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February 1, 2013


One of the surprising developments within the fledgling group of the “Followers of The Way” that became known as Christians was how soon they were expressing intense devotion to Jesus as part of their devotion to God. The transforming experience of Christ’s presence within each of them found early expression in new devotional practices centering on Jesus. These first “Christians” were a small messianic group of Jews, and at first they still worshiped as Jews, going to the Temple in Jerusalem and worshiping in synagogues with other Jews. Synagogues were in most towns by this time. There would be recitation of prayer, chanting of Psalms, and scripture reading and instruction. For example, each of the Gospels tells of Jesus “reading” in synagogues. So, these early “Christians” probably also told stories of Jesus, most likely in the context of the just-read scripture. This would be the beginning of the oral tradition that is reflected in Paul’s letters written approximately 51 – 58 A.D. as well as in the Gospels written approximately 65 – 90 A.D. As objections mounted to their claims about Jesus as Messiah from more orthodox Jews, the new Christians increasingly became separated from the synagogues, and the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 A.D. hastened the development of Christianity apart from rabbinic Judaism.

In addition to reading scripture as they worshiped, these new Christians also developed other new devotional practices centering on Jesus. Initiation, for example, included baptism “in the name of Jesus.” The Christian common meal became a sacred meal remembering or reenacting the sacrifice of Jesus. Hymns were sung or more likely chanted. Prayers were offered to God “through” Jesus and “in Jesus name,” and even direct prayer was addressed to Jesus himself. All this happened within very possibly the first few years after Jesus death!

It is in this seminal period of those first twenty years of Christianity, that a hymn or ode was written that Paul quotes in Philippians 2:5-11. Paul seems to assume that by the time of his letter (ca. 52-53 A.D.) it is something already widely familiar.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death –
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Was this perhaps sung or chanted or recited in the worship meetings of the earliest years? Scholars seem to think so. Yet how surprisingly familiar are the words as part of our liturgy even today!

The first thing to note about this hymn is its Jewishness. It comes from Jewish roots. It alludes to concepts in the Hebrew scripture regarding exaltation and obeisance that would be familiar to Hebrew hearers. But it is also distinctively Christian. And it is early – maybe from as early as 35 – 40 A.D. Among the significant concepts that are already included in this hymn are the humanity/divinity of Jesus, Jesus as Lord, God’s post-resurrection exaltation of Jesus, and Jesus’ pre-existence with God.  Moreover, as Jews, those first “Christians” worshiping in the synagogues would insist that there is only one God.  Interestingly, Jesus’ redemptive role as savior is not mentioned.   Nor is there any mention of physical resurrection appearances.  All this even before Paul wrote his letters. It is these and other writings of that first century that gave rise to the myriad complex and often contentious discussions and articulation of doctrines about Jesus and God for the next several centuries. Yet it seems to me that just maybe these words reflect the very words from the resurrection experiences of the Disciples and first “Christians” themselves! Wow!

Loren Bullock
November 26, 2012

Dr. Larry Hurtado, New Testament scholar and historian of early Christianity has studied those early years, and he has written, “Perhaps within only a few days or weeks of his crucifixion, Jesus’ followers were circulating the astonishing claim that God had raised him from death and had installed him in heavenly glory as Messiah and the appointed vehicle of redemption.  Moreover  .  .  .  [his] followers were according him a level of devotion that far exceeded their own prior and impressive commitment to him in his lifetime.  In the earliest extant artifacts of the Christian movement (texts written scarcely more than twenty years after Jesus death), we see an amazingly exalted level of devotion to Jesus which at that early point was already commonplace among circles of his followers spread across a wide geographical area.” [Larry Hurtado, How On Earth Did Jesus Become God? (2005) p.4-5]

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