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Hebrew Christians and Their Bible

The New Testament book of Hebrews was written to Hebrew/Jewish Christians, who had grown up treasuring their bible, the Old Testament. Thus Hebrews began by remembering how God formerly spoke to the (Jewish) fathers through the prophets (Heb. 1:1). After a long history of God’s servants the prophets speaking to usually disobedient fathers, especially the leading or ruling fathers of Israel, God at last has spoken a new word through a Son (Heb. 1:1-2). Unlike the ruling fathers and sons of Israel, who passed on their power from generation to generation, this Son will inherit all things. For it was through this Son that God created the universe (1:2). Much more than the Hebrew nation is at stake now.

While Jewish prophets spread light by speaking truth to power, the Son was the radiance of the shining glory of God (1:3). The Son has come into the world he created, the world he will inherit. As the man Jesus, the Son not only confronted the sins of Israel; he brought a purification of sins. He was without sin; he perfectly represented the righteousness of God on earth; and he was obedient unto death, a death that was the supreme sacrifice for sins.

His death was also the beginning of his universal power: he sat down at the right hand of the Majestic God who rules on high (1:3). He is higher than all the heavenly angels of the universe, for he is the Son who is the heir (1:4); he inherits all things; he rules over all the things he created, including the angels.

This strong Son bears/upholds all things, especially all those in the world who have been drawn to his radiance and power (1:3). The ruling Jesus especially “brings along” all those whom he has purified and brought into his righteous family. Through the word of his power, his new family is purified and empowered to remain faithful in a universe still darkened by fallen angels and unruly fathers.

The scope has expanded exponentially. The limited scope of the Hebrew prophets and fathers and nation–and the Hebrew bible, the Old Testament–has been transcended by the Son who created all things and is heir of all things. Now his majestic heavenly power has begun to build a new family all over the world, a purified people who are empowered by the word of his power and remain faithful to the ruling Son.

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Believing Includes Obeying

Most Protestants know that salvation is by faith and not by works. And faith means simply believing in Jesus, especially in his death for our sins.

Martin Luther led a Protestant Reformation that focused on justification by faith (interpreted as God crediting Jesus’ righteousness to those who believed in Jesus’ righteous sacrifice for them). Ever since then, Protestant pastors continue to focus on that simple message: accept Jesus as your Savior and have your sins forgiven.

The Protestant founding fathers also focused on the authority of the bible in order to discount Catholic traditions (like indulgences, for Luther, and like the Catholic sacraments). The bible seemed to have only two sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s supper. Baptism celebrates our new faith in Jesus, and the Lord’s supper remembers his sacrificial death for us.

The problem is that the bible is primarily about two covenants, two testaments. Despite the fact that the New Testament describes the Old Testament–and its predominant covenant, the law of Moses for the nation of Israel–as the main example of works (works of the law) that do not and can not save, the authority of the whole bible causes Christians to think that the Old Testament is an authority on the same level as the New Testament (and useful for guiding our own nation, the U.S., seen as a new Israel).

Jesus as a law giver, who focuses on love for neighbor–and defines neighbor as even our enemies, even foreigners–is thus not required reading. Jesus’ new covenant that is for people from every nation and ethnic group, and that requires these diverse factions to unite into a fellowship of love sounds nice–but working it out is just works. Paul, however, defined true faith as faith that is working through love (Galatians 5:6). This means true faith is a believing in Jesus who loved us and who commanded us to love–and is focusing on the presence and power of the living Jesus, along with his and our Father, the living God, along with his Spirit poured out each day on us, to help us actually do acts of love. All of that is what true grace is; such grace enables true faith and obedience. For Jesus and Paul, and the whole New Testament/Covenant, believing in Jesus includes obeying Jesus.

The Ultimate Sacrifice

On Memorial Day Americans remember especially soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice. Because they gave their lives to fight for our freedom, we remember them, we celebrate them.

When Jesus, however, was about to give up his life for us, he told his disciples to remember him through breaking bread (his broken “body”) and drinking wine (his “blood”) together. His ultimate sacrifice fulfilled all the animal sacrifices (for sin) found in the Old Testament. Jesus’ sacrifice epitomized his new covenant of love, a love that was pure in heart and full of compassion.

Because Jesus sacrificed his life out of love for even his enemies, we should remember his death as distinctly different from the deaths of soldiers who risk their lives out of love for their countries–and hate for their enemies, the ones they are fighting. Jesus’ death is a basis for forgiveness of sins, including sins of hate, violence, and killing of another person. And Jesus’ death is an example for his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him, willing to give up their lives but not willing to take another life.

So let’s remember Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice as the major reason that we refuse to sacrifice others. To kill enemies of our country is applauded by our powerful leaders (“fathers”). But the desires to kill and destroy are sins to be confessed to the most powerful of all, God the Father, who raised Jesus from death. Jesus is Lord. And Jesus’ ongoing presence and power can give us freedom to follow his way of love. Jesus’ kingdom, not earthly kingdoms and their “freedom,” is the ultimate.

True Sympathy

Many people feel sorry when they see or hear about someone who is in financial or physical trouble. Such periodic feelings of sympathy sometimes lead to words that express sorrow–or (less often) to random acts of kindness. True sympathy, however, is a way of life that regularly (not randomly) pays attention to those in need and acts by giving things that are needed.

In James 2:15-16 a Christian sees a Christian brother or sister who is in trouble, dressed poorly with little to eat. The sympathetic words of response seek to comfort the downtrodden one: “Go in peace, be warmed and filled.” But such words of sympathy are only a substitute for what is really needed: giving the one in trouble the things they need (warmer clothes, more food). So James asks: what do such words of sympathy really profit?

False sympathy profits nobody, including the one speaking false words to those in need. And the worst result of false sympathy is the future judgment before God. “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy” (James 2:13). Yet for the one who shows mercy and acts on behalf of the needy–showing true sympathy–that “mercy triumphs over judgment.”

A faith that simply believes in God and Jesus (and their acts of mercy), yet has no works of mercy and love is a faith that is false. It is in fact dead (2:17). Only those who serve the royal law of love and mercy (2:8) will be judged by the law of liberty (2:12), which blesses those who act, who do what Jesus’ love requires (1:25). Those who show true sympathy, who actually help by giving the things needed, will be the ones who receive God’s final mercy in the end.

As Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

Churches That Love the Rich

The rich and powerful in the world manipulate the rest of the world to think highly of them. This includes the religious world as well.

In James 2:2 a rich man enters a church gathering wearing a gold ring and bright white clothes. Then a poor man enters the group wearing dirty clothing. Everybody pays attention to the rich man, offering him a good seat among the leaders of the church; and somebody tells the poor man to stand at the back, or to sit at the feet of someone (2:3).

To introduce this church setting–where those in the church cater to the rich–James has reminded his Christian brothers and sisters of the one true Lord, Jesus Christ, the “Lord of glory” (2:1). As the Christ–the anointed king of God–and as the risen Lord, Jesus’ power and glory supersedes all the power and riches of the world.

Unlike this church, however, the “faith of Jesus” (2:1) warned the rich of future judgment and blessed poor disciples with a new kingdom where he was king (for example, see Luke 6:20-26). In this kingdom, disciples of the new king will not show partiality to the rich.

Thus James goes on to accuse those in the church of flattering the rich and humiliating the poor; such Christians then become “lords” themselves, acting like powerful judges with evil thoughts, honoring the rich and showing contempt for the poor (2:4).

James reminds his brothers and sisters about their new (heavenly) Father–in this new family of Jesus’ kingdom–who has chosen some of those who are poor in the world to become his children (2:5). Children of God who share the faith of Jesus will inherit from their Father the new kingdom God has promised to those who love him (2:5). Lowly brothers and sisters (on earth) can look forward to the future exaltation of receiving the “crown of life” God has promised to those who love him (see James 1:9,12).

But James challenges this church that dishonors the poor man. In doing so, they are acting more like the ruling fathers of the world than like their Father in heaven (2:6). The ruling lords of the world refuse to be generous toward the poor; instead, they dominate and exploit, or simply neglect, those under them. They are bosses who demand much from their workers. If workers complain against them, refuse to work, or steal from them, the rich drag them into courts that will rule in their favor (2:6). The leaders of the world make laws that are partial to themselves, give bribes to judges that will favor their cases, and promote judges who show partiality to them.

These words from James also challenge churches today. For many leaders in present churches (both lay leaders and pastors, who are well-paid or want to be well-paid) likewise cater to the rich and neglect the poor. It is common for the richest church members to be given the most important leadership positions in the churches. And those leaders prefer to build the most impressive building (“church”) possible, and to pay the pastor(s) such that they will focus on “spiritual” things and not bite the hand that feeds them. Pastors in “successful” churches (with newer or bigger buildings and bigger budgets and salaries) are reluctant to challenge their richest members (who give in order to make their churches “successful”). If such pastors begin to preach to the richest like Jesus did, most of those members will either stop giving (as much or at all), leave the church, or (most likely) cause the pastor to leave. The result is that churches continue to show partiality to the rich and to manipulate or ignore the poor.

Pure Religion

In James 1:27 pure religion is defined as visiting orphans and widows, and remaining “unstained” from the world. For the world in general conveniently forgets, neglects, or even denounces the destitute poor. Pure religion, however, focuses on visiting and helping the poor, showing practical love to neighbors with the greatest need.

Rich Christians prefer passages in the Old Testament that refer to God’s covenant with Israel, which promised blessings of prosperity and health for those who obeyed God’s commands. Wealth then becomes a sign that they are blessed by God. And poverty is a sign that the poor are not blessed by God, due to their disregard for God.

Thus Christ’s works of mercy are exchanged for the “Protestant work ethic.” Such Protestants emphasize they are saved by faith not by works, but then think their hard daily work at their vocational “calling” has earned their “blessings” of prosperity.

But the problem of the poor is not generally due to their lack of work, but that most of their better-off employers pay poverty wages. But the rich mostly view poverty as the problem of the poor; actually poverty is the problem of the rich. The impure religion of a stained world remains devoted primarily to its own selfish ambition.

Only the pure word of Jesus (and James, and the rest of the New Testament) is true–and those doing that word remain near the bottom, serving among the most destitute. (Among many New Testament passages, note this pure religion in Acts 6:1-3 in the early Jerusalem church, as well as 1 Timothy 5:3-16 for some of Paul’s churches.)

God’s Grace in the Book of James

The book of James is known especially for its emphasis on good works (faith without works is dead). Martin Luther disliked James because he saw little of God’s grace–an emphasis of the apostle Paul in books like Romans and Galatians.

But James does portray a graceful foundation for his emphasis on good works. In 1:17-18,21 he mixes agricultural and “birth” metaphors to point to God’s gifts (grace) from above. The “word of truth” of 1:18 becomes the “implanted” word in 1:21; and this “plant” produces “first fruits” (God’s new “creatures,” who are “brought forth” or “birthed” by the word of truth).

So through the word of truth implanted from above, the (heavenly) “Father of lights” gives the “perfect gift” that produces new creatures, new children (of the Father), who receive with meekness the implanted word from above (1:17-18). This Father’s gift–that enables the birth of new children and empowers them to become new creatures–is especially what Paul means by “grace.” For both Paul and James, grace is God at work, producing new life in new children (of God).

This divine word of truth is able (powerful) to save (the souls of) God’s new children (1:21). God’s grace here is not primarily mercy (or forgiveness); this grace is God working in us to save us from present selfish desires and sin, and from eternal death. Those receiving this good and perfect gift from the Father of lights will not waver in darkness.