Life through death

I thank God I wasn’t born a mute. I can think of no worse fate than not being able to worship God in song. I need to be able to celebrate my faith in singing hymns and songs – they are a vital expression of my faith. True, not everybody may appreciate my foghorn of a voice, but I comfort myself with the thought that at least the Lord understands!

Interestingly right from the start the early church was a singing church. What is more, the first Christians appear to have developed a pretty varied repertoire. The New Testament bears witness to them singings “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Eph 5.19; Col 3.16)

In this season of Easter when celebrate our faith, I want to focus on an early Christian hymn almost certainly sung at baptismal services. It is found in 2 Tim 2.11-13. As we shall discover, in this hymn the tenses are significant:

If we have died with him, we will also live him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself.

The hymn begins with a past tense: “If we have died with Christ”. The reference is not to when we die a physical death at some point in the future, but to spiritual death. Almost certainly we have here a reference to baptism. As Paul makes clear, in baptism we ‘die with Christ’ (see Rom 6.2-3; Col 2.12). Paul was simply restating words Jesus used when he talked of discipleship: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8.34). To go the way of Jesus is to go the way of the cross, which is to go the way of death. The great paradox of the Christian faith is that to live we must die to self. But once we have committed ourselves to Jesus, then our future is secure. Death holds no fear for us: we shall be forever with the Lord.

In the second line the hymn begins with a present tense: “If we endure, we shall also reign with him”. The GNB helpfully emphasizes the present nature of the tense: “If we continue to endure, we shall also rule with him”. Here we have a reminder that our initial act of commitment to Christ is not sufficient. The Christian life is a way of commitment. As has often been said there are three tenses to salvation: past, present, and future. Jesus also on a number of occasions spoke of the importance of ongoing commitment in the present: “The one who endures to the end will be saved” (see, for instance, Matt 10.22; 24.13). ‘Stickability’ is necessary is we are to share Christ’s glory.

At the beginning of line three we have a future tense: “If we deny him, he will also deny us”. There is however no inevitability about the future. This line simply contains a warning and is best translated as “In the event that….“. Almost certainly the hymn is here referring to some other words of Jesus: “Everyone who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I will also deny before my Father in heaven” (Matt 10.32,33). Here we have a reminder that there is nothing magical about baptism. Just as church wedding doesn’t guarantee a couple will make it together to the end of life, so likewise baptism doesn’t guarantee we will make it with Christ to the end of life. In other words, it is not enough to confess Christ in baptism; rather we must continue to confess him day by day.

After the somewhat depressing third line, line four uses a present tense to reassure us that however faithless we may be, God’s love remains unalterable. “If we are faithless, he remains faithful”. We may give up on God, but God never gives up on us. With Jesus there is always a new beginning. This line reminds me of words found in 1 John 1.9: “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness”. God will never fail those who come & say: “I’m sorry – forgive me – I’ve sinned against heaven and before you”. There is always a welcome for the Prodigal. Here indeed is something to celebrate – and not least in song!

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