Tag Archives: Divine Judgement

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 6:1 – 7:2

Read 1 Samuel 6:1 – 7:2

The ark has wreaked havoc in Philistia, or so it seems, and the leaders want rid of it. They seek the counsel of the priests and diviners, who suggest returning it with a “guilt offering” so that healing might come to the people. On the one hand, they assume that the trouble that has befallen them is the direct action of Israel’s God. On the other, however, a question remains whether this is in fact the case, or whether they have had a particularly bad run of luck (v. 9). Nonetheless, their counsel assumes that the root of their problems is God.

The guilt offering suggested was five golden mice and five golden tumours—corresponding, probably, to their afflictions, and presumably, to their cause. By sending these tokens with the ark they acknowledged that this plague had come from God, and by sending them out of the country, they also are symbolically sending the plague away. Although it is easy to view the Philistines as deeply superstitious, such a characterisation is less than fair. Indeed, the text itself indicates that the Philistines are aware of what happened to Pharaoh and the Egyptians, and take it as a warning (v. 6).

The priests and diviners do not make it easy on themselves. They insist on a new cart with cattle that have never been yoked. They choose milk cows with calves, but take the calves away from the cows. The cows are left free to go where they will, yet they do not return back to their calves, but go straight toward the land of Israel; the plagues have not been a coincidence.

The people of Beth-shemesh rejoice to see the ark and offer appropriate—and costly—sacrifices. But, and here the story takes an interesting twist, some of the people look into the ark and are struck dead. (One wonders what Calvin would make of those who seek to “peer into the depths of God.” Calvin repudiated such speculative attempts to apprehend the essence of God, and insisted that we content ourselves with that which God has revealed.) Again there is a difficulty in the Hebrew which suggests that perhaps 50,070 people were killed, but the structure of verse nineteen is difficult, and most translations and commentators opt for the more “reasonable” number of seventy. Nevertheless, this cost is too great for the people of Beth-shemesh and they send it away to Kiriath-jearim where it remains for some twenty years.

In chapters four and five we found that God had judged his people and allowed them to be decisively defeated. God has also allowed himself to be “captured,” to be taken into the hands and control of the pagans, to be exiled and cut off from his people. And yet God is not captured, not exiled, not defeated, and not controlled. God remains Lord even in “defeat.” God bears witness to himself where Israel has failed to do so, and so wins the acknowledgement and grudging respect, if not the love, of the Philistines. God has now returned from his exile, returned to his people, but God will not be their captive or their possession either. The people of Beth-shemesh have transgressed the boundary, presumed upon the divine majesty, and failed to consider his holiness. They have not, as the early Barth insisted in his first Romans commentary, “respected the distance.”

It is likely, as Murphy notes (48), that no one really understands the disasters in 1 Samuel 5-6, for the passage lies beyond our historical ability. This does not mean, however, that we can gain no instruction or benefit from it. The ark is the symbol—and sacrament—of the divine presence. Indeed Murphy declares that “it is not possible to understand this carnival of the glory of the Lord in his ark without appreciating sacramental power” (49). The ark is an earthly tangible thing, but simultaneously the divine throne by which God is present with and enthroned amongst his people. Its potency is “a visible symbol” of the glory that it bears (ibid.). As the divine throne it is also sacred, and to be acknowledged, honoured and treated as such. Evans (50) wonders whether Paul might have had a passage like this in mind when he warned against misuse of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11.

Within the overall structure of the narrative, another insight dawns. The ark is now housed at Kiriath-jearim for twenty years—a back-water, out-of-the-way kind of place—side-lined, and marginal to the life of Israel, until David retrieves it and brings it to Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 6. This is a figurative portrayal of the sidelining of God in the national life; the divine kingship is marginal until David is established as king and the ark restored to Jerusalem (see Murphy, 51). If this interpretation is accepted, it provides a lens through which the rest of the book is to be understood, and in particular, the reign of Saul.

One further point of instruction may be possible. It may be appropriate to read this text typologically or allegorically, as pointing to Jesus Christ, who is in his own flesh, the presence and covenant of God with us. He, too, was captured, taken into the hands and control of the pagans, cut off from his people, exiled from God and nation—yet not captured, defeated, exiled or controlled, but victorious. But this text would also warn us that we either have Jesus on his own terms or not at all. He is never our possession, but the holy God who has come to us in mercy, and the merciful God who nevertheless ever remains the holy One who is Lord.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 4 (Cont)

Read 1 Samuel 4 

When the news of Israel’s defeat reached Shiloh, Eli heard that the prophesied sign had been fulfilled: both his sons had died on the same day. Although this no doubt upset him, what was really distressing was that the ark—for which he was responsible—had been captured. Upon hearing this news he fell backwards off his seat, broke his neck and died. The narrator tells us that the reason was that he was old and—despite his advanced age—“heavy” (v. 18). His death, and that of his sons (all on the one day—verse 12), signalled the end of an era. He had judged Israel for forty years.

Eli was fat (GNB), heavy (NRSV; ESV). The word used here is kabod, which can indeed mean heavy or plump. It also has connotations of being prosperous—one is heavy because one is wealthy enough to eat a great deal of food. Colloquially, we might speak analogically of those who are “heavy-weights,” speaking of their authority or influence: they are a “weighty” person to be reckoned with. A similar manner of speaking developed in the Hebrew language where the word kabod could refer not merely to one who was literally heavy, but who metaphorically, was heavy in terms of their influence and authority. Eli was both. Significantly, however, the word came to be applied to God as the one who is ultimately “weighty” in his sovereignty and power. Kabod is the term used to refer to the divine glory, the visible manifestation of God’s “heaviness,” presence and power. This glory was directly associated with the ark when Moses completed its construction in Exodus 40:21, 33-34:

And he brought the ark into the tabernacle…So Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.

God would dwell with his people, meet with them, and speak to them from the ark (Exodus 25:8, 22), and they and it would be sanctified by his glory (29:43).

The final episode of 1 Samuel 4 is the tragic tale of the birth of a child, born an orphan, and named by his dying mother as Ichabod, meaning that “the glory has departed from Israel.” Perhaps there is some ambiguity here. Certainly the loss of the ark signifies the loss of the divine glory. But perhaps there is also a sense of human bitterness here: the loss of the glory of Eli’s house, of her station in life, of the hopes and dreams that she and all her family had harboured thus far. This child, who hitherto had been the object of fond hopes, perhaps even of the continuation of the dynasty—“do not be afraid for you have born a son!”—is now i-kabod, “no glory.”

Blind Eli had lacked insight into the true nature of things. In place of the divine glory and presence, he was satisfied with his own weighty presence. In place of honouring the worship of God he honoured his sons. He presumed that his position was one of privilege rather than faithful service. He did according to what was in his own heart rather than that which was in God’s heart and mind (2:35).

In their rise, Eli and his house had been guilty of overreach, or what the ancient Greeks called hubris: by failing to discipline his sons, Eli has acted as if the familial claim to ark guardianship was a given. … Hubris is a lack of balance, because the proud man overestimates his place in the scheme of things. Balance in the moral order is restored by retribution. “Like Herodotus, the Old Testament exhibits a dominant concern with the issue of divine retribution for unlawful acts as a fundamental principle of historical causation. Human responsibility and divine justice are frequently stated themes. … For both, history is theodicy” (Murphy, 40, citing Van Seters, In Search of History: Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origins of Biblical History (New Haven: Yale, 1983), 39-40).

Murphy suggests—and suggests that the Old Testament itself suggests—that there is a kind of historical moral providence in which history is the sphere in which divine moral accounting is played out and established. This is not merely an impersonal “you-reap-what-you-sow” principle at work. Although the rise and fall of nations, and of individual leaders in this case, is played out in terms of historical causation and agency, behind this historical procession God is personally active, working to holding historical figures to account. Murphy is not suggesting that God is the active causative agent of all that occurs, but that God is active in judgement and moral accountability. Van Seters may be correct to assert that for both the ancient Greeks and Hebrews “history is theodicy,” but from a biblical point of view it is not sufficient to limit theodicy to history: it is too vague, too “after the event,” too indirect to provide the kind of justice humanity really cries out for. An ultimate accounting, a final judgement, remains necessary, as both Jesus and the Bible testify. Nevertheless, the story of Eli reminds us that God calls his people, and especially his leaders, to covenantal faithfulness, and that he will hold them accountable for this. The implications for contemporary Christian leaders are obvious.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 2:12-36

Read 1 Samuel 2:12-36

Elkanah and his family have returned home, and the focus now shifts to Shiloh, where Samuel remains, serving the Lord. But all is not well at Shiloh, as the first verse of this passage notes: ‘Now the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the Lord.’ The passage has four scenes: first a description of Eli’s sons’ disregard for the peoples’ offerings; second, a brief cameo of Hannah and Samuel’s interaction in succeeding years as Samuel grows; third, Eli remonstrating with his sons over their behaviour and warning them of the dire consequences that will follow; and fourth, a prophecy against Eli and his house by an unknown ‘man of God.’

Perhaps the key verse in the chapter is 30b: ‘for those who honour me I will honour, and those who despise me shall be treated with contempt.’ Associated with this is the prophetic declaration in verse 35 that God will raise up for himself a faithful priest, who shall do ‘according to what is in my heart and in my mind.’ This verse, as well as the contrast in this passage between Hophni and Phinehas on the one hand and Samuel on the other, provide some indication of what it is to honour the Lord. Further definition of this will be provided later in the book, in chapter 12. The verse provides another hermeneutical lens by which to understand the unfolding narrative.

The first scene (vv. 12-17) portrays Hophni and Phinehas’s complete disregard—indeed contempt (v. 17)—for the worship of God’s people, taking the best of their sacrifices—by force if necessary—for their own benefit. Later we hear that they are having sex with the women who serve at the tent of meeting—hopefully not by force—and that this is generally known. In the fourth scene Eli is implicated in their behaviour for he has not restrained his sons, but rather has made himself fat on the offerings of God’s people. He ‘honours’ his sons above God (v. 29). Though God holds Eli responsible for the exercise of his office, he does not diminish the responsibility of Hophni and Phinehas. They have dishonoured God and his worship, their own office and the people. They have abused their position and power, serving themselves rather than God, and mistreating the people of God. God’s judgement will be harsh—both will die on the one day. The priesthood will removed from Eli and given to the as-yet-unnamed faithful priest.

In the midst of all this Samuel ministers to the Lord as a little priest in a linen ephod made for him annually by his mother. Like Jesus (cf. Luke 2:52), Samuel grew physically and spiritually, gaining favour both with the Lord and with others. The simple devotion of Hannah and Samuel contrasts sharply with the lives of Hophni and Phinehas, the “anti-priests” who have inverted their true roles (Murphy, 24).

These episodes show the corrupt state into which the national and religious leadership has fallen. Israel remains a tribal society, though the shrine at Shiloh has become a centre of religious and political focus, with Eli “at the apex of the network of local judges and assemblies, a ‘superjudge’” (Murphy, 12). The narrative, therefore, provides the theological justification for the judgement that will fall upon Eli and his house, as well as continuing the introduction of this special child who will become the final judge in Israel prior to the emergence of the monarchy. Despite Samuel’s presentation as a “little priest,” it is unlikely that he is the faithful priest who will replace Eli and his family. Some commentators suggest that the faithful priest is actually Zadok who served as priest in David’s reign, though Christians might also view this as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ priesthood, for he is the truly faithful priest who has done according to all that is in God’s heart and mind (Evans, 37; cf. 1 Kings 2:35).

The severity of divine judgement promised to Eli and his house reflects the standard of holiness required of God’s ministers, and the distance that this holiness makes between itself and sin (Murphy, 25). Abuse of power, position and privilege is always despicable, even more so when it also involves sexual abuse. When those who claim to represent God engage in these kinds of abuse it is especially reprehensible. In this passage we learn that Yahweh refuses to cohabit with such sin and will hold his ministers to account. Leadership implications for ministers today are plain: God calls us to faithfulness in ministry, to honour God above all else, and to find our ministry within the compass of that who is the “true minister of the sanctuary,” the true faithful witness and high priest: Jesus Christ. Religion without faith and piety is not just hypocritical; it is dangerous.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 2:1-11

Read 1 Samuel 2:1-11

Hannah’s song provides the theological introduction and orientation to the books of Samuel as a whole, just as David’s song provides a similar perspective as the work ends (2 Samuel 22). These bookends suggest the work of the final editors of this collection. Scholars suggest that the provenance of the psalm is from a later period, especially given the references to the king and the Lord’s anointed in verse ten which do not quite fit the pre-monarchical period. Perhaps it was included here because of the contrast of the barren and fruitful women in verse five which links the psalm to the story so far. It is not impossible, however, that the psalm originated with Hannah. Miriam in Exodus 15 and Deborah in Judges 5 are also portrayed as women psalmists who celebrate and reflect theologically on God’s works in song.

Whatever its origin, “the fact remains,” says Evans, “that the privilege of providing the main theological introduction to the whole account of the history of the Israelite monarchy is given to Hannah. That fact is probably not irrelevant” (30). Hannah did not abdicate her responsibility for theological reflection, and did not leave it up to the experts (i.e. Eli)—which perhaps was just as well. The story which follows includes many tales of the human quest for power, often with immense brutality, intrigues, and murder. The psalm insists that God is the only true sovereign, one who elects and disposes, who chooses and rejects, who upends and overturns human standards and expectations, and who will ultimately subject all human activity to judgement. Hannah’s song, coming from one who although somewhat wealthy, was poor and powerless in other ways, resonates with hope that God’s judgement will prevail, and that human arrogance and abuse of power will be brought to an end.

The psalm begins with her own exaltation and rejoicing, but quickly shifts to a meditation on the character and works of the God who has heard and answered her prayer. God alone is holy; there is none beside him (v.2). This is a full-throated rejection of religious syncretism in an environment where Israel continued to worship not only Yahweh but put their trust in the fertility gods as well. Yet only Yahweh is a rock providing security and salvation. He is the creator who set the world on its pillars (v.8; note the ancient cosmology), and he continues to rule his world with sovereign authority.

The major part of the psalm is a warning to the powerful and arrogant (v.3a): God will defend his “faithful ones” and “cut off” the wicked (v.9), he will “judge the ends of the world” (v.10). Human power will not prevail against the sovereign authority of Yahweh. The salvation that Yahweh brings is portrayed in images of historical rather than eschatological reversal. Thus, the weapons of the mighty are broken while the feeble are strengthened; the sated go hungry as the hungry are filled; the barren give birth while the mother of many is left forlorn. The agent of these reversals is the Lord. Historical developments are not accidental but subject to his providential control.

Yahweh kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
Yahweh makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.

The idea that Yahweh kills and makes alive is frightening, predicating a sovereignty to Yahweh we wish to deny. Yet it is precisely this activity that is highlighted in the following narrative which speaks of Yahweh’s intent to kill Eli’s sons in divine judgement for their wickedness (vv. 25, 34). The question of divine violence is one we shall encounter again in this study of Samuel. Here, the psalmist operates with a sense of comprehensive divine sovereignty.

Nor is the exercise of this sovereignty arbitrary. It is the high and mighty, the rich and powerful who are brought low and made poor, while it is the poor and humble, feeble and barren who are exalted and made rich. These acts of divine reversal reveal the way of Yahweh, and his divine care for those on the underside of human power and greed. As such, the song provides the framework by which the rest of the ensuing narrative (and its characters) must be understood.

The Blood of His Cross (3) – C.E.B. Cranfield

agnusdeiRomans 3:25
Whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed (NRSV).

Whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed (NASB).

In his widely-acclaimed commentary on Romans, C. E. B. Cranfield supports the traditional interpretation of this verse which understands Christ’s sacrifice on the cross in terms of a propitiation that averts the divine wrath which would otherwise have been directed against humanity on account of their sin.

Cranfield begins his exposition of this verse by arguing against the interpretation of the opening phrase of the verse in the two translations cited above. The key phrase is ὃν προέθετο ὁ θεός (hov proetheto ho theos, “Whom God displayed publicly”). Cranfield argues that the verb προέθετο (proetheto) as used in the New Testament can mean either (a) propose to oneself and so to purpose, or (b) to set forth publicly or display. It is clear that the two translations opt for the second of these options whereas Cranfield argues, “There is, in our view, little doubt that ‘purposed’ should be preferred to ‘set forth publicly’” (Cranfield, Romans Vol. 1, I-VIII, International Critical Commentary, 209). It makes better theological sense, suggests Cranfield, to understand Paul’s concern in terms of God’s eternal purpose than as a reference to the Cross as something accomplished in the sight of humanity.

Paul means to emphasize that it is God who is the origin of the redemption which was accomplished in Christ Jesus and also that this redemption has its origin not in some sudden new idea or impulse on God’s part but in His eternal purpose of grace (210).

The second important term in this verse is the word ἱλαστήριον (hilastērion), translated in the NRSV as “sacrifice of atonement” (in a footnote a further option is given: “place of atonement”), and in the NASB as “propitiation.” In the Septuagint (the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament), this word refers twenty-one times to the mercy-seat, that is, the place where the high priest sprinkled the blood of the sin offering on the day of atonement (see Leviticus 16). As such, it is quite possible that Paul is referring to Jesus Christ here, as the place where God effected his saving work. Cranfield, however, demurs. Following Leon Morris, he notes that in the Septuagint references, the noun in all but one case appears with the article when referring to the mercy-seat, whereas in this text it is anarthrous. Further, given Paul’s understanding of the intensely personal and costly nature of Jesus’ sacrifice, Cranfield considers it unlikely that Paul would liken Jesus to a piece of furniture in the temple. Rather, the mercy-seat would more appropriately be a type of the Cross itself, than of Jesus Christ (215). Cranfield, therefore, opts for the term ‘propitiation,’ or more precisely, “a propitiatory sacrifice” (216-217).

Many theologians find this interpretation of hilastērion deeply unsatisfying since it appears to portray God as full of wrath toward humanity, and requiring the blood sacrifice of an innocent victim before he will consider forgiving humanity. The idea that God must be appeased—and that by blood—before he will forgive seems contrary to the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless Cranfield insists that this is the correct interpretation of this term:

Indeed, the evidence suggests that the idea of the averting of wrath is basic to this word-group in the OT no less than in extra-biblical Greek, the distinctiveness of the OT usage being its recognition that God’s wrath, unlike all human wrath, is perfectly righteous, and therefore free from every trace of irrationality, caprice and vindictiveness, and secondly that in the process of averting this righteous wrath from man it is God Himself who takes the initiative (216).

Further, the decisive factor for Cranfield is that this hilastērion occurs “in his blood” (en tō autou haimati), which indicates that a propitiatory sacrifice is intended.

The purpose of Christ’s being ἱλαστήριον was to achieve a divine forgiveness, which is worthy of God, consonant with his righteousness, in that it does not insult God’s creature man by any suggestion that that is after all of small consequence, which he himself at his most human knows full well (witness, for example, the Greek tragedians) is desperately serious, but, so far from condoning man’s evil, is, since it involves nothing less than God’s bearing the intolerable burden of that evil Himself in the person of His own dear Son, the disclosure of the fullness of God’s hatred of man’s evil at the same time as it is its real and complete forgiveness (214).

We take it that what Paul’s statement that God purposed Christ as a propitiatory victim means is that God, because in His mercy He willed to forgive sinful men and, being truly merciful, willed to forgive them righteously, that is, without in any way condoning their sin, purposed to direct against His own very Self in the person of His Son the full weight of that righteous wrath which they deserved (217).

In his treatment of this text Cranfield hits exactly the right notes. He acknowledges the reality of divine wrath as the overarching backdrop against which the saving work of Christ occurs. He insists that God’s wrath is righteous, and as such is entirely different to human wrath. That this wrath is occasioned by human wickedness indicates the seriousness with which God views this wickedness, displays the righteousness of God’s character in his response to sin, and affirms the genuine significance of human value, decision and act. Most importantly, he shows that God’s eternal purpose toward humanity was and is mercy, not wrath, and that God has determined to direct against himself—in the person of his Son—the wrath occasioned by human sin, in order to be merciful toward humanity and righteous in his mercy. This opens up a crucial window of understanding with respect to this verse and the atonement in general: it must be understood in trinitarian terms.

Finally, and with an eye on the topic I am exploring in this short series of posts, Cranfield is correct to insist that this hilastērion is “in his blood.” “It was by means of the shedding of His blood that, according to the divine purpose, Christ was to be ἱλαστήριον. … A sacrificial significance attaches to the use of the word αἷμα [‘blood’]. … There is little doubt that this is so in the verse under consideration” (210-211). The “blood of his cross” was the sacrificial means by which God has shown mercy to us while maintaining his unimpeachable righteousness.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:14-26 (Cont’d)

JamesLast week I paused the verse-by-verse commentary of James in order to provide an orientation to this important section in James’ letter. I will continue these reflections today. Last week we noted that James and Paul use similar terminology in their teaching but with different meanings. If we are to understand the broader message of the New Testament with respect to these matters—faith, works and justification—it is essential to grasp what each of these authors is saying in their own context. A number of commentators insist that James and Paul are not at odds with one another as is sometimes supposed; rather, their respective visions of the Christian life are “complementary not contradictory” (see Moo, 45-46; Newman, “Righteousness” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, 1056).

Behind both Paul and James’ understanding of justification stands the reality of divine judgement—a point raised by James in the verse immediately prior to this section (James 2:13). It is plain that for both James and Paul believers will stand before God at the final judgement. This is the ultimate cosmic context within which all history and every person, including every Christian person, stands. Mark Seifrid, therefore, notes that

No less prominent is the theme of individual judgment according to works (Heb 9:27-28; Rev 1:7; 2:7; 2:23). Each one will be called to give an account for his or her deeds (Heb 4:13; 13:17; 1 Pet 4:5-6). The NT authors are careful to apply the prospect of judgment to Christians themselves. As the judge of all, God will render his verdict impartially. Believers, although they name God as “Father,” must not presume upon grace (1 Pet 1:17-19; Heb 10:30; cf. Jas 2:9). … If the cross has worked a right standing with God for the believer, how is it that the believer must yet face judgment? Between this prospect and the proclamation of forgiveness in Christ stands an irreducible paradox. Yet to a certain extent lines of convergence can be traced. … That is not to say that all uncertainty is removed from the visible community of Christians; otherwise the warnings of judgment would make no sense. The church on earth yet remains under testing. Nevertheless, where saving realities are present they manifest themselves in persevering faith and obedience, which secure the believer in the final judgment (“Judgment” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, 623-624).

What James attacks in this section is a kind of false faith limited to doctrinal correctness, which he warns will not suffice in the day of judgement. To say this, however, is not to say that one’s works are sufficient for justification. James never contemplates the idea that works could exist without faith. Rather, true faith issues in works of perseverance, obedience, faithfulness and mercy with the result that one’s faith is shown to be genuine (Davids, “Faith and Works” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament, 368). In this respect both Paul and James are in agreement.

Why then, is it necessary for James to take this approach in his teaching? Davids suggests that perhaps there is conflict in the community, where some people are refusing to share their resources with others who are needy (Davids, “Faith and Works,” 368). A better proposal, I think, comes from Moo who suggests that James is facing false teachers who are distorting Paul’s teaching of justification, suggesting that one must only “believe” with no further requirement in terms of the outworking of Christian life and service. The verse-by-verse study will provide an opportunity to test Moo’s proposal.

The relevance of James’ teaching today need hardly be questioned. On the one hand, some Christians seem to suggest that Christian faith stands or falls with right-believing, as though the content of one’s belief is what justifies. This is clearly and decisively repudiated by James in this passage. Faith cannot be reduced to right-belief. Certainly our beliefs structure, strengthen and support our faith, but they are not our faith. While sound beliefs are desirable, and wrong beliefs are to be avoided, it is certainly possible to have genuine faith in Jesus even without correct beliefs. Nevertheless, even today there are those who distort Paul’s teaching of grace, perverting the gospel to teach a self-centred and consumerist doctrine. Here the relevance of James’ message is plain.

Others make the opposite mistake and suppose that our works, especially humanitarian works of mercy and justice, are what justify us. The call to mercy and justice found in both the Old and New Testaments is addressed to the community of God’s people, to those who have already come into a saving relationship with God through grace, and who are therefore called to imitate God and express his goodness in the world. Works of justice and mercy are an expression of faith not a replacement for faith. Though Christians must surely give thanks for and support those who participate in such work, they also do well to bear witness to Christ as the source, motivation and goal of all such work.

In the early twentieth-century, Christoph Blumhardt, a German Pietist pastor and Social Democrat member of the German Reichstag (Parliament) was a controversial figure because he refused to allow Christians to become comfortable as bourgeois members of society, insisting rather that faith in Christ must move us to participate in the ongoing work of his kingdom:

Neither in heaven nor on earth is it possible just to settle down comfortably in something through grace and do nothing and care for nobody else. If I am saved by grace, then I am a worker through grace. If I am justified by grace, then through grace I am a worker for justice. If through grace I am placed within the truth, then through grace I am a servant of truth. If through grace I have been placed within peace, then through grace I am a servant of peace for all men. (Blumhardt, “Joy in the Lord,” in Action in Waiting, 66).

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:13

JamesJames 2:13
For judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgement.

Although we examined this verse last week, I want to linger over it another week, and particularly the idea of mercy which makes its first appearance in James’ letter, in this verse. Some commentators, noting the proverbial nature of the verse that we discussed last week, see it as a free-floating proverb that has little connection with the passage overall. For example, Victor Furnish suggests that the verse is “a separable maxim only loosely connected with the paragraphs to which it has been attached” (Furnish, The Love Command in the New Testament, 178). Peter Davids agrees that 2:13 “originally existed as a free-floating proverb” (118), but disagrees with Furnish’s conclusion that it has little or no connection to the context. Regardless of whether the verse had a pre-history as a separate proverb, I must agree with Davids against Furnish; this verse brings the entire section of 2:1-13 to its climax, despite the fact that James has not previously used the term “mercy.” What is the origin of this term, and what significance does it have in this context?

According to Canales, “mercy has its roots in the OT idea of the infinite love of God for a helpless and needy covenantal partner” (Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments, 736). In perhaps the most central creedal declaration of the divine character given in the Old Testament we hear, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6-7). This foundational declaration is cited and repeated time and again in the Old Testament as the cornerstone of the divine character (see, for example, Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 103:8-17; 145:8-9; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Nahum 1:2-3).

The Old Testament narrative of redemption therefore identifies God as a merciful God who has shown mercy to his people. This narratival portrayal of the divine character provides a twofold foundation for mercy as a moral imperative for the people of God. First, just as God is characterised by mercy, so God’s people are to be merciful. The imitatio Dei (imitation of God) is a key principle of Old Testament ethics. Second, just as God has been merciful to his people, so they, as the recipients of his mercy, are to show mercy in their relations with others. This moral imperative is particularly evident in several prophetic texts:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8)

The word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying:  Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgements, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another (Zechariah 7:8-10).

The Old Testament witness to the mercy of God and the concomitant responsibility that this lays on God’s people comes to expression especially in the teaching of Jesus. Jesus’ fifth beatitude is the positive equivalent of James 2:13: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7). Here, a merciful life grounds a promise of mercy in the judgement. This promise is made explicit in Matthew 18 in Jesus’ parable of the Unforgiving Servant, where the king says to the wicked servant, “Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?” (verse 33). Being a recipient of divine mercy obliges the recipient to show mercy to others in the same way that God has shown mercy to them. In Matthew 5:48 Jesus admonishes his disciples to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” thus insisting that God’s character is the measure of the Christian’s character. Significantly, Luke’s record of Jesus’ saying is, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). In these samples of Jesus’ teaching, the twofold foundation for Old Testament ethics is reiterated.

Further statements in the gospels indicate that Jesus understood mercy as a central characteristic of discipleship. In Matthew 9:17 he challenges his opponents saying, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” Later in the same gospel he rebukes them, “But if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”, you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7). He tears strips off them in Matthew 23:23: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others.” Finally, in his parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus asks,

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:36-37).

All these texts show clearly that for Jesus, mercy is a central characteristic of both the Jesus tradition and the life of his followers as he envisaged it. The final example from the parable of the Good Samaritan is particularly significant because (a) it displays the practical nature of mercy, and (b) ties this practice of mercy to the Leviticus love commandment that one must love their neighbour.

Returning to James 2, then, I affirm that James’ words in verse thirteen have the closest connection with the preceding verses. In the face of partiality and prejudice within the congregation, in which the poor specifically, have been dishonoured, James insists on love of neighbour. This love, however, is to take the practical form of mercy. Mercy is that form of love which visits the orphan and the widow in their distress (1:27). That is, mercy is not simply an attitude but an action. It does not remain aloof and uninvolved in the face of the affliction and distress of others but is moved to help in practical and sometimes costly ways. It images, however poorly, the mercy of the merciful God who entered into our brokenness and misery making it his own in order to lift us into fellowship with himself.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Mercy triumphs over judgement.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:13

JamesJames 2:13
For judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgement.

In verse twelve James warned his hearers to speak and act in light of the coming judgement. This verse supports that warning and provides an understanding of the grounds upon which judgement will be exercised.

Some scholars (e.g. Davids, 118-119) suggest that the verse had a prehistory as a free-floating proverb which James now co-opts. Certainly the verse has the terse expression of a proverb, shifts from second person address in verse twelve to the third person here, and introduces a term (“mercy”) not used previously in the letter. Whether this proposal is true or not need not detain us here: the proverb fits the context perfectly. James’ common practice of linking verses by means of common terminology occurs here also, with the terms krisis (“judgement”) and poieō (“act, show”) appearing in both verses. Further, although “mercy” has not yet appeared in this letter, James clearly uses the terminology elsewhere in the letter (3:17), and in 5:11 follows the common Old Testament practice of ascribing mercy to the character of God.

The first section of the verse is the negative equivalent of the fifth beatitude in Matthew’s collection (see Matthew 5:7). Whereas Jesus stated the truth positively (“Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy”), James does so negatively: “For judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy” (Hē gar krisis aneleos tō mē poiēsanti eleos). Here the basis of the coming judgement is whether or not one has been merciful toward others—precisely the issue at stake in James’ community, where certain members of the congregation have dishonoured the poor man (v. 6). Not only does mercy reflect the way that God is merciful (cf. 5:11), it is also a practical expression of the royal law which anchors this section (vv. 8-13), and further, a clear example of the kind of true religion which visits the orphan and the widow in their affliction (1:27). As such, James’ use of a new term here is entirely fitting. Indeed, the passage as a whole suggests that showing mercy to the poor is precisely what James means when he cites the love commandment in verse eight. God’s people “do well” (v. 8; kalōs poieite) when they “so act” (v. 12; houtōs poieite) in mercy. Conversely, those who do not “show mercy” (v.13; tō mē poiēsanti eleos) can expect nothing in the judgement. The idea that God might be merciless in judgement is a terrifying prospect, one which was more real to people in earlier ages than is usually the case today.

The second part of the verse is just three words in Greek: katakauchatai eleos kriseōs (“mercy triumphs over judgement”). I must admit being glad for finally reaching this phrase, as I have wondered about its meaning for many years. Katakauchatai (kata + kauchaomai) means to “boast against” or “override,” and so “triumph over” (Verwick-Grosvenor, 695; Vlachos, 83).

Does James mean that one attribute is superior to another in an absolute sense, especially with respect to the attributes of God? Although such an interpretation may be possible, it seems better, given the context in which James has developed his argument, to apply the phrase to human hopes in face of divine judgement rather than to a supposed hierarchy of attributes within the divine being. Whereas those who fail to show mercy cannot expect to receive mercy in the judgement, those who show mercy will find that they receive mercy. That judgement, which otherwise might legitimately have fallen on them, passes over them.

James’ argument raises at least two interesting questions. First, is he arguing for a kind of works-righteousness, whereby a person is justified by what they do rather than what Christ has done on their behalf? This is an argument with a long pedigree, and James will confront it directly in the second half of the chapter. Second, if my comment on this verse is legitimate, that is, that James sees in mercy the fulfilment of the love command, where did this view originate, and how adequate is it? Both these questions will be addressed next week and in future examination of the second half of the chapter.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:12

JamesJames 2:12
So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.

In verses 12-13 James brings his discussion of partiality in the congregation to a climax. Because partiality is a violation of the love command, and because violation of the law in a single aspect renders one guilty of the whole law, his hearers are to “so speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty” (houtōs laleite kai houtōs poieite hōs dia nomou eleutherias mellontes krinesthai).

The double use of houtōs (“so”) serves to emphasise James’ point, as well as tie the exhortation to the clause which follows; that is, houtōshoutōshōs (so speak and so act as those…). Laleite and poieite are both present imperatives, and together cover the whole of the believer’s public life—their speech and their activity. All they say and all they do is to be said and done in light of the coming judgement.

The prominence and severity of judgement as a New Testament theme is often under-estimated by believers in the contemporary church, nurtured as we are on a vision of a gracious and merciful God. Yet the reality of divine judgement is central to the New Testament vision, being found in the teaching of Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, Hebrews, Jude and James, and providing the rationale for the proclamation of the gospel. In 4:12 James will affirm that “there is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy.” In 5:9 he warns that “behold, the Judge is standing right at the door.” In verses 9-11 he implies the theme of judgement by referring to his hearers as “transgressors,” and speaking of those who are liable for the whole law. For James, this judgement is certain, and probably in his mind, imminent. His congregation, along with all believers, are certain to face the judgement (mellontes krinesthai).

This judgement will be in accordance with “the law of liberty” (dia nomou eleutherias). James has used this phrase already in 1:25, and its use again here suggests that the whole section on partiality be considered together with James’ discussion of true religion and active Christianity. In our discussion of the phrase in 1:25, we found that the “perfect law of liberty” refers to “the Old Testament ethic as explained and altered by Jesus… [i.e.] the teaching of Jesus” (Davids, 100). Important also is James’ reference to the “royal law” in 2:8, identifying the love command for one’s neighbour as the centre and sum of the whole law. So, too, in verse 13, he will summarise this law in the single term “mercy.” If the coming judgement is the lens through which we are to conduct our lives, the law—especially the love commandment, and its enactment through concrete practices of mercy toward the poor—is the measure by which our lives will be measured.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:9

JamesJames 2:9
But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

This verse is a second conditional clause answering the first conditional clause given in verse eight. There, James has said that “if you love your neighbour, according to the Scripture, you do well.” Here, he poses the contrary condition, pressing home the point he has been making since verse one: “But if you show partiality, you commit sin…” (Ei de prosōpolēmpteite, hamartian ergazesthe).

The Greek term translated “acts of favouritism” in verse one is the same as that translated “partiality” here, thus uniting the whole section. Just as favouritism is incompatible with faith in Jesus Christ, so it is also incompatible with the royal law of love which is the centre and sum of the whole law, and the most complete expression of the divine will. Whereas the one who loves their neighbour “does well,” the one who shows partiality is “committing sin.” It is worth noting that the verbs in the second conditional statement, like those in the first, are also in the present tense and so also imply enduring action. So Vlachos suggests that prosōpolēmpteite depicts a pattern of prejudicial behaviour (79). James names this bluntly for what it is: sin, a form of behaviour contrary to and in violation of God’s will as it is revealed in the Scripture.

Many commentators note that James need not journey far from the Levitical love command to find a specific prohibition against partiality; the two commands occur in the same passage:

You shall not render an unjust judgement; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbour (Leviticus 19:15).

To love one’s neighbour includes treating them with justice, and specifically, without partiality. To the degree that James’ hearers practice favouritism, they set themselves at variance with God’s expressed command: they “commit” sin. We have previously met ergazesthe in our discussions of 1:3 and 1:20, where it carries the sense of produces. The person is working and productive, but these are not the good works James will go on to commend, but an evil work springing from an evil heart (v. 4).

Not only is the partial person committing sin, they are also “convicted by the law as transgressors” (elegkomenoi hypo tou nomou hōs parabatai). The same law which is expressive of the divine will now acts as judge against those who violate its commandments. James again presses his primary point: in showing partiality, you are convicted; you have become transgressors of the law. Parabatai denotes a direct violation of a known command (Vlachos, 79), and as such constituted serious rebellion for the Jew and the Jewish Christian. Such a person was throwing off the divine yoke, and placing themselves instead under divine judgment (Davids, 116). McKnight (210) concludes, then, that acts of partiality in the congregation have a twofold effect, first releasing the destructive power and agency of sin to work in the midst of the congregation (cf. 1:14-15), and second, conferring the status of transgressors upon those who act in this way.