Friday, June 22, 2012

James ...

Now for another brother’s perspective; we turn from the writings of Jude to James.  Again there are various theories about who the writer of the book of James was; one of the more prominent ones is this James was another half-brother of Christ.  Since it is entirely possible this was the case, we will focus on James and see what a second look at his little 5 chapter book might reveal to us.  On first glance, I might characterize James as a realist, or a pragmatist.  Jude focused his writings on the danger of using grace as a license to lust.  James however, focuses more on the things we “should” be doing, more than the evil we often do.  James presents a more practical view of what it means to be a Christian, not just to yourself, but to the world around you.

Chapter One …

So in chapter one, James begins with a premise that learning is not completed in an instant, but rather it is a process we must endure in order to actually learn.  If perfection were granted to you in an instant, would you even know how much transformation had just occurred?  Could you truly appreciate perfection if you did not know the scope of the change you had instantly undergone?  And while faith is a gift of God, the constant exercise of faith, leads to the growing of faith.  Trust is built over time, and to be saved from ourselves, we need to trust God to save us.  This tends to happen little by little as opposed to all at once.  In chapter one, James begins by focusing on this idea.
James counsels us to “count it all joy” when we are confronted with temptation; for to be saved we must allow perfection to do its work within us – this requires our patience.  As we are patient with God and allow Him to change us on the inside, we see the process work over time.  As such our faith is built up.  James continues the idea that if we see our need where it comes to the learning process, we should simply ask God for the wisdom we need.  But we should ask with purpose and intent, not wavering or uncertain of our request.  And wisdom will be granted.  James then reminds us that our status in this world, our wealth, means nothing to the growing of our faith.  The Jewish people had been taught in error, that their wealth was a sign of their favor from God; and they had interpreted this to be a sign of their spiritual favor.  James shatters this idea and reminds them that the wealth of this world is taken in an instant, so do not use it as a barometer of how your faith is doing.
James continues by reminding his readers that God has no evil in Him, and does not tempt men with evil.  It is instead our own carnal nature and desire to please self that is at the root of our temptations.  To be subjected to temptation is then a sign that the process of change is occurring within us.  We must be patient with this process and allow God to complete His work within us over time.  In so doing we learn to rely on Him more and more and to trust Him more and more; this is the key to receiving the crown of life.  James reminds us again that “every good gift” comes down to us from the “Father of lights”.  Faith, and the victory over temptation, the removal of sin from within us – are GIFTS from God the Father.  This is how we receive them, James does NOT say that we earn them from what we do, but rather that we make no mistake as to their origin, and that they are indeed gifts given to us.
Then James the pragmatist emerges.  Beginning in verse 19, James gives practical advice about a Christian should expect to conduct themselves.  We should be “swift to hear” and equally “slow to speak”.  James it would appear from his book, was very concerned about how we speak, and what we say as Christians.  In reading over his little book there is a great number of texts that reference controlling the tongue.  I would guess that James had been exposed to non-believers or perhaps even to former Christians who had endured ‘hateful speech’ offered them by those who claim the name of Christ.  James wishes to state right up front, that what we say, and how we say it – matters.  He adds that we should be “slow to wrath”.  Getting angry does not bring people to Christ; rather it gives them a reason to keep their distance.  James completes his thoughts about the bridling the tongue in verse 26 where he plainly states that a belief we have in our own religious piety can easily be measured against how we speak.
James’ practicality continues, our words will mean less, if they are not followed by what we do.  When engaged in the precious work of spreading the gospel, what we say and how we say it is extremely important.  But it should be backed up by what we do.  In verses 22-25 James makes the point that we should be more than just “hearers” of the word, but “doers”.  When we only focus on ourselves, we quickly lose sight of what is important.  Instead when we keep our focus on the law that liberates (or the law that defines a basis for how to serve and love others), we find our joy in its fulfillment.  We bring a blessing to world when we focus our lives on service to others, instead of only reflecting on ourselves (the guy in the mirror).  James makes this point again and again in his little book.
James ends his first chapter, or the first section of his letter with a definition of what “pure religion” really is … “to visit the fatherless and the widows in their affliction, and keep himself unspotted from the world.”  There you have it according to James.  It is not about the Jewish traditions of strict adherence to every Levitical custom outlined by the Priesthood that took matters to extremes.  It is about meeting the needs of those who need it most.  It is about taking care of those who are unable to take care of themselves.  This is the first priority of a “pure” religion.  Then it is to allow God to reform us to the point of remaining unspotted from the world.  In other words, to have the world at large have nothing bad to say about how we conduct our lives.  This was a radical departure with how traditional Judaism measured purity.  It was a radical difference between what the established religion of the day had advocated, and perhaps the reason why the establishment had failed.  Our religion should have been defined by what it did for those in need on a practical basis first.  And let those actions lead to an unspotted reputation; instead of perhaps trying to appear holy, by keeping a distance from those in real need.

Chapter Two …

In chapter two, James opens with a discussion that hits at the heart of each Christian.  He addresses how we treat each other is all too often influenced by the wealth and status of the people we encounter.  I remember being told as a child … “you would not greet the Queen of England in those clothes.”  Or perhaps … “you would not meet the President looking like that.”  The intent of this counsel was to make we want to dress better, be cleaner, and keep a certain decorum at certain times and events.  But there is a reason behind using the President, or the Queen, to make a point.  We associate those people as being special, perhaps more revered, or more respected than “normal” people.  I dare say the coverage of the wedding of William and Kate was a spectacle for the entire world to see; an event requiring the best of our finery to attend, and by select invitation only.  But the thinking that treasures the Queen, is the same thinking that influences how we treat those of status and wealth around us, versus those who are visibly in great need.  This is at the heart of what James addresses in the first few verses of chapter two.
In verses 1-13 of chapter two, James has an extensive discussion about our motives and thoughts being more important to us spiritually, than our outward appearance.  James reminds us that the poor often have more faith than those with means, and as such are often more blessed to take part in the work of spreading the good news, than those who rely on their wealth instead of their savior.  James reminds us that ‘to serve’ is the point of our religion, not ‘to be served.’  From that perspective, I would think both the President and the Queen would be all too happy to have me dressed appropriately to serve them.  But perhaps more importantly, were they true Christians as well, they might also be dressed appropriately to join with me in service to the poor; generally not always something those with wealth and status are comfortable thinking about doing personally.  Perhaps if we ALL dressed to serve, the finery of our clothing would be a thing of the past.
James continues to shatter illusions of Christianity in the verses 14-26 of chapter two.  Just like in the above verses where we sometimes mask our spiritual condition by what we value in ourselves and others, namely wealth and status; we can also deceive ourselves into thinking that knowledge of God is the same thing as faith in God.  Knowing that God exists, is not the same thing, as having a faith in God that allows Him to transform who we are from the inside out.  To realize you cannot remove the sin that is inherent within you, requires a trust, a belief, a hope, and a faith that God will do this work on your behalf.  It is no easy thing to turn over your own salvation to God.  In effect you are trusting that He will do the work of saving you from yourself.  That is real faith.  It is experimental.  It has a cause and effect.  It transforms the life.  It moves beyond just having a knowledge about God, to having a transformative relationship with God.  And James points out, when your faith is real, it cannot help from revealing the transformation in how you think and what you do.
James points out that a real Christian, cannot ignore the plight of the naked and the hungry.  It is not a sense of guilt or obligation that motivates; instead it is love that will NOT remain silent, complacent, or inactive in the face of human need.  James blatantly tells his readers, that a real Christian, one who is undergoing the transformation away from self-service and towards love reflected in the service of others, cannot just offer those in need – nice words.  Can you even imagine Christ having such a casual reaction to those in need?  Christ loved with passion and intensity and genuine concern for each of us.  Christ did not care if you were rich or poor, young or old, male or female.  He did not restrict His love and affection because of the nature of your disease of sin.  He longed only to meet your needs and free you from the bondage of your sin and slavery to self.  A Christian who begins to love like Christ loves, cannot ignore the need of another – they are literally compelled to take action that has meaning.  They simply cannot help themselves.  This is how James measures the “faith” of a Christian.  Does that faith result in emulating the works of Christ, because we share the love of Christ?  Or is our faith, really only a knowledge of Christ, that has not actually transformed how we love, and therefore is comfortable walking away from the needs of others, due to the apathy we hold within our slavery to self.  In short, are you a Christian or not?
To say you have faith, but to remain unchanged and unmotivated to love like Christ, is to mistake a belief that Christ existed for a working-trust that allows Christ to free you from your slavery to self.  Christ did exist.  Believing that to be true does not transform who you are.  To allow Christ to change you, by putting your faith in His gift, in His re-creating power to change who you are – that is how James measures faith.  That kind of a transformative faith in Christ is what the gospel of good news is all about.  We are saved by Christ.  Our “righteousness is imputed” to us, it is given to us as James points out.  This is where faith results in action, it simply cannot help itself.  When you love like Christ loves, your passion begins to spill out in selfless service to others you simply are unable to restrain.  You WANT to serve, you WANT to love, to do not want to sit still and allow one in need, to remain in need. 
For James the transformative power of faith, is like breathing.  Your body cannot live without breathing.  Neither is the love of Christ that is put within you content with sitting still and doing nothing in the face of need.  James points out that Abraham did not just have a philosophical understanding about God, instead his works revealed what faith had done within him.  James continues and cites the example of Rahab the harlot.  Imagine how distasteful that example would have been to a male-centric culture of using a woman to illustrate the transformative power of faith in God.  Note too, the fact that Rahab made her living by engaging in sin, did not prevent her from being a vehicle of faith in action.  As I recall, Rahab was included in the lineage of Christ as well, as was Bathsheba who was equally guilty of adultery, and likely complicit in the murder of her husband by David.  God forgives.  God transforms.  Our destiny is not defined by the sins we have committed, it is defined by the faith in God to save us from the sins of our past, and the nature of our present.  Our future is one of perfection, where Rahab is no longer remembered for her harlotry, but only for her passion to love like Christ loves.  This is the point James is trying to make.  Faith is alive.  It reveals itself in the actions we take.  It is important in both men and women.  And our condition of sin does not preclude us from revealing the transformation even while it is still in progress.
James in chapter two, never once says that we are “saved” from our sins, because of our works.  Instead he is calling us to examine our ideas about faith, to see if our faith takes action, or is content to be complacent.  James is not looking to judge us, and our works, or our apathy.  He is trying to get us to wake up to the idea, that a transformative faith is the basis of our salvation.  The work of removing sin from us is not only about forgiveness for our past, but about transformation of how we think, and how we love, and how we serve.  It is this transformation that leads to perfection.  It is this transformation that kills the “self” in us, and replaces it with Christ.  It is this kind of faith, that will abound in good works because it comes from a passion to love others like Christ loves them. 
What we call “love” can hardly hold a candle to how we see love defined in the life of Christ.  Christ went so far as to be killed by those he was trying to save.  He did not hate those who were literally torturing Him to death, instead in the moments of His greatest agony, He prays for His Father to forgive them.  That is the definition of love itself, to think of His torturers and murderers ahead of Himself even at the moment of His death.  Even then, His thoughts were about the salvation of the guy with the spear, and the one who had nailed down His hands and feet, and the ones standing off to the side, mocking Him as being the true Son of God.  His thoughts even under the extreme physical duress of death, were about their salvation, not His own pain.  That kind of passion to love does not concern itself with the wrong doing of others, only in the relief of their pain that comes from wrongdoing.  The ministry of Christ was not about judgment and condemnation; it was about redemption and the relief of pain.  This is why Christ met the needs of those He encountered.  And it is why James is so adamant, that a transformative faith in Christ results in actions that make a difference in the world.  We are not saved because of what we do.  We do what we do, because the love that saves us, now motivates us, and we simply cannot remain content to be still any longer.
Too often, Christians have been content to read the second chapter of James, and try to apply its meaning that our salvation may be affected by what we do.  It is as if we could somehow save ourselves by the actions we take.  But this was not the intent of what James writes, instead he only uses our actions to reveal to us whether our faith has been transformative or not.  James uses the fruits to define and reveal the tree, not to replace it.  When we attempt to replace the work of Christ within us, with actions we can simply take on our own, we are not actually transformed from our sins.  We do not offset how we think and our desire to sin, by simply doing a few good works.  That work can only be accomplished by Christ, and it is why our righteousness is “imputed” or given to us.  That work of transformation is the “gift” of Christ to us.  Changing the core of who we are, is not something we can do for ourselves, but rather must allow Christ to do within us.  Our actions then are only a reflection of where we are in that work, not the work itself.  This was the point James was trying to make.

Chapter Three …

In chapter three, James returns to discuss our tongues once again.  Perhaps he felt he had not adequately addressed this topic of concern in the verses in chapter one.  Or perhaps while writing his letter, he had yet another negative verbal encounter with himself, or another Christian.  But nonetheless he spent the entirety of chapter three addressing the duality of how we speak and what we say.  Out of the same mouth can come the words that uplift or the words that tear down.  James’ practicality emerges again and he tries to focus us on how things should be, rather than perhaps how they are.  He advocates that Christians should be known for what they say and how they say it.  James reminds us that the bitter speech of envy and strife reveal characters that still bent on the service of self.  As the transforming power of faith in Christ is allowed to bear fruit, our speech of bitterness gives way to words of peace, and meekness in wisdom.  In this James points out, the goal is not just to be right about what we say, but to be able to say it in a meek way that will have an effect, rather than in a proud way that seeks to use “being right” as a vehicle to show off our wisdom.  Even apart from not using our mouths to speak the words that curse and tear down others; James focuses on being careful when speaking the words that lift up, so that we do it in a way that is mindful of those we serve, more than of ourselves.
Perhaps this was a lesson he learned from his Brother.  He was a witness to how Christ spoke to those He was here to redeem.  Christ spoke in words they could understand and relate to.  He never attempted to water down the truth, but He did not use it to condemn either.  Instead He stated the truth of the law, and the beauty of grace and transformation found in submission to God.  The speech of Christ was always designed to draw in His listener not to repel them.  The words were pure and uncompromising and filled with hope, peace, and love.  Christ never excused sin, instead He focused on the beauty of seeing sin removed, and the relief of pain that comes when this happens.  Perfection is not a punishment, it is the cure, the relief from the pain that slavery to self inevitably brings.  The language and manner of Christ was effective even from the age of 12 when he taught the learned masters what the scriptures truly meant in the temple at Passover for 3 days.  Perhaps since James was the half-brother of Christ, he learned well what it means to communicate effectively.  Perhaps the lesson of his Brother was how to speak effectively when working for the redemption of others.  In any case James seems painfully aware of the damage we can cause from our mouths, or the potential blessing we can be to the world.

Chapter Four …

Chapter four of his book contains some of the most often quoted thoughts in scripture.  But all too often they are quoted without context and so their meaning is lost.  When reading the chapter James makes a greater point about humility that is often lost.  In verses 1-5 James reveals how pride in ourselves leads to lust, envy and strife with each other.  When we substitute our own ideas about Christian purity and transformation for the humility of submission, we wind up looking more like the world than like our Lord.  In verse 6 James outlines the precursor, or the prerequisite for the removal of our sins – that is to lose the pride in self.  For God to transform us, we must begin with humility.  This is a work that will be done for us, not by us.  We will see relief from our sins, not when we engage our pride, but when we let it go and seek God in the humility of knowing only Christ can change how we think and what we want.  James then continues in verse 7 … “Submit yourselves to God”  This part of the quote is almost always omitted, as is the precursor in verse six about humility and the lack of pride in ourselves.  But it is only in this context, that the words that follow can actually be achieved.
Verse 7 continues … “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.”  That is the quote that gets all the attention in general.  Taken without the preceding verses that outline humility and submission, it makes it sound like we somehow have the power and ability to do this resistance on our own.  Instead of recognizing as James does in the preceding verses the need for humility and submission first; or even ignoring the verses that follow which again outline getting close to God and in so doing become clean through His transformative power; we focus only on the idea that we can resist the devil and he will flee.  But in truth, have you ever seen this happen in your own life?  Have you ever met the devil with a temptation, resisted him, and found he left you alone?  So you were never tempted again on that score huh?  I doubt it.  Cause it simply does not work that way.  This quote should be taken in context and then it makes perfect sense.  When we are humble and lose our pride, when we recognize that we cannot win, and therefore we submit ourselves to God – then God does our fighting for us, God does our resisting for us, and the devil flees from God, not from us.  Satan flees from the power of God he sees in us, as we allow God to do His transformative work in us.  It is this the devil fears, and runs from.  The devil is only being practical, he cannot win against Christ, he knows it, so he moves on to someone who still thinks they can do it for themselves and does not need Christ to fix them.
As if to punctuate the point, James calls out in verse 10 of chapter four … “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He shall lift you up.”  Here we are again.  We are lifted out of our sins by Christ, not of our own doing.  We are lifted out of our sins, transformed by His power, as we accept that this work is a gift, not something we will ever earn or deserve.  This knowledge brings humility, and in humility we accept the gift of our transformation.  Our pride is the very thing that causes all the troubles outlined in verses 1-5, only our humility and acceptance of the work of Christ, a work founded in our submission to Christ, sees us think differently, want differently and love differently.  Only the power of Christ scares the devil into walking away from us.  Only the power of Christ can so change us that what once caused us a temptation no longer has any appeal to us whatsoever.  This is the work of perfection only Christ can bring. 
Yet too many Christians quote the phrase “resist the devil and he will flee from you” without mentioning the humility and submission that precedes it.  Out of context, this phrase leads to the exaltation of our own abilities to remove sin from ourselves and away from the gospel of humility and submission to Christ.  It represents a pattern in Christianity to replace the work of Christ in the removal of our sins, with a work we think we can do for ourselves.  It is not what James was saying, but it is what the devil knows we would prefer – the illusion of control.  The devil knows he can easily defeat us on our own, and so he attempts to lure us into the idea that we do not need Christ to defeat the evil that is within us, we can simply resist him and do it on our own.  He adds to that the twisted idea from the earlier texts that perhaps we can somehow save ourselves by our good works.  And he comes up with the perfect trifecta of replacing the work of Christ with a reliance on self. 
Self becomes the center of our “Christian” religion, and the devil wins completely from inside the church of Christ, not having to attack it from the outside where he could not hope to win.  This is the ploy of Satan that we interpret scripture to rely on us, and omit the need to submit to God, and recognize the humility of requiring His gift to save us.  Too often the words and meaning of the writings of James have been twisted in this regard, even by those who bear the responsibility of leading from the pulpit.  Sermons that advocate a reliance on self to see sin ended within us, are exactly what the devil prescribes.  If he can keep our gaze in the mirror and away from Christ, he wins, and he knows it.  But these ideas are not based in what James plainly writes.  James plainly states the absolute need for humility and submission before and after this phrase, and in that context it works.  Absent that context, the devil uses the lure of control over our own salvation to replace the faith and humility and submission he knows we actually need.  It is an excellent case of illustrating that truth is not found in the interpretation of scripture, it is found in the person of Jesus Christ.  Had we kept Jesus Christ at the center of our every belief, we would not ever debate the possibility of our own control over sin, and instead kept focus on the only cure for sin, that can ever or will ever exist – Jesus Christ.,
Farther down in verses 13-17 of chapter four, James reminds us that we have no “control” over even our own lives.  What we do we are able to do, only as God permits us the ability to do it.  We do not have the power to keep our promises, or attain our ambitions.  Only God is in control over us, and to stay on point, only God can remove the evil that lies within us.  The point of chapter four of James is about our absolute need for humility and submission.  This allows the work of transformation that removes our pride, and with it, the number of evils that spring from a dedication to the pleasing of self.  James clearly understood the nature of how salvation worked.  In this his writings are precisely consistent with those of his brother Jude.  They may have shared different concerns about what the church needed and the problems it was facing.  But the mechanism by which each member would come to know perfection and the removal of sin was absolutely consistent between them, and further consistent with every other Biblical author as further study will reveal.  It is Christ alone that saves us.  Nothing we will ever do will accomplish that for ourselves.

Chapter Five …

In chapter five, James begins to summarize the key points of his letter.  He begins in verses 1-6 by reminding his readers that wealth has nothing to do with measuring our spiritual favor with God.  Wealth is more of a curse than a blessing, and in the day of James in the early Christian church it was common practice for a believer to sell literally everything they owned and give every cent to the church.  It was a communal lifestyle that no-one in our modern ideas of Christianity would ever even consider.  Our own ideas of self-reliance seem to have found deep roots within us over time.  In verses 7-11 of chapter five, James reminds us that patience is a part of our learning process.  It builds our faith, and is part of the work of perfection within us.  In verse 12 he again focuses on making sure we watch what we say and how we say it.
In verses 13-18 of chapter five, James includes the idea that the power of prayer is real, and will have real results for his readers.  It is incredible to me, how unequivocal James is about praying for the sick.  He does not dabble with wording couched in the ability to explain a “no” answer from God.  He simply says, if someone is sick, let them pray for healing.  If it is really bad let them be anointed with oil and prayed over by the elders of the church.  And they will be healed, what is more their sins will be forgiven them.  James makes no apologies for the power of prayer.  He does not temper down his readers expectations, with the “reality” that often sick people die in the “real” world.  Instead he says pray, and be healed.  Our problem with our prayers is in the mirror.  We pray with timid expectations and couch our words so that a “no” answer is not something that would test our faith.  Why not simply follow the counsel of James, seek anointing when our bodies lay in infirmity, and expect fully the healing power of our God to be employed on our behalf, or on the behalf of those we love.  Perhaps it is time that as people who claim the name of Christ, we begin to pray like our God has the power we say He has.  Perhaps it is time we have more faith in His desire to heal us and remove our pain, and less doubt about His intentions to do so.  James did not seem to doubt, or equivocate about it.  I say we join him, and heed his counsel regarding our prayers.
Finally James ends in verses 19-20 of chapter five, by once again focusing on our core ambition, our primary mission in this world, to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.  To lead an erring soul to Jesus, to point out to them how Christ transformed us, and is in the process of removing our slavery to self, is the highest goal any Christian can hope to attain.  James’ practicality once again emerges as he declares the value of saving one lost soul, even in our sinful condition, gives our lives much more value than all the degradation we may have embraced in our quest to serve self.  We may not yet be perfect, but we can still lead others to the source of perfection.  We can show them that Jesus will begin the work of transformation within them as well, and they can join us on the journey home.  It is obviously then, not our own perfection we point them to, but the perfection that Christ alone can offer.  James understood plainly the nature of how salvation from sin worked.  He was absolutely consistent with his brother Jude.  And despite some traditional misinterpretations of his writings to be works-centric, when read in context, one cannot draw any other conclusion than that James understood humility and submission to God were the only mechanism by which one could be saved.  James challenges our ideas about faith, and questions whether our faith is transformative or not.  But he never suggests we can replace or augment our faith based on what we do.  Our actions reflect our transformation, they do not cause it or define it.
Now that we have reviewed what the family of Christ may have had to say about Him, we will turn to re-examine the writings of those who were His disciples and knew Him personally as we continue to take second look …

Friday, June 15, 2012

Jude ...

What would you say to those of the Christian faith today if you only had 7 paragraphs and 25 verses to save the world?  Herein was the epistle of Jude.  Jude who may well have been the half-brother of Christ penned 25 verses to try to remind the church of his day what it means to be saved.  He opens in verse one with a greeting identifying himself as the brother of James, followed by the most salient words in the entirety of the Bible – a phrase that often is overlooked as merely part of a cordial greeting between Christians.  But the phrase that follows is … “to them that are sanctified by God the Father”.  Here Jude identifies the entirety of truth, the whole of how salvation works – we are sanctified by God the Father.  Jude does not say to those who have achieved sanctification by the multitude of good works they have done, or by obtaining a mastery of self-control such that they have avoided the doing of evil.  Sanctification is NOT a work we do for ourselves – it is a work God does for us (sometimes in spite of us).  God makes us sanctified, we receive the benefit of that work.  We do NOTHING to earn it. 

Jude continues … “and preserved in Jesus Christ”.  We do not remain sanctified of our own accord, we are preserved by Jesus.  Our faithfulness is weak, and failing, but our Lord is faithful on our behalf, and preserves our salvation, the work His Father has done for us.  Jude completes his thought with the words … “and called.”  He reminds us that we are called of Christ to be His.  Our response, our acceptance of His call, or heeding the call, this is the role we have to play.  The work of salvation is done by God.  We are preserved by Christ, and called home to the redemption He offers.  This single sentence gives such a beautiful and poignant picture of the message of the gospel from end to end.  Our God has saved us, through Jesus Christ.  Jude begins his letter with a summary of the gospel, with a single sentence that says it all.
Then Jude completes his opening with a blessing on those who read these words.  He did not know his words would be preserved by Christ, and read by many a subsequent generation of believers.  He had no idea that a Bible would be constructed, and books of various authors would be compiled into the Old and New Testaments.  He did not know his little letter of 25 verses would be placed right before the book of Revelations in this New Testament, and considered part of the sacred and inspired writings of the Word of God.  Jude was simply blessing his readers, the audience he presumed would be made up of the early Christian faith of his time.  These were people like him.  They knew poverty.  They knew slavery and persecution.  They knew hunger.  They knew what it meant to be cold when it was cold outside.  They lived in his world.  And so Jude thought to bless them with a blessing he knew they would need.
Jude offers in verse 2 … “Mercy unto you, and peace, and love, be multiplied.”  The people who would read Jude’s epistle lived in this ultraviolent world where they were physically tortured and persecuted for what they believed.  They had no wealth, no ease, no comforts.  And so when Jude thinks to bless them, he focuses on what is most important to him and to them – their spiritual needs.  He does not offer them wealth, ease, or comforts.  He offers no fame, no power, not even freedom from their oppression.  Instead he begins with Mercy or unmerited favor.  Here again Jude restates the nature of why we are saved; we are saved by the Mercy of our God, not by what we have done.  He then offers peace.  Not peace with the world as this would be impossible while Satan seeks only to destroy.  Instead I believe he offers us peace within our faith, within our ranks, with each other, those who claim the name of Christ but do not always see eye-to-eye.  Lastly he offers love, the essence of the character of Christ Himself, and what is more, Jude asks that it be multiplied.  Jude is not just looking for an extra measure of love; he is looking for a quantum leap of love.  He wants it to be rapidly and measurably increased to those who believe.  For it is love that marks the life and ministry of Christ, and love that is the one characteristic of those who have given themselves over to Christ and are in the process of being made sanctified.
With his opening summary of the gospel, and offer of blessing complete, he begins his second paragraph in verse 3 and wishes to address a concern he has for the early fellowship of believers that now comprise the Christian church.  He writes of a “common salvation” and the need to “exhort” his readers that they should … “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.”  Jude reminds them that even faith itself is something that was “delivered” to them, not earned, not something that originated within them, but something that was given them.  How does one “contend” for a gift?  Perhaps by being willing to receive it.  Perhaps by being humble enough to know it must be received as a gift, and not as wages for works performed.  Or Perhaps Jude only meant that they should not give up praying or asking for the faith they were daily given.  Then Jude offers the reason why seeking the gift of God of faith is so important to them.
In verse 4 there … “are certain men who have crept in unawares.”  These men were of bad intent, or of self-concerned focus from before.  They were ungodly.  These men who had infiltrated the ranks of the Christian faith were a great danger to them because they were … “turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness”.  Ever heard the phrase “cheap grace”?  Even in our early Christian church the concept that being made sanctified by God had been misapplied by these evil men, twisted for them to believe that being sanctified by God allowed them to do anything they pleased.  They took the grace of God as a license to lust, a license to please themselves, and in so doing earned Jude’s assessment of them as “ungodly”.  For our God loves us, His creations, not Himself.  These men love only themselves and not others and as such they are the reverse of God or ungodly.  They twisted grace from the freedom from sin that God offers, to a warped freedom “to” sin instead.  They thought to please themselves sexually, and use grace to excuse it.  But they did not stop there with their errors.
He continues … “and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ.”  In this, I do not believe that Jude is saying these men verbally deny God, and the divinity of Christ.  They may have when it suited them, perhaps in the middle of committing nefarious deeds.  However if they denied Christ around other Christians, they would not have been able to infiltrate the early church.  I think that Jude is here referring to them doing a far worse act.  I believe Jude is calling them out for denying God his ability to sanctify them, and the Lord Jesus Christ’s work of preserving them and saving them from the slavery of self.  Our God offers them salvation despite their deeds, and they deny Him, or reject his offer.  This happens outside of our eyesight and within their hearts.  As they reject God’s offer of salvation, they replace the role of God, with what “they think” should be the nature of salvation.  When the focus is removed from God and placed on self, the pleasing of self takes priority, and it is not uncommon to see lascivious acts follow.
Jude begins his third paragraph in verse 5 with a series of analogies to illustrate that having been once saved, it is possible to reverse this condition, by taking the eyes off of God, and placing them back on self.  He reminds them in verse 5 of how God saved His people out of Egypt, but those who did not believe were destroyed.  This did not happen all at once; instead it happened little by little.  Those who refused to put the lamb’s blood over their doorways even after witnessing the power of God 9 times through horrific pestilences designed to melt the heart of proud Pharaoh, would still perish for having ignored God yet again.  Those who would not cross the parted Red Sea would have died.  Those who forsook God because Moses was delayed on the top of Mt. Sinai and even when he confronted them, they chose to worship the golden calf instead of God, died.  Those who refused to enter the Promised Land died in the desert of old age wandering.  Those who refused to just “look” at the serpent on the cross died of the snake bites they had received instead of accepting the healing God offered.  Every time the children of Israel refused to believe, they suffered the results of their choice.  Every time salvation is rejected, death follows.  This was the lesson of Israel.  It did not matter if you had put blood over your doorstep in Egypt and were spared, if you now had decided to refuse to look at the serpent on the cross after having been bitten by a snake.  Because you were saved at one time through your belief in God, does not sustain you forever if you lose sight of that belief, or refuse to keep believing.  This was the lesson Jude was trying to remind his audience of.  The same is true of us today.
Jude continues in verse 6 by pointing out this is not even just a human phenomenon.  Angels who were once perfect but made a choice to leave that perfection, are now destined, or “chained” or enslaved to the service of self, and heading to a destruction they will not escape.  Jude points out in verse 7 that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah whose level of slavery to self, had so degenerated to the point where any form of rape was considered commonplace, were destroyed by “the vengeance of eternal fire.”  Jude is reminding his readers that these pretend Christians, who deny the salvation of Christ, and engage in the pleasing of self, that use grace as a license to fornicate, are not destined to anything other than self-destruction.  When one denies Jesus, one cuts off the only mechanism by which freedom from sin can be achieved, and the darkness that results is akin to how bad Sodom and Gomorrah were.  Those cities were not burned merely because there were homosexuals within them.  If that were true, no city in the world would still be standing before or since.  They were burned because the level of depravity had sunk so low, that rape and crimes of sexual nature, were considered the norm.  Nothing was out of bounds, not even murder.  Life was worth nothing in those cities, as life without the salvation of God is worth nothing in the end.  Jude attempts to remind his audience that grace is designed to lift us out of our depravity not sink us down to its lowest depths.
It is also worth noting the phrase … “the vengeance of eternal fire.”  As we look out across the Middle East we see no continued rain of fire from heaven over the former locations of these corrupt cities on the plains.  They were burned to the ground, and then the fire stopped.  They are not “still” burning.  The punishment was eternal in the sense that they were wiped out, their inhabitants exterminated.  But the flames did not need to keep burning to prove the point.  When the work of the fire was complete, the fire was extinguished.  The flames came from the eternal source, they had eternal consequences, but did not need to keep burning to prove it.  Perhaps Jude is making a more subtle point about the nature of hell itself, perhaps Jude is drawing the analogy that the flames of hell will have eternal consequences, but do not need to burn for all eternity just to prove it.
In his fourth paragraph beginning in verse 8, Jude continues … “Likewise also these filthy dreamers, defile the flesh, despise dominion, and speak evil of dignities.”  These pretend Christians that Jude is concerned about carry lust in their minds, that lust finds an outlet in how they “defile” the flesh.  Whether these acts be fornication, adultery, homosexuality, or masturbation – they are predicated on lust.  The second two phrases carry a greater condemnation.  “Despising dominion” is not about wishing to be free from the Roman yoke of bondage.  It is about the condition required where salvation takes place.  As we are made sanctified by God, it is not something we do, but something we accept.  We must give up our ideas of self-control, and self-based-righteousness, and accept the gift of God on our behalf.  This is a humbling experience.  It is humbling to admit that you “cannot” do it, and must accept it as a gift instead.  To remove the sin from your life, you must yield control to God.  To despise dominion is to hate the idea that God must be in control, and not you.  This is something the pretend Christians have a hard time accepting. 
Further, speaking evil of dignities is about how we talk to each other, and what we value.  Judas did not like Mary Magdalene pouring out such expensive oil on the feet of his Lord.  He would rather have had the money himself, to use as he saw fit.  Those Christians who speak ill of giving to the poor follow the path of Judas.  They reveal where their hearts truly are, and in so doing, they speak evil of dignities.  In verse 9, Jude gives the example of how we speak, even when confronting evil which is clearly in the wrong.  We do not need the use of railing accusations, but can be content with the simplicity of … “the Lord rebuke thee”.  
In verse 10, Jude makes the contrast of how they speak evil of things they know not, and instead follow what is natural to them, comparing them to “brute beasts.”  Jude points out again that the lust they cherish within them, leads them to corrupt themselves.  In verses 11 thru 13, Jude tries to warn them of path they are on.  He compares them to Cane, Balaam, and Core.  He makes the analogy of the dead fruit tree, waterless clouds, and foaming waves on the sea.  In this he points out they have no fruit as they have rejected the root of their religion (Jesus) and are therefore dead.  They are directionless, carried around like clouds or aimless waves, with fury perhaps, but no purpose, no meaning, no worth to others only to themselves.  The three Biblical characters he compares them to all had a knowledge of God, and all sought to use God in a way that suited themselves, instead of allowing God to be in control.  All 3 sought to gain something personally from the service of God, instead of blessing others by following the guidance or character of God.  This is what happens when “love” is turned inward towards self and away from the real “love” of others.
Jude’s fifth paragraph is an interesting one.  He quotes scripture (again remembering he only had the Old Testament writings as a reference) and in this case quotes from a book that is not a part of our Biblical compilation.  He quotes from the book of Enoch, believed to have been written by Enoch the great-grandfather of Noah, and preserved through the flood, perhaps passed down after Moses somewhere.  Parts of it were located in the Dead Sea scrolls along with the book of Daniel.  It is considered canonical only by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and was not generally accepted by the Jews because of its incorporation angels in its topics.  But here Jude makes reference to it and appears to accept it as a part of what he decries in reference to these pretend Christians.  The theme of what Jude quotes from the book of Enoch is not only found there, there are similar warnings in other works.  But Jude uses it to show that these ungodly men, need to be convicted that what they do is ungodly, and how they speak is ungodly.  The murmuring and complaining, and walking after their own lusts is a problem.  It is also a problem to speak “great swelling words” for the sake of pleasing those who have money or as Jude puts it … “having men’s person in admiration because of advantage.”  Jude is contrasting the ministry of Christ our God, with how these men behave and noting that what they do is the opposite of what Christ did, making them ungodly.
Finally Jude returns in his sixth paragraph beginning in verse 17 thru 19 by reminding his audience that warning of these kinds of pretenders were issued by the Apostles as well, not just in the Old Testament.  They too warned of “mockers”, or those who seek to use the grace of God, to give them an excuse to please themselves … “walk after their own ungodly lusts.”  Jude warns that these people tend to separate themselves, being … “sensual, having not the Spirit.”  How often in our isolation do we find ourselves free to pursue our evil intentions without the burden of someone else witnessing our selfish acts.  It is not the act of sexual intimacy that Jude warns of, it is the act of self-indulgence that leads to a void of intimacy and a path of self-destruction that rejects the Spirit of God.  Jude is warning his brothers in the faith, not to pursue self, but to remain compliant, humble, and willing to be saved.  He contrasts those who would keep their faith centered in Christ, with those who put faith in themselves, and points out how far that depravity will run.  Jude counsels them, and tries to warn them, about where a Christian in name only, will find himself over time.
In verse 20 Jude tells them how to avoid this fate for themselves.  He tells them to build themselves up on their most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost.  Remember that this was the faith that was given to them.  It is not a faith they earned, but rather a faith they were humble enough to receive.  It is on this faith, this gift, that is outside of themselves, that Jude says is safe to build upon.  He is telling them to “let” Christ continue the work that has been started in them.  He tells his listeners to continue to pray in the Holy Ghost.  Even their prayers should be something assisted by someone outside of themselves.  In this verse Jude highlights a belief in the three-part personage or nature of God.  Jude clearly articulates a difference in God the Father, Jesus Christ His Son, and here the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit.  While it may be difficult to ever understand the entire nature of God, Jude seems content in his understanding that there are three united in one purpose for the salvation of mankind.  Three who are One.
In verse 21 he continues … “Keep yourself in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.”  Jude reminds us that our focus should always be first and foremost on the LOVE OF GOD.  Again it is hallmark of a Christian when they reflect the love God has for others.  God loves without discrimination or limit.  He does not restrict His love from those who do not deserve it because of the evil they have or are committing.  Instead He longs to free them from this evil through the power of His love.  He reminds us of our dependency of the mercy of Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.  Jude reminds us of our great need of mercy, of unwarranted favor, of forgiveness.  Jude points out our imperfections not to glorify them, or excuse them, but to again remind us of our need of His mercy to see them removed from us.
In verses 22 and 23 Jude keeps the focus on our great commission, our great mission as Christians – to share the testimony of our salvation with the world around us.  He tells us to have compassion, and that our compassion will make a difference.  He also tells us that some may only come to see love after having initially encountered fear, that we might actually pull them out of the fire.  But not by engaging in their wickedness with them, instead … “hating even the garment that is spotted by the flesh.”  Jude does not intend for us to try to go around attempting to scare people into the kingdom.  But he does point out, that some people will only seek God when they fear for their lives.  For some, they only go after a miracle when they are in need of one.  A patient waiting on the results of a cancer assessment, a soldier in a foxhole, a person like Mary caught in the act of adultery and facing the condemnation from what she has done.  Some people only seek something outside of themselves when facing these fearful situations when they are forced to confront the fact that they are NOT truly in control of themselves.  Jude tells us not to leave them in their fear, but instead to pull them out of the fire.  Show to them the power of love, and help them to see for themselves, what allowing God to change them can truly accomplish.
Jude starts to conclude his letter the same way he opened it, with a description of how salvation works.  In his last paragraph beginning in verse 24  he writes … “24.) Now unto Him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, 25.) To the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.”  The only one who is “able to keep us from falling” is Jesus.  But in these words Jude reminds us that our failure is assured outside of the power of Christ.  Sin is removed from us by Christ, not by our own actions or power of will.  And this is not a work Christ regrets, or only performs as a sense of obligation to fulfill His word and promise to us – instead it is a work that brings Him … “glory with exceeding joy”.  The glory of our God is defined in how much He loves us; in how much He does for us; in how much our God serves us, His lowly creation.  This is how glory is defined.  It is not defined by how much we appreciate what He does, but rather is a testament of the fact He does it.  Our appreciation of the work of Christ and our resulting worship does not glorify Him, it only recognizes the glory of what He has already done.  His glory predates our worship.
Jude then concludes with honoring our God, recognizing that ONLY He is a wise God.  Glory, Majesty, Dominion, and Power are His already, both now and forever.  These are characteristics that Jude sees in the God he serves.  Jude offers this in the form of a prayer and concludes with Amen.  Jude may well have understood these aspects of God from following Christ as a disciple those many years.  Perhaps he saw it reflected in him during the time they spent together as a family before He was called to His ministry at His baptism.  Perhaps the half-brother of Christ knew him like only family could.  But no matter, Jude does not use his familial connection as a method of assuring his own salvation.  Instead he offers the same message of hope in Christ to his brothers as well as himself.  Sharing Mary as their mother was not Jude’s claim to fame, instead it was the sharing of the love of God.  It is the love of God that unites the entirety of the Christian family.  It is the love of God that can transform a life of slavery to self to a life of service and love to others.  It is a submission to God that results in the perfection of our characters such that we begin to hate even the garment that is spotted by the flesh.  It is the love of God that we are to focus on and share with EVERYONE.  With those who are in fear for their lives, to those who know not the name of Christ, to those who are steeped in their wrong doing.  For it is only the power of the love of God that can reclaim those lost lives, and preserve them to the coming of our Lord.  Our salvation is found only in Jesus.  This is the message of Jude.  Do not look for salvation within yourselves, look for it in Christ.  For only there will it be found.
The short and succinct book of Jude speaks to Christians.  It warns those who would use grace to pursue the evil of self-indulgence and mock grace by attempting to use it to excuse the sin they love.  It tells us to remain humble and accept salvation as the gift that it is.  And it exhorts us to ever keep our focus on the LOVE of God.  In just 7 paragraphs and 25 short verses, Jude summarizes the entirety of the purpose of both Old and New Testaments.  What else might we find when we open the Book and take a second look …

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Disciples of Christ

And then there were twelve: The story of Christ unfolds first from those who were with him from the start.  It was common practice in the time of Christ that when a great philosopher or theologian or prophet became known, those who wished to learn more became disciples.  The hope was often to become an apprentice much like Elisha did with Elijah in older times.  John the Baptist was born close to the time of Christ, in fact he was His cousin.  But John began his ministry earlier than when Christ became publicly known.  John was called to prepare the way of the Messiah.  He spoke with power and conviction, and the Holy Spirit blessed his work.  John had a weird diet.  He lived away from the cities and out in the wild.  He dressed funny.  He spent most of his time calling for the people to repent of their sins and be baptized in anticipation of the soon coming of the Messiah.  And due to the blessing of the Holy Spirit, this wild man speaking from the rivers became widely known throughout the region.  As usual the established religious leadership felt threatened by John and did not approve of a ministry they could not control.  When John rebuked them as hypocrites, their animosity for him only increased.  But despite the prevailing wisdom and long history of formal education of scriptures, it was John who was called to prepare the way of the Lord, not the current priests or religious leaders.  The establishment had failed.  And as it happens two young men became the disciples of John to learn more of the coming Messiah.  When Christ entered the scene, John directed them to follow Him, the One they had waited for.  It was from this humble beginning that two who were seeking God found Him.

The story of the first two disciples has a commonality with many past Biblical patriarchs.  Abraham searched for the true God, rejecting the customs of his family and the practice of worshipping idols in favor of something real.  And Abraham found God.  Paul too had a religious fervor, and truly believed He was serving his God, until on a road to Damascus, he found Him.  Paul knew this was God, and from that moment on, He served only the God He found on that road.  The point of many stories throughout scripture is that when man goes looking for God, He generally finds Him.  Christ did not pick His first two disciples at random, they picked Him.  At the time, all those two men had was the word of their current teacher, that this stranger was the Son of God.  No proof, no evidence yet, no miracles to rely on, just the word of John.  Once they saw the Baptism of Christ, they saw their first evidence that indeed this was someone new.  But they did not begin to follow Christ until He had returned from His torturous 40 days in the desert.  By then Christ was emaciated.  His appearance would have been near death from the ordeal His humanity endured to know what temptation for us is like.  But despite the physical changes, John knew Him right away, and again sent his disciples to be with Christ. 
The two would grow to a number of twelve over time.  Some of them would pick Christ, some He would pick.  The number could have been more than 12 if the rich young ruler had accepted the call of Christ to sell his belongings, give it to the poor, and follow Christ.  An esteemed offer from the God of creation, rejected because of the lure of wealth.  One could count Lazarus, Mary, and Martha as disciples as well, but it appears Christ counted them as more than that, He counted them as friends.  John was given the honor of being called the beloved.  Perhaps that is because John loved Christ more than he loved himself.  It was only John, who stood next to Mary the mother of Christ at the terrible crucifixion.  He had slept in the Garden of Gethsemane, and fled at the betrayal of Christ, like all the others.  But at some point he must have decided nothing else mattered, he had to be with his Lord, and in so doing found himself comforting Mary at the cross.  Again it looks as though John did not earn the title of beloved because Christ loved John more than He loved the others, but perhaps because John loved Christ more than the others.  How we become disciples of Christ may well be just like those 12 came to know Him; because we look for Him.  We choose to follow Him.  We choose to love Him.   And in so doing we become “the beloved” as well.
We start with an examination of the works of the disciples simply because they had the closest proximity to Christ for the longest period of time.  I make a distinction between disciples and apostles in that I consider apostles as those who had great ministries and lived at the time of Christ, but may not have been part of the original 12.  Matthias the replacement for Judas for example had only a limited time with Christ before He ascended; whereas John knew Him from that day at the river some 3 and half years earlier.  I would bet that some of the apostles named later in scripture were a part of the 70 others who Christ had called in His ministry.  Perhaps Stephan, Apollos, and maybe a few others named in the New Testament were a part of that crowd. 
When most Christians think of who the twelve disciples were, the names of the first four gospels spring to mind – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  In point of fact, only Matthew and John were actual disciples of Christ.  It is believed that the gospel of Mark, may well have been dictated to him by the disciple Peter.  And the Gospel of Luke as well as the book of Acts were written by a well-educated, well-traveled, Jewish literate physician who was a companion of Paul.  The twelve disciples of Christ who were with Him the longest in His ministry included:
·         Simon Peter (also called Simon Bar Jonah/Jochanon, and Cephas) he was the brother of Andrew
·         Andrew who was the brother of Peter and the former disciple of John the Baptist
·         James the son of Zebedee and brother of John (sons of thunder)
·         John the son of Zebedee and brother of James (sons of thunder) and the beloved
·         Phillip from the Bethsaida of Galilee region
·         Bartholomew (also called Nathaniel) son of Talemai
·         Matthew (also called Levi) the tax collector
·         Thomas (also called Didymus) famous for doubting
·         James (also called James the lessor, or James the Just) the son of Alphaeus
·         Thaddeaus (also called Jude or Lebbaeus)
·         Simon (the Zealot)
·         Judas Iscariot the one who betrayed Him

Whether they were called by Christ to follow Him, or took the initiative on their own to do so, they were welcomed and given the opportunity to spend every waking moment in close proximity to our God.  Though the conditions were far from ideal; they were poor, they were outcast, and they were perpetually in motion – either chased by or requested by the people; they were also spending all their time at the feet of our God.  They knew His love personally.  They knew it as a direct expression of a personal relationship each one had with our God.  This is why their testimonies remain so powerful even today.  The personal testimony of a life directly touched by God, saved by Christ, has something to say to the world.  The words carry weight when they come from a place that is real, that is personal, that has a meaning only you can know.  We too can be a part of this close-knit group, this one to one fellowship with the Savior of the world, and of ourselves.  It is what He calls us yet to be.  Our only part is to accept His call, and receive the gifts He offers, including a close-knit fellowship that can begin today that will one day reach fulfillment face to face in His eternal kingdom.
For now, we begin our re-examination of His Word, beginning with what just may be family.  While Mary the mother of Christ was a virgin at His conception and remained so until His birth, there is nothing to indicate that Mary and Joseph did not have a normal married life following the birth of Christ.  There are several references to Mary as being the mother of more than just Jesus.  The other children who are mentioned in the New Testament include: James, Joses, Juda/Judas, Simon, and Salome (likely His sister).  These siblings would have only been half-brothers and sisters by blood as God was the Father of Christ, not Joseph.  But this familial distinction was hardly relevant from Christ’s perspective.  He welcomed anyone who chose to believe in Him as family.  It is however believed that the book of James may well have been written by the half-brother of Christ.  There are other competing theories about the origin and authorship of the book of James, but as it may have been written by a family member it is worth examining sooner rather than later.  Another book in our New Testament that may well have been written by another half-brother of Christ was the general epistle of Jude.  As with many of the books included in our Bible, the authorship traces back to several different theories, but it appears the most likely, that this was the brother of James, and half-brother of Christ.  As such we will begin our examination with the books of Jude and James.