"Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one."
- Marcus Aurelius
My sermon Sunday on the pair of family psalms, Psalm 127 and Psalm 128, deserves a bit more comment. I will focus here especially on Psalm 128. (Video of the sermon is available here -- the sermon starts about the 17 minute mark; audio is available here.)
The first part of the sermon focused on the man in these psalms and that's what I want to look at further here. If we want to know what it means to be a blessed man, perhaps we need to start with manhood itself. What does it mean to be a man? How are men different from women? How does a man's masculinity feed into his duties/roles as a husband and father?
Masculinity (like femininity) is notoriously difficult to define. Masculinity includes maleness, but is something more; it is possible for one to be male but fail to be masculine. Certainly we could give a biological definition, and what we learn about male (and female) nature that way is crucial, but we obviously want more than that. Some have defined manhood in terms of the 3 B's: the billfold (provision), the ballfield (strength, competency), and the bedroom (his sexual relationship with his wife and the children who come from that). Others have focused on the 4 P's: provision (man as breadwinner), protection (man as spiritual and physical guardian), procreation (one flesh with his wife, father to his children), and passion (interests leading to competency/dominion in various areas). Others have given more technical definitions: "Masculinity is the glad assumption of sacrificial responsibility." Or more elaborately: "Masculinity is the presence of distinctive traits and drives especially found in men, including dominance, leadership, emotional self-control, aggression, and competitiveness, all used sacrificially for the good of others." Still other definitions connect masculinity with certain forms of rule and authority, or with dominion over the earth since man was made from the earth and is oriented towards working/transforming it, or with the potentiality of fatherhood.
Biblically, several features of manhood stand out. Certainly men are to be protectors and providers, warriors and workers, the muscle and the money. We see this in Genesis 3 where the man fails to protect his wife and the garden from the serpent and is then cursed in the realm of provision because that is his primary domain/responsibility. Manhood is also obviously connected with fatherhood. This capacity for fatherhood (whether realized or not) is the thing that most distinguishes the man from the woman (just as her capacity for motherhood distinguishes her from him). Obviously fatherhood derives from and is to be patterned after divine fatherhood (Ephesians 3).
Scripture gives several depictions of idealized manhood. Psalm 1 and especially 112 could be understood in this light. Noah, Job, and Daniel are given as models of masculine faithfulness. David's exhortation to Solomon to "Be a man" suggests a cluster of virtues and practices, such as courage, persistence, strength, leadership, diplomacy, grit, humility, dominion/competence, and so forth, are all crucial to masculinity. We could say the same about Paul's exhortation to manliness in 1 Corinthians 16: he wants the men of the Corinthian church to lead the way in acting boldly as a counter-cultural community. The qualifications for church officers (who obviously must be men) in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 can certainly be viewed descriptions of the "model man."
It is interesting to compare these conceptions of manhood to those found in other cultures and religions. There are many features of masculinity that are virtually universal, such as honor, courage, strength, and leadership. The OT expects battlefield prowess of men and praises them for it every bit as the literature of classical antiquity. It does not carry the same expectation of women; indeed men who flee from the battlefield are regarded as acting like women (Jer. 50:37). There are consistent hints in Scripture of a division of labor between the sexes (e.g., the sexually differentiated curses in Gen. 3; Prov. 31:23, 27; 1 Sam. 8:11-14; Titus 2:3ff; etc.). In virtually every culture or civilization that we know anything about, men have been the primary rulers and stewards over public life and have been regarded as heads of their households, while women were the primary nurturers of children and managers of the home. But this does not mean that pagans and Christians actually agree on masculinity. I pointed this out in the sermon when I commented on Psalm 127:1. In paganism, a man would boast in his own strength as he built his house for his own glory. Not so the godly man. Only in biblical religion can humility actually be a virtue for men. The godly man knows that whatever strength he has is a gift and whatever he accomplishes is really due to the Lord working in and through him. Biblical masculinity is masculinity by faith. We can also see this if we look at the ultimate model of manhood in the Christian religion, Jesus Christ.
The Jesus we meet in the gospels confirms the view of manhood we have already seen, but adds some important elements that serve to deepen, enrich, and transform our understanding of manhood. A good survey of Jesus' masculinity can be found in Leon Podles recent book Losing the Good Portion; I highly recommend at least reading chapters 1-2, which give an overview of masculinity and challenge feminized/effeminate pictures of Jesus (both literal and figurative). Jesus does many prototypically manly things during his ministry. He protects women -- though surprisingly he also relies on women to help support his ministry. He wins status contests with other males -- especially as he schools the Sadducees and Pharisees in theological debate. He powerfully exercises dominion -- early in life presumably as a carpenter like his father, but then in a greater way during his ministry in miraculous healings and exorcisms. When he is wrongfully arrested and falsely accused, he does not defend himself, as a pagan man might have done, but allows himself to be carried away to trial and then to the cross. Of course, he does this because dying on the cross was his mission. He was sent by his Father in order to die for the sins of the world, and thus rescue his bride -- the church -- from death and Satan.
The death of Jesus is a heroic death. Even if you strip away the theological meaning of the cross -- that this is the eternal Son of God in human flesh, dying a substitutionary death for his people, the righteous for the unrighteous, taking upon himself the curse and wrath they deserve in order to rescue them from sin, Satan, and death, thus purifying a people for his own eternal possession -- it may still be seen as heroic. Indeed, every great story of sacrifice, whether fictional (like Harry Potter sacrificing himself for his friends) or historical (like the men who went down with the Titanic so women and children could be spared an icy death) is derivative of the gospel. Anyone who sacrifices on behalf of others is now regarded as a Christ-figure for precisely this reason. The gospel is the ultimate story and it has shaped the stories we tell and the way we tell them. According to Podles, at least some pagans were able to see herosim in Jesus' ministry and in his death, though they rejected the greater meaning Christians ascribed to these events. After surveying the many manly features of Jesus' ministry, including his emotional life, Podles demonstrates the connection between Jesus and the classical conception of masculinity:
Jesus suffered crucifixion, the dishonorable death of a slave, but by that means attained the name that is above all other names. Paul accepted the classical ideal of masculinity and showed how Jesus fulfilled it and how a Christian could attain it. A man attained true manhood by a noble death in service to others; Jesus above all did this...For Paul, Jesus' seemingly shameful death was in fact understandable, even in classic terms, as a heroic death. By his conquest of death and his resurrection Jesus was established as Lord, Kyrios, and his kingdom is universal and eternal. Jesus continues to exercise his self-restraint and clemency, characteristics of the ideal ruler, by restraining his divine anger at the evil of the world, and thereby manifests his manhood.
Jesus fulfills the anthropological model of masculinity, especially as it was understood in the classical world. Coming from an inconspicuous but mysterious and honorable background, Jesus leaves the world of his mother and goes about his Father's business. He overcomes all obstacles to save those entrusted to him, and deserves the highest honor, the title of Lord. He uses strength to others in ways small and great, from washing their feet to raising the dead. Jesus confronts death, passes through it, and defeats it, and is initiated into a new life. His emotions, including anger and love, are intense, manifesting his thumos, but they are always perfectly controlled and reasonable.
Even if the connections Podles draws between the masculinity of Jesus and the vision of masculinity idealized by the classic tradition are not completely convincing, he still makes an important point. The fact that Jesus died in shame and weakness would not have, in themselves, invalidated his manliness since dying a martyr's death for the sake of a greater good was not altogether foreign to the world of classic antiquity. It is true that pagans often ridiculed the idea of a "Savior of a cross," a man who "saved others but cannot save himself." It is true they regarded the meaning ascribed to the cross in Christian preaching and theology as foolishness. But this does not mean they would have inevitably seen Christ as emasculated. Of course, the same goes for Paul and the other early Christians martyrs. One of the things that made the Christian faith so compelling to outsiders in those early centuries was the bravery of Christians, male and female, in the face of horrific suffering and death. Many persecutors were persuaded to become believers precisely by seeing the way Christians faced death without blinking -- just like Jesus.
Again, this is not to say that pagans, Jews, and Christians all agreed on the meaning of manhood. They did not. The gospel brought believers to a new and transformed understanding of masculinity (and by implication, femininity as well) -- and this was undoubtedly offensive to those on the outside of the church. But just as we should not flatten out the real differences between an evangelized masculinity and pagan masculinity, neither should we exaggerate the differences.
How does the blessed man in Psalm 128 relate to Jesus? Since Jesus must be our measure of manhood, do we see him reflected in the blessed man of Psalm 128? Or does Jesus give us an altogether different view of manhood and masculinity?
At first glance, it may seem that Jesus and the blessed man of Psalm 128 have little in common. Jesus remained single and childless; the blessed man is married with kids, and, ultimately grandkids. Jesus never had a place to lay his head; the blessed man seems quite prosperous, with a table, food, and a home. Finally, in the climax of his earthly ministry, Jesus seems to be weak and helpless as he is crucified; meanwhile the blessed man seems strong, competent, confident, and prosperous. In one sense, Jesus lacks status the blessed man possesses. The blessed man seems decidedly more manly, while Jesus looks weak and unattractive.
But perhaps the contrast is not so great. After all, Jesus does take a bride -- the church. Through her, he raises up children -- new believers. In the resurrection, Jesus is made Lord and lords and King of kings. All authority, power, and status belong to him. He now has a table over which the presides -- the Eucharist -- and there he feeds his family the fruit of his labors. The risen Christ has everything the blessed man has, and more. He becomes the Dominion Man -- the man who rules over the very earth from which man was made. And indeed, when we look closely at the gospel accounts we find that even when Jesus was put on trial and then taken away to be crucified, he remained in complete control of the situation. Jesus' life was not taken from him; he laid it down. He did not die against his will, but willingly, enduring the shame for the joy set before him. He died because it was necessary to fulfill his Father's plan. He goes to the cross like a warrior who willingly volunteers to die that others may live. But such an act reveals true strength. Indeed, it transforms our understanding of strength -- and therefore of masculinity. On the cross, Jesus might look like the epitome of weakness, a failed man, and a failed messiah. But in reality he is acting in infinite strength to save the world. The cross is actually his coronation. He is "lifted up " -- exalted, enthroned -- on the tree in order that he might draw his bride to himself, a bride that will be formed out the blood and water flowing from his side. In the same moment he is dying at the "Place of the Skull, he is crushing the skull of the serpent under his feet. He shows us a new kind of manhood, one hinted at before but now foregrounded -- a man defined by self-giving and sacrificial love, a man who lays down his life in order to protect and provide, and man who looks foolish though he embodies infinite wisdom, a man who looks weak even as he conquers the world in love.
It is very clear particularly in the gospel of John that Jesus is actually in control of all the proceedings from his arrest to his death. He is not a helpless victim, but a powerful victor, making sure events unfold according to plan. The details in John's account affirm this in ways that go beyond what I can get into here, but it's all there. He is the Sovereign Sufferer. Yes, he shirks back from the impending doom of the cross in Gethsemane -- but his time in prayer with his Father steels his manly courage so he can brace himself for what is to come. When Pilate said, "Behold the man," he was speaking more truly than he knew. This is The Man -- the true man, showing true manliness. In a twist of irony, we find this is what blessed manhood really looks like like -- a man giving all he has for the sake of his bride, a man laying down his life to save his save his friends, a man losing his life that he may find greater and more glorious life on the other side.
In Mark 15, just as he dies, the Roman centurion confesses him as Son of God, which is a royal title. So far from seeing him as unmasculine because of the way he died, the centurion confesses him to be the model man, a royal man, a ruling man. The cross really is an enthronement and an act of power. No, not everyone saw it that way; not all are given eyes to see. But Jesus was clearly sovereign over his death and even the very moment of his death. He only died when he chose to give up his Spirit. The centurion, who no doubt had seen many crucifixions, had never seen anyone die in this way. It was unique. It was ultimate strength in the midst of utter weakness. It was strength disguised as weakness.
Unfortunately too many accounts of Jesus' manhood stop with the cross. Podles has pointed out this is a uniquely Western problem. The Eastern church tends to focus much more in the risen Christ. This Western version of Jesus stuck on the cross truncates our understanding of what he has done and who he is; it certainly truncates the lessons about manhood we can glean from his example. This truncation bleeds over into teaching on marriage when Ephesians 5:21ff is used to teach husbands that loving their wives like Christ loves the church means always giving her her way, keeping her happy at all times, and so forth. Instead of the strong, transformative, efficacious love of Christ as the model, we have a weak, effeminate love. If we reduce Christ's love to what he did on the cross -- and then we think of the cross primarily in passive terms -- we can actually turn a husband's headship into its opposite. The head becomes the helper. The wife's felt needs become the measure of the husband's faithfulness. The wife's emotional state actually becomes the highest authority in the home. The man who should be a Christ-figure becomes a simp. But Jesus is not a simp.
The missing element here, as in so much of Western theology is the resurrection. Years ago during the so-called "Federal Vision" controversy, I was astounded at how many Presbyterian and Reformed theologians basically had no place in their theology for the resurrection. They affirmed it as an historical fact. They affirmed its importance. But they did not ascribe any special soteriological significance to it. Everything terminated on the cross. But, to paraphrase Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, a dead Christ cannot save. And neither can a dead Christ provide us with the model of manhood we need. For these, we must look to the resurrection. Christ's resurrection is his justification/vindication -- and therefore it is our justification/vindication as well. Christ's resurrection is the inauguration of the new creation. We share in his resurrection life and that new creation even now, though more is still to come in the future. And finally, in the resurrection, Christ fulfills his commission as the New Adam, the Last Adam, the one who has total dominion over heaven and earth. As the risen one, he is King of kings and Lord of lords. As the risen one, he promises to bring judgment on his enemies. Indeed, in 70 AD he uses the might of Rome to destroy the primary persecutor his bride, the unbelieving the Jewish people, an act of justified vengeance and violence that he prophesied many times during his earthly ministry (e.g., Matthew 23-24). The risen Christ kicks enemies and takes names.
If we leave off the resurrection and vengeance of Jesus in 30 and 70 AD, respectively, we will end up with a very incomplete picture of him, and therefore a very incomplete picture of his manliness, and therefore a very incomplete picture of what our manhood should look like. If our understanding of Jesus' masculinity terminates on the cross, it is all too easy to end up with a wimpy, pacifist Jesus who would never harm a flea (temple cleansing notwithstanding), and then we end up with a limp-wristed, cowardly beta male as our model for manhood. This is what I have sometimes called a "dispensational" view of manhood because it ends up pitting the version of masculinity we find in the OT (and largely celebrated in places like Hebrews 11) against the version of manhood we supposedly find in Jesus. But actually Jesus' version of manhood has more in common with the heroes of the OT than we might realize at first glance. Jesus transforms manhood to be sure, but there is also continuity. Jesus, like Gideon, Samson, David, and others, is a mighty warrior. He came to crush the serpent's head. He came to pursue and claim his bride, taking her back from her captors. We see this when we take in the larger picture, inclusive of what he continues to do as the risen and reigning Lord who is extending his dominion over the nations, who smashes recalcitrant kings with his rod of iron, who continues to protect, provide for, and rule over his bride, the church. Thus, if a man really wants to image Christ's headship to his wife in the way he loves her, yes, he must sacrifice for her. But he must also rule her, and he must extend the rule of his cultural dominion into the world for her sake. His rule will be kind and gentle, patient yet firm, but it will definitely be a form of rule. Ruling does not exclude the possibly of discussing or persuading, but rule still means rule. As I said in the sermon, far too many men today are figureheads more than actual heads. But Christ is not a mere figurehead over the church. He is the church's Lord. He serves her by ruling her. Husbands must do the same.
There is another way of getting at the problem here. Many accounts of manhood want to treat Jesus as the ideal "blessed man," but they start with the cross rather than creation. Again, the same kinds of problems crop up as when the resurrection gets sidelined. This is actually same problem, just analyzed from a different angle. If the ministry and mission of Jesus is detached from creation, we will fail to see how he is the one who (with the help of his bride) fulfills the original creation mandate, to take dominion and subdue the earth, and to multiply and fill the earth. Yet, the NT repeatedly shows us this is precisely what Jesus does (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:20-28). The work of Christ, and therefore the manliness of Christ, has to be understood in light of the original mandate God gave to mankind. Jesus is our model of manhood precisely because he fulfills this mandate to rule and multiply. He came to take dominion. And that is precisely what he doing.
This more comprehensive vision of Jesus' manhood allows us to understand a number of other things as well. For example, it helps us see what a travesty it is that the American evangelical church's culture has been largely feminized. We see this in programs that are created largely to suit the felt needs and desires of women, who are often trying to compensate for men who are either missing or failing their families. We see it in the move away from liturgy and into sentimental, highly emotionalized worship and music. The reality is that the church's traditional liturgy is very martial. There is nothing analogous to liturgy in the feminine domain; it is a specially masculine endeavor, with its practices most closely paralleled in the marches and chants of the military. Indeed, the church's culture is patriarchal, as it is ruled by spiritual "fathers" who oversee the household of faith. The culture of the church should not be feminized nor androgynous. It should reflect its masculine leadership -- and in doing so, the church actually becomes a very warm and welcoming place for women and children who have the security of knowing they are shepherded by strong, competent, faithful men. Men who become elders take the house-building and house-defending skills they have learned in the training ground of their own homes and apply them to the wider context of the congregation. Just one more example: preaching should have a decisively masculine quality. God wants his Word publicly proclaimed through a man's voice, which is naturally more powerful and authoritative than a woman's voice. Men and women communicate differently. Men are more direct and commanding; women tend to turn statements into questions, as if they’re hunting for agreeableness. Preaching should reflect masculine communication norms; it should be decisive proclamation. And so on. Again, the church’s culture should not be androgynous or effeminate; it should reflect the masculinity of its leadership. The church is a patriarchy - there’s no getting around that. And if the church has any interest in reaching men, this patriarchal order in the church will be affirmed because if men are made to choose between being Christian and being masculine, they will all too often choose masculine unbelief over effeminate faith.
Christ is the model for both men and women. Both men and women must strive to be like Christ. But this does not exclude the reality of "gendered piety." A godly man will be Christ-like in specifically masculine ways. A godly woman will express her Christ-likeness in distinctively feminine ways. The way in which biblical theology makes use of gender matters. Jesus had to come as a man. His people must be identified in some way as corporately feminine. There are both masculine and feminine motifs in the Christian life. As bride, we are Christ's helper, submitting to him so his mission can be fulfilled and his dominion can be extended. As sons of God and soldiers in his army, we are called to the manly battle of fighting against sin and running the race of life in such a way as to get the prize. We strive, even agonize in battle. Unfortunately, we live in a day in which the church has down-played the masculine themes, hoping to create a softer and gentler version of the Christian faith, suitable for our feminized age. Charles Spurgeon faced the same thing in his day and fought back, explaining that becoming a Christian did not require the sacrifice of a man's manhood: "There has got abroad the notion, somehow, that if you become a Christian, you must sink your manliness and turn milksop...Young men, I would honestly say that I should be ashamed to speak to you of a religion that would make you soft, cowardly, effeminate, spiritless." Grace restores nature, which means the gospel restores men to true manhood, even as it restores women to true womanhood.
To conclude: How do we integrate the vision of manhood found in Jesus with the vision of manhood found in Psalm 128? The blessed man of Psalm 128 has what most every man was designed to want -- a loving wife and children, enfolded into a joyous domestic culture; productive labor that extends his dominion in the world as he seeks to take care of his family; a larger community to be part of, namely, Zion/Jerusalem (the church); and a glorious future with grandkids who can carry on his legacy. But I can assure you there is no way for a man to have all this without making sacrifices. Psalm 128 shows us the fruit of this blessed man's life, but behind the scenes, we know he is putting in the work to make it all possible. Indeed, the psalmist tells us the blessed man is fearing God and walking in his ways (128:1). This means a life of sacrificial giving and cross-bearing. Of course, if we drill down deeply into this, we will find ourselves back in Genesis 2, when the man first discovered that he could not fulfill the mandate God gave him without a helper. How did he get the helper he so desperately needed? God put him into a death-like sleep and then sacrificed him, tearing him apart in his side. Out of that wound -- out the blood and water -- God built him a woman to be his beloved companion and submissive helper. He was given his woman through a passive sacrifice, but he will win her and keep her by continuing to make active sacrifices for her and for the good of the family they build together. In other words, the way to be the blessed man of Psalm 128 is through a pattern of continual death to self and resurrection into glory. This is how the blessed man serves his family. This is how the blessed man lives: Just as Jesus lived -- and indeed lives even now.