A New Perspective on… James?

Forgive me, but I couldn’t help myself on the title. But don’t leave yet! So much debate has gone on through the centuries over the issue of the Christian’s relationship to the law, and the nature of salvation in relation to works and faith. Anyone who has done even a small amount of New Testament study has come across Paul’s wonderful affirmations of the just living by faith, and justification by grace, through faith, not of works, etc. Even easier to find still is the book of James’ affirmation that faith without works is dead, and that justification is by works too and not faith alone. So is this contradictory? Why two seemingly opposite answers to the same question? Now, news flash.. I will not be ending the debate today. But I do wonder if we have our template wrong for understanding this really tough question.

For me, the problem starts with the fact that both authors are appealing to the same Old Testament quotation in their respective treatments; Genesis 15:6, which states, “And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” This verse refers to Abraham’s trust in God who told him that he would have a son, a true biological one. This quotation in Genesis comes within a broader conversation between God and Abraham about this very promise because, as of yet, God had given Abraham no seed. Abraham questions God, because at that time, Eliezer of Damascus, his servant, was set to be the heir to his estate and this was not a good thing. This of course, precedes the famous smoking oven passage where God ratifies his covenant with Abraham, then specifically mentions the land of promise after telling Abraham what would happen to his progeny. So this I think will do to at least set some context for thinking about the quotations.

I find it so interesting that Paul spends much time in Romans, before he quotes this passage dealing with the righteousness of God. at least 5 times he mentions it. God’s righteousness is “revealed in the gospel” (1:17), it may be shown when men are unrighteous(3:5); it is “now manifested apart from the law”(3:21), given through faith in Jesus(3:22), and it is shown in God’s giving of Jesus to be the propitiation(3:25-26). So God’s righteousness is important in the course of the book so far, and it is in Paul’s interest to defend it and express it. But he also says that the Law and the Prophets attest to this (3:21), and that this faith in what is portraying God’s righteousness in this powerful way, does not overthrow the law, but in fact upholds it! (3:31). So now following Paul’s line of reasoning, it seems fair to say that Abraham gained nothing according to the flesh (4:1) as neither did the Jews to whom Paul was referring to in the previous chapters (3:9-19, 2:12-13, 2:28-29). Paul then relates that Abraham believed in what God told him, and it was counted to him as righteousness. He then will go on to expound how this is applicable now to Gentiles, but this is simple enough.

As for James, this is where it gets tricky because Paul seems to take this passage at face value. Yet, when James quotes this verse, he refers to it as being fulfilled at the time when Abraham offered up Isaac on Mount Moriah which is 7 chapters later in the book. It does seem strange. And this is where I propose we understand James a little differently. If we remember in the beginning of the letter/epistle, James begins it with, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (Jam 1:2-4) I wonder if we should understand James’ quotation and his understanding of the Abrahamic story against the backdrop of these verses. That Abraham is seen as the “faithful sufferer” or the “enduring trial-bearer” who, through the binding of Isaac, the test of offering his “beloved son” (Gen 22:2), had his faith made “perfect” or complete(Jam 2:22b). The only correspondent missing is the joyfulness at the trial, but I should think that therein lies the exhortation because of the precedent set before it. And this would fulfill the Scripture in a different way. In the very next chapter, after God’s Angel intervenes and blesses Abraham, reaffirming the covenant made to him, Abraham is able to obtain the very first piece of the land that God had promised to give him in his purchase of the cave of Machpelah which would become the family burial site. And this ties in both of the promises from the original context in a really neat way.

So like I said before, I don’t plan on solving the debate, and I don’t necessarily expect many to agree with me, but it does seem a coherent and different way to harmonize the two apostles. This is especially true given that after Paul’s discourse on Abraham, he slides into some surprisingly similar statements. After he has concluded that we have been justified by faith in Jesus Christ, in verse 3 he says, “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Rom 5:3-5) Given the joy, suffering, endurance, and shamelessness, I’d say these two are a little more harmonious than they are given credit for.

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Spirit and Power: A Comparison of John and Elijah

You may or may not be like me, but I was raised in church, and my parents were at church a lot. Naturally, I learned much about bible characters that may or may not be too helpful for Christian growth, but still the stories do tend to stick. And I was always stuck on the figure of John the Baptist. I was told he was like Elijah the great prophet during the kingdoms of Israel and Judah who had done miraculous things like raising the dead, and making oil and flour last a REALLY long time. Yet, the only correlation I could ever see was the fact that they both wore a leather belt and Elijah was hairy. John apparently wasn’t, so he wore a camel’s hair garment to make himself fit the bill. That should be it right?

After years of distancing myself from things of the Christian faith, God called me to Himself, but that haze returned for this odd man even after deciding to follow Jesus. Now, I will not claim to say that the haze has entirely cleared, but the connections are quite fascinating.

Now John, in similar manner to many great men in the Old Testament, was born to childless parents who received news from God, that they would conceive. He was of the priestly caste, yet God would be calling him to a little bit different path, although his family was definitely devout. The message given to his father by the altar of incense was this, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard,and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord… and he will go forth in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (LUK 1:13-17- parts) So that’s it. Now what does this spirit and power of Elijah thing actually mean?

Now I’m not sure how fruitful it would be to quibble and try to dissect whether the spirit and power is meant to be viewed as one thing(hendiadys) or not. And although I am tempted to try to assign one to each, I will refrain. But it seems to me that as John the Baptist steps on the scene, his message very strongly resonates with Elijah’s in 1 KIN 18:21, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions?” His call is clear. Get right, because God is coming! The analogy detours some, however, because John is not here having a contest like on Mt. Carmel against prophets of Baal, but against Israelites who would mostly claim to worship Yahweh alone. Especially when you consider his call in Matthew’s account to Pharisees and Sadducees specifically, he is standing up against those who hold the cards for their contemporary worship. So, now, just as in Carmel, the prophet is in the view of all the people against the leadership of Israel, demanding they repent and calling them out on wickedness.

In sequence, it is telling that after the failure of Baal’s prophets, in an all day event to get Baal the Storm god to answer by fire, Elijah seems almost tenderly, to call the people around himself(1 KIN 18:30a). He then proceeds to repair the altar of the LORD that had been thrown down; he takes 12 stones according to the number of Israel’s tribes, and in the way of the patriarchs, builds an altar in the name of the LORD(1 KIN 18:30-32, GEN 12:7, 13:18). In the same way that Elijah takes their thoughts theatrically back to the faith of their ancestors, John too, brings Israel back to a place of reset. This is the Jordan River, the very place where Israel first stepped foot into the much-anticipated promised land. So both men are calling Israel back to pure faith in these deeds. Although there is much that needs to be said of the hearts of fathers and children and reconciliation that will be found through John’s and later Jesus’ ministries; I think it’s necessary first to see this as calling Israel back to its original roots of faith, and being true offspring of Abraham since that is the ultimate goal.

Now after superfluously drenching the sacrifice that he had set up that day, Elijah prays his prayer. There was no cutting himself, wailing, or any jeering from the opponents. Just the words of a man who had set his heart to the God of Israel. “Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.The fire consumes everything, the people confess that Yahweh is God, and they slay all the prophets of Baal. Now, I purposefully left out part of the quote from earlier in Gabriel’s description of John in Luke’s gospel. Let’s go back. “..And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.(LUK 1:15-16) It is no wonder that Jesus would tell people that if they were able to receive it, that John was Elijah who was to come. The altar was prepared, the showdown between God and Beelzebub had been set, now the offering had to be soaked so even the trench would fill, before the fire from the LORD would fall. Is it coincidence that John said himself, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.”?(LUK 3:16)

 

Washing in the Pool of Siloam: Saul’s conversion

The transformation of the man, Saul of Tarsus, over the span of history is one of the most studied circumstances in all of New Testament and Biblical Studies and I suspect the ink well will not run dry on it any time soon. This curious episode, to me is one of a list of questions I should ask anyone who doubts the validity of the New Testament writings and the Church’s claims. How do you explain him? But to analyze the metaphysical occurrences, or the psychological state of Saul would be beyond my knowledge and frankly, not important to me in this post. But I am wondering if there is another text in Scripture to help us understand what exactly happened to him.

I have in mind already a candidate, but I will save it for suspense. In Acts 9, Saul was breathing threats against the church and his zeal had lead him to go to the high priest directly and obtain letters to the synagogues of Damascus. This would allow him authority to round up those who were Christ’s followers and bring them captive to Jerusalem. But, as we know, this didn’t happen. Saul met the most brilliant of lights, and in that light, met the risen Jesus. Jesus tells him specifically in the first account to go into the city, and find out what he is to do next. Saul, being in this light was blinded, and had to be led by the hand. It was not until the Lord sent Ananias to meet with Saul that he got his sight back. This literal blinding of Saul is what I want to bunker down in.

During Jesus’ ministry, there was a certain mode of operation that was particularly prevalent, and this was the restoration of sight to the blind. This had been foretold in the prophets as one of the signs that the Messiah’s ministry was contingent on.(ISA 35:5, 42:7) But there is one healing in particular that is very striking. It is in John 9, where he puts clay on a blind man’s eyes and tells him to go wash to receive his sight. Then John gives us a detailed story of the town’s reaction to this miracle. This man becomes almost a prototype evangelist. Everyone is astonished because they know him to be the blind guy who is always there begging, but he is not begging now because he is able to see. He tells of what Jesus did to and for him, although at that point he doesn’t know the extent of who Jesus is. He gets into it with the “Jews” and eventually they put him out of the synagogue because he will not let go of the fact that Jesus had done this, and he had respect for him as a prophet. Later, Jesus finds him and reveals himself to him and calls him to believe. The man assents; then Jesus says these words, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.”(JOHN 9:39)And also he says to the Pharisees, “If you were blind, then you would have no guilt; but now that you say ‘We see’, your guilt remains.”(JOHN 9:41)

In the case of Saul, we may be seeing these statements of Jesus playing out in a radical way, both literally and figuratively. On one hand, Paul is a devout Pharisee, no doubt of similar stock to those who Jesus was talking to in John’s gospel. He is a leader of the people and a teacher; his way of viewing the Way, as it was called, was definitely not straddling the fence. He knew without a doubt that this was heresy, and he was determined to root it out! This was him, I perceive, being one who “sees” as it were, and his encounter with the Christ on the road to Damascus left him blind literally. We can see that his “seeing” was his spiritual blindness and now the wild paradox gets super confusing. But can you see where the opposite statuses are taking their effects? All this is to say that if this is correct, then Jesus’ condemnation on those who see, is not a pronouncement of their eternal fate, but an act of chasing after the sinner in whatever state they are in and changing their position so as to cause them to seek him. That those who deem themselves satisfactorily in God’s good graces should have cause to doubt it and to call on His name. Those who know they are not can feel welcomed to call on Him in spite of it.

In conclusion, I think it is stretching it to say that there is some intertextuality at play here, but I think in the least, it is something to consider that Jesus’ statements could play out in this way for at least one disciple, namely Saul. This is the man who wrote in ROM 11:11, “So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather, through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous.” And ROM 11:30-32, “For just as you were at one time disobedient to God, but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too now have been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.” How fitting for this man, the chief of sinners, to be made blind, so that he could see that “I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.”(1 TIM 1:16).

Let me know what you think! Criticism is always needed.

Shepherding in the Biblical Narrative

In my small church group bible study, we are going through the gospel of John. This week we were entering chapter 10 and the “Good Shepherd Discourse”. This got me to start thinking more heavily on this and reopen a study I have been working on. These are my reflections as I have revisited this topic after a while.

I would be unqualified and actually unable to really tell you with any certainty what the role of the modern shepherd is today. No doubt in certain countries and contexts this will be more familiar to people. But I do know that in the biblical story, this idea is paramount to understanding relationships, both between God himself and us, and also ours with each other. I will attempt to explain what I mean if you do not already know where I am going with this.

From the first pages of Genesis, we are introduced to Abel, who was a tender of sheep. In turn, since the beginning of biblical and therefore humankind’s history, men have been in this trade of keeping sheep for various reasons. Not having to move too far through the Hebrew Scriptures, we are confronted with men of this type all over. The patriarchs are especially of note for my purposes. Then, when the narrative has proceeded almost all the way through Genesis, we come across Jacob and his blessing of Joseph and his sons, and then also the eschatological oracles given to each of his sons. Within the oracle to Joseph, which is itself another blessing, and the initial blessing to Joseph, Jacob portrays God in each of these as THE Shepherd(GEN 48:15, 49:24). He acknowledges that in the same way that he and his fathers before him, have kept flocks in the wilderness anticipating the promise of God; God himself has kept them, and been with him all of his life! This is beautiful imagery of God that will be repeated significantly in different ways throughout the rest of the Bible. In a few cases in Genesis, we see that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob each have quarrels with another group of shepherds, and this I think prefigures the conflict between those who are God’s shepherds and everyone else, since God himself has set the standard.

Moses follows suit after the patriarchs only after he has been chased out of Egypt for slaughtering the Egyptian to save a Hebrew slave. So now this that is told to us in GEN 46:34 is an abomination, namely shepherds, Moses becomes after having grown up in the house of Pharaoh’s daughter. For the sake of space, I will condense lots of the story, although it’s tempting to recite as much as I can remember. But Moses after leading the Israelites through their many rebellions and judgments, would himself rebel and was prohibited from entering the land. As God reveals to him the time and place of his death, Moses gives his last request. In NUM 27:17, Moses gives plea to God for a successor, “so that the community of the LORD would not be like sheep without a shepherd.” Here it is that the man closest to God on the earth, who would speak to God face to face, requests for God’s people a leader who will “go out and come in before them”. I think this reveals something about God’s desire for his people as he promptly answers and Joshua is appointed in the sight of all the people.

In this way, the leaders of God’s people were to have this duty of shepherding from the time of the judges, and finding its pinnacle in David(1 SAM 5:2, 7:7-8). But after Solomon, and the dividing of the kingdom, Israel fell into gross idolatry, and was even led into it. So the next important story is that of Ahab and Micaiah. In 1 KINGS 21:17, Micaiah is brought before the king’s counsel and told to prophesy. He tells the king, “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains like sheep without a shepherd.” So at this point, a height of idolatry, Micaiah has a vision and sees Moses’ greatest fear! There is no able man set in place to lead Israel in proper relationship to Yahweh. Over and over again, the motif of Micaiah’s angst of heart is repeated in the prophets.(JER 25:34, EZE 34:5-12, ZEC 10:2, ZEC 11:16 etc.) But this is set over against the hope that God will install the shepherd of shepherds, the one who will lead Israel in correct relationship with her God.(MIC 5:4, EZE 34:23, 37:24) Ultimately, this will fulfill Moses’ request in a final and lasting way!

Now we get to the NT, where in John 10, Jesus takes up this mantle. “I am the good shepherd” (JOHN 10:11a). “If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.” Not just in John is this apparent, but Matthew and Mark also draw on Moses and Micaiah’s language when they say that Jesus saw the crowds and had compassion on them “for they were like sheep without a shepherd.” (MAT 9:36, MAR 6:34) The obvious reference to the deity of Christ is not to be overlooked here in this imagery, either from the reaction of the Jews to Jesus’ saying these things or the numerous times the God of Israel is portrayed as the Shepherd; (PS 23, ISA 40:11, GEN 48:15) yet I would provoke us to allow ourselves to be like sheep, vulnerable, to be led by God in Christ foremost, and secondly by those shepherds to whom God has placed our care. And to encourage them to do this in a way that will be pleasing to our God. God desires those who can compassionately keep the flock going to its destination, but boldly will leave the others that are safe for one(s) who have been lost and wrench them from the jaws of the evil one. This God did for us in Christ, so let us have this mind when we see wayward Christians and those who do not know God at all.

Biblical Scholarship.. Important?

 

In John 21:25, John makes an emphatic statement. “And there are also many things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen.” A beautiful statement of the bountiful deeds that Jesus performed and the endless ways those who saw him could expound upon their meaning and impact. Now, a brief glimpse at the bookshelves in a small, local Christian College makes this verse particularly staggering. This is only a mite-sized portion of the available data and it hurts to look through it after just a few minutes of perusing the titles. And this is with having the limited detail. Just imagine all the libraries in the world and not to mention those books throughout history that we have lost! This is part of biblical scholarship; its is vast, it is multi-faceted, and it is wonderful. But I do have a question: How important is biblical scholarship to the normal everyday Christian? And if not very, should it be?

I suppose the argument could be made that Jesus himself was no academic, although he astounded the scholars of his day with his understanding, even as a boy. The New Testament also claims in certain parts that Jesus’ disciples after him were not especially learned. The prophets on occasion were men of the field or wilderness wanderers. So, God tended to use those who were not particularly “academics” right? Yet, Moses was brought up in Pharaoh’s house, Daniel learned all the literature and language in Babylon, the apostle Paul was a Pharisee from the Diaspora in Tarsus, and Apollos was a great orator from Alexandria. Don’t even get me started on church history. So it seems there is a little more of a mixed bag. So the question remains: How important is it?

Within the past year or so, I have tiptoed into this area and learned so much. There are many scholars looking to bridge the gap between the academy and the laity, and provide research to those who are gasping for the air of deeper study. These are to be commended. I was previously aware that scholars existed, but only new of them vaguely through a sermon here or there that would mention what they say on obscure background information or something like that, but always wondered who they were and what they do all day. I was unaware of their devotion to Jesus in most cases. So, as to importance, in my mind it is very important, to honor men and women who devote their lives– and in many cases incur great debts– to this study of Scripture in all of its subcategories, whether backgrounds, languages, exegesis.. And to gratefully and prayerfully consider their research. But this is a hard thing for us modern Christians, in the West, to even get our feet wet in; when many of us, between family, work, and church life, have barely the time to read our Bibles, pray, sleep, and repeat. There is also the temptation, as I have done in the past, to be so foolish as to say that I don’t need to read what “men” say about the text, I just need my Bible, thinking I will have all the answers. These are two different views that end with the same result: neglect.

There may be many other ways we could slice up the pie of why biblical scholarship is or isn’t important to every individual Christian, but these seem common. I know that scholars can get lost in their own debates, interact with so many other academic works that sometimes it is hard to follow their points, and in the end you don’t have to be a scholar to understand and preach the gospel, or teach the Christian faith. But without their earnest dedication and hard work, we would definitely be at a loss. So I don’t want to sound a clarion call, but I just want to reinforce that God has used many in the biblical writings and beyond from a variety of different backgrounds, and though this is the case, each one has to have one thing in common.. The Spirit of God. This was the joining factor for all of them: commitment to Yahweh and the moving of His Spirit on them. So as we attempt to discern God’s will in all things, let us take into account those who labor in the Word in whatever vocation, those who labor in ministry, and let us all labor in love, as this is what binds us all together and will show that we are truly disciples of Jesus.

Welcome

My name is Daniel Stone. I live in Florida with my wife and three kids– well two at the moment, the third is on the way ;). I am a Christian and am deeply committed to God’s Word. This blog is way for me to reflect and wrestle with the maelstrom of questions that come with knowing a God who, if He had not revealed Himself, would be unknowable. I hope that it will do at least two things: one, let me write out my ideas instead of talking to myself out loud(as much anyway); and two, to engage others in this activity of knowing God through His Son, Jesus Christ.

“Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.”  Psalm 24:3-4

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