Photo of the Week: September 30, 2015

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An Introduction to Jude

Jude is a strange little letter, nestled between 3 John and Revelation. It is seldom quoted, and sermons and studies of it are rarer still. It could be that it is neglected because of its size, only 25 verses, or its location, or because it is so similar to 2 Peter 2.  A more likely reason could be that it is just strange.

We don’t know for sure who wrote it, nor can we be certain of when it was written, nor can we quite understand some of its quotations, but we do know why it was written, for it was written to warn against false teachers.  We will consider these unanswered questions as we continue through it, and we’ll begin with author and date right here and now.

Who was Jude?

Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and a brother of James

Jude 1a

Jude and Judas are forms of the name Judah, and we know Judah was one of the sons of Jacob and one of the tribes of Israel.  There are four men mentioned in the New Testament named Jude or Judas who could be the author.

1. He could be Jude, brother of Jesus. Mark 6:3 lists four brothers of Jesus, including Jude and James.

2. Judas son of James is mentioned in Luke 6:16 and Acts 1:13; this guy was an apostle. Some have suggested that the Greek is a little tricky and he could be the brother of James rather than the son of James, but personally, I don’t think so. Even if the Greek was tricky, the author of Jude doesn’t say he is an apostle; in fact he speaks of the apostles in v. 17 as though he weren’t one of them.

3. Judas Barnabas is mentioned in Acts 15:22 and maybe he was a “brother” of James in the sense of a brother in Christ rather than as a literal physical brother. That idea seems unlikely since “brother of” in the Greek appears more of an identification used to identify a literal brother.

4. Judas of Damascus from Acts 9 is the other one, but it would seem that he is way too obscure to have written an authoritative letter to a church, and oh, by the way, was he even a believer?

With these choices, it seems to me that our author must have been a half-brother of Jesus and brother of James. Some have also suggested that “Jude” could be a pen name for someone, but for me that involved way too much speculation to be considered, unless someone can find some evidence somewhere.

When was this written?

Beats me!  If we are right about which Jude wrote it, then it must have been between 55 and 80. Since he identified himself as the brother of James, we might think it would have been within James’ lifetime, so that narrows it down to 62 or before. Some have even suggested it might have been written in the second century by an entirely different Jude.  I doubt that, but the truth is we really can’t be certain.

I realize that this post is a radical departure from the way I’ve been covering books recently, but since this book is so obscure for most of us these days, I thought it would be good to look at some of its mysteries.  I’ll cover the other ones as we go along; next post will be more familiar to you!

Final Thoughts on James

Old Testament Israel lived under the Law of Moses, very much a transactional system of law, violations, punishment and atonement. The great priority of that system was found in avoiding violations to curry God’s favor. Sacrifices were carried out continually to atone for these violations, but there was no permanent forgiveness, only the putting off of punishment; the concept of eternal life was not present in the Law. Then Jesus comes along and changes everything, so much so that the Jewish leaders refused to recognize Him as the Messiah and had Him put to death… and lo and behold, by doing so, He brought a superior sacrifice and established a superior covenant putting the cycle of law and violations to an end. With this, a new era was ushered in with that superior covenant in which sin could be taken away entirely and the gift of eternal life became effective.

Yet even in the early days of the church, there were those who attempted to bring the old system back into the picture, and Paul wrote the whole book of Galatians to combat them; a scathing rebuke is really what Galatians is, against the re-introduction of the Law into Christianity. A few centuries later when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, it became a political necessity to force the Old Covenant into the church in order for Christianity to be a state religion, since the Law was the code of a theocracy and Christianity was not… and the battle began in earnest and is with us to this day between law and violation, and love and our response to it. Several of our Christian traditions are grounded in this legal approach to faith that should never have been there, and they see most things in terms of law and violation, resulting in what we would call today “legalism.”

I have neither the time nor the inclination to write a 50,000 word post to fully explain and document all of this, nor do I suspect you would read such a post if I were to write it, so let’s just cut to the chase: Do you define your identity in Christ in terms of Law or in terms of love and grace?

OK, perfect! Every one of you said love and grace… go ahead and admit it, I’m right.

That being the case, consider this one: Is the will of God for your life a list of do’s or a list of don’ts?

OK, you may not agree with me on much, but you must grant me this: I am the only human being in history who has read every single comment posted on this blog, not to mention a fair number that weren’t posted due to language. Since we agree that our identity in Christ is about love and grace, why do some send me lists of “don’ts”? (Aha, that’s how he can tell!)

The Ways of this World

In the world we live in today, almost every time something happens, somebody proposes a new law. If you turn back the clock 150 years, states were passing laws banning sodomy, now they pass laws to ban opposition to sodomy. Back in the day, they banned abortion, now they ban protesting abortion. They passed laws against civil rights for some people, and then passed laws to help those people. Somebody commits a mass killing and we pass another law that bans murder, as if the 20 already on the books were one short. And each time, somewhere, someone backed one of these stupid laws and claimed they got it from the Bible!

Did Jesus say any of this “legal stuff?”

Not exactly. Here is Jesus teaching:

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Matthew 22:37-40

As Christians, we live to a much higher standard than those living under the Law, for with us, it isn’t simply a matter of avoiding violations, for we respond to His love by loving our neighbor. If we really love our neighbor, nobody needs to tell us not to steal from them; it would be unthinkable! Nobody needs to tell me not to covet my neighbor’s wife, for that would be unthinkable. This is a vastly greater deterrent to ungodly behavior than another law!

James gives us some practical examples of problem areas that we might easily fall into and sends us back to the Master’s feet in prayer, both for ourselves and for one another. He tells us to be patient, to hang in there and take our problems, once identified to our Lord. This isn’t a list of “don’ts” it is the rule of love. If I harm my brother, I harm myself, and even worse I damage my relationship with my Lord whom I love above all else. Who needs a rule book?

Finally, please don’t accuse me of trying to condone sin, for when you do, I’ll know that you (sadly) still don’t get it.

Summing Up

There are some misconceptions surrounding this book, and maybe that is why many modern-day teachers avoid it. Can Jesus be found in James? Well, let’s see… didn’t I write a “Bonus Post” on its connection with the Sermon on the Mount? Remember the chart? Every verse from James 1:2 through James 5:18 has a direct parallel in the Sermon on the Mount… and commentators say Jesus isn’t in James… that only leaves three verse without a direct parallel!

Does James really stress works over faith?  Now be careful before you say that he does, remember the parallel with the Sermon on the Mount! If you’ve followed these posts you have seen that James teaches that salvation comes by faith, and that as Christians we put that faith into action, which is exactly what Jesus taught. It is true that James hasn’t used the “magic words” of certain teachers who came along centuries later, but the essence is the same, for there is no conflict between faith and works, unless you manufacture one yourself.

Here’s What I Think…

James gives us a whole bunch of moral teachings and then places priority on our relationship with Christ through intercessory prayer for one another: Love in action. Jesus said that the whole Law and prophets were fulfilled in the command to love your neighbor as yourself; James demonstrated this principle in action. If you approach Scripture the way many theologians do, you are looking for proof texts to plug into your systematic theology chart, and you miss this treasure “hidden” in the book of James.

Some commentators have claimed that James is a legalistic book, are they right?

Personally, I don’t think so, but I can see why they say it.  There seems to be an impulse in some traditions to assert rules and even condemnation of others at every opportunity, and James gives these good folks a great deal of highly quotable material, as long as context isn’t an issue for them… and context in James isn’t as easy to identify as it is in other places. My real question relates not so much to James as it does to the impulse to make rules to hold others accountable to.

Here’s another way of saying this: Why is it that some Christians read the Scriptures and see faith in terms of ordinances and violations while others see love and our response to love?

Obviously I’m not the first to ask this sort of question, and just as obviously I won’t be the last to have a stab at it, if nothing else I hope to encourage you to give this a though or two. In the next post, I’ll share mine…

James Closes His Letter

James 5:13-20

In concluding his letter, James speaks on prayer in the only passage in his letter that doesn’t have a direct parallel in the Sermon on the Mount. Actually, this is one of the strongest statements concerning the power of prayer in the entire New Testament, and if you are like me, it’s also one of the most challenging. Oh yes, it’s all well and good to read about the power of prayer, but we live in a “sophisticated” time of knowledge and science, and we are likely to find some of James’ comments quaint and folksy, but hardly 21st century! Yet, there it is, what are we going to do with it?

Verses 13-15 deal with trouble, happiness and sickness, and with trouble and sickness we are urged to pray, while in happiness we are told to praise.  Verse 15 is challenging for us: “And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.”  How are we to understand this? If you have been with me for a long time, surely you have an idea of what is going here… don’t you? Each of the books we have studied in the past tells us clearly to change our focus away from our earthly understanding and put it onto a heavenly understanding of things. Sickness is a physical affliction, and while that can be a very rough thing to deal with (persevere is a word that comes to mind) it is not the end game.

So often we have looked at things like this, and when the outcome, at least in physical terms, wasn’t the one we expected or hoped for, we let someone convince us that we didn’t have enough faith. Did it ever occur to anyone that our prayer wasn’t within God’s will for the person? I know this can be hard, yes I’ve been there too, but maybe God had a better plan for the sick person than leaving them here in this vale of tears.

Do we really believe that what we believe is really real?

If so, prayer isn’t about getting what we want from God, it’s about getting what God wants for others. Yes, that is a thought worth reflecting upon…

Notice that verse 16 begins with “therefore”

Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

In verse 15, we saw that prayer would make the sick person “well”. The word translated “well” is also the word that is used for salvation. Even more interesting, the verse ends by saying their sins will be forgiven: “Therefore…” verse 16. This should be a familiar pattern for setting context by now, what is James actually teaching?  It would appear that the higher priority is on being healed from our sin, and oh yes, if the Lord wills it, from sickness too.

Verses 17 and 18 give us the example of Elijah as a great man of prayer, and then we come to 19-20:

My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

James 5:19-20

Have you ever wandered off the path, maybe not even realizing it, and then you found yourself rather far afield of where you should have been in your faith? Well, I have! Whoever helps someone back from one of these wandering periods saves them from death and covers a multitude of sins.  I hope you will take special note of two things:

1. This is the last verse in this passage, summing up its contents. With this in mind, when James is talking about healing sick persons through prayer, what is he really getting at?

2. This is also the ending of the letter, summing up its contents: What is the letter, and all of this moral instruction here for?

To complete our tour of James, we’ll wrap this up in the next two posts tomorrow with some thoughts on the book’s message and application for us today, see you there!

“Above all”

James 5:7-12

This passage opens with the words, “Be patient, then, brothers and sisters…” (James 5:7a) and to really lock our understanding of it up, we should look at the word “then.” The Greek word here is oun which means “then, therefore, accordingly, consequently, these things being so”.  King James translates it “therefore” and both KJV and NIV have it right. You might wonder why I’m going to such lengths for “then” since I usually avoid this sort of discussion in these posts, and there is a solid reason. You may recall that in the last post, I spoke of keeping it in context and mentioned both the verses beginning at 4:1 and today’s section in asserting an overall context, something very difficult to do in this letter as I pointed out at the beginning of our review of James.  Verse 5:7 is where this is tied together in context, and atypically, it sets context backwards in the text by demonstrating that James is now summing up the prior lessons he has taught.

So, in light of all of this, James is telling us to be patient. In light of his discussion of favoritism, not loving the world, etc., we need to be patient until the Lord returns for this life here on earth isn’t always easy and can lure us off the path of our faith. See it?

He uses an example of a farmer patiently waiting for his crops to grow before he can bring in the harvest (5:7b) He urges us not to grumble against one another, and equating “grumbling” with “judging” he warns that we will be judged if we do, for the Judge is near at hand. (5:9)  In verse 10 he cites the prophets as an example of patient endurance, urging us to do likewise and in the next verse reminds his readers that they count those who have persevered as blessed, pointing out that the Lord used these people for great things, and reminding them of His mercy. Finally, in verse 12 he tells his readers that they must not swear:

Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.” Otherwise you will be condemned.

James 5:12

“Above all” why “above all”?

“Above all” is used by other New Testament writers to introduce their final point, and it would appear that James is doing the same here, where he is referring to taking oaths.

James is mirroring what Jesus taught in Matthew 5:33-37, where Jesus said almost the same thing James is saying here. Jesus was tracing the Law of Moses which also prohibited oaths that were sworn by God that what a person was saying was true. This is taking the name of the Lord in vain and profanes God. Swearing by something on the earth is idolatrous, so this is a “catch 22” situation: No swearing.  As a consequence of this, US law allows one to “affirm” rather than “swear” a legal oath. In fact, Harry Truman “affirmed” rather than having sworn for his oath of office, the only president to do so to date.

The next and concluding section of the letter is a prayer, and we will see that in the next post.