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In ‘Preach the Word: Because It Is the Means God Uses to Sanctify His People’, John MacArthur begins with:
You wouldn’t withhold food from a starving man. Nor would you deny air to a drowning child. Frankly, that kind of monstrous behavior is hard to imagine. But that’s effectively what many pastors and church leaders are guilty of today, as they withhold that which is vital to the spiritual lives of their people: God’s Word.
Further in the post, he states:
Even if I never preached another sermon, I would thank God every day of my life for the sanctifying grace that has come to me through the daily study of His precious Word. Pastors, then, should study to know God, not just to make sermons. For me, the greatest joy of preaching comes not in the final step of proclamation but in the transformation of my own life, as the truth pervades my thinking throughout the entire process.
If only more clergy thought the same way.
Lack of biblical exposition is one of the main reasons why churches are failing. Hence the gimmicks of church growth and mysticism (e.g. contemplative group prayer).
Clergy blame the general public. They are not wrong. However, they must also look inside themselves to examine their own preaching — as well as liturgy and music. Is it scriptural? What example do they set for their congregations? Are they living a holy life?
As for preaching, a lady commented on MacArthur’s post with a lengthy comment about her own church, the upshot of which was that the former pastor returned to preach for a fortnight. Below is part of Sharlene McKelvey wrote (emphases mine):
Since for many months our church has been seeking a new Senior Pastor, last Fall our beloved [former] Pastor, now in his 80′s and having suffered two cancer surgeries, open heart surgery, and survived the recent death of one of his two beloved daughters, returned for two weeks of teaching … I cannot begin to find words to describe the delight to hear him teach; people came back to hear him and there was no parking space available for miles; our church was once again packed with people who had been faithful to our church for years. He taught a sermon in the same manner you teach. Someone who had never known him said to me, “This is the first time in my life I ever heard a real sermon be taught.”
Faithful preaching of Scripture, not sermonising on socio-political issues, is the reason many go to church. Congregations and denominations can experience an increase of attendance and membership when the message pewsitters hear is true to the Bible and Christ’s enduring truth.
I find it sad — although I certainly empathise with those — many people commenting on GTY blog posts who cannot find a good church. So many churches are ailing or closing. Yet, there are so many souls out there who are desperate to see a good priest or minister exegete the word of God and receive Communion from him.
The solution does not lie in church growth or unbiblical practices (e.g. mysticism). Nor does it lie exclusively in praying for vocations. It lies in praying that clergy represent scriptural values and a grace-filled life.
In it, he explains how he reads and studies the Bible (emphases mine below):
The more you know about Christ, the more likely you are to reflect Him.
And that really is the Christian life. As I look back at my life and all the years of study and tens of thousands of hours of going through the Scripture, whether I’m writing books or preparing sermons, or writing notes in a study Bible, or whatever, all of my efforts to understand the Scripture do not end with the understanding of the Scripture. My goal has never been to know the facts of the Bible. It isn’t that I want to know Bible history, or that I want to know what’s in books and verses. That’s not the end, that’s only the means to an end. I want to know Him. Paul said, “That I may know Him.” It is the joy of my life to find God in the living Christ on the pages of Scripture. The more I study the Bible, the more glorious Christ is to me. The more I understand the Scripture, the more majestic and magnificent and awesome Jesus Christ is and my worship and my service to Him is a direct reflection of that awe. A limited view of Jesus Christ produces a limited capacity to worship and limited motivation to serve. The great objective of Scripture is to know Christ so that you can love Him more, so that you can be swept away as the hymn writer put it, in wonder, love and praise. It’s not about knowing the Bible, it never should be. Knowledge puffs up. It’s about knowing Christ. Not some mystical knowledge, not some knowledge induced. Your lack of understanding about Christ cripples your worship and no amount of music and no amount of sort of spiritual mood-inducing is going to produce true worship which rises out of an overwhelming wonder concerning Christ.
So whenever we gather together, it is Christ who is the goal and the end of everything we learn. Everything I know about the sinfulness of man makes me love Christ more because He brought an end to all my sin. Everything I know about the glory of God makes me love Christ more because I see God fully revealed in human terms that I can comprehend in Christ … He’s the theme of all of Scripture.
This is why it is almost painful to read or listen to so many notional Christians who subscribe to erroneous beliefs: Arminianism, universalism, mysticism, Hebrew Roots Movement (HRM), gnosticism, theonomy or liberation theology.
Nothing in the New Testament points to any of those.
Yet, the stubborn say, ‘I’ve read it already’ or ‘That verse doesn’t agree with my personal belief’. I read a long thread last week about the HRM on another blog; one HRM advocate said (paraphrased), ‘Well, as I don’t really know the details of the New Testament, I cannot say’.
Read Holy Scripture and discover the truth it reveals. If you’ve actually read it, reread it. It contains a wealth of knowledge which helps us understand Christ all the better. And in understanding Christ, He draws us closer to Him and we better reflect His example in our own lives.
As MacArthur says, isn’t that the purpose of the Christian life?
Excellent starting places in the New Testament are the Gospels of John and Mark as well as the Epistles Hebrews and Romans. And why not try the Grant Horner Bible Reading System? It’s easy to follow and takes but one half-hour a day.
Was Jesus a unifier? Many would say that He preached love, which is true. But He also preached truth, and He condemned those who had no truck with that.
MacArthur says (emphases mine):
We live in a day when the reigning view is tolerance, isn’t it? And that if you’re a real Christian, you’re going to manifest tolerance. And today when we hear the word “ecumenical, or ecumenism,” which is a word that simply means “getting everybody together,” and the mood of the day is tolerance and ecumenism and let’s find what we have in common and we’ll all get together for the sake of morality and for the sake of righteousness and for the sake of “the Kingdom of God.”
Jesus took the very opposite approach. Jesus didn’t attack the immorality of His society in particular. Obviously He was concerned about sin and He called sinners to repentance. But Jesus attacked the religious establishment because they were the damners of souls because they offered people the false solution, the deceptive lie, the ultimate delusion that God is pleased with you when He’s not. And so He attacked that system. And every time there was a point of conflict He exacerbated it. It was almost as if every time He made a wound, He poured salt in it. It started from the very beginning to be so. The message in chapter 4 recorded that He gave in His own hometown of Nazareth in His own synagogue where He had grown up as a boy that was still attended by family and friends, the message there was that the whole system of Judaism was out of touch with the purposes of God because Jesus said, “I came to fulfill Isaiah 61, I came to the poor, prisoners, blind and oppressed, I didn’t come to the spiritual elite, I didn’t come to the self-righteous, the spiritually proud, the people who are trying to merit righteousness with God and accomplish that by their works. I didn’t come for those people. I came for the poor, prisoners, blind and oppressed, the downcast, the outcast, the people who know they’re spiritually bankrupt and so forth. And in so doing, He so infuriated the self-righteous people sitting in that synagogue who had owned the religion of Judaism, orchestrated by the rabbis and the Pharisees, infuriated them to such a degree that even the synagogue in His own hometown, before the day was over, they tried to kill Him by throwing Him off a cliff. He assaulted that system because that system needed to be assaulted …
And it wasn’t just general. It wasn’t that He just spoke in generalities about what was wrong with the system. When He had an occasion to meet with Pharisees or scribes who were the leaders of that system, He confronted them face to face. It was really intolerable for Jesus to attack the system, it was even more intolerable for Him to attack them. But that’s what He did because they were the purveyors of that system.
Why did Jesus do that? … Because divine truth was more important than anything else … Divine truth is more important than anything else. And you know why Jesus always escalated the conflict? Because He always spoke the truth. If I ever do end up on Larry King or some other program like that, and somebody says to me, “Will Mormons go to heaven?” I will say, “No.” If they say, “Will the Jews go to heaven? Reject Jesus as Messiah?” I will say “No.” Do I want to start a fight? No. Do I want to be resented? No. Do I want to tell the truth? Yes. That’s the issue.
Jesus didn’t escalate the conflict by being insensitive. He didn’t escalate the conflict by being ungracious. The conflict escalated of itself because He spoke the truth. That’s the issue. And every time there was conflict, instead of trying to relieve the tension, instead of trying to lower the hostility or ease the conflict, He escalated it. He advanced it. He agitated it, increased it by always being absolutely truthful … the gospel is incompatible with error in any form. Is that not so? When the Pharisees come to Jesus and say, “Why are You doing this? This is not according to our law.” He could say, “Oh, we’re really sorry. We didn’t really want to offend you. Maybe we could create an organization called the National Conference on the Gospel and Judaism and we could meet and we could find common ground.” He didn’t do that … There wasn’t any common ground because you had the truth and you had error and there is no common ground. It isn’t that you want to pick a fight for the sake of a fight. It isn’t that you want to be ungracious for the sake of being ungracious. It isn’t that you’re some kind of self-styled Messiah who wants somehow to become a martyr. It’s not that at all, it’s the truth matters more than anything else and if you always say the truth in every situation, the truth will have the effect of exposing everything else as error and people who are in that error aren’t happy about that. That’s the bottom line. And Jesus was compelled by the truth. And when conflict occurred, He went immediately to the truth and took it to another level so that there was this continual escalation of their hostility.
… when Jesus, this Messiah, this man of God chose His official authoritative representatives, we call them the disciples or the apostles, He didn’t choose a Pharisee and He didn’t choose a scribe. In fact He chose a bunch of no-name nobodies from up in Galilee who weren’t even educated, fishermen and of all abominations, a tax collector, and a lot of other common people.
He didn’t say, “You know, I’m coming into Israel to hold some evangelistic crusades and I need to form a committee of folks. I’m going to take some Pharisees, and some Sadducees and some scribes, we’re going to involve them.” Not going to happen…not going to happen. I don’t think they liked that too well. But there was no possibility of an alliance, absolutely impossible. What fellowship has light with…with darkness? What concord has Christ with Satan?
The hierarchy and system worked against Jesus. It works against anyone who tells the Gospel truth. Something to keep in mind the next time we are criticised for supporting Scripture and our denominational beliefs.
John MacArthur’s sermons on Holy Scripture are edifying to read because he has studied the Bible for decades and can provide rich detail which encourages us to stop and look again at the passage.
His 2011 sermon, ‘The New Passover’, lays out what likely took place when Jesus and the Apostles gathered for the Last Supper. The passage is Mark 14:17-26, although MacArthur mentions other Gospel accounts.
What follows are excerpts, emphases mine as are the links to Scripture:
First it began with a prayer of thanks and it was followed by the first cup of red wine, doubly diluted with water… After that first cup, which kind of launches it, there was a ceremonial and an actual washing of hands. They actually washed their hands because they ate with their hands and there was a ceremonial significance to it because it symbolized a need for cleansing and a need for holiness.
So the opening cup and then the cleansing after the prayer of thanks. It seems to me that this might be a good place to assume that while they were talking about the need for cleansing, while they were talking about their unholiness, maybe that is where the Lord pointed out a problem with them because Luke 22:24 says, “A dispute arose among them as to which of them was regarded to be the greatest.” Same ole, same ole, right? It is very likely that at that time as they’re just getting beginning into this and the issue becomes a heart holiness that our Lord confronts that arguing about who is going to be the greatest, that ugly pride, by doing what John 13 says He did. “Jesus rose from supper, laid aside His garments, taking a towel, began to wash the disciples feet. And He gave them a profound lesson on…humility.”
It had to be juxtaposed against their arguing about which of them was the greatest and such an open manifestation of pride. And then He said to them, “I’ve given you an example for you to do as I have done for you.” And then He even said to them, as recorded in Luke 22:25 and 26, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them.” That’s what Gentiles do. “But not so with you.” He went on to say the greatest of you become as the least, as the servant, the slave. So just getting in to the Passover and they’re already demonstrating their sinfulness, the symbol of the washing would have been a perfect time for them to confront that sinfulness. Our Lord perhaps does that at that interval and then washes their feet to give them a lesson on humility.
This was followed then, this washing, by the eating of bitter herbs. This is when the bread would be broken. It would be flat bread, not a big fat loaf, flat bread broken and distributed and then dipped into a paste made from fruit and nuts. And then after that… first course…they would sing the Hallel. The Hallel, from which we get the word Hallelujah, are series of hymns that praise God from Psalm 113 to Psalm 118. And they sang them all at the Passover. Traditionally they would sing Psalm 113 and 114, and then would come the second cup of wine. And then after that cup would be the eating of the lamb, the eating of the meal. That would be the … main course …
And after the main course was completed would be the third cup of wine and after that they would sing the rest of the Hallel, Psalm 115, 116, 117 and 118. And then they would have a final sip of wine and one more Psalm and leave. That was the evening.
That could have all been done rather in a brief amount of time, however, it was strung out for many, many hours, being interrupted by all the other things that we talked about going on.
Early in this celebration in this sequence, our Lord says something that I think is important for us to hear in Luke 22:15 and16. “He said to them, ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.’”
The language is very, very strong. Literally He says, “I desire with a desire,” that’s emphatic in the Greek. This is a very strong passion, “I must celebrate this Passover with you before I suffer. This has to happen for all the reasons that I told you.” Not only because it’s right because it’s commanded by God, but because He must make this transition. He must end an era. He must bring to a completion an entire system and launch a new one and He must lay out all the promises upon which every believer through all of redemptive history draws and He must tell them of the coming of the Holy Spirit, and He must confront their sin, and He must give them a lesson on humility and all these things are so compelling. He knows that He can’t die until all of this is clearly delineated to them and the Holy Spirit will bring it back to their memory in the future and they will write it down and it will be inscripturated and we will follow that instruction and cling to those promises. This has to happen before He dies.
He has, like everybody else, lived His whole life seeing animals sacrificed and all of them, He knew, pointed to Him. And now He was eating a meal at which the last legitimate Lamb was sacrificed and would be eaten and in a matter of hours it would be over. And He was the fulfillment of all those sacrifices. And in the view of His imminent suffering, He knows He will die, He knows He will not live to another Passover, He understands the urgency of this hour.
And there’s another component, John 13 begins by saying this, “He loved His own who were in the world, eis telos, to the max, to the limit, to the end. It was not simply a theological demonstration here. What He said to them, what He promised to them, what He pledged to them, and what He called for them to do was all a part of loving instruction.
It was His profound love for them, as well as their profound necessity for the truth He would give them that compelled this to occur. He says in verse 16 of Luke 22, “I say to you, I’ll never again eat this meal with you until it is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God.” And with that statement, we have the end of all legitimate Passovers…this was His last meal before the cross, He ate the lamb and then became the Lamb hours later.
Will there ever be another Passover, legitimate one? Will there ever be? There will, He says that, please notice it. This is not going to happen, He says in Luke 22, until it is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God. Even Passover has not yet reached its final fulfillment. That’s going to happen in the Kingdom.
Paul says, “We do this until he comes.” Matthew 6:29 talks about the fact that it’s going to occur in the Kingdom…when He returns, He will celebrate the Passover meal with His own redeemed people again. He will.
On Tuesday, March 12, 2013, the conclave to elect the successor to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI will have begun.
A few Reformed blogs have treated the Pope’s abdication lightly, when the Catholic Church is in real danger. It is not a stretch of the imagination that, should it find itself in chaos, the rest of Christianity will also be in danger.
With today’s ignorance about the Christian faith — including here in England, even among people over 50 who had to take Religious Education in school — it is quite possible that we will all be tarred with the same atheistic brush of ‘conservative, reactionary perverts and theonomists’.
So, I would suggest that we pray that Benedict XVI can retire in peace and be left alone. We do not know what is really happening inside the Vatican other than that ‘another spirit is moving through’ it — to borrow Martin Luther’s stinging words to Zwingli over the latter’s doubt of the Real Presence in Holy Communion. And that spirit is a form of darkness.
However, there is a cautionary historical story here. Benedict XVI, like the Popes before him going back to John XXIII, advocated teachings which go against Holy Scripture, among them (emphases mine):
Changing with the times: ‘In the era of liberalism that preceded the First World War, the Catholic Church was looked upon as a fossilized organization, stubbornly opposed to all modern achievements‘ … ’Whoever wants to attach himself solely to the literal interpretation of the Scriptures or to the forms of the Church of the Fathers imprisons Christ in “yesterday”.‘
This ties in with the ideas behind la nouvelle théologie: dogma changes over time and old tenets of the faith, even scriptural teachings, can be discarded.
Ratzinger became a professor at the University of Bonn in 1959; his inaugural lecture was on “The God of Faith and the God of Philosophy”. In 1963, he moved to the University of Münster.
During this period, Ratzinger participated in the Second Vatican Council (1962–65). Ratzinger served as a peritus (theological consultant) to Cardinal Frings of Cologne. He was viewed during the time of the Council as a reformer, cooperating with theologians like Hans Küng and Edward Schillebeeckx. Ratzinger became an admirer of Karl Rahner, a well-known academic theologian of the Nouvelle Théologie and a proponent of church reform.
My mother, a devout Catholic, read everything going on the Catholic Church, especially when the subject concerned Vatican II. By the 1970s, Ratzinger and Küng were household names in our home. My mother sought out the nuns at my school to voice her opinion that the outcomes of Vatican II would ruin the Church. They attempted to reassure her that these particular changes were necessary and not to worry!
Well, we know what happened. Over the past four decades, the Catholic Church has been hemorrhaging laity and vocations whilst accumulating sacerdotal scandals and internal discord.
There was nothing ‘conservative’ about Benedict XVI, then or now. There are times, as was true with the now-retired Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams that, amidst all the Modernist and worldly teaching, a glimmer of faith and brilliance occasionally emerged. The latest case in point was Benedict XVI’s final message on February 28, 2013.
The cautionary point is that Benedict XVI reaped what he sowed. Although none of us has eyes into each other’s souls, I would like to think that since his ascent to the papacy he has at least partially repented of Modernism as he saw the maelstrom of unbelief, corruption and immorality around him. The latest news before he ended his tenure was that a cabal of militant homosexual bishops is lobbying the Church for change. Their ability to do so would have to rely on Vatican insiders — other clergy — allowing that to happen. Of course, the fallout from the sex scandals has not gone away, either.
Vatican II really does have nouvelle théologie written all over it and the relativism it brought to all aspects of Catholic life has caused a number of lay members — including my friends and I — to leave. A few of us became Protestants, however, most left the Christian faith full stop.
A couple of years ago, we got together to talk about the pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II Church. In the pre-Vatican II Church we agreed that we knew where we stood, that the Catholic faith was important to us largely because of the mysterium tremendum in Latin Mass and clear teaching (even if erroneous) which we learned at a young age. Of the post-Vatican II changes, we thought that Mass had lost that mysterium tremendum, the priest wanted to get people in and out as soon as possible and that there was little guidance from the pulpit in matters of faith.
What is truly unfortunate, however, is that those who left Christianity said that they had little reason to believe that Jesus was active in their lives. Christ seems distant to them. Salvation doesn’t worry them; it doesn’t even enter their minds.
That distance and abstraction are part and parcel of nouvelle théologie:
- the Incarnation of the Word (Jesus) was but a mere blip in the evolution of the universe. According to new theology, time moves on and our link to Jesus becomes more abstract. New theology ignores His sacrifice on the Cross, His glorious Resurrection and His promise of salvation.
- God is not personally involved in our lives or our world; rather, God is an abstract ‘universal cosmic Centre’. This notion contradicts Holy Scripture from beginning to end.
- we can be saved only through pantheism — Gaia — and ‘uniting’ ourselves with the universe.
As is often said in marketing, there is a big ‘So what?’ problem with the post-Vatican II Church. There is no compelling reason to align oneself with watery or, just as bad, extra-scriptural theology.
The other factor which I find troubling is the huge emphasis that Pope John Paul II (during whose tenure I left the Catholic Church) placed on Mary, making her co-redemptrix. For more information, see my Christianity / Apologetics page under the heading Mariolatry.
Then there is the difficulty of the Catholic doctrine of Christ’s specific designation of Peter as ‘the rock’ on which He would build His Church (Matthew 16). Yet, when one reads the Bible, Peter has a smaller role to play. This is no doubt one of the reasons why Catholic clergy had, until relatively recently, discouraged lay people from reading Holy Scripture, because if the faithful had begun to read and study it, who knows what contradictions with ‘tradition’ they might find?
… Paul wrote Romans in the year 56, made no reference to Peter … If Peter was the pastor of the church in Rome, why doesn’t he refer to Peter? And he greets a whole bunch of people in chapter 16, he just keeps greeting one after another after another after another, it would be pretty serious to overlook Peter. When Paul was later imprisoned in Rome in the year 60 to 62, he wrote four letters and he included in those letters all who came to him, never mentions Peter. In his last letter, 2 Timothy, written in the year 64 or about that, he gives greeting to ten people in Rome, not Peter..not Peter. By the way, Peter was never called to the Gentiles anyway. Galatians 2:7 and 8, you might want to look at that for just a minute. Galatians 2:7 and 8, he says, “I had been entrusted…Paul says…with the gospel to the uncircumcised, to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the circumcised.” Peter was never called to pastor a Gentile congregation …
By the way … you might think at least Peter would be the head of the Jerusalem church, but he’s not. According to Galatians chapter 2 and Acts chapter 15, the head of the Jerusalem church was James…not Peter at all. There’s no indication whatsoever that Peter had anything to do with the city of Rome.
In 1 Corinthians chapter 1, the Apostle Paul addresses the factions in the Corinthian church, he says, “Some of you say I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, I am of Cephas, or Peter, I of Christ.” … He doesn’t make any great thing of him at all. In fact, he makes it very clear that none of these people are particularly significant. They’re not the ones who deserve the credit for the work of God. Go over to chapter 3. “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed. I planted, Apollos watered, God was causing the growth.” It’s a very low key way to treat yourself. He doesn’t give any elevation to anybody.
Furthermore, Paul went to Rome to preach and in Romans 15:20 he says, “I aspired to preach the gospel not where Christ was already named.” If Peter had been there and planted a church, then that would not be true. He didn’t go where somebody else had been. If Peter was already the Bishop of Rome, why would Paul want to go there and strengthen and establish that church?
In 1 Peter, let’s hear from Peter himself. First Peter chapter 1, [']Peter an Apostle of Jesus Christ['], that’s all, an Apostle of Jesus Christ. He introduces himself as nothing more than that, not THE Apostle, not the head of the church. First Peter 5, “I exhort the elders among you as your fellow elder.” As your fellow elder. I’m just one of you. I’m just a partaker of the glory to be revealed. Shepherd the flock of God. “Exercise oversight, not under compulsion but voluntarily, according to the will of God, not for money but with eagerness. Not as…here it comes, verse 3…lording it over those allotted to your charge.” Boy, there’s a direct hit at the papacy. We’re just fellow elders. Don’t ever lord it over. Peter himself actually taught against the priesthood of which, of course, the papacy is the highest place. First Peter 2:5 he says, “You are living stones, you are built up a spiritual house for a holy priesthood.” This is what we know as the priesthood of believers. Down in verse 9, “You are a chosen race. You are a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession.” There’s no priesthood but the priesthood of believers.
And by the way, Peter completely disappears after Acts 15, completely. But in spite of all of this, the Roman Catholic Church affirms that Peter was the first Pope, the head over the whole Church and the author of Papal Succession. Where do they get it? They get it from three passages completely misrepresented. Matthew 16, and this one you know, Jesus said, “I say to you, you’re Peter and on this rock I’ll build My church.” You are Peter and upon this rock I will build My church. It’s a play on words. He’s not saying you are Peter and upon you I’ll build My church. You are Peter, Petros…Petros,small stone, and upon this Petra, rock bed, I will build My church. What rock bed? The rock bed of the reality of Christ. Simon Peter in verse 16, “Thou art the Christ the Son of the living God. And Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood didn’t reveal this to you, My Father who is in heaven. I say you are a small stone, but it’s on the rock bed of who I am that I will build My church.” How could that be perverted, the language is crystal clear?
Then there is the matter of St Malachy’s Prophecy of the Popes. I do not know if it is true, but, if so, and if the translation has been properly interpreted, the next Pope will be the last. His name, according to Malachy, is Petrus Romanus. Then again, the reliability of our interpretation of these predictions could be akin to the way some invoke Nostradamus whenever there is a disaster or mass tragedy.
Does Malachy’s foreseen ‘apocalypse’ during Petrus Romanus’s tenure mean that referred to in Revelation or one of the Catholic Church?
Is it possible that the Catholic Church could move to another leadership model?
Would the papacy transfer from Rome to another city?
No one knows. Personally, I do not think it means the end of the Catholic Church, although its polity could change. Perhaps it will become more biblical in doctrine. Pray that it does.
To that end, thanks to commenters on John MacArthur’s Grace to You blog, I ran across a few useful New Testament verses for Catholic consideration:
- Justification by grace through faith –
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God;
9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
- Examining teachings against the truth of Scripture –
10 The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews.
11 Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. (Acts 17:10-11)
- On venerating Mary –
27 While Jesus was saying these things, one of the women in the crowd raised her voice and said to Him, “Blessed is the womb that bore You and the breasts at which You nursed.”
28 But He said, “On the contrary, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.” (Luke 11:27-28)
Pray that the Pope Emeritus, the Curia and the next Pope embrace the fullness of Holy Scripture and pass it on to the faithful.
Before moving on to Mark 4, there are two important aspects of the second half of Mark 3 which are worth studying.
One is the notion of Jesus’s ‘madness’, discussed yesterday.
The other aspect, blaspheming the Holy Spirit, is also related to the accusations by the Jewish hierarchy that Jesus had an ‘unclean spirit’.
Both passages are included in the Lectionary for public worship, but they can leave some readers, Christians included, confused.
Here is Mark 3:22-30 (emphases mine):
Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit
22And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” 23 And he called them to him and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end. 27But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man.Then indeed he may plunder his house.
28 “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30for they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.”
Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit
22 Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. 23 And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” 24But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” 25 Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. 26And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? 27And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 28But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 29Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house. 30 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31 Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.
Luke 11:14-23 tells a similar story, although without the warning against blaspheming the Holy Spirit. MacArthur says:
The section in between where the leaders call Him satanic, this text in Mark 3 is parallel to Matthew 12. But that happened on another occasion in Luke 11. Luke 11 has a record of almost an identical conversation but it’s different. This all happened in Galilee. The one in Luke 11 happened in Judea. This one happened in response to the healing of a deaf and dumb and blind demon-possessed man. The one in Luke, the situation of the healing was different. What that tells me is that this conversation happened at least twice and the facts are it may have happened a lot. And that lets us know that the Pharisees were doing everything they could everywhere they went to tell people He was satanic. That was their mantra.
The scribes and Pharisees could see that Jesus was performing miracles. They saw the results of these healing — creative — miracles. Jesus could not have been mad, because He would have been incapable of miracles. However, even a healthy mental state does not produce miracles. Therefore, the miracles came from something supernatural inherent within Him.
They were so set against Him that they spread the rumour that he had demons. Mark 3:30:
for they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.”
They use the vilest possible slander and blasphemy and say the Son of God is nothing but a servant of Beelzebul. Most people wouldn’t say that. I don’t think most people in Israel would say that. I think it was a hard sell for them to convince the people that this was actually who He was. I don’t think there are very many people that would say that today. Some would, some would say that Jesus was satanic but it’s pretty rare. If you reject Jesus, you probably don’t want to say that, you probably never have said that, you might never have thought that. There are atheists who reject Christianity who don’t go that far. But really, you certainly can’t say that He’s just a good man. If He’s not a lunatic, He’s a very bad man. He is a great liar. He is a massive deceiver. He’s trying to convince people that he’s God and he’s got supernatural power and if he’s not God, that supernatural power has to be satanic.
The name Beelzebul — and others
Mark 3:22 says:
And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.”
MacArthur examines this name, as well as others with which the Jews were familiar:
Now Beelzebul had become a name for Satan. There was another one the Jews used, Belial … Beelzebul was a name for Satan. It was basically a name that meant what Mark says they said in the second statement, verse 22, He cast out the demons by the ruler of the demons. Beelzebul was a name to designate the ruler of the demons. And Luke says Beelzebul means the ruler of the demons in Luke 11:15. By the way, that word Beelzebul is used five times in the Old Testament, so it had been around a long time. The Jews were familiar with it and used it.
Now where did it come from? Probably from Beelzebub which came from Baal. Baal means lord and the Ekronites…Ekron was a city in Philistia and according to … 2 Kings chapter 1, the Ekronites had a god named Baalzebub which means the Baal of the high place, or Baal meaning lord, lord of the high place, lord of the dwelling, lord of the temple. That was Beelzebub, that was the Ekronite god.
Well the Jews purposefully corrupted Beelzebub into Beelzebul because when you change it from the B to t he L, it goes from being the lord of the high place, to being the lord of the manure…a very purposeful corruption showing Jewish disdain for the false Canaanitish god. So through the years, this Beelzebul, lord of the dung, or lord of the flies that collect on the dung, had become the name for Satan.
Our Lord answered the scribes in a curious yet well known set of verses, more generally used in a political context today. It is easy to forget that Jesus was talking about Satan and not a nation.
Jesus calls his critics toward Him in verse 23. He asked how Satan could cast himself out of someone, then followed up with familiar verses (24 and 25):
24If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.
What does this mean? Simply that Satan never works against himself. As Matthew Henry explains:
It was plain that the doctrine of Christ made war upon the devil’s kingdom, and had a direct tendency to break his power, and crush his interest in the souls of men; and it was as plain that the casting of him out of the bodies of people confirmed that doctrine, and gave it the setting on; and therefore it cannot be imagined that he should come into such a design; every one knows that Satan is no fool, nor will act so directly against his own interest.
Jesus was even-tempered with his accusers:
he treated them with all the freedom, friendliness, and familiarity that could be; he vouchsafed to reason the case with them, that every mouth may be stopped.
Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit
Jesus told the scribes (Mark 3:28-29):
28 “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—
The eternal sin is because they say He has an ‘unclean spirit’ (Mark 3:30).
Recall that the Holy Trinity is one in three persons.
MacArthur tells us what blasphemy is not:
You will please notice that it is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit but it’s not denying tongues, or denying a healing, or denying some power display, supposed power display of the Holy Spirit.
It is blaspheming the Holy Spirit by saying Jesus is demonic.
How does that blaspheme the Holy Spirit? Because when Jesus came into the world, the New Testament says, He set aside the prerogatives of His own power. He said, “I only do what the Father shows Me to do, tells Me to do. And He did it by the power of the Spirit.” That’s what the incarnation meant, that when He laid aside His glory, became a man, He restricted the independent use of His divine attributes and He left Himself to the will of the Father and the power of the Spirit. Whatever He did was the Father’s will and was done through the Spirit’s power. So if you say Jesus is satanic, you have just blasphemed the Holy Spirit cause the Holy Spirit doing His work through Him. The Holy Spirit came upon Him at His baptism, the Holy Spirit led Him from there into the wilderness to be tempted, was with Him through His temptation. The Holy Spirit then anointed Him to preach and away He went preaching and doing all His ministry.
If you were there and you saw it and you heard it and your final conclusion was He’s demonic…you’re damned, you can’t be saved because that’s your ultimate conclusion with full revelation. So this is unique to those people who had that full revelation.
From this, some of us might conclude that this was for the scribes and Pharisees’ time, not ours. However, MacArthur draws our attention to St Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews (10:26-31), which says much the same:
26For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 29How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? 30For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Matthew Henry observes:
Many of those who reviled Christ on the cross (which was a blaspheming of the Son of man, aggravated to the highest degree), found mercy, and Christ himself prayed, Father, forgive them; but this was blaspheming the Holy Ghost, for it was by the Holy Spirit that he cast out devils, and they said, It was by the unclean spirit, v. 30. By this method they would outface the conviction of all the gifts of the Holy Ghost after Christ’s ascension, and defeat them all, after which there remained no more proof, and therefore they should never have forgiveness, but were liable to eternal damnation. They were in imminent danger of that everlasting punishment, from which there was no redemption, and in which there was no intermission, no remission.
Look, we’ve all been forgiven for rejecting Christ, haven’t we? We’ve all been forgiven for rejecting Christ because we weren’t born saved. So we’ve all been forgiven for that. But the one who won’t be forgiven is the one called the apostate who gets full exposure to the truth, full exposure to the gospel, full revelation and makes the final conclusion…it’s not true, I reject Christ. It’s a deception.
If that’s where you end up after full exposure, that’s what’s called apostasy…that’s unforgivable. The Holy Spirit’s testimony is that He is Lord. The Holy Spirit did this mighty work through Him to demonstrate that He is…He is Lord.
This is what Paul was saying to the Hebrews. They were blessed enough to know those who lived and walked with Christ. Today, we have that witness in the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Our rejection of that testimony is a serious thing indeed.
That is not the state in which to leave this world.
Look, all that’s left for you if your final decision is with full knowledge to reject, fearful judgment, terrifying judgment, severer punishment, the hottest hell is for those who rejected with the most knowledge. There are perhaps some of you who have rejected Christ. Your knowledge is increased today. You are in danger of greater judgment if you conclude that He is not the Lord He claimed to be. You need to be frightened by this. Some of you perhaps have thought that you were guilty of some blasphemy that could never be forgiven. May I remind you in final comments that the Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy, and I love this, said this, chapter 1, verse 12, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who strengthened me because He considered me faithful, putting me into ministry even though I was formerly a…what?…blasphemer.” All manner of blasphemy can be forgiven except that final blasphemy that says with full revelation, “I reject Christ.” And you’re left with the fact of explaining His supernatural power as satanic. And you stand then with the crucifiers, crucifying Him again and putting Him to open shame.
Much better to remember Matthew 12:32 says, “You can speak a word against the Son of Man and be forgiven.” We’re all blasphemers of a sort who have been forgiven if we’ve come to faith in Christ. Don’t turn away, get the full revelation and respond in full trust.
C S Lewis devotees might say, ‘I was wondering how long it would take to get to this point’.
Others will wonder what Lewis’s trilemma is.
It is an argument used to prove Christ’s divinity:
“Lunatic, Liar, or Lord”, or as “Mad, Bad, or God”
Although the trilemma is so called because Lewis popularised it in a BBC radio talk, it has been around since the 19th century. Wikipedia tells us:
“Christ either deceived mankind by conscious fraud, or He was Himself deluded and self-deceived, or He was Divine. There is no getting out of this trilemma. It is inexorable.”
Duncan was one of several preachers, both in Britain and North America, to use the same argument, perhaps worded differently.
Unfortunately, modern theologians have criticised the argument.
Yet, Lewis wanted us to see that our condescension in calling Jesus a great man or a wonderful prophet falls well short of the mark:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.
Every household and every so-called Christian school would do well to reflect upon these readings and this trilemma.
I, too, was guilty of condescension towards Jesus Christ. A better study of Scripture helped to dispel such a prideful notion.
I pray that an improved study of the New Testament also works for others in this situation.
This entry examines the audience, circumstances and themes of this letter.
Controversial – authorship and justification
To recap, it is generally thought that James the Just (Jesus’s half-brother) is the author of this book, although other theories exist. Some theologians believe it was written after his death, perhaps as late as the second century. Part of the reason for this is the Greek in the original manuscripts, although those who support James the Just’s authorship point out that even though he lived and worked in Jerusalem, Greek would have been one of the contemporary languages at the time. Therefore, it is possible that James could have learned it as an adult from the circles in which he mixed, and became fluent in it, although he mixed in some Hebraic idioms.
It is possibly this confusion to which Martin Luther pointed. He was disappointed that James’s letter was included in the biblical canon. Luther objected to the apparent contradiction between James’s terminology of ‘works’ and ‘justification’, which differ from Paul’s. Indeed, a Catholic reading of James would offer evidence for salvation by works, suggesting that Christ’s remedial sacrifice on the Cross was incomplete. For these reasons, Luther dismissed the letters as not being those of an Apostle and, consequently, an ‘epistle of straw’.
John MacArthur, acknowledges that James the Just was an important leader of the Church in Jerusalem comprised of converted Jews, and reminds us that (emphases mine):
he is not an apostle. An apostle was a sent one, he was never sent. By the way, he was present in Acts chapter 1 when they were seeking to replace Judas and they did not choose him, they chose a man named Matthias. He wasn’t even in the running. He was not even considered. You read Acts 1:14 to 23 he’s not even considered. He was never sent out with the gospel. He does not rank with the apostles. He was the shepherd of the church at Jerusalem. And he knew humility. In fact, if you understood the Greek text you would see the Greek order is very different. The Greek order reads like this … “James, of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ–a servant,” so that the priority in the order of words is of God and the Lord Jesus Christ…me, I’m just a servant. That’s a very humble order, expressive of his devoted submission to the one he grew up with but didn’t believe in until he saw Him in His resurrection glory.
On the knotty question of James’s view of justification and works, James S Gidley, a ruling elder at Grace OPC (Orthodox Presbyterian Church) in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, explains that the two perspectives are different as Paul discusses imputation at initial justification and James discusses how justification plays out in sanctification. Please take the time to read his analysis in full. A few excerpts follow:
In James 2:14, we read of one who “says he has faith.” This is not genuine faith, but a bare profession of faith. So when James asks, “Can that faith save him?” he is saying nothing against genuine faith, but only against an empty profession of faith …
It is also true that the justification of which James speaks is not the justification of which Paul speaks. One indication of this is the timing. Abraham was justified by works “when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar” (James 2:21). This was about thirty years after he had been justified by faith (Gen. 15:6). James shows that he is sensitive to timing when he says in 2:23 that Abraham’s justification by works “fulfilled” Genesis 15:6. He speaks of Genesis 15:6 as a prophecy, and of Genesis 22 as its fulfillment. Prophecy and fulfillment do not occur at the same time and are not the same thing.
What then is the nature of justification in James? James indicates this plainly in 2:18: “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” He is speaking about demonstrating the genuineness of faith.
In Romans 4, Paul addresses the question, How was Abraham justified? In this question, “justified” means “reckoned righteous before God,” and Paul’s answer is: by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, received by faith alone. But when James asks how Abraham was justified, he is assuming that Abraham already had faith. So his question really is, How was Abraham justified in claiming to have faith? In this question, justified means “judged to have made a valid claim,” and James’s answer is: by producing good works. The questions are different, the answers are different, the justifications are different.
Paul speaks of a justification that comes by faith and not by works, while James speaks of a justification that comes by works and not by faith. Paul teaches us that we are constituted righteous before God by faith alone. James teaches us that the genuineness of our faith is demonstrated by our works.
For ‘works’ in James’s context, we may substitute grace-enabled ‘fruits of faith’: generosity of spirit, acts of charity, mercy, Christian love and obedience to God.
As such, Gidley says of James 2:
James is not saying that faith is deficient as the means of justification, but that it comes to its intended goal when we produce good works. This is exactly the thought that follows when James explains the completion of faith in verse 23 …
The Spirit of God is blaring a trumpet blast against complacency! What will become of us if we are content with a bare profession of faith and do not produce good works? A faith that does not produce good works is not genuine faith! It is the pretense of faith; it is not saving faith, it is dead faith. Dead faith is all that people who are dead in trespasses and sins can produce. Living faith comes from the almighty power of the Spirit of God, giving life to the dead and redeeming them from their dead works to serve the living God.
The Westminster Confession of Faith says it well in chapter 11 (“Of Justification”), section 2:
Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.
In conclusion, where Paul reinforces the truth of imputed justification of the faithful, James points to the believer’s sanctification through a godly life, the fruit of the Spirit of Christ working through him.
Themes in James
Theopedia summarises the epistle of James as follows:
- Genuine Religion (1:1-27)
- Genuine Faith (2:1 – 3:12)
- Genuine Wisdom (3:13 – 5:20)
breaking these sections down into themes:
- Living Faith – James wants believers not only to hear the truth, but also to do it. He contrasts empty faith (claims without conduct) with faith that works. Commitment to love and to serve is evidence of true faith. Living faith makes a difference …
- Trials – In the Christian life there are trials and temptations. Successfully overcoming these adversities produces maturity and strong character. Don’t resent troubles when they come. Pray for wisdom; God will supply all that you will need to face persecution or adversity. He will give you patience and keep you strong in times of trial.
- Law of Love – We are saved by God’s gracious mercy, not by keeping the law. But Christ gave us a special command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 19:19). We are to love and serve those around us. Keeping the law of love shows that our faith is vital and real. When we show love to others, we are overcoming our own selfishness.
- Wise Speech – Wisdom shows itself in speech. We are responsible for the destructive results of our talk. The wisdom of God that helps control the tongue can help control all our actions. Accepting God’s wisdom will affect your speech. Your words will convey true humility and lead to peace. Think before you speak and allow God to give you self-control.
- Wealth – James taught Christians not to compromise with worldly attitudes about wealth. Because the glory of wealth fades, Christians should store up God’s treasures through sincere service. Christians must not show partiality to the wealthy, nor be prejudiced against the poor. All of us are accountable for how we use what we have …
Wikipedia explains the themes this way:
The object of the writer was to enforce the practical duties of the Christian life. The vices against which he warns them are: formalism, which made the service of God consist in washings and outward ceremonies, whereas he reminds them (1:27) that it consists rather in active love and purity; fanaticism, which, under the cloak of religious zeal, was tearing Jerusalem in pieces (1:20); fatalism, which threw its sins on God (1:13); meanness, which crouched before the rich (2:2); falsehoods, which had made words and oaths play-things (3:2-12); partisanship (3:14); evil speaking (4:11); boasting (4:16); oppression (5:4). The great lesson which he teaches them as Christians is patience, patience in trial (1:2), patience in good works (1:22-25), patience under provocation (3:17), patience under oppression (5:7), patience under persecution (5:10); and the ground of their patience is that the coming of the Lord drawing nigh, which is to right all wrong (5:8).
Socio-political reasons for James’s epistle
Theopedia briefly explains James’s reasons for writing his letter:
James wrote to Jewish Christians who had been scattered throughout the Mediterranean world because of persecution. In their hostile surroundings they were tempted to let intellectual agreement pass for true faith. This letter can have rich meaning for us as we are reminded that genuine faith transforms lives. We are encouraged to put our faith into action. It is easy to say we have faith, but true faith will produce loving actions towards others.
However, although he had his historical reasons for writing it, we, too, can draw inspiration and instruction from it. Our present decade has seen a resurgence of political activism, strident argument, lack of respect for others as well as pride, arrogance and one-upmanship. Everyday exchanges, be they at work or during leisure time, turn aggressive at the slightest provocation. Online discourse, particularly of a political nature, has ramped up over the past few years to the point where no dissent is allowed. Anyone who is pleasant or polite is shoved aside as being stupid or naïve. The art of conversation, ability to accept criticism and calmly listening without interrupting are going by the wayside. James addresses all these issues, including, perhaps, a precursor to present-day revenge-based liberation theology, which he would not have advocated.
Why liberation theology? Precisely because James’s time was one not only of religious persecution but economic hardship inflicted on the poor by wealthy landowners. This was another era when ‘the rich got richer and the poor got poorer’.
… he’s writing to scattered and already exposed to the gospel and believing Jews. I think really the same audience to which 1 Peter is addressed, and you can note that in 1 Peter 1:1 and 2 …
These Jews were scattered really by the persecution that began in Acts, and let’s go back and see it … We have to understand this so we understand their mindset. They had come to believe the gospel. Perhaps they were converted on the day of Pentecost. Perhaps they were converted a little while after, by the time you come to the beginning of chapter 4 there were at least 20,000 men in the church and that means there were probably that many women or more. And so there could have been upwards of 50,000 believers. It’s hard to understand just exactly how many. We can assume 20,000, maybe even more. It says 5,000 men in … chapter 5 verse 28…it says, “You have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine.” So first you have the three and then it begins to explode and you have 5,000 more added and now you’ve got the women added to that so I say it’s readily 20,000. And then you’ve got that exploding into chapter 5, the church is growing very fast. And when you come to chapter 7 you come to the first martyr, Stephen. He dies for the faith of Christ. You come into chapter 8 and off of the death of Stephen comes a wave of persecution under a man named Saul. In chapter 8 verse 1, Saul was consenting to Stephen’s death and at that time there was a great persecution. And notice this, “And they were all scattered abroad, throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.”
… that probably occurred maybe around 35 to 37 A.D., not long after the death of Christ and His resurrection. That persecution broke out and they were scattered. By now they’ve had a chance to settle and little churches have grown up and communities of believers are there. And James takes it on his own heart, because they’re really part of his congregation who’ve gone out, to write them. And he is primarily concerned that they have a true saving faith, that they really know the Lord. And so he gives them a series of tests and those tests are the basic structure of this great epistle.
An article on Bible.org discusses the socio-economic situation for James’s audience. Not only are they persecuted Christians, but they are also economically oppressed by wealthy landowners:
2. The Circumstances of the Readers
There are four circumstances hinted at in the letter which are particularly noteworthy.
a. Jewish Background. Not only do they meet in a synagogue (2:2), but the only credal statement in the epistle relates to monotheism (2:19), and the circumcision controversy so prominent in Paul’s letters to largely Gentile audiences is wholly absent. Further, “the Palestinian background of either the author or the readers or both is seen in the references to the autumn and spring rains in Jas. 5:7, a weather phenomenon limited to the eastern Mediterranean coastal plain and lowlands.”66
b. Poverty. That James’ audience is made up largely of poor folks is obvious from his warnings in 2:1-13 (especially v. 5) and passim. They are either poor “dirt farmers,” tenants who worked the land of the rich (5:1-6), or merchants (4:13-17). Davids [a theologian] points out that
In pre-70 Palestine, then, and to a large extent in post-70 as well, one finds a cultural situation in which the majority of the population consists of peasants subsisting on a small plot of land. The size of their plots and conditions favoring a growing population forced all males but the eldest son into trade (if they were lucky) or unskilled labor.67
What may also be significant is that although occasionally the rich are addressed in this letter, they are never called “brothers.” It would seem, then, that the wealthy are on the fringes of James’ audience, serving primarily as a foil for his ethical instructions.
c. Immaturity. The audience apparently lacked maturity in the faith, as is evidenced by James’ intimation of (1) their failure to “practice what they preach” (1:22-27; 2:8-11); (2) their partiality toward the rich and unwillingness to help the poor believers (2:1-26); (3) their inconsistent speech patterns (3:1-12); and (4) their tendency toward confidence in self rather than confidence in God (4:13-17).
d. Oppression. James’ audience was also an oppressed group. Indeed, it was more than likely because of their poverty, combined with their Christian conviction, that they were oppressed. As Davids declares,
One can picture what this situation did to the church in Palestine. On the one hand, the church naturally felt resentment against the rich. They had “robbed” many of the members of their lands; they probably showed discrimination against Christians in hiring their labor; and they (at least the high-priestly clans) were the instigators of attempts to suppress the church (which was probably viewed as a revolutionary movement). On the other hand, if a wealthy person entered the church or was a member, there would be every reason to court him. His money was seen as a means of survival. Certainly one should not offend him.68
Further, their inappropriate response to the oppression, rather than the oppression itself, is what James condemns, pointing out that they should seek in such circumstances the wisdom and gifts of God. In this James affirms a principle seen elsewhere in scripture: what makes a man of God is not a natural response to a favorable condition, but a proper response to any condition. It is not the circumstances but the response to the circumstances which produces character.
In Section E, Part II (Theme, Argument, respectively), the Bible.org article discusses James’s exasperation:
In the first main section, James speaks about enduring trials (1:2-18). He begins with a summary statement (1:2-8) in which the main theme is on the testing of one’s faith. The key is that to endure trials one must look upward, not outward …
James then develops these points in chiastic order. First, the one who doubts is unstable and will receive nothing from the Lord (1:7-8). Second, since God is the giver of all good things, if he has not given the believer wealth, he has given him something else: character (1:9-11). Third, the one who perseveres in his faith (in spite of the circumstances) will be blessed and rewarded with the crown of life (1:12). Finally, the believer ought never to blame God for his temptations or trials (1:13-15), but instead should thank him for his goodness and sovereign care (1:16-18).
The second major section deals with faith as it works out within the community. The mishandling of trials by believers not only does nothing for their faith in God; it also negatively affects the Christian community. (Indeed, it is quite probable that if James’ audience had been heeding the instructions in 1:2-18 the rest of the letter would never have to have been written.) …
James then develops these themes in (roughly) chiastic order. First, he addresses the sin of partiality: rather than helping the downtrodden, his audience has been catering to the rich (2:1-13) …
Second, James now turns to the issue of passivity vs. obedient faith (2:14-26). In its context, James has just warned against partiality toward the wealthy … Consequently, one might loosely say that chapter 2 can be broken down in two parts: Christians’ attitudes toward the rich non-Christian and Christians’ attitudes toward the poor Christian.72
… Third, James addresses the issue of controlling one’s speech (3:1-12). Two sections are thus implicitly linked together: faith and works and faith and words. Lest his audience think that an obedient faith is obedient only in what it does (2:14-26), James follows this up: faith is also obedient in what it says (3:1-12) …
Fourth, James concludes this second major section with a note on the wisdom of obedience (3:13-18) … Thus James uses wisdom as a character goal which comes about by the lack of bitterness, envy and selfishness—all outgrowths of anger (3:13-14); indeed, the proper kind of wisdom is from heaven (cf. 1:16-18), not from earth, and produces a beautiful harvest of good deeds (3:17-18).
Without any transitional conjunction (typical of James), the author begins his third major section: the exercise of faith before a watching world (4:1–5:20). In this section he completes a trilogy: faith directed toward God (1:2-18), faith applied in the community (1:19–3:18), and faith before the world (4:1–5:20). He characteristically begins with a summary statement on the reward of faith (cf. 4:10). This statement includes three points: (1) the prayer of faith (4:1-3), (2) friendship with the world (4:4-6), and (3) the humility of faith 4:7-10), which culminates with the key verse to entire section: “Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will lift you up” (v. 10).
Second, James now turns to the oppressed share cropper and implores him to be patient (5:7-12). For the believer, the Lord’s return is a message of hope (5:7-8) just as it is a message of doom to the rich oppressor (5:1). A patient faith refrains from judging (5:9; cf. 4:11-13). James concludes with “the patience of Job” as a biblical illustration (5:10-11) and a reminder not to swear (5:12)—for such swearing is presumptuous (cf. 4:13-18).
In the final part of this third major section of the epistle, James gives admonition about believing prayer (5:13-20). First, he urges prayer on behalf of the sick, pointing out that “the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (5:16, NIV). Second, he gives the biblical illustration of Elijah as a man of faith (5:17-18). Third, he reminds the believers of their mutual responsibility toward each other (5:19-20).
It is fitting for James to conclude his epistle on the prayer of faith for this once again brings the focus directly on God. He began his epistle with this theme (1:2-8) and now concludes it the same way. Ultimately, a belief that behaves cannot be such a belief unless there is a God who shows grace …
There is much more to read at all these links to help us better understand this ‘wisdom’ book of the New Testament.
As much of James’s epistle is included in the Lectionary for public worship, my series (starting tomorrow) on it will be short in comparison to other books.
That said, I hope that this background enables us to have a better understanding of what James was trying to convey and why his letter is still relevant to us today.
Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, is 56 years old this year.
A video from their 50th anniversary in 2006 reviews the history of the church from its early days under the pastorship of the late Revd Don Householder to its current expansion under the Revd John MacArthur.
Members of the original congregation tell the story of how, in 1956, Grace started as a small group of families worshipping in a private house which was turned into a pre-school. Then, the group were able to buy a lot on which to design and build a proper church. The lot had most recently been a chicken farm! From there, under Dr Householder, the evangelical church expanded, drawing more people in every Sunday.
Householder was committed to preaching the Word of God. And people in this area of southern California were hungry for it. When he died in the late 1960s, the congregation looked for a successor who would preach the Bible faithfully. They decided on John MacArthur, a young seminary graduate.
MacArthur told the decision-making panel that he was committed to expository teaching of the Bible. Salary didn’t concern him; as one of the original congregation members recalled, ‘He said God would take care of it’. MacArthur also said that one of his goals was to train young men for the ministry, first in church and, God willing, through a seminary. Today, the Master’s Seminary is doing just that, not only in California but in other countries around the world.
This video is 26 minutes long and is one of the best presentations about a church that you are likely to see. It is very much in keeping with the early apostolic Church in its commitment and fellowship. From the beginning, the small group of families was committed to Christ, to Scripture, to each other and to sharing the Gospel message with others. They volunteered for everything under Householder’s leadership: designing and building the church structure, holding potluck dinners to finance it, directing the choir, teaching Sunday School and attending every service.
This continued when MacArthur became pastor in 1969 and goes on today, although the congregation has expanded beyond what anyone would have originally anticipated.
MacArthur doesn’t use church growth techniques. He doesn’t have gimmicks. He doesn’t go on television to ask for money or to prophesy. John MacArthur faithfully preaches and teaches the Bible.
One of the original congregants said that his sermons continue to add new insight, even those about such well known stories as the Prodigal Son from Luke’s Gospel. MacArthur says that he has also grown in his study of the Word and hopes that his preaching reflects the depth of his years of study as a pastor.
Because of MacArthur’s deep love of Scripture, it is not unusual for two or three generations of a family to worship at Grace Community Church.
This is evidenced by the opening and closing story of a young boy who attended Grace with his family until he died, sadly, of cancer. The boy’s parents talked about the knowledge the child had of the Bible, thanks to his attendance at church and Sunday School.
Our churches need more pastors like John MacArthur. So many of us pass the Bible by because our clergy do. Yet, when you see an auditorium-sized church full of people gathering to worship, Sunday School groups which look engaged and the happy fellowship among the members of the congregation, you know that something special is at work there.
Also worth noting are the mentions MacArthur and those interviewed make to the congregation members whom ‘God brought to us’. Not ‘we’, not ‘I’, but ‘God’. Something to remember and consider.
Some time ago, I read a forum thread on Puritan Board which mentioned that John MacArthur learned the Bible by heart by reading each chapter 30 times.
I have finally found the sermon where MacArthur describes this method in more detail (emphases mine):
as a young guy in my early days in seminary, even a little bit before that, I was looking for a way to understand the New Testament better and I found a way to do that by repetitiously reading it. I read an old book, How To Master The English Bible by James M. Gray(?), an early president of Moody Bible Institute who suggested that if you wanted to retain the Bible, you had to read it repetitiously and not just read it once and keep moving.
And so, I decided that what I’d do is read [a] book of the Bible every day, break it down into sections that were manageable and I would do that for 30 days. Then I figured at the end of 30 days I would pretty well have in mind what was in that portion of Scripture. And I started with 1 John and it was brief, only five chapters, so I decided I’d read it every day for 30 days. At the end of 30 days I felt like I still didn’t quite have it all so I said I’ll go 60 days. At the end of 60 days I said I don’t think I’ve got it yet and I went 90 days. And so every day for 90 days I read 1 John until it became very familiar to me. And as I look back even then in my early twenties of my life, even though I knew what was in the book, the real depth and the real profound elements of this book even then escaped me. There is in this book an almost unending supply of spiritual truth that keeps revealing itself the more diligently one studies so that in a sense there is clear truth on the surface, but much more down below as you go over it and over it. Here we are many, many years after that exercise of mind. By the way, I did eventually did finish the New Testament, it’s about a two and a half, three-year process to do that but you have to stick with the 30 days and not do 90 or it will elongate the whole process.
I hope to acquire the self-discipline in order to try this!
If you have used this method, please leave a comment and let us know how it worked for you.
John MacArthur points out that John was not always the apostle of love. Because we have been told about his love from the time we were in Sunday School or catechism class, we have accepted it. Mediaeval and Renaissance paintings further reinforce the image of a delicate man, doe-eyed, leaning on Christ’s shoulder at the Last Supper.
However, when Christ chose him and his brother James, Mark’s Gospel refers to them as standing out with their strong personalities. Here is Mark 3:14-19 (emphases mine):
14And he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach,
15And to have power to heal sicknesses, and to cast out devils:
16And Simon he surnamed Peter;
17And James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James; and he surnamed them Boanerges, which is, The sons of thunder:
18And Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Canaanite,
19And Judas Iscariot, which also betrayed him: and they went into an house.
Off topic for a moment: I linked to Mark 3 in its entirety so that readers who are unaware may also note verses 28 and 29 about the unforgiveable sin of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit.
Back to the apostle John. Note that Christ referred to them as Boanerges — ‘the sons of thunder’. Neither was soft or self-effacing.
MacArthur reminds us that John is quoted only once in the Gospels, in Mark 9. To set the background, the chapter begins with an account of the Transfiguration, in which Jesus took Peter, James and John to a mountaintop whereby they saw Him become absolutely radiant in all His glory. Not only that, but Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus and conversed with Him.
As most of us would have done, Peter proposes erecting three tents — one for the transfigured Christ and two more for Moses and Elijah. Then, the Transfiguration suddenly ends, but not before God the Father says (Mark 9:7): ‘This is my beloved Son, hear Him’.
On the way back, the three apostles started discussing who amongst them was the greatest. They were proud and privileged to have seen the glorious Christ. None of the other apostles had. Surely, they reasoned, among the three of them, Jesus must have had a preference. This is an example of boastful human nature at its best, and who are we to say that we would have done any differently?
Later on, Jesus asks them what they were talking about. He knows, of course, but He wants them to say it. Here is the exchange (Mark 9:33-35):
33And he came to Capernaum: and being in the house he asked them, What was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way?
34But they held their peace: for by the way they had disputed among themselves, who should be the greatest.
35And he sat down, and called the twelve, and saith unto them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all.
In an attempt to deflect His attention from them, John briefly points a finger at someone of whom he disapproved (Mark 9:38):
And John answered him, saying, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name, and he followeth not us: and we forbad him, because he followeth not us.
Jesus corrects him by replying (verses 39-41):
39But Jesus said, Forbid him not: for there is no man which shall do a miracle in my name, that can lightly speak evil of me.
40For he that is not against us is on our part.
41For whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in my name, because ye belong to Christ, verily I say unto you, he shall not lose his reward.
He had a volatile personality. He had a fervent passionate personality. He was intolerant, very ambitious. He was anything but that dove-like person he’s often painted as being in those medieval paintings. In fact, when James one time wanted to bring down fire and burn up all the Samaritans, that’s a little less than the desirable evangelistic love, when James wanted to call down fire from heaven and just burn up all the Samaritans, John was in agreement. John agreed. John wasn’t the passive brother, they were both sons of thunder. When James’ mother went to Jesus to ask for special privilege and honor from the Lord, John was there too. They were explosive, ambitious, driven …
That’s [Mark 9:38] the only thing John ever says and he feels guilty about being stubborn, obstinate. He feels guilty about being narrow. He feels guilty about being prejudice. He feels guilty about being sectarian. He’s wired like that. Yeah, burn up the Samaritans. Yeah, we want to be in the chief seats. Yeah, buddy, you’re not in our group, shut up! This is John. He had a real competitive spirit. It showed up in condemning this man who was trying to minister in the name of Jesus, whether he was actually doing it or not, he was trying to do it. John shut him down. Jesus rebukes John for that sectarian attitude.
By now, you might wonder why Jesus would have chosen people whom we would accuse today of being ‘intolerant’ or ‘not very nice’.
Why would the Lord Jesus make him an Apostle? Because this is the kind of man that can be shaped into strength. He had the potential to be hard for the truth. What the Lord had to do was make him loving. And perhaps it was that critical rebuke there in Mark 9 that catapulted John toward being loving. He had that kind of personality of conviction, of narrowness, uncompromising, intolerant devotion to what was true. He was very black and white, he had a clear-cut view of spiritual realities. There was nothing vague in his world. And that was good and God needed it but it had to be tempered with love.
And this is what happened and how John became Jesus’s favourite apostle, leaning on His shoulder at the Last Supper and being the go-to man for Peter to say, ‘Ask Jesus who the betrayer is’ (John 13:21-26):
21When Jesus had thus said, he was troubled in spirit, and testified, and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me.
22Then the disciples looked one on another, doubting of whom he spake.
23Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved.
24Simon Peter therefore beckoned to him, that he should ask who it should be of whom he spake.
25He then lying on Jesus’ breast saith unto him, Lord, who is it?
26Jesus answered, He it is, to whom I shall give a sop, when I have dipped it. And when he had dipped the sop, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon.
So, although John does not name himself in his own Gospel, MacArthur points out that we know it is he who penned it — and how he came to be portrayed in mediaeval and Renaissance paintings:
And so, that’s why … when the medieval artist starts to paint John, he starts to paint a lover because it was eventually true of John. And it shines through the gospel that he wrote and it shines through the epistles that he wrote. For in the gospel of John you see this unwavering regard for the truth. Everything with John is absolute, there is light and darkness in the gospel. There is life and death, there’s the Kingdom of God, and there’s the kingdom of the devil. There are the children of God and there are the children of the devil. There’s the judgment of the righteous and there’s the judgment of the wicked. There is salvation and there is damnation. There is receiving Christ and rejecting Christ. There is a vine and it has some branches with fruit and some with no fruit. There is obedience to His commands and there is disobedience to His commands. And that’s the way it’s always portrayed by John. And when you get to the epistles, it’s the same thing. There are those who are in the light, and those who are in the darkness. There are those who confess their sin and those who deny their sin. There are those who are disobedient to Christ and those who are obedient to Him. There are those who love others and those who don’t, those who love God and those who don’t, those who are righteous and those who are sinful, those who keep the commandments and those who don’t, those who believe and those who don’t, and it’s just that simple.
John did not write an ‘analogy’ — as someone who emailed me a few months ago said — but Gospel truths. This also holds for his epistles, which also preach about the basis of love in Christ’s commandments. They also warn us against false prophets, who came into the Church almost immediately.
In the second epistle, 2 John, calls for complete separation from all those people who aren’t faithful to the truth. And the third epistle says essentially the same thing. The one who does good belongs to God, the one who doesn’t hasn’t seen God. John gives us a fundamental understanding of Christianity in its absolute sense, but he does it in these epistles as we will find with a tenderness and a love of a pastor. Somewhere along the line, this man had been tempered. Jesus wanted his strengths, He wanted his resolution, his commitment, but He needed to get rid of all the hints of selfish ambition and pride and He needed to turn him from being a sectarian to being a lover who could embrace while calling them to the truth …
But John’s love never slid into some sentimentality. It was never sentimentality and tolerance masquerading as love. Until the end of his life as the last Apostle to die at the end of the first century, he never, never tolerated deception, he never tolerated lies, he was always committed to the truth. He never tolerated sin of any kind …
And the assumption today is that if you hold to the truth without ambiguity, without vagueness, if you hold to the absolute truth of Scripture, you’re somehow not loving. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth.
Allow me, please, to segue briefly before returning to St John. I’m fully aware from some of the comments I receive from Anglicans that a) we should be focussing more on the ‘nice’, comforting verses and b) embrace semi-Pelagianism, Universalism and pietism. Many of our Church of England clergy — top to bottom — are utterly irresponsible in presenting Christ’s teachings to us. Anglicans announce, ‘Well, my vicar says …’ or ‘My vicar told me I didn’t need preparation for my confirmation’. Confirmation is the time when Anglicans need to understand the 39 Articles of Religion and why we have them. It’s also the time when we need to study the various heresies, because many of us go on to adulthood, if not death, in error. We have no catechism in current use, which probably wouldn’t be so bad if our clergy knew Scripture well enough to explain it to us, but they do not. Or, if they do, then they wilfully take most of it out of context and apply unintended meaning — e.g. Social Gospel, ‘analogy’ — to it. Or they say, ‘Look, all that was in the past. Just focus on the Beatitudes’. They raise more questions than they answer, and the result is that many Anglicans are at sea spiritually. It is no wonder our churches are empty. Our clergy make the Bible sound like an historical tome, nothing more. It’s no wonder that some Anglicans drift into New Age ‘philosophy’ or towards the ‘certainties’ of Islam which they describe as ‘beautiful’ and ‘peaceful’. On the other hand, the laity who stay in the Church are offended by verses proscribing sin: ‘Surely, we will all be saved at the end of the day’. Why?
That is not what the New Testament says. And this is what John points out to us in his Gospel and his letters in the way that only he can.
I’ll close here with another passage from MacArthur’s sermon:
The priority is the truth, proclaimed in love. That’s the balance. That’s the divine balance … sound doctrine and the graciousness, the love of the Spirit. It’s not enough to have the love and the gentleness and the graciousness and leave out the truth. You have to have the truth. The ignorant and the deceived need the truth. And it’s not enough to love them, that is to leave them in error, leave them in shallowness. It’s not enough to come to people clothed in tolerant sentimentality which is a poor substitute for genuine love. There must be the truth.
But it’s not unloving, self-exalting orthodoxy either. It’s not good when love is missing and the truth is just cold facts stifling and unattractive. Ministry must possess truth and love for that is the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. Christ was the perfect image of truth and love in balance. If you’re seeking to minister, these are the two things you seek. You seek to know the truth as God has revealed it, and you seek to love as Christ loves. And there all, as always in every era, lots of imbalance with respect to these two virtues. Plenty of shallow teaching, plenty of tolerance of error in the name of love, and there’s always plenty of hard, harsh, brash, self-righteous, cold orthodoxy. Sentiment and superficiality on the one hand, and orthodox indifference on the other. Critical mix and the critical balance is what God desires.
There will always be passages from Scripture, even the New Testament, which are difficult to grasp or seem ‘offensive’ to modern-day readers. However, that is our opportunity to study them more closely and understand their meaning. This is why a good commentary is such an important accompaniment to our reading. It has nothing to do with ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’, because both of them can sometimes be in error, especially with some of the more present-day regression (e.g. ‘federal headship‘) in reaction to current denominational politicisation and apathy.
Back on topic: if you enjoy reading John’s Gospel, you will certainly like what his letters have to say. You can find out more in the next several Forbidden Bible Verses, continuing tomorrow.