Lecture 11: Prison Epistles (Part 2), Pastoral Epistles, Hebrews and James
Course: Understanding the New Testament
Lesson 11 ■ Prison Epistles (Part 2), Pastoral Epistles, Hebrews, and James
PRISON EPISTLES (PART 2)
Exegetical Highlights in Philippians
This is tape eleven of the New Testament introduction and survey series. We left off considering the Prison Epistles as a package and we are ready to discuss some of the exegetical highlights of Philippians. This is a less-clear letter in terms of Paul’s standard outlining, perhaps because it seems to take the form of a much more personal letter, though still addressed to a Christian congregation, what has sometimes been called a family letter or a letter of friendship dominated by reports on the well-being of the author and various intermediaries and go-betweens between himself and his audience as well as repeated expressions of concern for the well-being of that particular audience, in this case the congregation of the church at Philippi.
Nevertheless, 2:5-11 has certainly proved throughout history to be highly influential in the study of this book. An extremely important statement, perhaps originally in creedal or hymnic form, about the person and work of Jesus, his preexistence, his equality with God, his complete humanity in the incarnation, and the horribly agonizing death, which he was willing to die on the cross as an illustration of the full extent of his identifying with human kind and taking upon himself our sins.
As a result God restored him to the highest place of authority at his right hand and one day all humanity will bow before him and acknowledge his deity and lordship, his mastery and sovereignty over the universe. This does not suggest that one day all will be saved, for Paul uses language here similar to that found in Isaiah 45 in a context where it is clear that God is judging his enemies, rather it will simply be the impossibility of denying who Jesus is when he appears on earth at his return in glory in front of all the nations that every human being will have to acknowledge.
Chapter 3 also contains an important autobiographical sketch of Paul’s background as a Jew to which we have eluded before. Hardly feeling the frustration that some have attributed to him in trying to be a law-abiding Pharisee, but rather thinking that he was doing exceedingly well until Christ turned him around on the Damascus Road, so that now what once was of great value he considers as rubbish or dung, a term similar to what we saw in 1 Corinthians 4, that if it were to be translated as literally as possible would be strong enough to offend some modern-day people. Nevertheless, he does not imagine that he has arrived simply by becoming a Christian. In helpful tension with the great promises at the end of Romans 8 about the security of the believer is this reminder that it is the one who always continues striving along the path of righteousness seeking to attain the resurrection in the life to come who is the one who is eternally secure.
Indeed, already in 2:12-13 the juxtaposition of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility that we have seen several times already is present once again, perhaps as starkly as anywhere. “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed, not only
in my presence, but now much more in my absence, continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and act to fulfill his good purpose” (2:12-13). The command to continue to work out one’s salvation immediately followed by the reminder of the promise that God is the one who enables people to do precisely that.
Finally, in chapter 4 we see some injunctions and very precious promises about prayer, not to be anxious about anything, but to bring everything with thanksgiving to the Lord in prayer (v. 6), the promise of a supernatural peace, not the kind that the world can or can’t give as a result in verse 7. Notice that it does not say we will automatically get all of the specific requests we make of God. And then an exhortation to focus on all that is good and lovely and moral and upright in our world as an antidote, both to the anxiety that we are to turn over to Christ as well as to all of the temptations to sin.
The letter closes with a poignant statement by Paul of his ability to thrive in all socioeconomic circumstances – 4:13 must not be taken out of this context – “I can do all this through him, that is Christ, who gives me strength” – does not mean that we have
the power to defy gravity or the power to defy spiritual laws or to do things God has not gifted us for, etc., but rather that we can, whether in prosperity or in poverty, with God’s help, relying on the power of the Spirit, be content in all circumstances. Thus, he expresses gratitude indirectly for the Philippians financial gift without in any way using language, which in his culture would have suggested that he owed the Philippians some kind of favor in return.
Key Theological Themes in the Prison Epistles
If we now sum up some key theological messages of the four Prison Epistle – from Philemon, at the very least, we learn that Christian freedom means equality in God’s eyes, treatment as fellow brother or sister even with those who are masters of some kind over us if they too are Christian, regardless of human circumstances. Philemon does not explicitly abolish slavery, but when Paul has already asked for Philemon to welcome Onesimus home as a brother, as a fellow Christian, and then goes on to suggest that he is confident that Philemon will do even more than what he has asked, there seems to be little more left than to actually grant him his freedom. Whatever the specific outcome of Onesimus’ return to Philemon in Colossae, certainly as F.F. Bruce has put it well, this passage and this principle found elsewhere in Paul, as well, sowed the seeds for an atmosphere in which the institution of slavery could only wilt and die.
A theological summary of Colossians might well focus on Christ’s preeminent role as Lord over the church and, indeed, over the entire cosmos, the universe, and, therefore, the appropriate ethical outworking of acknowledging that Lordship. Theologically
nothing more needs to be done to complete or add to the finished work of Christ on the cross. From a human perspective, therefore, no good works of Judaism, or rituals of Gnosticism, or any other performance-driven patterns of religion are necessary to bring about salvation or to merit any kind of other favor with Christ.
Ephesians, containing very similar teaching to Colossians, perhaps stresses somewhat more that Christ’s preeminence and finished work on the cross should lead to our understanding of the church as his body, of people all equal and equally dependent on his gifting, so that while we have great spiritual privileges as we are seated metaphorically now and one day literally in the heavenly places with Christ, our lives on earth are one of accompanying spiritual responsibilities – to be filled with the Spirit, to live out a life in right relationship with those in position of authority over us or subordination under us, and climactically in Ephesians 6 to recognize all of the Christian life as one of spiritual warfare, which we can win as we put on such basic Christian virtues that constitute the armor of God as faith and hope and sharing the Gospel of peace, salvation, etc., all undergirded by prayer. There is no exotic set of commands here to such things as territorial exorcisms or incantations or rituals of any kind to defeat Satan, God’s enemy, but simply recognizing who we are in Christ, claiming that victory, and living out the kind of ethical, godly life supported by prayer to which he calls us.
Philippians, therefore, finally, can be summarized perhaps most simply as the call to rejoice in all circumstances, as Paul in prison, indeed, is doing when conditions seem bleak as well as when he expresses gratitude for the arrival of a gift of material support from the church in Philippi as he does on the occasion of the receipt of this letter.
Contemporary applications beyond what have already been suggested in our remarks for Philemon, an excellent example of blend of pastoral tact, of indirect, polite requests, and yet, hence, that Paul has the authority not only to make such a request but to make them in a much more blunt fashion. For those of us who are in positions of Christian leadership, the more we can gain through others voluntarily supporting our leadership the better relationships we will develop, but there are times when authority must be exercised if more gentle indirect routes are not working well.
Colossians undoubtedly is one of the best epistles for someone to read for a short explanation of who Christ is, particularly in all his deity and exaltation. We might think of it somewhat akin to the role the Gospel of John plays among the four Gospels.
Ephesians, again quite similar, may also be thought of as the second-most detailed and systematic summary of the Christian message both in doctrine and in life after the Book of Romans and certainly one of the clearest expressions of the many facets of the spiritual life in Christ as both already triumphant in principle, but still a struggle even with cosmic evil forces.
Philippians, finally, is the second-most important statement of joy despite suffering after 2 Corinthians and a model of how to encourage others about one’s well being in ministry, challenging others to selfless unity, commending faithful believers publicly, warning against heresy forthrightly when necessary, but also thanking others for their support and demonstrating contentment.
We turn now to another collection of epistles taken in the interest of time together, the so-called Pastoral Epistles of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. All except very conservative scholars doubt if Paul is the author of these three letters even more so than the many who doubt the Pauline authorship of Ephesians and Colossians. Not only is Paul’s style here different again, different from even the different style of Ephesians and Colossians, but he deals with what appear to be more advanced, organized church structures than we see in the first generation of the church in the other letters and perhaps most puzzling of all, the letters do not seem to fit neatly anywhere into the chronology of Acts.
Thus, most scholars date these letters to the 80s or 90s after Paul has died, treating them as pseudonymous, that is to say falsely ascribed to Paul, though not in an attempt as a forgery to deceive anyone, but following what is argued to be a common, ancient practice of writing in the name of a revered master after he has died, a transparent literary fiction as a way of suggesting these are the things Paul would have said were he alive in a given context.
On the other hand, the different style may again reflect a different scribe and/or one given a greater freedom of composing in his own words Paul’s thoughts. There are hints of church leaders instituted from very early on the prototypes of the deacons in Act 6, the fact that in chapter 14 Paul and Barnabas appoint elders everywhere they plant churches, and the reference in Philippians to the very two categories of church leaders, overseers and deacons, in the opening verse of Philippians that we see in 1 Timothy and Titus.
As for the date, these letters are probably after the end of the Book of Acts with 1 Timothy and Titus being written after Paul was released from the house arrest in Rome with which the Book of Acts ends as two early church traditions, seemingly reliable,
suggest that he was. 2 Timothy would then reflect a second arrest and the arrest that did ultimately lead to his execution during the time of Nero’s persecution, sometime before Nero’s death in A.D. 68 back in the horrific Mamertine underground dungeon prison in Rome, not merely under house arrest.
If this reconstruction is accurate, then 1 Timothy and Titus must be dated to sometime between 62 and Paul’s death with enough time to write 2 Timothy just before that and 2 Timothy sometime not long before his death, which we cannot date precisely other than to say it was sometime during the four years of Neronic persecution of Christians between 64 and 68.
The readers are, first of all, Timothy and Titus currently functioning as pastors of local churches in Ephesus and the island of Crete, respectively, but also as we mentioned in an earlier lecture functioning as apostolic delegates since their roles throughout their ministries with Paul have taken a broader and more authoritative twist than simply being local pastors. This may well explain further for some of the distinctive style and contents of 1 Timothy and Titus. Recent commentators have suggested calling them mandate letters akin to the letters filled with commands written by Roman government officials to their underlings, a magistrate being commanded by a regional governor, for example, and charging them with how to conduct the local community affairs.
Clearly there are churches that Paul expects these letters to be read to behind the more specific and occasionally personal charges to Timothy and Titus. 2 Timothy then becomes an even more personal exhortational letter to Timothy to carry on Paul’s work after his soon-coming death.
Criteria for Church Leaders
Exegetical highlights of the three books include the most specific details of requirements or criteria for church leaders. Elders, when one compares 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, seem to be interchangeable with overseers and with pastors each reflecting a different function of that office. The word “elder” suggesting the common link with age in a world where age was understood and often, indeed, imply greater wisdom and certainly life experience. The overseer from which we get the English word “bishop” reflecting the supervision and care with which such leaders had to watch over their flocks and the pastor, or shepherd, reflecting the nurturing, caring, coming alongside advisory or even counseling role of such church leaders.
The most famous and controversial criterion of these elders is no doubt the requirement that they be “the husband of one wife.” It is unlikely that this means that Christian leaders must be single since Paul was single, perhaps single again at this stage in his career as we saw in 1 Corinthians 7 and Jesus was always single and it is unlikely that Paul would have excluded both Jesus and himself from church leadership. Does this mean, “married only once” as in the case of ruling out polygamy? Perhaps, and yet if it means married only once this would also rule out a widower remarrying, which Paul allows for, or in the case of a widow as in 1 Timothy 5 he actually encourages younger ones to remarry.
Many have thought it rules out a divorced church leader, but it is not possible from the expression “husband of one wife” to say that divorce and remarriage are excluded, but being widowed and remarried are not. The language simply is not that precise. It seems more likely with a growing consensus of modern scholars, therefore, to see this like all of the other criteria in Paul’s lists as not a lifelong, unbreakable pattern, but a current practice. If a candidate for church leadership is currently married, then they should have demonstrated for some considerable period of time a lifestyle of faithfulness to that particular spouse.
Deacon vs. Elder
The key distinction between the elder and the deacon here in 1 Timothy 3 is that the former must be able to teach and whereas women are listed among the instructions for deacons, sometimes translated as “deacons’ wives,” but the word simply refers to women and more likely refers to women deacons, since we have considerable information from second, third, and fourth-century Christianity that such an office did exist of deaconess, it would later mutate and turn into the female orders of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches such as nuns and abbesses in their abbeys.
On the other hand, there is nothing about any women listed among elders suggesting that, at least in Paul’s day, he envisaged the supporting role of leadership applying to men and women alike, but the final authoritative role, note the reference to authority in reference to elders in 1 Timothy 5:17, being reserved for men. This observation helps us to explain the puzzling and very controversial passage in 1 Timothy 2:11-15, particularly verse 12. Is Paul here forbidding all women from teaching all men or from exercising authority over all men in all conceivable circumstances in life? Chapter 3:15 clearly teaches that this is instruction for how people should live in the household of God. So, it would appear that Paul’s instructions are only in the context of church, and in the first century there were not all the diverse kinds of church gatherings and meetings that we often have today. The church gathered for the purpose of worship and instruction (recall Acts 2:42). More likely, it is that office of elder that uniquely combines the two verbs and functions noted here, that of teaching under the auspices of the single authoritative office of the church, of elder, that is what is being limited to men.
That still leaves the question of whether such a restriction applies today or not. Many have argued that our world is so changed that the reasons involving some kind of false teaching at Ephesus, clearly discernible from a careful perusal of both 1 Timothy and Titus, simply do not apply today and all positions in churches should be open to all men and all women as long as they meet the other criteria.
On the other hand, the most immediate reason Paul gives in 1 Timothy 2:13 for his command, “because Adam was formed first,” suggests, by whatever logic Paul sees that as a rationale, that he is appealing to the order of creation and, therefore, to some more timeless principle. If we then ask does that mean that women should not hold the office of elder in contemporary churches but can do everything else, we are still not quite ready to give an answer, because as is the case with many labels for Christian ministry and service, just because a given church or Christian uses a certain label first found in the Bible in some setting today does not guarantee that that setting is indeed identical and functioning in the same way as it was in the Bible. I may call somebody a rector or a vicar or a term that is not even found in Scripture and they may, in fact, be functioning along the lines of a biblical elder, but I may call somebody an elder and have something quite different in mind than Paul did in New Testament times. So, if we are to be faithful not only to interpreting Paul’s meaning, but also to applying it, it would seem that the office or role today, and the only one still reserved for men in a church context is that which is acknowledged by the congregation as the authoritative teaching office.
In some churches in which there is a plurality of elders and all take reasonably equal turns preaching and all clearly are deemed to have the same gifts and authority when it comes to teaching, then this group of elders probably should still be all men. But in many contexts there is one key pastor, sometimes called a senior pastor, sometimes called a teaching pastor, sometimes in a small church the sole pastor, who alone among the various church leaders, no matter what they are called, exercises this particular role. Then other leaders, even though they may be called elders, should be allowed to be women.
It is also important to stress that even on this interpretation, which is a controversial one, too conservative for many and too liberal for many others, we are not suggesting that women should never preach. Women have preached more than many people
realize in ways that God has uniquely blessed throughout church history, but they have tended to be in contexts where they have not held formal institutional office, though today in our modern world this is rapidly changing.
If 1 Corinthians 11:5 permits women to prophesy as long as they have the appropriate cultural signal of submission to their head, a husband if married, a Christian congregation if not, and Christian congregation as well even if married and its leadership, then if prophecy includes, as we suggested it did, the whole range of messages from those believed to have been directly and suddenly given by God for a specific congregation or time all the way to carefully thought out prayer-bathed and Spirit-filled messages as we hope we are giving when we preach, women must be encouraged to preach, but they can always be so encouraged under the supervision of a male elder or group of elders.
After this, the remaining topics in the Pastoral Epistles, at least in the modern world, generate much less controversy. Certainly 2 Timothy includes an important charge to pass on sound doctrine as Paul realizes his life is almost over. 2 Timothy 2:2 itemizes four key stages in this process: oneself, one’s disciple, priming the disciples to teach other faithful individuals, and then casting the vision that they must in turn disciple those under them.
Theological Themes and Application
Broadly summarizing the theology of all of these letters, the church must be well organized with godly leadership concerned to guard the truth against heresy. For application these are the best epistles to turn to for how church should run and function
and careful attention to the actual textual details no matter what one’s particular church tradition is about how church leadership functions, decisions are made and implemented needs to be much more carefully followed.
We have now completed our survey of the epistles of Paul and turn to the remaining letters of the New Testament beginning with the Book of Hebrews. We do not know who the author of this epistle is. Even in early years many suggestions were made.
Some thought it was Paul and Paul’s name was later written at the end of some extremely late Greek manuscripts and as a result has made it into some translations of the Bible, particularly at the time of the Reformation, in English most notably certain editions of the King James, but these are very late manuscripts and all of the ancient ones lack any reference to any author.
All of the suggestions, ancient and modern, if it was not written by Paul suggest that it was one of his followers, such people perhaps as Barnabas or Silas or Luke or Apollos or others. But the Christian writer Origen around 200 A.D. perhaps said it best, that God only knows who wrote it, but it certainly has all of the marks of inspiration found in other writers and enough Pauline concepts, if not style, to suggest that someone related to Paul, much like Luke in the case of writing the Gospels, was the apostolic author in the sense of apostolicity that the early church meant when it used this as a criterion for including books in the Bible, not necessarily written by one of the twelve per se but, if not, written by someone who had access to the apostles and to the teaching that reflected orthodoxy in the first century.
We are not entirely sure of the readership either. At the end of Hebrews the writer brings greetings to his audience from those who are with him from Italy, probably a reference to Rome, the major city and capital of that peninsula. But does this mean that the writer is in Rome writing elsewhere, perhaps to Jerusalem as some early church traditions suggested? Or that he is outside of Italy with some others who are from Rome writing back to the Roman church? Another frequent suggestion throughout church history and probably the most common one today. If this is the better of the two suggestions then we may hazard some further guesses. From 12:4 that “no one has yet shed his blood by resisting sin,” if that sin includes the sin of persecution by oppressors, this would suggest that we have not yet reached A.D. 64 when Nero’s persecution and martyrdom of believers, particularly in and around Rome, began.
In Hebrews 10 we read about those who experience the confiscation of their property at an earlier date, probably an illusion to the expulsion of Jews including Jewish Christians from Rome in A.D. 49. This suggests that we are in those years of the early 60s building up to the Neronic persecution if not there yet. And because of the Jewish contents and the traditional title of this letter that the author is writing from somewhere outside of Rome, perhaps Jerusalem, back to Jewish Christians no doubt congregating in fairly homogeneous house churches of largely or exclusively fellow Jewish Christians in Rome as times are getting tougher.
The main thrust is to warn these Christians not to fall away from explicit faith in Jesus believing that they could revert back to pure, non-Christian Judaism and thus avoid persecution. If we recall from earlier lectures, this was that freedom that Jews were
uniquely granted under Roman law, not to have to worship the emperor. Because, as Hebrews stresses, Jesus is superior to all other religious options and particularly to all the various institutions and rituals and persons of Judaism one might otherwise be tempted to trust in. Apart from Jesus there is no salvation, thus to reject Christ is to commit a sin from which one cannot be brought back to repentance unless, of course, it is not full-fledged apostasy and there remains some spirit of genuine faith that can indeed call on the living God.
Thus, an overall outline of the book would highlight Christ’s superiority over angels, over Moses, over the entire priesthood, over the old covenant and finally even over all of the great heroes of faith of Old Testament times.
Punctuating these theological affirmations, some developed briefly, some in great detail, are five major warning passages against committing apostasy, against once and for all rejecting Jesus with no thought of return. Here the classic debate over the security of the believer continues to rage. When someone professes Christ, perhaps is active in church circles, even to their close friends seem to have a genuine faith and then gives it all up, not just committing some individual sin, not just having perhaps even a prolonged period of less active faith, but publicly, clearly, once for all, without any hint of changing his or her mind throughout the rest of their earthly lives rejects any allegiance to Christianity that they might once have claimed to have, what does this mean about the spiritual state of such a person?
The more Calvinist perspective argues that such behavior shows that one was never truly a Christian in the first place. The more Armenian perspective is more willing to say these are people who were true believers but through the freedom God grants humanity, which includes the freedom to choose for Christ initially, they can turn their backs on Jesus and be lost.
While the debate remains an important one, what is even more important is to note what both sides agree on. It is possible to do the various things we have outlined and to be lost for all eternity, therefore, the author of Hebrews warns in no uncertain terms again and again against such behavior. The two sides disagree on what that proves about what a person once was, which is an important debate, but it is certainly not the most important.
We also see here, particularly in chapter 7, the development of the theme of Jesus as the great high priest. Indeed, this is the only New Testament document that explicitly develops this concept in Christian theology. But how could Jesus be a priest by Jewish standards since you have to be of the tribe of Levi and the family of Aaron, whereas the Messiah, as Jesus was believed to be, had to come from the tribe of Judah and, indeed, we learn from the Gospels that Jesus did?
The answer according to the author of Hebrews is that Jesus is not like the literal Jewish priests, but like that strange figure introduced ever so briefly in Genesis 14 and in the Psalms by the name of Melchizedek who was a priest in the Canaanite city of Salem back at the time of Abraham, which was the predecessor to the city of Jeru Salem, Jerusalem, and yet he is called in the midst of a pagan people, “the priest of God Most High,” a term normally used in the Old Testament to refer to the God of Israel.
Perhaps he had a vestige of true knowledge of the one living God of the universe, if, indeed, the Genesis story is true that monotheism actually preceded polytheism in the history of religious worship. If Melchizedek was a true believer, then a priesthood like his, coming even before Abram was marked out and sealed with the demonstration of his obedience at the time of the offering of Isaac in Genesis 22 confirming the covenant that Abraham had been receiving from God in stages up to that point, it would seem that Melchizedek is superior even to Abraham, the grandfather of Jacob and father of the various Jewish tribes.
But the psalmist enables the author of Hebrews to take the argument one stage further. Psalm 110 refers to Messiah, the Lord who is above David the king to whom God speaks, thus leading to the provocative statement, “the Lord says to my Lord, ‘you are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek,’” an indestructible priesthood, one not based on paternity or ancestral credentials. This is what Hebrews most likely is meaning when he says Melchizedek is without father or mother or without offspring.
Thus, Jesus’ priesthood, not derived from his biological father or his human mother, not derived from being of the right tribe to be a priest, and not passed on to any children is a superior priesthood to that of the literal sons of Israel and, therefore, if Melchizedek’s priesthood is superior and Jesus has a priesthood like that, he also is superior and his priesthood is superior to the Jewish high priests.
This leads to the related superiority of the New Covenant to the Old, which also is unpacked under the concept of the once-for-all sacrifice by Christ and its eternal effects. We see further in Hebrews a powerful cluster of definitions and examples of faith in chapter 11 as confidence in the future despite the appearances of the present.
Key Theological Themes and Application
Summarizing Hebrews theology then, the way of Christ has replaced every other way of salvation both real and imaginary and apostasy is warned against in very strong language. For application, salvation is found only in Christ, but this must be demonstrated in a changed life, which perseveres to the end. Many who profess to be Christians who lapse back into unbelief may have never been genuinely saved. We should be very careful before ever presuming to be sure of anyone else’s spiritual state.
Finally, on this lecture we will look briefly at the short but very important letter of James, the first of the General or so-called Catholic Epistles, because it was believed in the early church that they were written to multiple congregations at least over one particular geographical area.
The author here, if we follow unanimous ancient church tradition, is James the halfbrother of Jesus, since the major apostle by that name was martyred already in 44, too early, and the other James, a disciple, seems to have been a much more insignificant figure. This James is the one who became the leader in the church of Jerusalem particularly at the time of the apostolic council in Acts 15 and writes to a Jewish Christian readership in the dispersion outside of Israel (1:1), perhaps as early as the late 40s, since language is used that appears to contradict Paul, but with different definitions so that it, in fact, does not. But is it likely that James, writing after Paul’s letters began to be well known, would have used such potentially misleading information?
The circumstances of this community appear to be one of largely poor, marginalized, agricultural day laborers akin to what we might call migrant workers in the modern world, or guest workers, more euphemistically, as the expression is used in some parts of the world today.
Three Key Topics
Three key topics are interspersed throughout the letter in an outline, if one exists, that is very hard to determine, but it is clear that those three emphases are dealing with trials and temptations, the former coming from difficult external circumstances, the latter sometimes even first produced by the former, triggered by internal improper desires, trials meant to bring us to maturity are to be welcomed (see especially 1:2), but seductions to sin are clearly to be shunned.
A second key theme that James comes back to again and again deals with the topic of wisdom and speech, of right, godly behavior, particularly in the area of the use of one’s tongue. God will give us supernatural wisdom if we ask for it. We are to be good
stewards of it particularly by what we say. Not too many should become teachers because teachers speak a lot and sins of speech whether via factual and theological error or by unkind words can affect far greater numbers of people than those who speak in more private contexts and while such sins can certainly be forgiven, the damage may often take a long time to undo.
And then, finally, the third key exegetical topic of James involves the right use of riches. It is the poor whom God shows special favor to precisely to undo the imbalance that rich people most often receive in this life. It is not that poor people are automatically saved, but they often are, as history has shown, much more open to the Gospel, because they realize that their wealth and position in this life cannot provide them all of the needs that they think they have. Thus, we should not discriminate against the rich but recognize that the rich more likely than not are going to exploit the poor. The right use of riches, therefore, is one that takes care of the poor and needy particularly in the Christian community, particularly in our midst, and great woes are pronounced on those, whether professing Christians or not, who simply continue to oppress and/or ignore the needy.
Faith vs. Works
It is out of this latter theme, this last topic in chapter 2, that emerges the subordinate topic that has occupied the greatest amount of attention, particularly since the Protestant Reformation; namely, faith versus works in 2:18-26. Paul speaks about justification coming by faith apart from the works of the law clearly in Romans 3 and Galatians 4. James at first glance appears flatly to contradict this by saying, “Faith without works is dead.”
But for James faith refers in this context to an intellectual ascent to Gospel truths without the appropriate behavior that must flow from it, the kind of faith that even demons can have because they know that God exists (2:19). When Paul speaks of saving
faith apart from works, he is referring to full-orbed trust in Jesus, which as we have seen in texts like Ephesians 2:10 and Galatians 5:6 and Philippians 2:12-13 does indeed lead to good works, but they are not the works of the law, they are not legal works, they are not acts of obedience to the commandments of the law of Moses without having filtered them through the grid of how they have been fulfilled in Jesus and whatever changes Jesus’ life and death may have introduced, and what is more they are works of the law offered in the hope of earning salvation, not demonstrating out of gratitude God’s salvation already provided for us as James understands things. In short, Paul is speaking of Christian faith and Jewish works while James is speaking of Jewish faith and Christian works and there is no contradiction.
Summing up the key emphases of James, therefore, faith like God is single-minded, single-minded in recognizing God in Christ doing works as an outgrowth of one’s faith and anything else that might go by the name of Christian apart from this is not the real thing. A key application, therefore, is to recognize that one who claims to be a Christian should have noticeable, significant transformations in their behavior and especially in their use of material possessions. As Jesus said way back in the Sermon on the Mount, “You cannot serve both God and mammon” – money and all the material resources along with it. Mammon is undoubtedly God’s strongest modern competitor for human allegiance even within the church of professing believers.