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The Sin of Partiality

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Just before the heart of his letter (2:14-26), James blends the dual themes of wisdom and working faith in outlining the sin of partiality (2:1-13). James describes what it means to be “partial” in 2:1: “My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.”

At the outset, he draws the reader’s attention to “our,” a possessive word, meaning Jesus is ours because He has given Himself to us and for us and we have accepted him as our, “glorious Lord.” Describing Jesus as “Lord” (or master) would highlight our need to emulate and obey Him (Heb. 5:8-9) while describing Him as “glorious” would remind us that Jesus defeated death and is reigning as King Most High. How can we “hold” our “faith” in such a “glorious Lord” while treating people with personal favoritism when our “glorious Lord” never did?

Another theme that James revisits several times in his letter is the disparity between the rich and poor and how, generally speaking, the rich hold the poor in contempt (1:9-11; 5:1-6). Here (2:1-13) James puts forth a hypothetical situation (“if” 2:2) wherein the believer has the perfect opportunity to exercise his wisdom and faith. Not only is it against wisdom to play favorites in the brotherhood but this kind of discrimination is also against God’s law, thereby violating faith in Jesus. There are three ways in which James gives his reproof against the sin of partiality.

Preferring the wealthy over the poor shows a complete disregard for Jesus (2:1-7). James calls those who make such distinctions “judges with evil motives” (2:4). In fact, it was the rich who usually oppressed poor believers (5:1-7), dragging them to court and even blaspheming the name of Jesus (2:6-7). To favor a wealthy man over a poor man for whatever reason not only dishonors “the fair name by which you were called” (2:7) but also dishonors “the poor man” whom God chose to be “rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom” (2:5). Jesus came to make the poor rich (2 Cor. 8:9), not financially but spiritually, and those who wear the name of Jesus ought to have that same attitude of self-sacrifice for the benefit of the less fortunate (2 Cor. 6:10).

Preferring the wealthy over the poor shows a complete disregard for the Law (2:8-11). Who said Christians are not under Law? We certainly are! Part of being citizens in a kingdom necessitates that there be a law. Christ, who sits at the right hand of God, is King making the words that issue from His throne a “royal law” (2:8). If we are to be a “royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9) then we must abide by our King’s “royal law” which is, summed up, “you shall love you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Loving others unconditionally as God has loved us is a theme repeatedly emphasized by Jesus (Mt. 22:34-40; Jn. 13:34-35) and his disciples after Him (Rom. 13:8-10). Partiality is the polar opposite of our King’s command to love. So people who play favorites in the kingdom violate the very foundation of the law of the Kingdom and, in effect, “has become guilty of all” that the Law teaches (2:10).

Preferring the wealthy over the poor shows a complete disregard for the Judgment (2:12-13). Lastly, James warns his audience to “so speak and so act,” that is, love in word and deed (1 Jn. 3:18), “as those who are judged by the law of liberty” (2:12). The law that Christ delivered was unlike the Mosaic Law in that Christ’s law actually liberates men from their sins instead of enslaving them in their sins (Rom. 8:1-2ff). Yet we need to be careful how we use that freedom. Paul warns the Galatians not to “turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh” in the very context of loving one another (Gal. 5:13-14). We need to live by this law of liberty and of love because, in the end, we will be judged by it (2:13; Lk. 6:37-38). Our mercy for one another (2:13), or lack of it, will be returned to us in the judgment (Mt. 5:7; 6:14-15; 25:34-40), which is why God said long ago, “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (Hos. 6:6; Mt. 9:13; 12:7).

Brethren, let us live to honor our “glorious Lord Jesus” (2:1-7), respect His “royal law of love” (2:8-11) and live in view of the eternal judgment (2:12-13). There may be a brother or a sister in the assembly that, for whatever reason, you don’t necessarily get along with. Remember the command to love him or her still stands and your salvation is in the balance. Time and time again, the Scriptures explicitly point out that God does not give special treatment to one individual over another. Peter once stated, “...God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him” (Acts 10:34; cf. Jn. 9:31). “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 Jn. 4:11).

The Kingdom

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Disciples of Jesus often struggle to understand their Master’s teaching. The same was even true of Christ’s original 12 disciples. One of the things Jesus’ original audience struggled with was the nature of the kingdom He came to establish. Yet, Jesus the master Teacher, ever patient, taught them in love (cf. Mt. 20:20-28; Acts 1:6-8).

Sadly, much of the same confusion remains today (see premillennialism, Mormonism, etc.) despite the fact that the apostles and their contemporaries, being filled with the Spirit of truth who guided them into “all truth” (Jn. 16:13), set the record straight about the kingdom in their epistles.

But why didn’t the average Jew in the days Jesus walked the earth understand what the kingdom of God was all about? The Old Testament Scriptures were rich with kingdom prophecies but the Jews only looked at them physically and nationally. They look for a restoration of Israel’s golden days under David. The Christ would liberate them from Roman oppression and sit on David’s throne in Jerusalem. These misconceptions colored their interpretation of the of the prophets and even led them to crucify the Christ.

During the dark days of Judah God did not utterly destroy Israel but preserved a remnant (Isa. 1:9). But in her destruction, Israel lost her civil sovereignty; that is, she ceased to be a nation. But God promised to put another King on David’s throne (Isa. 9:6-7) making them a nation once again. Though broken Israel would be scattered abroad, God promised they would return to Him (Isa. 10:20-23). This would happen in the days when God would send forth a King (Isa. 11:1-16). But this same Lord would be a light to the Gentiles (lit. “the nations” or non-Jews) (Isa. 49:5ff), a fact lost on some first century Jewish Christians.

As stated before, we don’t have the same excuse as the first century Jews for misunderstanding kingdom prophecy. Paul, on his first missionary journey, while in Pisidian Antioch, reviewed Jewish history (Acts 13:16-41) highlighting that Jesus Christ fulfilled the kingdom promise (Acts 13:23) and was resurrected to be the “sure mercies of David” (Acts 13:32-34). He clearly stated at the conclusion of his sermon that the deliverance provided by this Davidic King was not national or militaristic but was a deliverance from “sin” and its consequences (Acts 13:38).

Similar statements can be found in Peter’s sermon on the first Pentecost after the resurrection. He concluded that after being raised from the dead Jesus was “exalted to the right hand of God” (Acts 2:33), a place of rule (cf. Psa. 110).

Paul taught that first century Christians were presently in “the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col. 1:13-14). Therefore, we can confidently conclude that Jesus is faithful: He was successful in establishing His kingdom and is reigned even now as “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings, Lord of lords” (1 Tim. 6:15).

The Jewish understanding of the “kingdom” prophecies was literal and physical but the apostles, guided by the Spirit of truth, interpreted those prophecies correctly for us, attesting to the spiritual nature of the kingdom Christ established (cf. Lk. 17:20-21). Like most things in the Old Testament, the literal and physical kingdom of Israel was a type or shadow of the spiritual kingdom of Jesus Christ.

Is the kingdom the same thing as the church? “Kingdom” is just one way of describing God’s relationship to His people through Christ. We are children in His family, laborers in His vineyard, sheep in His flock, members of His body, etc. Each one of these phrases describes a unique attribute of that multifaceted relationship. The “kingdom” figure is unique in that it emphasizes the “rule” of Christ and our submission, loyalty, and service to Him as our King.

The word “church” (Grk. ‘Ekklesia’) is a combination of two words. The prefix “Ek” means “out of” and “klesia” means “a calling.” The word church amounts to “a calling out of.” This originally referred to a special group of people like a civic assembly. But the ‘Ekklesia’ that Jesus promised to build (Mt. 16:18) was a special assembly of people that belonged to Him.

So when the word “church” is used we should generally think “people.” But when the word “kingdom” is used we should think more of “rule,” for that is what the word means. “Kingdom” (Grk. ‘Basileia’) is an abstract noun denoting sovereignty, royal power, dominion, etc. It comes to be defined by metonymy (or as a figure of speech) as the people over whom the king rules.

Are you part of Christ’s kingdom? That depends. Is Jesus your King? You might ask, “How do I know if Jesus is my King?” The answer to that question entirely rests upon your response to the teachings of Jesus. If you willingly submit to His rule and commandments then you have proven He is sitting on the throne of your heart. Please read Matthew 7:21-23 and then verses 24-27 while meditating on the kingdom and your place in it.

The Grace of Giving

Sunday, March 06, 2016

“Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Cor. 9:7)

Throughout Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians to bring their collection for needy saints in Jerusalem to completion (2 Cor. 8-9) the collection itself is called many things: “the grace of God” (8:1), “a gracious work” (8:6, 7), “this generous gift” (8:20), “ministry to the saints” (9:1), “a bountiful gift” (9:5). It is no wonder, then, that Paul likened the gracious act of giving to those in need to the work of grace performed by Jesus on the cross for sinful man (8:9). Both were works of grace, the condescending favor of one party bestowed on a less fortunate party.

Naturally, giving is much more difficult than receiving. In giving to others we feel like all the blessing has gone out feeling a little emptier than when we began. Yet Jesus has taught us, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35) because in the act of giving, especially when we expect “nothing in return,”  we are proving to be “sons of the Most High” (Lk. 6:25). We are taught by God’s grace (2 Cor. 8:9; Titus 2:11-14) to reflect His grace toward others.

We might expect the greatest blessing in giving to others graciously to be the positive effect it brings to the recipient. Yet, this is secondary to a greater good, namely, the glorification of God (Mt. 5:16). This is the ultimate aim of God’s children in their actions of love.

If God’s glory is at the center of our exercising grace then we are freed from the fleshly lust of giving selfishly (Lk. 6:34) to give both generously and cheerfully (2 Cor. 9:6-7). Paul explained this with the principle of sowing and reaping (v.6). What is true naturally is also true spiritually (Mk. 10:30; Gal. 6:8-10). God not only supplies the seed needed to cause the fruits of righteousness to grow but He also causes the growth as well! (1 Cor. 3:6-7).

Knowing these principles to be trustworthy, we are to be purposeful and cheerful givers. Therefore, we must make up our minds to give beforehand with deliberate purpose, not in a haphazard manner nor with any reluctance. It should not pain us to give to others because we do so “not under compulsion” or of necessity. This means we should never contribute to the needs of others because we feel it is our “duty,” as if God should have to cast some gloomy shadow of obligation upon us. Such a contribution would result in the opposite of cheerfulness or happiness: regret.

On the other hand, one who has learned by God’s grace to give with grace, that is, purposefully and cheerfully, is loved by God (2 Cor. 9:7). Those, then, who are eager to receive God’s love will be motivated to give in this way (Heb. 13:16). In fact, it ought to be our pleasure to give graciously to others.

Yet there are times we grow weary in doing good (Gal. 6:9) and may falter in our generosity. In those seasons of spiritual drought we are no longer serving “by the strength which God supplies” (1 Pet. 4:11) and have instead fallen back into thinking we can be gracious without God. We must have faith that as long as we are seeking “first His kingdom and His righteousness” God will take care of our needs (Mt. 6:25-33). The man of faith knows that God is powerful enough to equip him to be a cheerful giver (2 Cor. 9:8; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; Eph. 2:10).

Who is the “one man [who] gives freely, yet gains even more” (Prov. 11:24)? This paradoxical proverb describes the man who believes that being gracious to others will not diminish his capacity to provide for his own or to continue in benevolence (Psa. 37:25). He understands that God both replenishes the blessing that has gone out and fills up to overflowing. He is the branch that is pruned to bear even more fruit (Jn. 15:2).

This truth was expressed beautifully by Paul in 2 Corinthians 9:10, “Now He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed and increase the harvest of your righteousness.” The harvest of the Corinthians’ righteousness was the collection for needy saints. The harvest for our righteousness is whatever work of gracious giving we are engaged in.

Just as God supplies the farmer’s seed that produces bread to eat, the same gracious God will supply us with all we need to be gracious to others. Through those who give freely, God will supply a bumper crop of blessing! “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!” (2 Cor. 9:15), His grace is truly all sufficient (12:9).

Is Satan Lucifer?

Sunday, February 21, 2016

How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!”

(Isaiah 14:12) KJV

“Satan,” the personal name of the devil (Mt. 4:10), means “adversary.” We see that adversarial relationship played out through the entirety of Scripture but especially when our Lord was led away to be tempted by him in the wilderness. It is difficult to come to a full appreciate of Satan’s character and history but a few things are evident.

He is the leader of disobedient, what some call “fallen,” angels (Mt. 25:41; Rev. 12:7). Angels are created beings originally created, like everything that God made, “good” in the beginning. Like man, angels were given freewill. Like man, they “sought out many schemes” (Ecc. 7:29). But unlike man, when angels sin against God there remains no known means of forgiveness. Instead, they are “cast into hell… and committed… to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment.” (2 Pet. 2:4; Jd. 1:6).

On various occasions we see Satan speaking, lying, blinding, tempting, devouring, contending and otherwise interacting with God’s creation so as to deceive them to fall away from God’s presence. He is fighting a battle he knows he will lose.

Satan is an actual personality of evil. We see his evil in the Old Testament when he deceived Eve, attacked Job, incited David, and accused Joshua the high priest. We see his evil in the New Testament in his temptation of Jesus, his entering Judas, his blinding unbelievers, and his hindering Paul.

He is depicted as the great accuser of God and man. He accused both God to man (Gen. 3:4) and man to God (Job. 1:9; 2:4). For his evil actions and intentions he is consigned, along with all who follow him, to eternity in hell (Mt. 25:41; Rev. 20:10). He has been called the devil (Mt. 4:1), the enemy (Lk. 10:19), the father of lies (Jn. 8:44), the ruler of this world (Eph. 2:2; Jn. 12:31), the tempter (Mt. 4:3; 1 Thess. 3:5) and the evil one (1 Jn. 5:19).

But such was not always the case. Satan is not deity therefore he is a created being like the angels. He would have been created good at the beginning but sometime before Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden Satan “fell” or was banished from God’s presence. Paul speaks of the danger of becoming conceited or puffed up with pride and calls it falling “into the condemnation of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:6). So evidently, Satan was cast out of God’s presence because of his pride.

When Jesus’ disciples were given the power to cast out demons, agents at the disposal of Satan, they reported back to Him that “even the demons are subject to us in your name!” Because of the great authority they were given “over all the power of the enemy” Jesus responded by saying to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from the heaven…” (Lk. 10:17-20). His fall was “like lightning” probably due to its suddenness.

Some people see this text’s shadow in Isaiah 14:12 and make the connection by calling Satan “Lucifer.” Lucifer is a name or title which means “Helel son of Shachar”, which was probably a name for the morning star (Venus) or the crescent moon. But in this text, the remnant of Israel is taunting not Satan but the king of Babylon (Isa. 14:3-21). It was the king of Babylon who fell from his lofty throne of arrogance to a bed of maggots and a cover of worms in Sheol (v.11). He tried to make himself like the “Most High” (v.14) but was humbled.

This whole section is directed to a human ruler. He is even called a “man” (v.16) with a corporeal body (vv.19-20). Although this section is speaking poetically it is obvious its subject is the King of Babylon. And although the text is describing a situation remarkably similar to Satan’s “fall” it would be unfair to the text to designate the devil as “Lucifer.” 

Paul's Letter of Recommendation

Sunday, February 07, 2016

“Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”

(2 Corinthians 3:1-3)

A great deal of the space in Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians is taken up by some very weighty arguments defending his ministry as a true apostle of Jesus Christ. There were some people floating around churches in Achaia and abroad assassinating the character of Paul. By studying through 2 Corinthians we can infer that Paul’s opponents were calling into question the genuineness of his apostleship by drawing attention to his suffering, poverty, and otherwise sorry state of being. Jesus came to take away our suffering so why would His ambassador be enduring such anguish? This was the line of thinking that led some of the Corinthians to buy the lie that Christ really wasn't speaking in Paul (13:3).

One of the best arguments he makes to prove his sincerity as a true apostle of the Lord is from the above passage. He poses two rhetorical questions fully expecting negative answers, as if to say, “You want proof? You think I need a letter of recommendation to prove my apostleship?”

Paul’s purpose was certainly not to commend himself. He wasn’t designing arguments just to make himself look better against his opponents. No, those were the cheap tactics employed by Paul’s opponents who gloried in appearances (2:17; 5:12). In fact, he just got through making the argument that he was not capable by himself to bring about spiritual life to some and spiritual death to others. “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2:15-16) Obviously, no mere man by himself is sufficient to cause eternal salvation or destruction. Yet God was able to make Paul sufficient by equipping him for a sufficient ministry (the new covenant ministry) with a sufficient message (the gospel of light).

Letters of recommendation have great merit. I needed some kind of referral before I could labor among you in Hallsville. You needed to have some proof of my sincerity before you would allow me to speak God’s word to you on a regular basis. But Paul is saying that he doesn’t need such a letter written in ink vouching for his sincerity. Why not? Because he already had one and it was far more powerful than any letter written by the hand of man.

His “letter of recommendation” was the Corinthian church itself which was nonexistent prior to Paul’s coming to Corinth. He was the very first to bring the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (4:6) to a people “blinded” “by the god of this world” (4:4). Indeed, he saw himself as a messenger (3:3). The fruit of his labor should have been proof enough. The 18 months of blood, sweat, and tears that went into reconciling these idolaters to God, an end he was still determined to bring about (5:20), was all the proof they needed of the effectiveness of Paul’s message and the genuineness of his apostleship.

God Himself authenticated and endorsed Paul by the fact of their conversion to Jesus. This “letter of recommendation” was just as much “a letter from Christ” written by God’s hand in the eternal and life-giving ink of the Spirit. Even though Christ never came to Corinth in the flesh, Paul, like an ambassador, “delivered” the message of the gospel for Him (5:20).

The beautiful story of their conversion was “written” or “etched” on Paul’s heart. Their conversion story was living on in him and he carried it with him wherever he went.

These Christians were like a living epistle that could be “known and read by all.” The church was like an open book for the unbelievers in Achaia to read and know. Their absence in the idol temples, their singing early Sunday mornings, their denial of ungodliness would read like a book to their neighbors about the ability of God to transform sinners into saints.

Lastly, Paul makes a contrast between the old and new covenants in mentioning letters inked on “tablets of stone,” the medium of the old covenant that kills (3:6), and the Spirit written on “tablets of human hearts,” a life-giving medium of the new covenant (3:6) and a direct fulfillment of a new covenant prophecy (Ezek. 11:19-20).

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