HEBREWS 10-13 makes most sense if we remember two things: holy fear and holy desire. The holy desire is for “a better country—a heavenly one” (11:16). Such desire, and faith in its fulfillment (11:1ff) motivated the saints listed in Chapter 11 to endure what they did to be faith-full to the end, even in martyrdom. The holy fear is of the consequences of letting such desire and faith go, and of the one with power to judge, for “our God is a consuming fire (12:29).” As one devotional master put it, a fire that hurts more the farther we go from God, and which soothes and refreshes the closer we approach. As other Christian saints have put it, this holy fear is not the servile fear of punishment, for “perfect love casts out all fear.” Rather, it is the fear of what we are capable of doing to our relationship with God, and thus to ourselves, if we draw back, lose heart and grow ashamed of our faith. Rather, we are called to embrace the shame and follow Christ “outside the camp.” With the discussion of the old sacrifices closed, with the case made that Christ is the best sacrifice that fulfills and brings to an end the old sacrifices, there remain yet the following three sacrifices for Christ’s disciples: worship, good works and hospitality (13: 15-16). Though the authorship remains unknown, a few clues remain in the text about the time and place of its writing. The author writes about the Hebrew sacrifices in present tense, as though they are still going on. Had this letter been written after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, it would be odd if there were no mention of it. The letter closes with news of Timothy’s release from prison and his likely arrival, along with the author (13: 23). Others from Italy greet them. If the author was not Paul, it was someone known to Paul, Timothy and the apostolic team they comprised, like, perhaps, Apollos. The primary concern of JAMES, by tradition, the brother of Jesus and a key leader of the Jerusalem Church, is “pure religion, without blemish (1:27).” It is not enough to say that one believes in God, but that one puts into practice what one believes. Think “practice” as in “practical.” James’ preoccupations include wisdom, relationships of respect, and peace and justice, especially within the church, particularly between rich and poor. These then must have been ways in which James saw the first generation of believers falling short. How far they must have fallen from when the earliest Christians held “all things in common” (Acts 2).
JAMES 1-5: True to his Jewish roots, James draws heavily on Old Testament wisdom literature and the prophets for his inspiration. But there is also much that echoes the teachings of Jesus, especially the Sermon on the Mount. The last half of Chapter 2 gives us a glimpse into the wider context of discussion and disagreement among the first Christians over faith and the law. On the surface, James’ argument that “one is justified by their works, not only by faith,” appears to be at odds with that of Paul, that we are saved by grace through faith, and not by works of our own. They even appear to take contrary lessons from the life of Abraham. This is why someone like Martin Luther could wonder if James should even be in the canon. This argument did not die in the 1st Century AD, with the first generation of Christians. It was raised again during the Reformation, especially between Anabaptists and Lutherans, the latter insisting on salvation by grace through faith alone. But seeing the general tone and tenor of life in state churches, the Anabaptists asked the natural questions, “Shouldn’t faith look like something? If it is only a mental assent to some doctrine that arrives at no change of heart nor conduct, is it really faith, or only a game for the sake of eternal fire insurance?” In that sense, the Anabaptists were close to James. Of special note is the fact that the First Century controversy around faith and works had to do with ceremonial and ritual matters of the law, such as circumcision and kosher diet. James never and nowhere mentions such things, only the bedrock moral law, such as “You shall not kill,” “Do not commit adultery,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Paul and his missionary team insisted on such things, too. It may be that, since Paul was primarily working with Gentiles, who were being tempted to justify themselves by taking on parts of the Hebrew law, he needed to stress faith: dependence upon God’s grace. But James is writing primarily to Jewish Christians, it appears, who, in their emerging freedom from the ceremonial/ritual law, may have needed to be reminded of what a living faith meant, by way of obedience to the bedrock moral law of the Old Testament. In the end, there is no contradiction nor controversy here. Faith in God was always the “first work” of the law, the bedrock on which it stood. And by grace through faith we are saved for lives that are characterized by the bedrock moral law.
PSALM 139 eloquently expresses the transparency of the soul before its Maker, as well as the Maker’s all-knowing, ever present love and attention to each soul, as though any one of the billions of us mortals were the only human being ever created, even as though we each received all the attention of God throughout all eternity. This can be both comforting and frightening, depending upon our orientation toward God. Yet amid all the inspiring and reflective words and images come the words that many find disturbing, words of hatred and imprecation toward the wicked. It would take the additional revelation of Jesus before the connection between God and one’s enemy would be treasured as much as the connection between God and Israel. Still, all the faithful must work through, honestly, such feelings when they arise, and God is safe with them. Indeed, it shows great faith that anyone with such enemies, in such danger, would pray a Psalm as the 139th. Perhaps it was even the experience of enemies and betrayal that occasioned this meditation upon the all-knowing ever-presence of God with each child of Adam.
PSALM 140 is a lament which ends in an affirmation of faith, a faith all the more surprising for the experiences of betrayal, hostility and plotting that the psalmist recounts. As in other laments, we are reminded of a day and place in which the poor and powerless have no recourse other than God. Unlike the gods, goddesses and divine kings and queens of ancient Middle Eastern empires, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the advocate and defender of the little, unknown, expendable people. “Burning coals” ( v. 10) is an image we find elsewhere in the Bible (Ps. 120, Romans 12:20) in connection with trouble-makers, war-mongers and sowers of dissension. To enter into conflict with them on their terms is to join them in a shower of burning coals, a symbol of God’s wrath, whereas to desist and to entrust oneself to the vindication of God is to leave them to bear the wrath of God alone.