Thursday, September 27, 2018

To the Twelve Tribes

James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad: Greetings (James 1:1).

James addresses his letter to the twelve tribes scattered abroad. This statement tells us a lot about how the early Christians viewed themselves, and the ethnic nation of Israel. James, and his early Christian brethren, understood that the Christian Church, made up of Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, was the true Israel, the Israel of God. The phrase, “the twelve tribes scattered abroad” refers to what historians call the Diaspora. Diaspora can, in modern usage, refer to the dispersion of any ethnic group from their original homeland. In the Biblical context, however, the Diaspora refers specifically to the dispersion of the Israelites beyond Israel. The people of Israel were carried off into exile when the Northern Kingdom, and later the Southern Kingdom, were destroyed in the 6th century BC. A large population of Jews continued to live outside of Israel even after they were given leave to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple.

So, to whom is James writing? He calls the readers, “my brethren” in verse two. Certainly James, the half-brother of Jesus, would feel a kinship with his people according to the flesh, just as St. Paul did. St. Paul wrote that he would choose to be damned if it meant salvation for his fellow Jews. James’ letter is, above all else, about faith in Christ, and how that faith manifests itself in everyday life. Faith that does not bear the fruit of good works is dead. It is no faith at all. This is not a letter written to people who did not believe in Christ. This letter was written to give guidance and admonition to Christians, not primarily as a tool of Evangelism intended to convert non-believers, at least in the same way as, for instance, Peter’s Pentecost sermon. Why is this important? There are many people who believe that the ethnic Jewish people enjoy special status with God as His chosen people, by virtue of the fact that they are Jews. This is similar to what the Pharisees taught, and they were soundly rebuked by Our Lord. The Pharisees calmed to be true Israelites - Abraham’s children, and children of God. Jesus tells them that they are, rather, children of the devil. “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here,” Jesus tells them. The Pharisees are not Abraham’s offspring because they do not have faith in Christ. They have the physical blood line, but they reject the promise. There is an entire branch of Christianity that teaches God will remove Christians from the earth via rapture, so that God can gather all the Jews in Israel, just prior to the end of all things. Once so gathered, they will undergo a mass conversion to Christ, and thus, it is taught, all the Jews will be saved, right before the Last Judgment.

This one verse in the epistle of James, however, shows that the early Christian church did not see things that way. They understood, as the rest of scripture teaches, that not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. They understood that it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s children. This teaching is sometimes derogatorily called replacement theology. Scripture, however, is clear. There are not two peoples. Israel, God’s chosen people, is not comprised of a specific ethnic blood line. It is the Body of Christ: all those, Jew or Gentile, who have been brought to penitent faith in Christ Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins. This was true in Old Testament times, just as it is true In New Testament times. The Old Testament faithful looked forward to the coming of the promised savior, as Jesus said Abraham rejoiced to see Jesus’ day; the New Testament faithful trust in Jesus who has come, died, risen and ascended, to atone for our sins and justify us before God the Father. Just as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness; therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Jesus is Better

In that He says, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away (Hebrews 8:13).

The Mosaic covenant is obsolete. It is finished. It is over and done with. The author of Hebrews spends a lot of time emphasizing that point. Or, to say it positively, Jesus is better. Jesus is better than the Mosaic covenant. Jesus is better than Moses. Jesus is better than the angels. Jesus is better than the earthly high priest and the rites and services of the temple. Jesus is better. This is the over-arching point of the book of Hebrews: Jesus is better, so don’t return to the things which He made obsolete; this brings us back to the Mosaic covenant, which the author addresses in chapter eight.

If God knew, since He is God, that the covenant He was making with Israel through Moses would become obsolete, why make it? It seems like a bunch of unnecessary maneuvering for nothing. It’s confusing. Let’s spend a couple thousand years paying extra attention to this law; let’s ingrain it into every aspect of our society, and then abandon it one day. That seems like it should be pretty easy, right? Then the words of Romans 9:20 put me in my proper place: But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to Him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?”

No, God does what He does for His own reasons, and it is not our place to criticize, or even to understand. In terms of the Mosaic covenant, it’s purpose was not to be a permanent solution to man’s problem of sin and death. The Mosaic covenant was intended to show man his sin, and his need to be rescued, and it was intended to set apart the children of Israel from the nations of the world. It was to mark them as holy and special, and to refine them, until out of them would come the only permanent solution to sin, death, and the devil, Jesus. God wanted to set apart the Israelites, so He gave them different laws, rules, and customs than all the other nations. Specific and unique rules for their clothing; Specific and unique rules for cutting their beards; Specific and unique rules for what they could eat; Specific and unique rules for how they were to worship Yahweh.

We run into two equal and opposite errors, concerning the Mosaic covenant. The first one goes like this: If God prescribed all these specific rules for how to act, dress, eat, and worship, we had better get to doing them. God means what He says, after all. From this, you get things like the Hebrew Roots Movement, and a bunch of people who say they are Christians trying to please God and justify themselves by how well they keep the Law of Moses. They are Pharisees. The second one hits closer to home with me: the Mosaic covenant s obsolete, you say? I’ve been set free from my slavery to sin by the atoning death of Christ, you say? Delightful! Now I can do whatever I want. No more stuffy and outmoded moral restraints for me. All things are lawful for me, because Christ has made the Law obsolete! Anyone who tells me differently is a Pharisee… This is called antinomianism. Both of these errors are deadly.

So what are we to make of the Mosaic covenant? We are to make of it what God tells us through scripture. We are to understand that in the Law, the Mosaic covenant, there are three types of laws: 1) the moral law, 2) the ceremonial law, and 3) the civil law. The moral law tells man his duty toward God. It is written on the human heart from creation. This is how Cain knew it was sinful for him to murder his brother Abel, even before the Law was formally written down. It is how we know, before anyone tells us, that we are idolators, murderers, liars, thieves, and adulterers. It is how we know that we, despite all the things we do to look righteous before men, or to try and justify ourselves before God, don’t measure up to God’s standard. We have sinned against Him by our thoughts, words, and deeds, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved God with our whole hearts; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. The ceremonial law told the Israelites how they were supposed to worship Yahweh, from how to construct the tabernacle and implement the elaborate system of animal sacrifices, down to the clothing and movements of the high priest and his attendants. The civil law regulated how the Israelites where to act toward each other, as well as toward other nations, in accordance with the moral law.

In good Lutheran fashion we ask, “What does this mean?” It means that all human beings, since man’s fall into sin, have a responsibility to keep the moral law, which God gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai, engraved by the finger of God into tablets of stone, which we call the 10 Commandments. This moral law was written on man’s heart from the beginning, and codified by God on Mt. Sinai. The ceremonial law and the civil law, however were given specifically to the nation of Israel, and for a different and specific purpose. That purpose was to set them apart from all the pagan nations of the world, and to mark them as His chosen people, from whom mankind’s savior would arise. The ceremonial and civil laws were shadows of the things to come. They are the symbols, fulfilled in Christ. The tabernacle, and later the temple, and all the worship of the sacrificial system of the Mosaic covenant points to Christ. It is fulfilled in Christ. It is made obsolete in Christ. This is the reason we can eat shellfish, and trim our beards. It’s the reason that sins like homosexuality are still sinful (because we’re still responsible for the moral law), but we are able to disregard the punishment prescribed in the civil law of Israel (because we’re not responsible for the civil law) which commanded that homosexuals (and various other offenders against the law) be put to death.

That is the point of Hebrews. All the sacrifices that ever were performed were imperfect types and shadows of Christ’s perfect atoning sacrifices for sin on the cross; it was perfect, therefore there is no need to repeat it. We fail to keep the Law. Christ has kept it. He is righteous and gives us His righteousness. In fact, Jesus, who knew no sin, became sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God by the grace of God through faith in Christ. He needs only to deliver this gift to us. He does that in the preaching of His word. He does that when, according to His promise, we bring people, old and young, infant and adult, to the baptismal font, and they are joined to Christ and His death and resurrection by water and the word; where they are saved through baptism and their sins are washed away. He delivers it to us in the Supper, the eating and drinking of Christ’s own body and blood, for the forgiveness of our sins, with the bread and wine. The Mosaic covenant is obsolete. We have something better which will never pass away; we have Jesus, and His death, and His resurrection. And, because He lives, we also shall live.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

All You Need Is Love

One of the biggest problems in American Christianity today is free will. Many American Christians believe that human beings have it, and that is a huge problem, especially where evangelism is concerned. Perhaps you even believe that humans have free will. Well, we don’t, at least where spiritual matters are concerned. I’m not saying that we aren’t free to choose our career, which house to live in, what car to drive, or which pair of socks we want to wear on that particular day. In those matters, we are free to choose away. Nowhere does Holy Scripture tell us that we need to seek God’s hidden will in such matters. Conversely, if we do not seek His will in such everyday matters, we do not run the risk of stepping outside of God’s will by picking out the wrong color necktie. Neither does God speak to us individually regarding these things (nor, I would argue, any others). But, where faith and conversion are concerned, we have no choice.

Lutherans, as well as other flavors of Christians, have recognized this spiritual truth in scripture since the beginning. We come into this world a sinful creature. We are conceived in sin, and born in iniquity. We are spiritually blind, and dead in our trespasses from the get-go. Scripture tells us so; it is up to God to make the dead alive. It is up to Him to give sight to the blind. It is up to Him to pay for sin, destroy death, and defeat the devil. He does this by the death and resurrection of Christ for the sins of the world; and He delivers those gifts to us personally through the proclamation of Law and Gospel. The Holy Spirit, working in the word and the sacraments, converts and makes alive. Only after a person has been raised to new life through the working of the Holy Spirit through the word is man able to cooperate with God, and then, only feebly.

This comes up now because, while listening to a conservative podcast, I heard the host give some advice to which I just had to respond.[1] The person who wrote the letter said his sister came out as a trans person; he and the family don’t agree with the lifestyle morally, and think it is detrimental to his sister’s physical and spiritual health. He asked if he should continue to love and support his sister, even though this left a bad taste in his mouth, or should he tell her in a loving way that what she was doing was wrong. I agreed with the host when he said the man should express love and compassion for his sister. When he said not to preach to her, my ears perked up. To summarize the advice: We should express love for those with whom we disagree morally, and not preach repentance to them. If we express love toward them, they are far more likely to be convinced that they are wrong and come to Christ. If we preach repentance at them and call them vile sinners, we run the risk of turning them off. It’s basically the, “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar” approach. And it is perfectly logical, if we are marketing a 7-Eleven, or if humans have free will in spiritual matters. The problem is, the church isn’t a 7-Eleven, and we don’t have such a will.

If it were our job as Christians to convince others to become Christians, this is the way to do it. Sell your product by advertising it well. But, if the inclinations of our heart (i.e. our will) are only evil from our youth, that means we are incapable of making such a decision. The one piece of equipment that is supposed to make the decision is broken. Our wills aren’t neutral, they’re evil. The broken piece of equipment needs to be replaced with a new one. This is what the Holy Spirit does to us through the means of word and sacrament. So, conversion isn’t so much presenting Christianity as a proposition, or a product, and trying to convince people to choose it; it is rather more like replacing the broken alternator in our car with a new one. Since the will is the thing that makes the decisions, conversion is replacing our old evil will with a new good will. And that’s not an operation we could do on ourselves. We wouldn’t even want to, since our wills are inclined toward evil and away from good.

The podcast host cited as support the fact that Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. But what was Jesus doing when He “hung out” with those outcasts of Jewish society, both secular and religious? Was He seeking these people out so that He could set a good example for them, and to move them to be good people by showing them the example of what it means to love one’s neighbor? Not at all, but a good chunk of American Christianity says so. In His own words, Jesus was calling those sinners to repentance.[2] He says that those who are well have no need of a doctor, but those who are sick do. He’s specifically calling those people with whom He surrounded Himself “sick”. He is the physician healing their physical, but more importantly their spiritual sickness of sin, calling them to repentance. This involves preaching the Law and showing them that they are indeed sinners, not simply “loving” them, whatever that may mean.

When Jesus meets the adulteress who is about to be stoned for her transgression, He does indeed show her love and compassion. After pointing out to the mob that, they too, were sinners condemned by the law and deserving of punishment, He proclaims to her the Gospel: “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”[3] He doesn’t ignore her sin; Jesus meets her repentance with forgiveness, and He tells her to sin no more. He forgives her, and tells her now to stop gratifying her sinful nature, and live in accordance with with the new creation Christ has made out of her.[4] He does not simply ignore her sin and allow His “love” and compassion to convince her to become a follower of Christ. He grants her repentance and faith, and the forgiveness or sins. He does the same for us now. Preaching the Gospel isn’t merely motivational speaking, emotional manipulation, rhetorical exercises, or self-help lectures. It is the proclamation of the Law and the Gospel, the very means through which the Holy Spirit converts people.  

The church isn’t ours. It belongs to Jesus. He is it’s foundation.[5] In Christ the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord and, in Him, we are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by His Spirit.[6] We can find Christ’s Church wherever the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel.[7] It is easy to mistake the denominational designation on the church sign for a brand that needs to be marketed. We have to remember that the church, no matter what it looks like to us, is in Jesus’ hands, and doesn’t need the Madison Avenue treatment.

Built on the Rock the Church doth stand,
Even when steeples are falling;
Crumbled have spires in every land,
Bells still are chiming and calling,
Calling the young and old to rest,
But above all the soul distrest [sic],
Longing for rest everlasting.[8]

We are God's house of living stones,
Builded for His habitation;
He through baptismal grace us owns
Heirs of His wondrous salvation.
Were we but two His name to tell,
Yet He would deign with us to dwell,
With all His grace and His favor.[9]

[1] Andrew Klavan. "The Andrew Klavan Show, Ep. 568, No News, All Agenda." August 29, 18. Accessed August 29, 18. The “Mail Bag” segment.
[2] Mark 2:17
[3] John 8:10-11
[4] Galatians 5:16; 2 Corinthians 5:17
[5] 1 Corinthians 3:11
[6] Ephesians 2:19-22
[7] AC VII 1
[8] The Lutheran Hymnal. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1941. Hymn #467, stanza 1.
[9] The Lutheran Hymnal. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1941. Hymn #467, stanza 3.