Category Archives: Biblical Literacy

It Figures (Take One)

Figurative Language in 2 Corinthians

When we try to list examples of figurative language in the Bible, what comes to mind first is probably the poetry and striking analogies of the Psalms and the Prophets.  Among the New Testament writers, James stands out with his mirrors, figs, springs, ships, and forest fires.  I don’t think most of us would peg Paul as being particularly poetic in his epistles, but here and there even he comes through with a memorable metaphor.  These next three posts will highlight what seems to me an unusual concentration of figurative language in one of his letters, 2 Corinthians.  Hopefully a close look at these rhetorical decorations will enhance our understanding of his message to his friends in Corinth.

First, a general note about this letter:  the text of 2 Corinthians is almost entirely concerned with the shared and separate histories of Paul and the people of the church at Corinth, towards whom Paul felt strong fatherly affection.  Very little of the letter, relatively speaking, offers either theological instruction or practical marching orders.  Perhaps this unusual emphasis on recent and current events, as opposed to the background spiritual realities and responsibilities of the Christian faith, put Paul in a mood for crafting new figures of speech.  I can’t say for sure; I just note that both the subject matter and the rhetorical devices are of a different category and degree than those of most of his epistles.

What follows is a collection of some of the figures of speech found in 2 Corinthians (more to follow in the next post).  I’ve quoted just the most relevant phrases of the passages involved, but I’ve provided links to the context of those quotes (ESV) in case you don’t have your Bible handy.  These notes will be most fruitful for you in the context of studying the letter itself, which I encourage you to do!

  1. Triumphal Procession & Fragrance/Aroma (see 2 Cor. 2:12-171)

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him.  For we are the aroma of Christ to God…

Paul’s first figures in the letter come entwined together in chapter 2.  They may or may not be directly related to one another; they both are historically bound enough to merit a little effort on our part to uncover just what he is referring to.  Your study Bible may provide one suggested referent, but a commentary on the letter will let you know that there are several possibilities here for Paul’s meaning, and really we’re just not sure which is the right one.  Here’s the relevant history and the general sense of the metaphor, at any rate:

In Paul’s day, a “triumphal procession” would be recognized as the pomp and circumstance surrounding the victory of a Roman general.  Everybody from captives taken in battle to soldiers to the general himself would parade into Rome, so there would be no mistaking the leader’s credentials.  Bible scholars disagree about where Christians should see ourselves in this picture:  are we the humiliated captives, or the soldiers?2 In any case, with this metaphor Paul means to convey victory in Jesus, despite desperate outward circumstances (some of which he has described in the verses just prior).

Along these Roman parade routes, incense would be burned in celebration, possibly corresponding with the “fragrance” that Paul mentions here.  There’s also a strong suggestion of Jewish sacrificial practices in the word “aroma.”3 Paul’s metaphor involves three different olfactory audiences:  God himself, who finds his Christians to be a pleasing aroma; the spiritually lost, who think we stink; and other Jesus people, who recognize and rejoice in the scent of salvation.4 The aroma doesn’t change—but its perceived meaning does.

  1. Letters (see 2 Cor. 3:1-3)

You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all…You are a letter from Christ

In keeping with his need to justify and defend the authority of the apostolic ministry, Paul affectionately jokes that his Corinthian friends are collectively a sufficient “letter of reference” for the apostles’ integrity.  In the ancient world, a person could make his way best in circles of success if an influential person wrote a letter of introduction that opened doors.  This is what Christ has done for Paul, through the conversion of these Corinthians—for the changes wrought in them by the Savior can be “known and read by all.”  The invisible work of the Spirit is evident in the lives of individuals and (perhaps most powerfully) in the communal life of the church as a whole.

  1. Veils (see 2 Cor. 3:7-18; note the metaphorical veil in 14-16, 18 & literal veil in v.13)

With another metaphor about perception, Paul continues to comment on the ability of people either in Christ or without Christ to see reality clearly.  The “veil” idea comes from the story in Exodus 34, when Moses returning from his mountain meeting with the Lord has such a glowing face that his people are afraid to approach.  He dons a literal veil to block their view of the shining.5  Here, Paul turns that literal veil into a figurative one that blocks a person’s view of the knowledge of God in Christ.  The difference between a believer and an unbeliever, then, is that Christ takes away that veil and gives the new convert access to truth and reality.  Note that Paul is especially concerned with the difference between the reading of the Pentateuch with and without the veil:  thus Christian converts, both Jewish and Gentile, have a perceptual advantage over Paul’s kinsmen who read the same words of Moses without spiritual understanding.

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1If you’re studying the whole letter, you may have noticed that Paul produces this verbal picture right at a cliffhanger in his autobiographical account:  “I couldn’t find Titus in Macedonia!”  It’s not until our chapter 7 that he picks up that thread again, explaining how he finally was reunited with Titus.  This metaphor, then, marks the beginning of what commentators identify as the “long digression” in this letter.

2Personally, I think the victorious context supports the latter interpretation, and that those who equate us with the destitute prisoners in the parade are adopting an unnecessarily pious reading.

3See, for example, Leviticus 2:12.  And yes, there are two different Greek words used for “fragrance” and “aroma.”

4”We” in this metaphor probably refers to all Christians; but Paul may have a secondary message running along here regarding  his own credentials as an apostle:  he knows that God approves of him, and true believers recognize his authority; it’s just the false brothers who, like other unbelievers, consider him an insignificant charlatan.

5You will sometimes hear the explanation that Moses was veiling his face because the glory on it was fading away – but this is a misreading of Paul’s phrases in 2 Cor. 3.  From Paul’s enlightened point of view, the Old Covenant was indeed fading away; but there is nothing in the Exodus 34 passage to indicate that Moses was protecting the people’s eyes from anything other than a dangerous (and scary) holy shine.  Paul’s explanation in 2 Cor 3 tells us about the state of the Old Covenant, not the motivation behind Moses’ act of veiling his face.

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New Talk: “Seeing a Tree and Remembering the Forest”

It took a while to hammer this one out, but I’m excited to finally share this 26-minute talk on Bible study strategies with you.  Originally commissioned for a Bible study conference in October of 2016, this is my whimsical way of getting people up to speed on the difference between “doing our devotions” and studying a passage of Scripture.  I walk through Isaiah 61 to demonstrate different detailed and big-picture study strategies, illustrating everything with lots of gorgeous shots of TREES (mainly thanks to our local photographer extraordinaire, Missy Herr!).

If you’re a Bible teacher working with teens or others who are new to a “studied” reading of Scripture, or if you would like to brush up on your own Bible reading practices, or if you are my good friend and you want to make my day, please listen along and share this!  (The video slides just supplement the audio, but they aren’t important if you just want to listen to it.)

The page of Paige’s Quirky Symbols mentioned in this talk can be found here.

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Filed under Biblical Genres, Biblical Literacy, Body of Christ, Instructing the Body, Isaiah, Jesus, Messiah, Old Testament, Prophets, Redemptive History, Talks, Women in the Word

A Topical Concordance of James

[Text: The Epistle of James]

The Book of James may be small, but it packs a lot of thematic muscle.  In an effort to accelerate my relearning of this letter before a last-minute Bible teaching assignment this fall, I set myself the task of collecting James’ statements on a number of subjects into a comprehensive topical list.  Listing things, by the way, is an effective strategy for getting to know the details of a passage or biblical book.  A topical concordance happens when an over-the-top list-maker publishes her lists so that others can use them as reference resources.  I highly recommend that you make your own lists while studying, because that’s a great way to train your brain to know what’s there; but if you would like to lean on a prepared collection of James’s themes, here you go:

Prominent Themes in the Book of James (pdf)

Here’s a brief sketch of the subject matter that James is working with in this letter, according to the categories that stood out for me as I read.  (I’ve listed these here from most prominent to least, though I have arranged them in random order in my document according to what fit neatly onto a sheet of paper for printing!)

Speech & Communication

From beginning to end, James shows his concern for how God’s people use their words.  How we speak to God or about God matters; how we speak to our brothers matters; how we speak to visitors matters.  Even what we say to ourselves matters (e.g., “God is tempting me!” or “Let’s go to such and such a place and make some money!”).  According to James, you can’t overestimate the power of the tongue.

Christian Conduct and Experience

This list overlaps with some of the others, as it’s a general catch-all for anything related to the behavior of believers.  James is big on “shoulds,” and in his brief letter I think he manages to communicate just about everything that is expected of a follower of the Way.  This collection of imperatives (mostly direct, though some are implied) would make a great overview of the life of faith for a class of new believers.

Theology

This densely-packed letter also manages to convey a significant amount of information about God and his work of redemption.  We are left with an impression of his majestic power and fierce compassion:  he gives generously, cannot be tempted, tempts no one, never changes, saves and destroys, gives grace to the humble, and listens to the cries of the oppressed.  Metaphysical realities are here too, hinting at what’s going on in the universe beyond what our eyes can see:  demons and the devil are active in the affairs of men; God chooses “the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom,” giving us new life by implanting in us the word of truth. James also conveys a strong message about future judgment, laying great stress on the consequences of the self-indulgent injustices practiced by the rich.

Don’t Be Like This

As a corollary to the collection of imperatives mentioned above, here is a list of warnings about behaviors and attitudes believers should avoid.  James’ whole letter may be seen as a series of corrections, aimed both at wrong thinking and wrong action.  Our assumptions about God, ourselves, and what is permissible in our treatment of others get a thorough housecleaning in this epistle.

Figurative Language/Nature & Agriculture

More than any other New Testament letter, the book of James offers a colorful glimpse into agrarian life in the first century.  From nautical metaphors (waves of the sea driven and tossed by the wind; the rudder of a ship) to agricultural figures (a flower of the grass; forest fires; the domestication of animals; fig trees and grape vines) James reinforces his teaching with the same sensitivity to his audience’s context that we see in Jesus’ parables.

Biblical Echoes

James’s use of Old Testament phrases and stories is a similarly rich strategy for underscoring his message to these new converts to the faith.  As his audience was likely made up of Jewish Christians, these references to familiar texts and figures would have caught their attention and convinced them the more strongly of his points.  Readers today will notice echoes of Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians in James’s use of the words “justification” and “works” – but we should take notice of the fact that because James’s letter was written well before Paul’s, in this letter the terms retain an ordinary rather than a theologically specific meaning.  (See Chronological Contexts and Multiple Meanings for more on the difference between James and Paul.)

Socioeconomic Status

Much of James’s corrective teaching regarding the treatment of others has to do with economic status and power.  Wealth brings with it the temptation of self-indulgence at the expense of the poor, or of favoritism within the congregational gathering.  James also calls out the inconsistency of the church’s flattering a potential wealthy patron while undergoing legal persecution by that same class of people.  Apparently the allure of riches had not been dulled by conversion in James’s day any more than it is in our own.

Judicial Language

James does not hesitate to set all of his warnings in the context of the ultimate Day of Judgment.  The vocabulary of the courtroom is also in play as he describes the lawsuits pursued against these believers by wealthy persecutors and the right or wrong way of following the “perfect law, the law of liberty.”  In his argument that partiality is a flagrant offense against “the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’” James uses the analogy of the Mosaic law, which, if broken in any part, designated the transgressor as a breaker of the whole.

Bad Influences

James cites our own passions, the oppressive and blasphemous rich, the world, and hell itself as the influential powers that believers must resist.

Historical/Cultural Context

Finally, there’s a bit of incidental learning to be gleaned from this letter about the life experiences of James’s intended recipients.  They were apparently Jewish Christians, scattered throughout the provinces of the Roman Empire; they were being harassed and oppressed by people of influence and wealth in their communities; it was likely that there would be economic disparities among the members of their congregations; and they engaged in trade, travel, and agricultural pursuits with enough regularity that James could lean on these topics as handy illustrations.

As thorough as my list seems, I am sure that I have not exhausted all the possibilities of this brief but dense epistle.  Dig in yourself sometime and see what I’ve missed!

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All biblical quotations come from the Book of James, ESV.

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Afflictions, Judgment, and Idleness

[Text: 2 Thessalonians]

Generally when people visit Paul’s brief second epistle to his friends in Thessalonica, the main attraction that sets us wondering is the “man of lawlessness” described in chapter 2.  We want to know his identity, or at least pin him down in time – was Paul speaking cryptically about a Roman leader who would soon have his way in the Temple at Jerusalem?  Or was he prophesying about a world ruler who would emerge in the Last Days (in which we’re certain we’re living)?

Sorry to disappoint, but I have no new revelation about him.  But I did notice three prominent themes in this little letter that I think are worth savoring a little:  Afflictions, Judgment, and Idleness, all of which are relevant to today’s believers, whether or not the “man of lawlessness” has anything to do with us.  Here are some observations that I hope will get you thinking.

On Afflictions:  In particular, the kind of afflictions that come from those who want to destroy the people of God.  These afflictions exist precisely because the people of God persevere steadfastly in faith.  If they gave it up and threw in the towel, they would no longer be targets.  So the faith of this community must be both strong and visible in order for their persecutions to rise to the level that they have.

It’s notable that the chief evidence of the Thessalonians’ faith, which is the subject of Paul’s boasting “in the churches of God about you,” is the believers’ love for one another.  If you think about how easily hardship and suffering isolate us from one another, as each of us tends to our own needs and wounds, a robust and visible mutual care during a time of persecution seems a wonder.

But it’s God’s pleasure always to work his kindness out in the world through community, undermining the fallen human tendency toward self-protection and wall-building.  Where you find a believing community compassionately involved in one another’s lives – especially in the foul-weather times – you’ve found the Spirit of God in action.

On Judgment:  The temporal distance between the present situation of suffering and a future day of cosmic justice seems diminished in this letter, as Paul vividly describes the second coming of Christ and the final separation of believers from the condemned.  With his apocalyptic language (think: angels, flaming fire, and eternal punishment) he evokes visions of the End that seem no less certain for their being set in the future.

Along with descriptions of the punitive justice that will fall on those who have rejected the gospel of Jesus, Paul’s picture of God’s ultimate justice includes the rewarding of those who have endured in the faith to the end.  Curiously, he expresses this thought in terms of the assessed value of the believers, insisting (and praying) that at the end they will be “considered worthy of the kingdom of God” through their suffering, and that they’d be in the meantime “worthy of [God’s] calling” in their conduct.

Since we know Paul’s emphasis elsewhere on the gracious gift of salvation, something that is undeserved, this stress on being found worthy of the kingdom may seem a troubling contradiction.  Yet in his letters Paul is not hesitant to look to the fruit of a life lived out for evidence of true faith.  Those who claim to be believers, then, ought to show outwardly – in patient endurance of suffering, steadfast belief despite persecution, and visible acts of mutual care – the inward activity of the Spirit.

On Idleness:  Our third chapter of this letter dwells much on the theme of idleness, the irresponsible shirking of work to the extent that one is dependent on others for handouts.  Perhaps you’re familiar with the admonition, “If a man will not work, neither should he eat,” and perhaps you remember Paul’s exemplary (and literal!) “tentmaking” missionary strategy, by which he supported himself so that he was never a financial burden to those he evangelized.

I quoted the KJV translation of the verse above (3:10) because that may be the construction of this phrase that we’ve read or heard most often.  Actually, though, this translation is somewhat misleading, and it unfortunately has resulted in an attitude of condemnation towards any able-bodied person who does not work and who instead relies on the generosity of others (or on the government).  A more accurate and helpful translation (such as in the ESV or NIV) brings out that it’s the desire to work that’s in view here:  “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”

Mark that small difference, because it’s important – and in fact it opens up the possibility of developing truly compassionate understanding of our fellow travelers.  It’s likely that, even in the first century, some Christian believers faced real and discouraging roadblocks in their efforts to support themselves and their families.  Perhaps there were no living-wage jobs available where they lived, or perhaps their education hadn’t provided them with the necessary training for the trades that had openings.  Maybe they lacked child care or transportation.  Maybe they had funny-sounding foreign names and so were passed over in favor of native applicants.  Maybe they’d been in prison and couldn’t shake off the stigma.

From a distance it might be easy to judge these people, too, as being among the idle: after all, in their unemployment they don’t look a whole lot different than those who aren’t working because they’re lazy.  In a community of believers, though, the particular obstacles faced by individuals would be known by their brethren, who would also recognize their willingness to work.  And once again, God’s kindly corporate arrangements come into play, and in this case actually provide for the welfare of the unemployed – for anyone who can heed Paul’s admonition about idleness should “not grow weary in doing good” but rather (as he writes elsewhere) “do honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”*

Perhaps this sharing looks like handouts, or like hand-me-downs; perhaps it looks like developing actual paid work opportunities for our brothers and sisters.  We can be creative with this ongoing, open-ended task of interdependence, and maybe take turns being the givers and the receivers.

Once again, we see that the heart of God is all about us loving one another.

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*Except where noted, all quotations are taken from the ESV (2 Thess.).  This one is from Ephesians 4:28.\

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Greek Gods in the NT

[Text: mostly Acts 16-19]

Context matters, when we’re reading the New Testament.

In fact, if we ignore the history and geography and worldviews that are the larger settings of the Gospels, Acts, and Epistles, we’re likely to miss some of the main threads of the story, and the main concerns of the writers.

If we’re reading the Gospels, for example, it’s important to be familiar with Old Testament norms and rules, as well as with the culture of Second Temple Judaism1 under Roman occupation.2 In Acts, as the story of the early church moves beyond the boundaries of Palestine and out into the wider Greco-Roman world, we need another kind of background knowledge.  Surprisingly enough, you may have learned some of it in the sixth grade!

It’s funny to think, but there are actually some Greek gods and goddesses walking around in the NT.  Well, maybe not the gods themselves; but their memory is alive, especially among the country people, and the idea of these ancient deities permeates the first-century Mediterranean world.  The early Jewish-Christian missionaries, emerging from Jerusalem and Judea into “the ends of the earth,” would have encountered the influence of the Greek gods on architecture, economics, philosophy, and even language itself.  So as readers who must look back on a time that was long ago and far away, we should expect to find evidence of Greek polytheism sprinkled through these Christian writings.  Time to brush up on our Greek myths!

In this post I want to give you a little tour of the NT’s museum of Greek gods.  Just where do they show up, and who are these divine characters when they’re at home?

As a little background first of all, let me note that while the world Peter and Paul traveled through was presently owned and controlled by the Romans, these military-minded empire-builders were mostly content to piggyback on the language, art, and legends of the Greeks they had conquered.3 Greek culture was so pervasive, even outside the land of Greece itself, that everyday Greek was the lingua franca of the known world.4 This is, in fact, the original language of our NT books.  So that’s how come the polytheistic culture of the day finds its way into the Christian Bible.

Sometimes in the NT a person’s name will preserve the cultural memory of a myth.  Apollos, the eloquent Alexandrian evangelist, was aptly named by his parents: Apollo, who alone among the gods retains his Greek name in the Romans’ divine lineup, presided over the realms of knowledge, lyrics, and oracles.  In Athens, a man named Dionysius rose above his unfortunate handle (he was named for Dionysus, god of wine parties and madness) to follow Paul in faith.  And one of the friends Paul greets by name at the end of Romans is Hermes, who must have endured in his life a lot of ribbing about winged sandals and talking too much.

Luke reports (with some delight, I think) that one time Paul himself was mistaken for this smooth-tongued messenger of the gods.  This happened in the mountainous region of Asia Minor called Lystra, truly a back-country town where pagan religion was flavored more with superstition than with the sophisticated philosophy of a place like Athens. The people of Lystra spoke their own language, Lycaonian, and as you can see on the map below they were not geographically Greek, either.  But Greek influence was evidently pervasive:  when Paul the preacher and Barnabas his quieter companion worked an orthopedic miracle, the people immediately decided they were gods walking around in the flesh—Hermes and Zeus, to be exact.  Luke makes sure we know that Paul was thought to be Hermes “because he was the chief speaker.”

The goddess Artemis5 gets a lot of attention in one chapter of Acts, as the gospel of Jesus begins to affect even the economics of a city.  Demetrius, an Ephesian silversmith who specialized in idols of the goddess, recognizes the threat of this powerful new monotheistic religion in a region dominated by Artemis’s temple and the consequent tourist trade.  He gathers his guild and makes a public scene to oppose Paul’s message that “gods made with hands are not gods,” ending up with a crowd in the city’s open-air theatre shouting “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” for two hours. Though the motivation behind the demonstration was originally financial, Demetrius knew what buttons to push to rile up the passions of the local populace.  Nobody was going to displace their beloved goddess of the hunt.

Ephesus is still not quite geographically Greek, though it is across the Aegean from Achaia, the island home of the original Greek city-states.  Here we find Athens, named, of course, for the gray-eyed Athena,6 goddess of reason, arts, and literature.  When Luke narrates Paul’s visit to this city he notes that “all the Athenians7 and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new,” aptly reflecting the interests of their city’s patron goddess.

Notice that Paul is brought by the curious crowd to the Areopagus, literally “the rock of Ares” – where the god of war was supposedly tried for the murder of Poseidon’s son – to discourse more fully on the “foreign gods” that he was preaching.  If you have heard of apologetics-oriented churches or ministries that call themselves “Mars Hill,” they take their name from Paul’s apologetic moment on this rocky outcropping (though they give it a Roman twist).

One more story to round out this panoply of Greek deities. This one is hidden in the language of the NT, like an “Easter egg” in a computer game.  When you read in Acts 16 about a slave girl with a “spirit of divination” (ESV) who persistently announced Paul’s divine credentials, what you don’t realize is that the unique word used to name her particular experience of possession is pythōna—which looks a lot like a word you know in English. There’s a story behind the use of this word to diagnose demonic divination: first, there’s the legend of Apollo’s struggle with the monstrous Python at Delphi; then later its association with the place of the Oracle connected the word with the idea of soothsaying.8 That the name of Jesus quieted that serpent’s tongue is significant on all kinds of levels.

By the time of Jesus and Paul, the gods and goddesses of the Greeks had retreated, as it were, into the imaginations of the country folk, where they still enjoyed a lively presence and devotion.  To the philosophers and scholars of the cities, the deities had become mere handles for abstract concepts, or figures in famous epics; to the metalworkers and other craftsmen, they had become a source of income.  And to a mob in an open-air theatre, idolatry had merged with political identity:  “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”

It was this world that Paul and his fellows traveled, making their way down the Roman roads and through the Greek superstitions and philosophies that they found along their path to declare something still unknown to many of their listeners: “we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man…”

The time was ripe for a changing of the gods.

Map of Greek Gods in NT

Postscript:  After posting this I realized I had forgotten to mention Castor and Pollux, better known to us as the constellation Gemini (the Twins).  See what you can find out about their story, and then try to track down their cameo in the NT.  Can you also recognize any significance in their intersection with the Christian story?

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All quotations from the Bible are taken from the ESV.

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1The “Second Temple Period” is the name scholars give to the stretch of time that lasted from the initial rebuilding of the Temple at Jerusalem (finished around 516 B.C.) to its destruction by the Romans in 70 A.D.  This time period overlaps the end of the OT (think about the rebuilding narratives in Ezra and Nehemiah, for example) and all (or almost all?) of the NT.  Then there are many centuries in between those bookending dates during which Herod the Great invested in some dramatic refurbishing, and various empires competed for control of the area.  It’s worth some research to learn more, because this is the history that most immediately informs Jesus’ context in Roman-occupied Palestine.

2The Roman General Pompey conquered the region in 63 B.C.  The Roman Empire per se started a little before Jesus’ birth, with Caesar Augustus declaring himself in 27 A.D.

3The Romans did coin their own deities at times, rather than just renaming those belonging to their more mythologically accomplished Greek neighbors.  But Roman-origin deities, like their creators, are less about good storytelling and tend more toward the political and partisan (e.g., the Caesars, and concepts like Victory, Liberty, and even the city of Rome itself).

4Thanks to Alexander the Great, the hotshot Macedonian general whose personal tutor was Aristotle.  He lived and conquered about 300 years before Rome became an Empire.

5Artemis is rendered Diana in the KJV and NKJV, which is a strange choice because it means there’s a double translation going on here—Diana is her Roman name, but the people spoke Greek in Ephesus.  You can read about this story in Acts 19.

6Homer, anyone?  You can read about Paul’s trip to Athens in Acts 17.

7Luke is using hyperbole.  He was probably sensitive enough to notice that the only Athenians with time on their hands for conversation about ideas were wealthy men.

8The word is used at Acts 16:16. You can read the legend of Apollo and the Python here. My interest is purely in the historical context of this word and how this intersects Paul’s missionary activity; other Christians have apparently adduced from this idiomatic allusion diagnostic information about possession and the spirit world.

 

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Filed under Acts, Biblical Literacy, Ephesians, Greek Mythology, Historical Context, Instructing the Body, Redemptive History

Take-Aways From Philippi

[Text:  Acts 16:16-40]

One of the reasons we pay attention to the different biblical genres that we’re reading is to avoid the error of taking history for marching orders.  A great deal of the Bible comes to us as narrative, and it’s meant more to teach us about God and his world than to teach us to do anything.  But this doesn’t mean we can’t go away from a narrative text with something to chew on that might just guide our steps in the future.  Acts 16, a literary window into an eventful little stretch of time in the Roman colony of Philippi, gives us a few such take-aways.

You remember the story, how it starts with a persistent demon-possessed slave girl who seems to have a bead on exactly what Paul and company are up to – “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation!”  True enough, this, but not such welcome advertising when it happens day after day.  Her tenacity eventually annoys even the patient Apostle, leading him to cast out the soothsaying demon.  This act in turn causes an economic crisis for the girl’s owners, an imprisonment for Paul and Silas, and a post-seismic salvation opportunity for a desperate jailer.

It’s a dramatic, entertaining, and even moving tale in itself, and as historical instruction it’s sufficiently satisfying.  But we need not stop just with learning about the people, place, and time involved.  Because we’re dealing with God’s plans and actions, and because we have Luke’s inspired behind-the-scenes perspective, we can carry away from this narrative some things to keep in mind for our role today in Christ’s ongoing story.  Here are a few examples of what I mean:

We learn that the spirit world is real, and apparently it knows about the Spirit’s work.

While encounters with prescient demons are probably not going to be the norm for Christians in a first-world context, missionaries in non-Western settings often report spirit activity that resembles the accounts we have from the Gospels and Acts.  This is a reminder to remember the reality of the spirit world, and Christ’s dominion over both its faithful and its malevolent inhabitants.

We learn that some of God’s people will be called on to pray, sing, and preach while suffering.

Again, something that is not the typical experience of North American believers; but it’s always a possibility, so it should not surprise us if it happens to happen.  We can remember, too, that somewhere in the world many brothers and sisters are presently suffering imprisonment as a result of their faithful words and actions for Jesus.

We learn that sometimes it’s appropriate to let mistaken justice run its course, while at other times it’s right to demand due process and public exoneration.

(See especially Acts 16:35-39 for this part.) There are examples of both tactics in this narrative, and I use the word “tactics” deliberately – I believe that Paul chose to submit to unjust imprisonment at first, perhaps to see what God was up to with this new development; but when the evangelistic opportunity had been accomplished in this case, he then chose to call attention to the lack of due process and public apology that should have been afforded to Roman citizens.*  Instinct, flexibility, humility, and strategy were all at play in his choices, giving us a model for our own potential interactions with hostile authorities, if not a precise playbook.

We learn that the privileges of the world’s systems of power (e.g., Roman citizenship) may be used in the service of the gospel, including for the protection of the messengers of the gospel.

In other words, if you have rights guaranteed by the law of the land you’re living in, it’s okay to appeal to them in order to protect yourself and your Kingdom work.  Remember Paul’s model above, though, and realize that this is not necessarily the path we can or should always take; it’s just fair to do so.

We learn that conversion happens through words.  Events may precipitate a crisis, though, which conversion resolves.

The earthquake didn’t convert the jailer, nor did his fear of his superiors’ reprisal for his failure to secure the prisoners from escape. He was still ignorant of the plan of salvation when he fell on his knees before Paul and Silas.  What changed the man was not the crisis, but the explanation given to him.  Our faith is word-based, so thinking hard about how to arrange those words for particular audiences is a faithful and fruitful exercise for every believer.

Paul’s example warned the jailer about what discipleship might involve, and yet the man was still interested.  We learn from this that the evidence of bearing up under hardship is in itself a testimony to our conviction that our words about Jesus are true.

Think of this when you are faced with your own heartaches and hard times.  The grace that carries you through them is teaching others about the sincerity of your faith, even when you’re not aware of it.  Your willingness to submit to the Valleys as coming from God’s hand, while still contained within His love, also models for them the heart-orientation that they will need if they venture down the same path themselves.

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*Note the plural, by the way.  This means that Silas was able to claim citizenship, too.

Biblical quotation from the ESV.

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What Are You Studying?

Pastors, teachers, and other students of God’s Word, you might enjoy supplementing your studies with some unique and accessible commentary.  My Bible Journal posts have followed the haphazard course of my own studies recently, largely focused on the New Testament.  Here’s an attempt to organize my offerings for you.  Please pass these links on to others if you think they would be helpful!

Remember, you can follow the Bible Journal on Twitter @GrassRootsTheo, or sign up for email notifications (see the button below).

Bible Journal entries are listed below under the relevant books or sections of the Bible.  Find a match with what you are studying, and read along!

**GENERAL BIBLE STUDY TOOLKIT**

Bible Study Strategies (Audio)

Genre Judgment Calls

Pickup Theology

Redemptive-Historical Reading

Self-Evaluation Tool

A Friendly Intro to Biblical Theology

 

** OLD TESTAMENT COMMENTARY**

Christ in the OT

The Messiah in the OT

**GENERAL NEW TESTAMENT COMMENTARY**

Christ in the NT

Christ Jesus Our Lord

Invitational Imperatives (various Epistles)

Providing Perspective (various Epistles)

**GOSPELS**

General Gospels

Eyewitnesses to a Transfiguration

Mapping the Parables

On the Unforgivable Sin

Prompted Parables

Prophetic Puzzle Pieces

Samaritan Stories

“Shhh – don’t tell!”

Mark

Mark is Longer

Luke

Death Meets Life at the Gates of Nain

“Follow, Fast!”

The Cost of Salt

John

Curious Questions (Woman at the Well)

Naming Names

**ACTS**

Paul the Governed (see also Romans)

Prison Diary (Acts 16)

Greek Gods in the NT (Acts 16-19)

Take-Aways from Philippi (Acts 16)

Rome Meets Paul

Before Speaking, Listen (Acts 17)

 **PAUL’S EPISTLES**

Mutual Autobiography

What Paul Said About Jesus (Comprehensive Chart)

Paul on Jesus, Part 1 (The Lord of Time)

Paul on Jesus, Part 2 (History, Salvation, Obedience)

Paul on Jesus, Part 3 (Benefits & Realities)

Romans

Chronology and Meaning (see also James & Galatians)

Paul the Governed (see also Acts)

The Metaphysical Situation (see also 1-2 Corinthians)

1-2 Corinthians

Fortune Cookies

Pickup Theology

Riff on 1 Cor. 13

The Metaphysical Situation (see also Romans)

Theo-logic

Examining Ourselves

 Galatians

A Tale of Two Jerusalems

Chronology and Meaning (see also James & Romans)

In Step with the Spirit

Ephesians

Military Mnemonics

Philippians

Providing Perspective

Philemon

The Mouse that Roared

**NON-PAULINE EPISTLES**

James

Chronology and Meaning (see also Galatians & Romans)

A Topical Concordance of James (includes link to pdf resource)

1 Peter

Providing Perspective

123 John

Euphemistic Faith

**REVELATION**

Hang On ‘Cause Jesus Wins

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In Step with the Spirit

[Text:  Galatians, especially Gal. 5-6]

As I noted in my previous post, Galatians is hard going, and most of us, I bet, breathe a sigh of relief when we arrive at chapters 5 and 6.  Here the complicated theological arguments, examples and allegories of the previous chapters transition into practical instruction for the Christian community, complete with memorable lines about “keeping in step with the Spirit” and having “the fruit of the Spirit.”  This is stuff we resonate with, not to mention recognize.  We can handle this part just fine.

Not to spoil the party, but our eagerness to move on to the “relevant” teaching of these later chapters does a disservice to Paul’s message in this letter.  Reading in this way, we treat Galatians as if chapters 1-4 (and maybe the beginning of 5) were written to The People Back Then, who had this obscure issue with circumcision and Jewish law-keeping, while chapters 5-6 were written to US.  In this post I’d like to try to show how the original context of the epistle to the Galatians extends all the way to the end of the letter, and why this matters for our contemporary attempts to interpret Paul’s words.

You know the gist of Paul’s concern, I’m sure:  Gentile congregations in Asia Minor, once happily converted, were now being plagued by the teaching that their salvation in Christ was not, in fact, complete; what was missing was adherence to Jewish laws, specifically circumcision (but probably Sabbath-keeping, holidays, and dietary rules as well).  Paul’s passion for these people, and for the true gospel, comes out in his fiery words.  “Don’t let ANYBODY mess with your minds,” he says, “not even an angel of God!  There is only ONE gospel, and you’ve already got it.”

Crucial to his argument, and to our understanding of the later “practical” chapters, is the history of the Galatians’ initial encounter with the Holy Spirit.  You remember the scenes in Acts, right, where certain conversions were accompanied by highly visible and audible “signs and wonders”?  In the early days of the Church, when the original Jewish believers were first venturing outside their ethnic boundaries with their message about Jesus, God apparently turned up the volume on the Spirit’s presence—especially in born-again Gentiles, just so there would be no mistake about his acceptance of them.  As Peter put it to a council of his brethren, “If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?”*

In Galatians, written very early in the newborn Church’s history,* Paul could appeal to these Gentile believers’ unmistakable  experience of divine acceptance in an attempt to get them to see the logic of their situation.  “Didn’t God supply the Spirit and work miracles among you, just because you believed?” he asks.  “Did he wait to welcome you into Abraham’s family until you had jumped through all the hoops of the Jewish law?  Of course not.  So having begun by the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?  That makes no sense!”

Note the contrast there, between “Spirit” on the one hand and “flesh” on the other.  Paul is emphasizing the Spirit’s obvious acceptance of these believers, and the consequent uselessness of flesh-bound  Jewish identity markers.  But we have been conditioned to decontextualize these terms, reading them not with their historical references in mind so much as “what they mean to me today.”  And “what they mean to me” naturally has to involve something other than a Jewish-Gentile tension about law-keeping, because that subject was laid to rest long ago and in a faraway land.

In our context-free interpretation, then, any mention of the Spirit is automatically understood to refer to prayerful, pious, spiritual behavior and thinking, maybe involving an inner “nudge” in a godly direction.  In contrast, flesh is sinful—often specifically lustful or sexually impure—behavior and thinking, or sometimes it is whatever we do to “try to earn God’s favor.”  Our revision of Paul’s main subject into terms that are familiar to us becomes a speedy bypass to contemporary relevance:  why belabor that first-century ethnic tension, when we are trying to keep in step with the Spirit in the twenty-first?

Here’s how the interpretive bypass plays out in our reading of the practical instruction of Galatians 5 and 6, and what we lose because of it.  I’ll give a couple illustrations, and you can test this idea further on your own.

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.

Given our interpretative leanings, we are likely to take from this verse the idea that if we pursue pious, prayerful behavior and thinking, we will not be overcome by lust and other vices.  But is Christian morality Paul’s chief concern here?  I don’t think so: his driving passion is to protect already-believers from the unnecessary, destructive, and merely-human teaching that salvation was contingent on Jewish law-keeping.  “Walking by the Spirit” is, very simply, all about continuing on as you have started, secure in the knowledge that salvation doesn’t need the extra boost of circumcision or keeping kosher.

But what about the list of vices associated with flesh, and the virtues said to be the “fruit of the Spirit” at the end of chapter 5?

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, etc. . . . But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, etc. . . .

Again, we are inclined to limit Paul’s discussion to questions of morality, seeing in these lists a cesspool of vices to avoid and a wellspring of virtues to cultivate.  Certainly human morality is in view here, but the original context remains important.  What would lead a person down the path to the cesspool of vices?  Why, accepting the false gospel and giving in to those who would add Jewish law-keeping to a Christian’s “To Do” list!* On the other hand, what path leads to the wellspring of virtues?  Why, the one they are already on, salvation by grace through faith!

Finally, consider this principle from chapter 6:

For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.

It seems a fairly intuitive equation—if I pursue the ungodly passions of my sinful nature, my moral character will degenerate; but if I remain prayerfully guided by the Spirit, I will get to heaven.  Actually, considered closely, the theo-logical conclusion of our intuitive interpretation should give us pause—since when is our eternal life contingent on our behavior?

It’s appropriate to have second thoughts about this familiar understanding of Paul’s principle, because a different interpretation is in fact more fitting.  Remember that “corruption” is not necessarily moral degeneracy; in fact, in the Bible it most often refers to the physical degeneration of the body after death.  Now the contrast works smoothly:  the way of the flesh, here the way of Jewish law-keeping and circumcision, is NOT the way of the gospel, and so it ends in death.  But the way of the Spirit—the way these Galatians first knew Christ, which everybody could plainly see in the signs and wonders that accompanied their conversion—is the one and only way to eternal life.

So Paul is still talking about circumcision versus plain-vanilla faith, even when we think we hear him talking only about moral choices.  Even these practical parts of Galatians are anchored in a historical context that is alien to us.  What can we hope to take away from these words, if we must shed our familiar assumptions about moral instruction and “Spirit v. flesh” in these passages?

Why not take away the message that simple, uncomplicated belief in Jesus leads to eternal life?  Be affirmed in your faith, and become familiar with the character traits that will mark you as one of Abraham’s offspring, part of God’s Church.  There’s plenty of good to strive for in Paul’s depiction of life along this path of the Spirit.  Just don’t get confused, overinterpreting his warnings about “the flesh” as a decontextualized call to struggle against our sinful nature.  As necessary as that struggle is in the believing life, it’s not a priority for Paul in Galatians.

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*Acts 11:17

*Probably around 48AD.

*Note, by the way, the shocking association of Jewish law-keeping with vice!  Paul intends to shake them up by way of this stunning incongruity, as he did when he connected Torah-keeping Jews with the decidedly un-Jewish figure of Hagar in his earlier allegory.

All Bible quotations are taken from the ESV, though sometimes I have paraphrased things.

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A Tale of Two Jerusalems

[Text: Galatians, especially ch. 4]

Paul’s impassioned letter to the Galatians can be a tricky one to track with.  Our vast cultural and historical distance from the peculiar concerns of the newborn Church leaves us baffled in the dense theological sections, and probably lets us off too easily as we sail through the “more relevant” practical parts.  In this post I want to offer some guidance through the mountainous terrain of Galatians 4, where biblical history and allegory collide; in a future post I hope to take a second look at the way we’ve always read Paul’s instructions in Galatians about “keeping in step with the Spirit.”

If you’ve read as far as Galatians 4, you’ve probably already figured out Paul’s chief concern:  these Gentile believers, who originally received the gospel message and the Holy Spirit with no strings attached, have come under the influence of some Jewish believers who insist that Hebrew law-keeping is a necessary component of everybody’s conversion.  Specifically, circumcision is being proclaimed as an imperative for these non-Jewish followers of Jesus.

Paul’s letter hits them in the middle of these deliberations.  He urges the Galatian Gentiles to reconsider the theological reality of their already-accomplished salvation, and to turn aside from the temptation to upgrade their status by way of religious requirements like circumcision.

Since circumcision is a representative example of following Jewish law, you’d think that Paul would have a lot to say about that law, and how its specific life-ordering rules had been rendered obsolete by the coming of the Messiah Jesus.  And you’d be right – in fact, that’s the gist of our Galatians 3.  In chapter 4, though, Paul does some fancy rabbinical-rhetorical footwork, playing with the flexible word “law” (Greek nomos, Hebrew torah) and making our heads spin.

Just before launching in on that difficult bit about Hagar and Sarah, he writes:

“Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?  For it is written that Abraham had two sons…”

Pause here, before we hit the two Jerusalems that are these sons’ mothers, and consider how Paul is playing with the word “law.”  Maybe these Gentiles (and maybe many of us reading today!) would typically define “law” in the Bible as all of those Jewish regulations and statutes and rituals.  But the Hebrew Torah, the big-L Law, is actually a collection of five books that includes both law (in a legal sense) and story.  And it’s the Story part of the Law that holds the key to unlocking the chains of the (legal) law that threatens the Galatians’ freedom.

Paul proceeds to identify the five dramatis personae in the part of the Story that he’s talking about:  Abraham, the slave woman and the free woman, and each woman’s firstborn son.  It must have been a familiar narrative by now even to the Galatians, who had, after all, hosted the great storyteller Paul himself on more than one occasion.  Here Paul is claiming that this Patriarch and his family history have repercussions even for former pagan Gentiles in Asia Minor:  through the continuity of the promise, even those outside Abraham’s bloodline are included now in God’s people.

So that’s the first curve ball in Galatians:  “Law” includes “story,” and it’s Story that matters in this wrestling match between faith and law-keeping.

The second curve ball involves another bit of rhetoric condoned by rabbinical scholars:  the allegorical use of real historical figures to convey a point.  Hagar and Sarah are convenient place-holders for the “law-keeping” and “promise-believing” contingents; and the respective locales, Sinai/earthly-Jerusalem and heavenly-Jerusalem, reinforce the contrast.

What ought to take the reader by surprise (but probably doesn’t, in our case) is that the Hagar/slave-woman/earthly-Jerusalem figure is the one associated with Mount Sinai, and therefore Jewish law-keeping.  There is NO WAY that this would be a comfortable allegory for a pious first-century Jew (or Jewish Christian).  Of the two women, Hagar is exactly the wrong figure to associate with all that defines Jewish identity, religion, and obligation.

And this discomfort is precisely Paul’s reason for structuring the allegory in this way.  Hagar and her son are cast off in the story, made strangers to the covenant that God had sworn to Abraham.  In the same way, God through Jesus has “cast off” Jewish law-keeping.  You don’t want to be associated with lost and abandoned Hagar, Paul insists.  And you always were associated with the other one, the Sarah/free-woman/heavenly-Jerusalem figure, because when you came into the family of faith you did it in a Sarah-way, by believing!

There is irony upon irony here, if we have eyes to see it:  the law, the pride of Judaism, linked allegorically to a despised slave woman; the law-keepers, now cut off from the covenant; non-Jewish believers in Jesus, identified with the ultra-Jewish heroine Sarah; and the despised Gentiles, now heirs of the promise.

Paul wraps up this rhetorical excursion to the two Jerusalems with these firm words:

“So, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.”

Interesting that he includes himself in this statement:  the former Pharisee here implicitly distances himself from Jewish law-keeping, at least as it relates to salvation (i.e., being counted among the people of God).* Through the allegory of the two Jerusalems, each identified with one of the women in the story of the promise, Paul has mapped out for the Galatians the alternatives presented to them by the true and the false gospels they have heard.  He prays that they will realize once and for all that they already belong to Sarah’s side of the family.

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*Though Paul internalized the implications of the gospel so radically that he could behave as a Gentile among Gentiles, it was often deemed prudent (by Paul and by other Church leaders) for him to maintain Jewish practices when among Jews.

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Chronological Contexts and Multiple Meanings

[Texts:  James, Romans, Ephesians, Galatians]

As you may have noticed, James’s letter is not easy to reconcile with Paul’s teaching on faith apart from works.  On the face of it, James seems to be saying that we do good works in order to be saved, which scrambles our brains if we also know Paul’s firm lines about nobody being able to boast about their efforts toward salvation.  Why does James seem to promote opportunities for boasting?  Is there any way to reconcile these two writers?

Here are three thoughts to pack along as you read James’s little letter with Paul leaning over your shoulder.  One thought has to do with time, and the other two focus on a couple key vocabulary words.

First, about timing:  although James’s letter follows the epistles of Paul in our New Testaments, it was actually written much earlier.* This James was not one of the Twelve (that James was murdered by Herod early on; see Acts 12), but he was a significant figure among the leaders in the Jerusalem church, which was kind of the Command Central of the Jesus movement at the outset.

As events transpired in those early days and as news of conversions began rolling in from unexpected corners of the Empire, James mediated a theological conference/strategic planning meeting in Jerusalem to figure out how to accommodate the many new Gentile believers.  Just about everybody at the start of this Messianic movement was steeped in Jewish categories of thought, which logically led many of them to assume the continuing and universal necessity of Jewish works of the law (such as circumcision, dietary restrictions, and Sabbath-keeping).

The ministry to the Gentiles challenged these assumptions, though, as it became unavoidably apparent that the Holy Spirit was already at work in these converts entirely apart from Jewish law-keeping.  At the James-led Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), the Jewish church leaders officially conceded the point.  Paul would later expound on the theological significance of it all, especially in his letters to the Galatians, the Romans and the Ephesians.  But prior to both the Council and Paul’s theological explanations came the epistle of James to the scattered Jewish believers in Jesus.

So this is the historical and theological context of James’s message that “faith without works is dead.”  Knowing this order of events helps us keep James’s thoughts, and even his vocabulary, in proper perspective.  Specifically, two words that both James and Paul use, justification and works, aptly illustrate the difference between their respective contexts.

When James writes, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone,” he seems to be contradicting Paul’s unequivocal statement in Romans that “by works of the law no man will be justified.”  But when James wrote his letter, he (and the Jewish church) had not yet wrestled formally with the reality and implications of Gentiles entering into the people of God sans Jewish particulars.  His words describe the vindication or verifying of faith by compassionate deeds,  for in this way one’s faith is justified—that is, confirmed—by one’s actions.

On Paul’s part, in his (post-Council) letters to the Romans and Galatians, both of which are theological exposés of wrong assumptions about Jewish priorities, the word justification evokes a courtroom scene in which judicial action acquits or condemns the accused.  In such a setting, Paul says, those all-important Jewish “works of the law” do not amount to guaranteed favor with the Judge.

In sum, Paul’s concern is different from James’s, and so he uses these two terms differently.  For Paul, justification has to do with acquittal before the Judge (rather than confirmation of the reality of one’s faith, as in James), and works are narrowly considered as the special obligations placed on Jews under the law (rather than merely compassionate actions).  To put it even more simply, for Paul the words have a specialized, religious significance, while James intends them to convey everyday realities.

Making this chronological and theological distinction between James’s and Paul’s use of these two terms may help put some contemporary Christian teaching into perspective as well.  If you have ever been baffled by the characteristic Reformed portrayal of Christians erring by “trying to earn God’s favor” through their deeds, recall that the Reformers who rediscovered Justification By Faith in the sixteenth century were writing and thinking in the midst of a Roman Catholic context.  In close imitation of Jewish law, Roman Catholic religion was full of do’s and don’t’s and specific demands that a truly religious person must fulfill to obtain (and maintain!) God’s favor.

In a Protestant context today, this ritualistic error feels remote, and thus this refrain about the danger of trying to “earn God’s favor” seems out of place when the “works” in view are deeds of compassion.  But perhaps the critique comes home more personally whenever we notice that we’ve fallen into “magical thinking” about religious practices, whereby our Christian rituals (prayers, communion, liturgy – or listening to Christian radio, or having our daily Quiet Time) have gained a good-luck-charm status.  (“If I do this just right – or enough times – then I’ll get my wish!”)

We should not, however, confuse the warning against vain effort in religious “works” with a caution against exerting ourselves in the just and compassionate deeds we’ve been called to do.*  As James insists, living faith actually requires some work to show it is alive.

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*Notice, by the way, that this means that the NT letters are arranged in groups by author—i.e., Paul, followed by Not-Paul—and then by size and order within these groups.  You have to do a little more digging before you figure out their historical chronology.

*Granted, “deeds of compassion” can sometimes become our religious good-luck charms, too.  But I think the analogy of manipulating God’s favor through our ritualistic spiritual exercises fits Paul’s meaning most closely.

References to “boasting,” “justification,” and “works/works of the law” come from Ephesians 2, Galatians 2-3, Romans 3, and James 2.

Approximate dates of relevant events: Epistle of James, early 40s AD  —   Jerusalem Council, c.49 AD  —  Epistle to the Galatians, early 50s  —  Epistle to the Romans, c.57AD.  Think about how different the theological and church context is in each case, despite the proximity of these dates!

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