Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Law of freedom

This morning, when I was certain that Lisa was awake, I asked her a question that I had been mulling all night. In James chapter 2, what does James mean when he says, "So speak and do as by the law of freedom"? What is the law of freedom?

Lisa asked questions about the context; then she asked if any other New Testament writer uses the same phrase, law of freedom (no other writer does). Finally, she admitted that she had no idea. "It sounds like an oxymoron," she said. Of course, she was right. The phrase, law of freedom, presents an immediate paradox. I'm convinced that James thought so, too, which makes the pursuit of this concept all the more interesting. James 2 presents two basic themes:

  1. Favoritism within the assembly is sin.
  2. Faith without works is dead.

Bridging these sections, James presents a conundrum. Showing favoritism violates the Law of Moses because the Law requires that one love his neighbor as he would love himself. James goes on to explain that one infraction of the Law makes one a violator of the whole Law. He uses the sins of adultery and murder as examples. If you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you are guilty of violating the Law. Once the Law was violated, there is no [CTRL-Z] undo. James' answer, then, is to "speak and do as if you are about to be judged by the law of freedom." He goes on to explain, saying, "For judgment is merciless to the one not having mercy, and mercy glories over judgment." James 2:13 (AB)

James then goes into his discourse about faith, or belief, with and without works. He concludes this section saying, "For as the body separate from the spirit is dead, so also the belief separate from the works is dead." James 2:26 (AB) James illustrates this by recalling Abraham. Scripture says, "Abraham believed God, and it was imputed to him for righteousness." James 2:23 (AB), but James notices that Abraham was also justified by works, ". . . having offered Isaac, his son, upon the altar." James 2:21 (AB) If Abraham believed God, then he would have no reservations obeying God. However, if Abraham disobeyed God, then there is no evidence that Abraham believed. Faith without works is dead.

How does this relate to the law of freedom? Just as violating the Law of Moses brought man under the judgment of the entire Law, so obeying the law of freedom affirms our faith! There is a converse relationship between the two laws. Paul calls the Law of Moses, the "law of sin and death." He writes, "The law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus freed me from the law of sin and death." Romans 8:2 (AB) Violating the Law is irreversible—you cannot un-murder someone. Likewise, responding by faith to the law of freedom likewise forever sets us free from the law of sin and death. By faith, the law of freedom leverages God's mercy, and "Mercy triumphs over judgment." James 2:13 (NIV)

Abraham's example in James is especially interesting when we consider that Abraham believed and was justified before the Law (and the even the covenant of circumcision) was given (Romans 4:9-12). Abraham's actions did not emit from his obligation to the Law, but rather Abraham's actions flowed from his faith. This is how James is telling us to live. If we have no actions to show for our faith, then our faith is worthless — even the demons believe that God exists. If we indeed have true faith, however, it will fill our actions. This is the law of freedom! Actions flowing from faith may not look like a punch list; however, they stand as testimony to our faith.

James uses an example: suppose you know someone in dire need and you say something like, "Good luck with that," but do nothing to help, what good is it? On the other hand, the law of freedom causes us to intercede for the destitute. The law of freedom causes us to be merciful. The law of freedom causes us to treat people equally without discrimination. The law of freedom transforms our faith into actions.

Just as James merges two opposing concepts, faith and works, into one idea, he likewise coins the phrase, law of freedom, to describe how faith and works cooperate together. The law of freedom insists that our faith will result in works of kindness and mercy, just as the Law insists that sin results in death. The law of freedom is incontrovertible – almost like gravity – we may resist it, but if our faith is real, the law of freedom will demonstrate itself in our actions. However, the law of freedom is not a law of external coercion but rather a law of internal impulse. We will act as we believe.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Poor in the eyes of the world

Pat Robertson, the media millionaire, attracted attention to himself by implying that the Haitians had it coming. Surely, no one still takes Pat Robertson seriously. This is the same Pat Robertson that converted charitable donations into a 1.9 billion dollar for-profit media company. He then cashed it in for a personal gain of over 100 million, i.e. more money than President Obama initially promised Haiti in US aid. Is this man a credible spiritual leader?

Nevertheless, Pat Robertson tells the world that Haiti is paying the price for rebelling against French Colonial rule. It probably never occurred to Pat that Haiti might be still paying the price for enduring French colonialism in the first place. The other half of Hispaniola, the Dominican Republic (a former Spanish colony) does not fare so poorly as Haiti. Of course, this is merely my own speculation.

It takes arrogance to blame the victims while they still lie dying under the rubble of Port au Prince. If Robertson thinks that the tragedy in Port au Prince relates to some Haitians’ deal with the devil, what does his 1.9 billion dollar transaction with Rupert Murdoch portend for his future?

When tragedies occur, it is natural for people to ask, “Why?” We just need a smarter answer than Pat Robertson is likely to supply. Luke chapter 13 records people coming to Jesus wanting an answer to their question, “Why?”

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

“‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”

Luke 13:1-9 (NIV)

Pilate, who was governor of Jerusalem, had killed some Galileans who apparently had come to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices. Rome had been in Israel for over a hundred years. Initially, they had come as a peace-keeping force, but as time went on they came to assume that they owned the place. Many Jews were hoping for a Messiah who would deliver them from the brutality of their Roman peace. Luke doesn’t tell us why Pilate killed the Galileans. Why? Probably because it doesn’t matter.

When people brought the news to Jesus, he didn’t even wait for them to ask him, “Why?” He said to them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?” It had crossed their minds. Jesus emphatically tells them that their assumptions are incorrect. “I tell you, no!” he said. The Galileans killed by Pilate were no worse than others. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. Instead, he directs the listener’s concern inward when he says, “But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Jesus would not entertain speculation regarding why certain people had suffered an untimely death. Instead, he directed his listener to examine his own heart.

The killing of the Galileans was a political event, so Jesus elaborates and discusses some accidental deaths. Eighteen people had been killed when a tower fell on them. Jesus asked, “Do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?” Again, it had crossed their minds. They probably assumed it to be true. But Jesus says again, “I tell you, no!” Those eighteen were no worse than others. And again, Jesus draws the listener’s attention inward, saying, “But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Jesus was telling his listeners not to speculate regarding God’s judgment when bad things happen to other people. Instead, he tells them each to examine his own heart.

After telling his listeners that unless they repent, they will perish, he tells them a parable. A man had a fig tree that was three years old. The tree should have produced fruit, but it had not. The man was tempted to cut it down. The gardener intervened and asked for one more year to nurture the tree so that it would produce fruit. The owner of the land relented.

Jesus ends the story there. He doesn’t say whether the tree produced fruit and was spared or whether the gardener’s work was for naught, and the tree was destroyed. He left the listener to imagine the outcome.

In the parable, the tree represents the listener. His destiny will be decided in the indeterminate future. The gardener represents Jesus. He came to seek and to save those who were lost. The land owner represents God, the Father, who demands fruitfulness. What is the fruit demanded by God? Clearly, what God requires, Jesus already pronounced: “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

When we see human tragedy, it is not ours to speculate why one suffers what we do not. From Jesus’ words we can be assured that we do not have a greater intrinsic value than those who suffer. When Pat Robertson blames Haitians for Haiti’s earthquake, he rejects Jesus’ instruction to avoid such speculation.

Disasters and violence do not claim lives because the victims deserve it more than the rest of us. Standing before God, we all deserve death. The Apostle Paul writes, “. . . by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” Romans 5:12 (NIV) We will all have sinned, and we will all die. There is no distinction among us in this regard.

Jesus renounced men’s speculation regarding the cause of disasters. Likewise in John chapter 9, Jesus corrected his disciples whose only question was whether the blind man or his parents had sinned. Jesus told them that the man’s blindness did not occur because of a someone’s sin, but rather so that the work of God could be revealed. Jesus then spat on the ground, made clay, and sculpted the blind man a new set of eyes. The work of God in man is a new creation to which we attain only through repentance by faith.

Perhaps the work of God’s new creation comes more easily in Haiti than in less troubled parts of the world. James, the brother of Jesus, writes, “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” James 2:5 (NIV)

The only barrier between us and the grace of God, is our pride. Repentance requires humility before God. The fruit of our repentance is faith. True faith results in faithfulness. By this faith we are transformed into a new creation. This transformation is completed at the resurrection of the dead. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, saying,

We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed — in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 15:51-57 (NIV)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The good pleasure

by John D Ramsey

I live in a world of jargon. Jobs in multiple industries have acquainted me with a spectrum of vocabulary that is common among the cognoscenti, but meaningless to outsiders. As a technical manager, my current working vocabulary includes networking, programming, and business words and acronyms. Lisa and the little girls struggle sometimes to understand me. Sometimes I have to pause before I speak to consider whether the listener and I share a common vocabulary.

Within the context of a discipline, jargon and even acronyms are very helpful things. If you think about your own experience, there are certainly words and phrases that communicate specific meanings to industry insiders. While a reasonably informed person might be able to follow your conversations with your peers, his understanding might be more generalized. The outsider might not understand in detail exactly what is conveyed by your jargon.

The Bible also incorporates jargon; although thankfully, it does not incorporate acronyms. The New Testament writers John and Peter use the term, “born again,” for instance, as a synonym for “salvation.” Likewise, the word often translated “gospel,” in the Greek is a compound word meaning, simply, “good news.” In Luke 2:10, the angel announced “good news” to the shepherds at the incarnation of Jesus Christ. While the King James, and other translations say, “good tidings” or “glad tidings,” the same word very quickly becomes “gospel.” When Jesus, reading Isaiah, says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor,” a literal translation might say, “good news,” instead. There is no doubt that the good news that the angels brought to the shepherds is the same good news that Jesus preaches to the poor, but translators recognize the recurrence of the word, and it becomes part of the New Testament jargon.

This jargon encapsulates ideas that Christians understand in common. This is within the writers’ intent that we understand that the Christ’s coming is indeed the “good news.” Translators should not be faulted for recognizing and highlighting the jargon of the Bible. The Gospel, or good news, is the same to the shepherds as it is to each of us. God himself became a man to deliver man from his bondage to sin.

When we read the word, “gospel,” we understand that it refers to the Good News, and not just some good news. In Luke 2:14, similar word appears. The King James translates it in this context, “good will” as in “good will to men.” Unlike the “good news,” which becomes “gospel,” “good will” or, more accurately, “good pleasure” is not treated evenly when it occurs in other passages.

Matthew 11:25-26 and Luke 10:21 are nearly identical. In these verses Jesus prays,

I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in thy sight.

The phrase translated “good in thy sight” contains the same word translated, “good will” in Luke 2:14. A literal translation might read, “it was good pleasure before you.” In other words, the “good pleasure” is the Father’s revelation of the Son! Does this pattern hold up in other New Testament passages? Surprisingly, it does. Paul evokes “good pleasure” in Romans 10 to express his desire that Israel should come to the knowledge of Jesus Christ. Likewise Paul refers to the revelation of Jesus Christ to believers as “the good pleasure of his will” and “his good pleasure” in Ephesians 1:5 and 9. Paul tells the Thessalonians,

We pray at all times for you, that you should fulfill every good-pleasure of goodness, and word of belief with power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus Christ should be glorified in you.

2 Thessalonians 1:11 (AB)

Fulfilling the “good pleasure” is the glorious revelation of Jesus Christ in our lives. This is the same blessing which the angels delivered to the shepherds when they cried out, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace upon earth, and good pleasure among men.”

Philippians 2:12-13 reads in the King James,

Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who worketh in you both to will and to do his good pleasure.

Other translations say things like “do what pleases him.” The King James rightly translates the word “good pleasure” in this instance, but the Greek does not read “his good pleasure;” rather, it literally means, “the good pleasure.” The article preceding “good pleasure” indicates that the Philippians should already know what “good pleasure” means. Earlier in Philippians, Paul tells them that some preach Christ because they were motivated by envy and strife, but some preach Christ through “good pleasure.” In Philippians 2, Paul says, “the good pleasure” because “good pleasure” like “good news” is part of the New Testament jargon.

“Good pleasure” refers to the glorious revelation of Jesus Christ by the will of God, the Father. When Paul writes, “God is the one operating in you both to want and to operate for the good-pleasure,” the “good pleasure” is not some hidden whimsy as some translations make it out to be. By recognizing the jargon of the New Testament, we can understand that “God is the one operating in [us] both to want and to operate for the revelation and glorification of the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Saturday, January 9, 2010