Who are we?

In this blog, there will be a variety of material: thoughts on Bible books, book reviews, historical characters, aspects of Scottish church history and other things.

Friday, 30 September 2016

James 2:1-7 – Would You Like a Seat?

The second chapter of James has a common theme running through it, which is how the poor, whether believers or unbelievers, are treated. We may imagine that expressing concern for such is straightforward. Yet a brief glance at what James says will show that he wants his readers to think theologically about it. Among the doctrines mentioned by him are the current position of Jesus (v. 1), the doctrine of election (v. 5), the dignity of all humans (v. 6), the believer and the law (v. 8) and the relationship of faith and works (v. 18). Often, we make mistakes because we do not consider our actions from a doctrinal point of view.

The Bible has a lot to say about the poor. Here are some challenging verses: ‘Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honours him’ (Prov. 14:31); ‘But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just’ (Luke 14:13); ‘When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me”’ (Luke 18:22). We can see from those verses that a correct attitude towards the poor is necessary for a relationship with God, for our use of our possessions, and for the depth of our discipleship.

It is good that James here identifies who he has in mind by the rich because we might try and apply it to those who are wealthy in financial terms today. The rich are the ones who were orchestrating the persecution that his readers were facing and they also spoke against the dignity of Jesus (v. 6). He may be referring to the leaders of Jewish communities who despised the gospel. At that time, the rich would be the powerful in society. Today it is possible to be wealthy and have no more power than someone with a lot less. But in James’ time, the rich and the powerful would be the same people.

I suppose we should ask why his readers would try and favour the rich as against the poor. He is not referring to converted rich people when he talks about seating arrangements, but to any rich person who chose to come into their gathering. It may have been the case that their response was connected to the persecution the Christians were enduring. Maybe they imagined that if an important person became their friend he would have the influence to prevent any further troubles coming their way. But showing favouritism in this manner would be an expression of worldly wisdom and would be to engage in a sinful practice.

James does not suggest that the rich should not be welcomed into a service. Nor does he say that they should be offered the worst seat because that would be a form of favouritism as well. Instead he is stressing that the values of the world should not be the values in the church. I recall reading of a wealthy landowner who was driven to the church by his employee. Both were Christians. In the church, the employee was an elder and the landowner was not. In everyday life, they were master and employee; in church life, one was an elder who helped make church policy, the other was not. Both were happy in their two relationships.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

James 1:27 – Pure religion

Pure religion is very kind because it is an expression of brotherly love. James tells us that this true religion is an expression of the life of the Christian family – it takes place before the Father. This means that he is the Spectator of what we are doing as his people. He delights to observe the different ways in which his children engage in brotherly love. At the same time, we recall that the Father is holy and wants his children to live holy lives. Both these emphases are made here by James. 

The expression of brotherly love that James mentions is caring for orphans and widows. It may be that he has in mind families that had been affected by the recent persecution they had gone through and we can easily imagine how an increase in the number of orphans and widows could have happened. Yet even if that is the initial case with James, it does not mean that the church should only care about such in times of persecution. Instead they should be a priority all the time. It would be a sad church that did not care for its members that were in such straits. God wants his people to care about the most vulnerable among them.

Pure religion enables a person ‘to keep oneself unstained from the world’. This may seem like a daunting target and impossible to attain. Of course, by the world James does not mean the created world in which we can see the power and wisdom of God. Instead he means the idolatry that puts someone or something above Jesus, the sinful behaviour and wrong goals of society that is pursued instead of obedience to God’s commands, and the outlook that is never satisfied with what it has, but which is marked by covetousness.  

So how do we stop the world influencing us? One way is by doing what the Bible says instead of ignoring what it commands. A second way is to pray for cleansing constantly by the blood of Jesus. A third way is to ask God for the Spirit’s power to work in our hearts when we sense the drawing power of the world. A fourth way is for us to be encouraging one another by mentioning spiritual things to one another.

Pure religion is social (helping others) and sacred (conscious of the eyes of God), or as put elsewhere it involves love for our neighbour and love for God. It can be practised in any set of circumstances, whether in times of persecution or in times of peace. But we have to ask ourselves repeatedly if we have true religion. 

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

James 1:25 – Perseverance

James says here that obedience to the Bible produces spiritual freedom. He uses a different word to describe the Bible. Instead of calling it the word of God he says that it is the perfect law. Now we live in a society that realises the importance of the rule of law and one of the goals of earthly governments is to produce better laws, a reminder that they never have what they regard as perfect laws. God’s government does not have to engage in such projects because he already has the perfect law. 

Obedience to God’s word results in freedom from the enslavements of sin in our own hearts. If I am drawn to a wrong practice, the best response to prevent it is to obey a commandment that prevents it. For example, I may be tempted to say something untrue about my neighbour. Instead of doing so, I do something that expresses love for my neighbour. When I do that, I am delivered from the chain of saying what was wrong and I also avoid all the consequences that would flow from wrong words.

Of course, it is not a sign of spiritual freedom only to obey a commandment once. Instead the obedience has to be lifelong. Sometimes we discuss the perseverance of the saints with regard to our eternal destiny because we are concerned about it. Here we another type of perseverance that God is concerned about, which is that we obey his word in a consistent, comprehensive lifelong manner. So the question comes to us, are we living in freedom? 

There are many things that can cause us to lose this freedom. One is tradition, things handed down and which eventually become bondage. Traditions always have the tendency to turn us into men-pleasers rather than God-pleasers and we end up being concerned about their opinions instead of being concerned about what God says. Happy is the person who can say about his life, ‘I only want to do what God tells me to do.’ 

Another barrier to true freedom is license, which is a failure to obey the commandments of God. License is an expression of rebellion and it occurs whenever we disobey. In a strange way, those who live in such a way imagine that they are finding freedom. But all that is happening is a move to another master, whether it is sinful self, the world, or the devil, or a combination of them. Moving away from God’s law is not a move towards liberty. Instead it is a journey into bondage. 

James gives great encouragement to his readers when he tells them that obedience to God’s word produces immediate blessing. The blessing could be a sense of peace or joy sent by God. Or it could be that an obedient believer is happy in the sense that he is freed from a condemning conscience. Either way, obedience to the word of God is the better way to live.