I do not have a deep kinship with the King James translation of the Bible. I certainly do not revere the translation as a “Holy of Holies” among Bibles the way some do. It is a translation. It is a good one. It’s not without its challenges, and it is dated in its English language renderings.
That said, there are some phrasings in the King James translation that are simply delightful, and they cannot find equivalency in more recent translational works. One such verse is our target text for this week’s blog posting.
For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better: Nevertheless, to abide in the flesh is more needful for you.
– Philippians 1:23-24, KJV
The Rock and The Hard Place
I have been known to dramatically cry out the phrase, “Augh!! I am in a strait betwixt two,” when I find myself “between a rock and a hard place,” facing a difficult decision. Then people look at me like I should be in a straight jacket rather than a strait betwixt two.
That’s what the apostle Paul is saying. He is between that rock and that hard place. He doesn’t know which is better – to live, or to die. There are benefits to both, and drawbacks to both.
There is much going on in Paul’s word choices in this statement.
Paul says he is being “pressed together” from both sides. It’s not a mere pinch, but an active pressing. A more literal rendering might say something like, “I am being pressed together from the two” such that I cannot move either way.
This pressing concept is applied to Christ-followers in 2 Corinthians 5:14 where Paul uses the same term to say the love of Christ constrains us, or controls us. We are pressed by the love of Christ to live out our allegiance to him in specific ways.
What does not come through in the translation above, but if you check several other translations you’ll see it, is that there is a definite article in play, as well as a term of direction. Paul is being hard pressed, “from the two.” The decision to depart or remain is crushing in on him, and it is the two options that are actively producing the crush.
To Die or To Serve
For those who walk with Jesus, the fear of death fades over time. Indeed, I know and have known many a saint for whom death was/is a welcome friend, because dying physically means being at home, our real home, with Jesus.
I can tell you that I have no fear of death, whatsoever. I fear pain and intensely dislike it, but I do not fear death. For me, death is just leaving behind this sin-sick existence to live in the pure joy of my Creator’s perfection and glory.
The apostle Paul employs a double comparative in expressing his quandry, saying it is “by far the more preferable” to weigh anchor and be with Christ – a construct that obliterates the idea of “soul sleep” – but he demonstrates how service to the kingdom outweighs any personal preference.
Paul was adept at Long-View Living.
Note how the clarity with which Paul sees his eternal destiny with Jesus spoils him for the pursuits of this temporal existence. What is valued by current-generation society has no tug on the heart of a Christ-follower. For Paul, serving the needs of the body of Christ proved to be the factor overruling his intense longing to be with Jesus the same way his intense longing to be with Jesus overrides any attraction toward worldly pursuits.
No Choice But to Serve
In John 13, Jesus did something unexpected when he washed the feet of his disciples. There is much more going on in this event than we will cover here, but just know that it was an act fully contrary to societal expectations and demands. It was a shocking act of humility and service on the part of Jesus.
What interests me about it in today’s context is what Jesus said afterward.
When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”
– John 13:12-15, ESV
Please resist the urge of so many to see this as a call from Jesus to literally wash feet. That’s not his message. His message is, “You properly call me Master and Lord, and here I am in the position of a servant to my subjects. If your King is one who serves his subjects, how can you ever aspire to be more than a servant to one another?”
The irony of this example in the world rife with “mega-pastors” is highlighted in this statement from Lange and Schaff.
Hence it is remarkable that the literal foot-washing gradually gained ground as a ceremony in the church at a time when the spiritual foot-washing receded more and more before hierarchical pride, lust of power, and austerity.1
Having further stressed his lesson on servanthood, Jesus said, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”2 The opposite is equally true. Since we know this lesson, if we choose not to obey it in a life of humble service, we will not be blessed.
In making a declaration of independence from England as a primary step in establishing the United States, the Committee of Five3 employed the phrase:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Jefferson and the committee understood the pursuit of happiness to be an inherent trait, longing, and right of every human being. Jesus, knowing the deeper reality declared that joy, happiness, blessedness is found only in serving others as we follow the example of our King. Pursuing joy any other way is like grasping at one’s own shadow. It is always just beyond our reach.
1. Lange, J.P. and Schaff, P. (2008). A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: John. (p. 410). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software
2. John 13:17, ESV
3. The original draft of the Declaration of Independence was created by Thomas Jefferson. That draft was later edited by the Committee of Five: