March 27: Easter Sunday

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,

Who, though he was in the form of God, did not
Count equality with God
A thing to be grasped,

But made himself nothing,
Taking the form of a servant,
Being born in the likeness of men. 

And being found in human form,
He humbled himself by becoming
Obedient to the point of death,
Even death on a cross.

Therefore God has highly exalted him
And bestowed on him
The name that is above every name,

So that at the name of Jesus
Every knee should bow, in heaven
And on earth and under the earth, 

And every tongue confess
That Jesus Christ is Lord,
To the glory of God the Father.

 – Philippians 2:5-11

Have you ever wondered what early Christians sang (which was chanting on a handful of pitches) besides the Psalms? Well, Philippians 2:6-11 answers that question. This is one of their hymns. There’s academic debate about whether the Apostle Paul wrote it or was quoting it, but either way, we know that this was such a staple in their repertoire that Paul could quote it to support his exhortations in vv. 1-4. It remained with the church for centuries, and, of course, is with us today in the scriptures, although we should resume singing or chanting it without altering its text.

One of the easiest mistakes to make regarding any of Paul’s texts, but especially one like this one, is to think we can jump right in and figure out what he means without knowing a thing about Jewish, Greek, and Roman history of his day. Not only are we talking about what was going on currently for the original audience, but also for the previous few hundred years. Our understanding of faith and the Bible is very rooted in our own recent and current history, but it’s not the same as theirs, so we must be careful when reading texts written for them through our eyes.

When they thought of heroic kings, rulers, and leaders, they had to look no further than Alexander the Great (356-323 BC). He succeeded his father Philip, at just age 20, to the throne of Macedonia. He became ruler of all Greece in almost no time, and set out the conquer the whole world. He was not without confidence! He died young, at 33, but in his 13 years of rule, he had conquered so much of the world that he was thought of as divine (and certainly thought of himself this way!).

More contemporary for Paul and his audience was Emperor Augustus (formerly called Octavian). He was revered since he put an end to the Roman civil war that had run for a century. He was the first Roman Emperor and would transform the oligarchic/democratic Republic into the autocratic Roman Empire. The peace he brought was to the known world; thus he, too, became regarded as divine. Other leaders tried to copy him, and that is what heroic leadership looked like in their world.

With that in mind, Paul’s gospel message is counter-cultural and even subversive. He is preaching, teaching, and writing that Jesus of Nazareth was resurrected from the dead, and that was a public declaration that He is Israel’s true Messiah and the world’s true Lord! He was what true divinity is, not Alexander and Augustus Caesar.

Think of that as Paul says and the Christians chant:

And being found in human form,
He humbled Himself by becoming
Obedient to the point of death,
Even death on a cross.

Jesus in no way fit the culture’s understanding of a deity or divinity. Do we have faith enough and the boldness to proclaim Him this way? The one true God is known at last in the person of a crucified Jew? Really? Nonetheless, just because people may find this difficult is no reason for us to hide it or try to put some seemingly relevant spin on the matter.

And it is true that it doesn’t end there because there is resurrection:

Therefore God has highly exalted him
And bestowed on Him
The name that is above every name,

His exaltation is not yet complete. The name that is above every name, therefore, is Lord—the Lord victorious over all His enemies, the Lord who has purchased a people from every tribe and tongue and nation, and made a house for His name. At the end of the age, when the mission of the Church reaches its glorious conclusion, the name of Jesus will be sounded around the world, and at that name every knee will bow, whether of angels in heaven, or of the living on the earth, or of the dead under the earth—every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Believers and unbelievers will acknowledge in that day that Jesus has triumphed over every enemy—believers, to their everlasting joy, and unbelievers, to their everlasting shame. Have this mind among yourselves. That’s the gospel!

They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. He lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones. And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him. And crying out with a loud voice, he said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he was saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” And he begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now a great herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, and they begged him, saying, “Send us to the pigs; let us enter them.” So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out, and entered the pigs, and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea and were drowned in the sea. – Mark 5:1-13

After crossing the Sea of Galilee through a mighty storm that Jesus calmed, which provided a wonderful lesson on suffering in His kingdom, as well as revealing Him as the true and greater Jonah, they arrive on the east side of the Sea. This was contested land then, and it is to this day, as it rises sharply up to the Golan Heights. Most of all, this was Gentile land, that is to say, Roman neighborhood land. Certainly the Romans had control of Israel, but here they had really set up shop to the point that they were keeping pigs. It would not have been lost on Mark’s original audience that the pigs were not incidental to the story: the Romans symbolically are the pigs!

This man is taken over by a (Roman) legion of demons and says so. He dwells in a graveyard, a place of contamination that made you ceremonially unclean. Likewise, he is unclean because of his own blood as he cuts himself. He has less dignity than animals, naked, shrieking, and he is completely isolated from the community, not unlike the leper we saw earlier in Mark’s gospel. He is gripped externally and internally and is headed for self-destruction and death. That is what Satan has to offer, by the way.

It is difficult to say for sure why Jesus went to this place, but once there, He is immediately known to the demon(s) and, as is consistent with previously similar scenes, begs Jesus to leave him alone. Jesus isn’t going to do that, but curiously answers the unclean spirit’s request to be sent to the pigs. Whether or not the unclean spirit realized that the drowning of the pigs was coming is speculation. That’s what happened, though, to 2,000 pigs! Symbolically the wicked Romans had come from the sea to terrorize and inhabit the land, and now they’ve been sent back to where they came from.

However, the big picture must not obscure the littler picture. This was one man in deep distress, and Jesus met his need and healed his distress. This is what Jesus does, and we must work never to forget it and, rather, to proclaim it to all who will listen. Jesus restores the isolated, naked, self-destroying person to dignity, community, and abundant life. The strong man—Satan–steals, kills, and destroys. The Stronger Man—Jesus, gives life and life abundantly. Jesus, the shepherd-warrior-king, has once again plundered the strong man’s house in delivering this man.

The man wants to stay with Jesus, but Jesus sends him to the Decapolis cities (v. 20) to tell “how much the Lord has done for you.” These 10 cities are Roman cities, and so we have, well before the Apostle Paul comes along, the first apostle to the Gentiles. This man went from being one of the least important people in the world to the most important. That’s what Jesus does for His sons and daughters. That’s the gospel!