ideology. It starts talking to me to reinforce itself.”
“You know what, David? I don’t think you were a coward. I think you just couldn’t push something on me that you did not believe in yourself.”
“Hmm.” I have to pause to think. “You may be right. In fact, I think the reason I never totally believed that is because there was always some part of me, deep inside, that knew there was something wrong with this view of faith and God. God is God, and I am not. Learning to accept that has been critical for my healing, if you’ll pardon the expression.”
“It sounds like you’ve been on quite a journey.”
“Oh, man! That is not even the tip of the iceberg.”
“Are you gonna try to save my soul now?”
I laugh and say, “Actually, you helped save mine. But I’d be happy to share more of my journey with you if you’re interested.”
“You know I love to discuss the meaning of life. I’m interested in hearing what’s different about you now.”
And so we would be off on another of our in-depth philosophical/theological conversations. Paul, wherever you are, I hope we meet again, in this world or the next, because I miss those conversations so much.
My First Principle of Recovery is “God is for
your recovery and healing, not against it.” The scripture I connected it to is
Isaiah 53:3-6. It is part of the fourth suffering servant song (Isa 52:13-53:12).
This is the longest of the servant songs. I think in this song, more than anywhere else in Second Isaiah, the Jews really begin to make sense of the suffering they have been through. Their suffering has led to justice, not only for themselves. It has taught justice to the nations who persecuted them in ways nothing else could.
won’t go through the whole thing. But in the part I am commenting on, we hear
from the nations (Gentiles) who saw the Jews in captivity and are astonished at
their reversal of fortune. Here is a sample of what they say.
He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
(Isaiah 53:3-6 ESV)
He/him refers to the
Jewish people personified in the suffering servant. The nations despised
and rejected him. They thought he was stricken, smitten by God. (Certainly,
many of the Jews thought that about themselves during Exile.) But somehow, the
nations have come to understand the servant’s suffering has brought peace,
healing, and forgiveness for their transgressions and iniquities.
the song from 42:1-4, the servant quietly and patiently endures suffering and
as a result brings justice. Is it justice for himself (the Jews) or for the
nations who oppressed him? It’s not entirely clear but seems to be for himself.
It says he would endure until he brings forth justice. But in this fourth song,
that has already happened. The servant suffered to the point that people hid
their faces from him, because his face was so marred he no longer looked
see the startling claim that the servant underwent this suffering because the
LORD laid on him the iniquity of us all. He took the punishment that should
have been theirs. They went astray in the injustice they committed against him
(53:8). But instead of fighting back, he patiently endured. And through his
silent witness, the Gentiles who oppressed the Jews have seen the error of
their ways and repented. In this way, he brings justice to all nations. As my HarperCollins
NRSV Study Bible says,
“Israel’s suffering suggested God had rejected it. Now, however, contrary to the nations’ original impression, they see that the servant’s suffering was vicarious, God’s surprising way of restoring all people to himself” (cf. 42:2-3; Mat 8:17; 1 Pet 2:22-25).
(HC 53:4-6 footnote)
And that ultimately was God’s goal, to restore all people to himself—not just the Jews but the Gentiles, even the Gentiles who oppressed them. Even the Babylonians? Yes, even the Babylonians. By recognizing God’s hand in restoring the Jews as a people and a nation, they repent of their injustice and receive forgiveness for their sins. So none of the Jews’ suffering in Exile was in vain. They could not see any purpose in it before, but now they can.
Notice that God did not give this message to them until God could point to clear signs that their redemption was already beginning to happen. Before then, they would not have been able to hear this. They were angry with God. If God made a promise, they would not believe it until they saw it. So God did two things. 1) God waited until they could see the promise beginning to happen, so they could believe it; and 2) God told them ahead of time how it would ultimately be fulfilled—through Cyrus, king of Persia (Isa 45). So when Cyrus told the Jews anyone who wanted to could return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city, they knew it was the hand of God.
He Grew Up Like a Young Plant
The second verse of Isaiah 53 says this. “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground.” Many people believe the reference to the root and young plant connects the servant with the line of David. Almost as soon as the hope of a Messiah began, the Jews believed the Messiah would be from the root of the Davidic dynasty. They had seen that dynasty come to an end (with Exile). But the promise here is the Messiah would reestablish it, like when a tree is cut down, then from the root, the tree is reborn and grows out of the stump like a young plant. I don’t know if the Jews in Second Isaiah’s time would have made that connection, but they might have noticed the similarity with this in First Isaiah.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. … On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
(Isa 11:1, 10 NRS)
They certainly would have known the stump of Jesse and the root of Jesse referred to the Davidic dynasty. Could they really be saying the Messiah and the Suffering Servant are one and the same? That appears to be a contradiction in terms.
The Servant as Messiah
First Isaiah spoke of justice coming through a Righteous King from David’s lineage. Second Isaiah spoke of justice coming through the Suffering Servant. Christians believe Jesus was the Messiah because he fulfilled both roles. Modern Jews reject that, because they expect the Messiah to be the Righteous King but not the Suffering Servant. That appeared to have been the disciples’ expectation as well. Every time Jesus talked about how he had to suffer and die at the hands of sinners, they either told him they would not allow it, or they changed the subject. They thought his being the Messiah meant he would be the Righteous King who would reclaim the throne of David and throw off the yoke of Roman occupation. It appears from reading the Gospels the crowds who followed Jesus expected it too.
I was surprised when I found Rabbinic Judaism actually connects the Messiah with
the Suffering Servant. The beginning of Second Isaiah’s song says,
See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.
(Isa 52:13 NRS)
the Targum Jonathan quotes this, it says “… my servant messiah shall
prosper. …” This makes the connection explicit where before it was only
The Rabbis also point to this verse from Ruth:
At mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come here, and eat some of this bread, and dip your morsel in the sour wine.” So she sat beside the reapers, and he heaped up for her some parched grain. She ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over.
Midrash Rabbah connects this verse with the servant messiah.
Another explanation: He is speaking of king Messiah; ‘Come hither,’ draw near to the throne; ‘and eat of the bread,’ that is, the bread of the kingdom; ‘and dip thy morsel in the vinegar,’ this refers to his chastisements, as it is said, ‘But he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities’ [Isa 53:3].
If it seems like a stretch to connect Boaz’s invitation to Ruth to dip her bread in vinegar with the chastisements of the servant messiah, remember Ruth and Boaz were the great-grandparents of David. Everything they did was connected to the Messiah. And as I said before, considering the Rabbis have way more experience reading and interpreting the Hebrew scriptures than you or I will ever have, I can’t dismiss what they say.
A Leper Messiah
is my favorite connection, from the Babylonian Talmud. Isaiah 53:4 says,
Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.
(Isa 53:4 NRS)
The Talmud comments,
The Messiah, what is his name? The Rabbis say, The Leper Scholar, as it is said, ‘surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God and afflicted…’.
Where the text says, “… we accounted him stricken,” the Talmud quotes it as, “… we did esteem him a leper ….” That was even stronger than “stricken,” because the ultimate punishment from God was leprosy, a sure sign you were smitten and afflicted of God. I find the “leper scholar” an interesting term. Whoever the Messiah is, he will be a scholar (which makes me feel good), meaning he will diligently study and know the scriptures.
The leprosy might have been metaphorical, but as a metaphor it would refer to someone who people believed God had smitten and was punishing, when in fact God was pleased with the servant because he willingly suffered to save others and bring forth justice. The Messiah, the Rabbis say, is also one they called “The Leper Scholar.” Of course, I can’t hear that without thinking of the leper messiah in “Ziggy Stardust.”
Bowie said he created the character of Ziggy Stardust as a way to help him cope
with mental health issues in his family and the madness of the Rock and Roll
lifestyle. He was quoted as saying,
One puts oneself through such psychological damage in trying to avoid the threat of insanity. As long as I could put those psychological excesses into my music and into my work, I could always be throwing it off.
Isn’t it interesting that Bowie created this character who helped him avoid insanity, called the character a “leper messiah” in his eponymous song, and thousands of years before, the Rabbis compared the Messiah of scripture to a leper. Like a leper, he was despised and rejected. He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him (Isa 53:2 NRS). Also like a leper, people thought his suffering, affliction, and pain meant God rejected him, and therefore he was smitten and punished by God.
God called him “the righteous one” (53:11), because he willingly took on our
pain, suffering, sickness, affliction, sins and iniquities, by making himself an
offering for sin (Isa 53:9, 10). They thought God had forsaken him, but “it was
the will of the LORD to crush him with pain” (53:10), not to punish him for his
sin, but to save us from our sin and the brokenness and injustice that comes
out of his affliction and pain, he would see light, because he would lead many
to righteousness, forgiveness, and healing (53:11-12). To people like the exiled
Jews, who were first beginning to see the light at the end of their dark night
of the soul, the suffering servant (or leper messiah) was the perfect savior.
The First Principle of Recovery
Perhaps my experience with mental illness makes Second Isaiah’s leper messiah the perfect savior for me as well. Having recently come out of my own dark night of the soul, I appreciate his suffering so much more. I think I understand now in a way I never have, God not only sent the leper messiah to save us. In Jesus, God became the leper messiah who bore the brokenness of many and made intercession for sinners and all of us who like sheep have gone astray and turned each one to our own way.
Why would God do that? So our relationship with God could be restored. That is good news for everyone who knows they are broken: mentally, emotionally, physically, or spiritually. And it brings me back to my first principle for recovery: A god who is willing to do that for us surely is for our recovery and healing, not against it.