Wednesday, April 03, 2019

APEST and Psalm 68

Ephesians 4:1 I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said,
‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive;
    he gave gifts to his people.’
(When it says, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) 11 The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14 We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15 But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Writing to the Christians in Ephesus, from where many churches had been planted across the cities of Asia Minor, about the gifts of Christ—apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers—Paul refers to Psalm 68, citing (in Ephesians 4:8) verse 18.

I have argued for the best part of twenty years that this is not a tangential thought, but that it anchors Paul’s thesis. Psalm 68 describes God descending on Mount Sinai in order to liberate his people from slavery in Egypt; journeying with them in the wilderness in order to shape a new community; before ascending on Mount Zion. For Paul, this prefigures the incarnation, ministry, and ascension of Jesus. The ascended Jesus liberates women and men who have been held captive to death by taking them captive by and for Life; and gives these newly-liberated human beings as gifts to his people, his ‘body’ the Church.

But when Jesus, or Paul, or any of the other writers of the New Testament, cite a verse from what we now call the Old Testament, they are expecting their hearers to do some work, to call to mind the full context being referred to. And twelve verses before the one Paul explicitly cites, Psalm 68 declares:

‘God gives the desolate a home to live in;
he leads out the prisoners to prosperity,
but the rebellious live in a parched land.’
(Psalm 68:6)

In recent weeks it has struck me with fresh force that the outworking of Jesus’ gift-giving, Ephesians 4:12-16, is also anchored in Psalm 68: that we find the fullest fulfilment of our personal calling within the context of the body of Christ, the Church, a community in which we are given a home and, together, do the hard but worthwhile work of knitting-together for mutual prospering. The picture painted in Psalm 68, taken as a whole, is of the transformation of the whole world, physical landscape and human society. The purposes of Christ, in laying claim to the redeeming of all, of each, of captive apostle and prophet and evangelist and shepherd and teacher is no smaller vision.

(By the way, ‘children’ in Ephesians 4:14—we must no longer be children—is better translated ‘childish’—we must no longer be childish.)

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