Wednesday, December 7, 2016

James 2:1-13 and the Sin of Partiality

"My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment." (James 2:1-13)

In Palestine, as in most of the empire, the rich were oppressing the poor (2:6–7). But the temptation to make rich converts or inquirers feel welcome at the expense of the poor was immoral (2:4). The language of impartiality was normally applied especially to legal settings, but because synagogues served both as houses of prayer and as community courts, this predominantly legal image naturally applies to any gatherings there.

Jewish wisdom stressed that those who respected God should not show “favoritism” toward people. Moralists and satirists mocked the special respect given to the wealthy, which usually amounted to a self-demeaning way to seek funds. Illustrations like this one could be hypothetical, which fit the writer’s diatribe style of argument. In Rome the senatorial class wore gold rings; some members of this class sought popular support for favors shown to various groups. But rings were hardly limited to them; in the eastern Mediterranean gold rings also marked great wealth and status. Clothing likewise distinguished the wealthy, who could be ostentatious, from others; peasants commonly had only one cloak, which would thus often be dirty.

Roman laws explicitly favored the rich. Persons of lower class, who were thought to act from economic self-interest, could not bring accusations against persons of higher class, and the laws prescribed harsher penalties for lower-class persons convicted of offenses than for offenders from the higher class. Biblical law, most Jewish law and traditional Greek philosophers had always rejected such distinctions as immoral. In normal times, the public respected the rich as public benefactors, although the Zealots recognized in the Jerusalem aristocracy pro-Roman enemies. The Old Testament forbade partiality on the basis of economic status (Lev 19:15) and called judges among God’s people to judge impartially, as God did.

James’s point here is that if his readers are not impartial judges, they will answer to the God who is an impartial judge; his impartiality in judgment is rehearsed throughout the Old Testament and Jewish tradition. Jewish teachers defined God’s character especially by two attributes, mercy and justice, and suggested that mercy normally won out over justice. They would have agreed with James that the merciless forfeited a right to mercy, and they had their own sayings similar to this one.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Most Unusual Message in History

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 
34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” 
35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. 36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. 
A little girl once opened a big box under the Christmas tree to find a giant doll that, when set upright, towered over her. Her parents noticed a few minutes later that the doll had fallen to the side, but the little girl was having a ball playing in the oversized box. 

We’re apt to do the same at Christmas, discarding the baby but having a great time with the wrappings. At the outset of the season, I’d like to turn us toward that Baby. Here in Gabriel's announcement, we learn four things about Him:

1. His Name (verse 31). “Jesus” is the Greek form of the Hebrew “Joshua,” meaning “Jehovah Saves,” or “Salvation of Yahweh.” Woven into the syllables of that name, we see the suffering He would endure, the salvation He would bestow, and the splendor He would display. Throughout the Gospels, we find that name over and over—172 times in Matthew alone: “Jesus was born in Bethlehem....Jesus was led up by the Spirit....Jesus began to preach....Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching....” The greatest songs in history have been about this sweet name: “Jesus, the name that charms our fears, that bids our sorrows cease.... Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so....Jesus is the sweetest name I know, and He’s just the same as His lovely name.” The name Jesus contains and conveys His mission—to seek and to save those who are lost.

2. His Nature. In Gabriel’s brief announcement, four different “sonships” are given to Jesus. He is: (1) Son of Mary (v. 31); (2) Son of the Highest (v. 32); (3) Son of David (v. 32); and (4) Son of God (v. 35). Two of these references imply His human nature (son of Mary; son of David), and the other two refer to His divine nature (Son of the Highest; Son of God). He is both God and Man. Only Christianity presents a God who, out of love, became a human being through the womb of a virgin to provide atonement for sin.

3. His Nobility (vv. 32–33). He will be given to throne of David and will reign over the house of Jacob forever. His kingdom will never end. His is a powerful kingdom. If the skies could part as they did for Stephen in Acts 7, we would see Jesus on His throne, worshipped by angels, feared by demons. His is a permanent kingdom. He rules over the stars and planets, over all time and space. His is a providential kingdom. Behind the scenes of history is His all-controlling hand. His will be a political kingdom, for one day the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover 
the sea (Hab. 2:14). His is a personal kingdom—He wants to be king of our hearts.

4. His Nativity (vv. 34–35). Here we enter one of Christianity’s deepest and holiest mysteries. Jesus was born without human interaction, of divine conception, of a virgin who had never known a man. Gabriel explained it using two phrases: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you”, and “the power of the Highest will overshadow you.” Similar language in the Old Testament describes the clouds of glory resting on the tabernacle in the wilderness. In some mysterious way, the creative power of God was to rest on Mary as the clouds of glory had rested upon the ancient tabernacle. As a result, the child Mary bore would be called the Son of God.

Mary’s response to this message was simple and sincere: “Behold, the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” When we come face-to-face with God’s wondrous plan for us—a plan that is always centered around Jesus Christ—there is no response better than: “Behold, I am your servant. Let it be to me according to Your word.”

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Advent of Grace

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. John bore witness of Him and cried out, saying, This was He of whom I said, He who comes after me is preferred before me, for He was before me. And of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace. For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” (John 1:14–18)

Grace is a five-letter word that can also be spelled J-E-S-U-S. The Word—God Himself—became flesh and dwelt among us. That’s not a popular message in a day when Christianity is suffering in the public square. But it’s the theme of our lives, and nothing is stopping you and me from keeping Christ central to our celebration, even as we pray for others to find Him too. 

Thomas Brooks wrote, “Saving grace makes a man willing to leave his lusts as a slave is willing to leave his galley, or a prisoner his dungeon, or a thief his bolts, or a beggar his rags.” Grace is the key, and while it appears in human form in Bethlehem, it is explained theologically in the epistles. In this post, I would like to show you some facets of grace that Paul outlines in the book of 2 Corinthians.

Facet #1—God’s Grace Is Our Grace (2 Cor. 6:1–2). The church in Corinth was in trouble, morally and doctrinally confused, and divided. Writing to them, Paul pleaded with them not to waste God’s grace. Christ came to earth that grace be given to us. This is not our grace. It is a gift from God to be treasured and experienced every day.

Facet #2—God’s Grace Is Relational Grace (2 Cor. 8:8–9). Paul realized the church in Corinth was on the verge of becoming selfish with the grace God had given them. But, just as God had freely given grace to the Corinthians, they were to freely express the grace of God to others. The sincerity of our grace will be tested time and time again in the way we lavish God’s grace on others. It makes us reach out to others in tangible ways that meet their needs. We become not just recipients but conduits of God’s grace.

Facet #3—God’s Grace Results in Abounding Grace (2 Cor. 9:6–11). God’s grace should motivate each Christian to be a gracious giver. Just as the grace of God caused Him to give us His own Son at Christmas, it motivates us to give of ourselves, as well. Giving should be the result of an inward resolve resulting in an outward expression. Therefore, when we give we do so cheerfully, knowing that we are giving as an extension of God’s grace to us. The supply of God’s riches will never run dry. It is always abounding. Perhaps this Christmas season, there is a special need you can meet in someone’s life. Perhaps God will lead you to take on a special project, to find a family or individual to care for.

Facet #4—God’s Grace is a Conquering Grace (2 Cor. 10:3–5). If we want to be full of God’s grace we cannot be full of self. Grace is not to be used as an excuse for sin. Instead grace is to be used as a divine weapon to tear down strongholds and set us free! We fight spiritual battles constantly, and by exercising God’s grace we can be more than conquerors.

Facet #5—God’s Grace is Enough Grace (2 Cor. 12:7–10). The word sufficient in this setting means “more than enough.” God told Paul that His power was made perfect in weakness. The more a Christian acknowledges his or her weaknesses the more evident the power of God’s grace becomes. The grace of God is enough. It is all we need.

Karl Barth once wrote that “Grace must find expression in life, otherwise it is not grace.” God wants to fill us full of His grace—full of Jesus. And He wants us to be free from self and free to give in every facet of our lives. This is all possible through the gift of grace found in Jesus Christ.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Adultery: The Seventh Commandment

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell." (Matthew 5:27-30)
What Jesus taught about murder in Matthew 5:21–26, He now teaches in a directly parallel way about adultery, in Matthew 5:27–30. He defines it first, teaching that lust or any other impure sexual thoughts are the equivalent of adultery, just as anger or scornful talk is the equivalent of murder. Then he teaches what can be done about it, saying that whatever causes a person trouble in this area should be dealt with radically.

Is adultery wrong? Yes, that is what Jesus teaches. Is sex outside of marriage wrong? Yes, that is clear too. But Jesus is not just picking on people who have fallen into open sexual sins, as so many in our day have. He is probing deeper into the meaning of this commandment, and what he is saying is that the root of the problem is in the impure desires of the heart. It is there, in the heart, that something is radically wrong.

I recall the section of Mere Christianity in which the great Christian apologist C. S. Lewis is discussing ethics and comes to the Bible’s teaching about sex. He says that the appetite is in ludicrous excess of its function. Then he illustrates.
You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act—that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate onto the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let everyone see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food? And would not anyone who had grown up in a different world think there was something equally queer about the state of the sex instinct among us?
The common argument against this idea is that sex is a problem but that it has become so only because it has been hushed up, as the Victorians are supposed to have done. But that was a century ago. In our day sex and sex-related matters are not hushed up. Nor have they been hushed up for decades. They are discussed without end in magazines and on radio and television, not to mention their treatment in movies. Yet we have more outright perversions, more adultery, more divorce, more illegitimacy, and more downright misery and confusion in this area than at any time in our history. Hushed up? As Lewis says, it is probably the other way around. People hushed up sex originally because it had become such a cesspool, and it may happen again as our present promiscuous age gives rise to a new Victorian temperament.

In the meantime, what should be done? I suppose Jesus was thinking of people living in an age such as ours when he prescribed the radical treatment described in verses 29 and 30. As many people know, these verses led the early church father Origen to obey them literally by having himself castrated. This is not what Jesus is teaching here since he explains himself in Matthew 18:7–9, where hands and eyes stand for “things that cause people to sin” (v. 7). 

So the meaning is this: Get rid of whatever is tempting you to sin. Suggestive movies, especially the kind you can watch privately? Pornography? Even the daily talk shows that wallow in sexual dirt almost endlessly? Yes, indeed. All of the above. Get rid of the poison. Shut the shows off. Protect your mind from such defilement. Doubt me on this? You'd be surprised how several people have shared with me that the series Game of Thrones incites their lust for pornography. I always reply to them, "You know why, don't you? Because Game of Thrones is pornography." They never seem to believe it though.

Of course, in the final analysis, the answer to the problem is not merely to escape the temptation, especially today when it is nearly impossible to avoid all perverse sexual stimulation by our culture. The real answer is a biblical understanding of marriage and of joyful sexual experience within it. But that is something developed elsewhere in the New Testament and for another post.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Proverbs 3:1-12 and Five Attitudes Towards God

Proverbs 3:1-12

My son, do not forget my teaching,
    but let your heart keep my commandments,
for length of days and years of life
    and peace they will add to you.
Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you;
    bind them around your neck;
    write them on the tablet of your heart.
So you will find favor and good success
    in the sight of God and man.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
    and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
    and he will make straight your paths.
Be not wise in your own eyes;
    fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.
It will be healing to your flesh
    and refreshment to your bones.
Honor the Lord with your wealth
    and with the firstfruits of all your produce;
then your barns will be filled with plenty,
    and your vats will be bursting with wine.
My son, do not despise the Lord's discipline
    or be weary of his reproof,
for the Lord reproves him whom he loves,
    as a father the son in whom he delights.

When it comes to our attitudes towards God, five specific attitudes are urged on us. 

First, we are to be steadfast in our commitment (Prov. 3:3–4; cf. Dt. 6:8; 11:18). Love and faithfulness are a key Old Testament word pair suggesting the making and keeping of commitments. Such characteristics belong to God, and constitute aims for the human response to God and to other people (e.g. 14:22; 16:6; 20:28; Pss. 25:10; 40:10–11).

Secondly, we are to be dependent in our thinking (Prov. 3:5–6). Trust and lean both suggest the physical experience of supporting yourself on something or someone in total and helpless reliance and commitment.

Thirdly, we are to be humble in our obedience (Prov. 3:7–8). Wise in your own eyes denotes not merely proud of your own wisdom but self-sufficient in it and therefore not feeling the need to refer things to God (no doubt a besetting temptation for people committed to finding wisdom).
Fourthly, we are to be lavishly generous in our giving (Prov. 3:9–10; cf. Dt. 26).

Fifthly, we are to be submissive in our experience of affliction (Prov. 11–12; cf. Dt. 8:5).

We can be those things because they will bring us favour (v. 4), direction (v. 6), health (v. 8), and prosperity (v. 10), and because the one to whom we submit in these varying ways is our loving Father (v. 12).