Folks, as I read the Bible, I become increasingly convinced that the typical ‘me-and-God’ take on what it means to be a Christian is completely at odds with God’s purposes. While God is concerned about every single person out there, his intentions have much more to do with y’all than with you.
This is a bit nuanced, but hang with me as we dig around a bit.
The consistent message of the New Testament is that God wants to make himself known through a corporate expression of humanity. He cares about you, but he wants to demonstrate his grace to the world by how you connect with y’all.
You see this in Jesus’ prayer in John 17: 20-23.
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”
That’s God’s heart – that we may all be one, so that the world can see and believe.
You see it in the ways that the NT writers talk about the church – as a body, or a temple: a bunch of intimately connected parts that a make a glorious whole.
And, you see it in the grammar of the NT, particularly in the use of the second person plural pronoun.
Well, you might not have seen it, because English doesn’t have a good second person plural pronoun any more. When the Greek says “y’all”, modern English translations say “you”, and when the Greek says “you”, modern English translations say “you”. The KJV, for all you may or may not like about it, did do this right. Those ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ are not fancy religious words, nor the ‘right way’ to talk to God. They are just good translations of the Greek. Ye and you are plural, thee and thou are singular
So, what does it matter? Am I just being persnickety?
Let’s ponder a passage I’m just now studying through with a group of guys. We recently read through Philippians 1:1-11. Here it is in the ESV:
“To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”
I went to the Greek (which I frankly know very little about) and determined that all of the occurrences of “you” in this passage are in the plural (I am able to figure that much out). Go back through, and every time you see you, substitute the group that is ‘all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Phillipi’. How does it read? Does it change how you understand the passage?
Let’s look specifically at one of the verses, Philippians 1:6.
“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
Paul is sure that God, who began the good work in the Philippian church, will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. God’s desire is that he would be made manifest – visible and alive – to the watching world by how they relate to each other and how they interact with the world in which they live. He started a work amongst a people and he is faithfully going to press on with them. Does God care about the individual and work in the life of the individual? Yes! But that’s not the point of this verse.
It’s here that I have had pushback from some of those I’ve shared this thought with. Plural-shmural, they say. What Paul meant, they say, is ‘each of you in this group’. Only, that’s not what he meant, or he would have used a different pronoun in the Greek – one that means ‘each, or every one of you’.
Again, this correction to our understanding doesn’t take away from God’s individual care for us – it’s still there throughout the Bible. What it does is open our eyes to see God’s greater purpose. As we see that you is the local collection of people who follow Christ we get a better sense of God’s desire. He has established the church, not just a bunch of individual saved people.
And here some ask “Well am I just a lemming, then? Just a cog in the machine?” No! You are individually valuable and known. You are not a robot. You have your will, and you make your choices, and actually those choices affect more than just you. As you read you and understand the corporate context, you don’t tune out; you recognize your individual role and response. It’s “OK, we therefore I…” versus “OK, I…”
Think of a sports team, or a company, or an orchestra, or (to bring it right into your home) a marriage. In each of those contexts, there are individuals, but together they make something bigger than just the collection of individuals, and when we talk to them, we talk to that larger thing.
The coach says to the sports team “today, when you take the field, give it your all, communicate, remember the plays,” and this is received by individual athletes who understand their place in the context of the team.
The CEO says to the company “we need to think creatively to solve this problem,” and a bunch of individuals come together to collaborate and find solutions.
The conductor raises his baton and the orchestra begins the performance, each instrument playing as part of the whole, responding to the conductor and to the other instruments.
A friend says “I really appreciate your son. You’re doing a great job with him!”, and the parents look at each other, knowing that neither of them had what it took, apart from the other.
Thou, individual person, are incredibly valuable, a treasure in the eyes of God and a treasure rightly celebrated by others. But you, the interconnected people of God, are right at the center of God’s eternal purposes, and that’s a good place to be.