James 2 – Favoritism

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Continuing in the mindset of practical theology, James offers some practical thoughts on how our lives and actions are to be lived out in relationship to other people.  What he says is, “Don’t show favoritism.”  But what actually does that mean?

Favoritism is defined as “the practice of giving unfair preferential treatment to one person or group at the expense of another.”  This may not seem like a very big deal in the grand scheme of things, but it is profoundly important when it comes to the application of grace and love in our lives.  The act of showing favoritism in any situation is intentionally divisive, selective, and willfully unloving in nature.  You cannot favor one person over another and say that you love them the same.

This, as James says, is a violation of the Law which says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  We’ve talked often about how the Law gets somewhat of a bad wrap at times, being shown as that which enslaves or binds us. That, however, was not and is not the intention of the Law.  James says that the Law was intended for freedom which, I think, is why Jesus comes to fulfill it, not remove it.

Now, through Jesus Christ, we are no longer subject to some of the provisions of the Law, but the “meat and potatoes” of the Law still function and indeed applies to the life of faith.  Here, then, is why James says that favoritism is important to avoid in our lives.  Favoritism, in its raw form, is discrimination, division, exclusion; each is the antonym of the love that God calls us to live.

It goes far deeper than we think.  Often this gets applied to families.  Parents shouldn’t show favoritism among their kids, yes.  But in reality, this command applies to our entire life.  We must work to remove favoritism and all its roots from our hearts because we don’t have to go far inside to see favoritism among family members or peers become preferences, cliques, and division in the community of faith… and if these things are alive and well inside the church, things like racism, sexism, and discrimination of other sorts can be quick to follow.



James 1 – New Testament Wisdom

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The book of James is sometimes referred to as the “Proverbs of the New Testament.”  James begins his writing by talking about wisdom and faith in the midst of persecution.  Keep in mind what we have learned, that there as a significant amount of persecution taking place in the first century, when the New Testament was written, and James, being in Jerusalem, was witness to much of it.

James’ appeal to wisdom in the midst of this, though, does not veer off the path that we’ve seen throughout the New Testament, but rather embraces many of the themes of it using language that we’ve only rarely seen.  Jesus is referred to as “the wisdom of God,” by Paul in his letter to the church in Corinth, James echoes these words as he appeals to seeking “wisdom” in difficult times.

In the book of Proverbs, one of the key lines is “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  Now, “fearing” God doesn’t have anything to do with being afraid, but rather it is a seeking after, or following of God that is the foundation for wisdom.  James picks up on that theme here.  How are we to endure persecution?  By seeking wisdom or, in other words, by following the example of Christ.

He then goes on to cite several examples of this, most of which can be found in Jesus’ teachings as well.  Humility, faith, steadfastness, meekness, and action are all a part of the core of Jesus’ teachings and are all central themes of the New Testament message and encouragement to believers everywhere.

Like the book of Proverbs, which doesn’t mention God directly at all, James doesn’t necessarily lay out the Gospel message in precise detail.  However, the echoes of God’s grace and the message of Christ’s teachings can be found throughout the book of James in practical and applicable ways for our everyday life.



Introduction to James

James is one of the “General Epistles,” having no specified audience or church that it was written to.  These writings, like many of the other epistles, would have been copied by hand and distributed widely throughout the early church.

The author of this book is widely agreed upon to be James, the brother of Jesus, who became the leader of the church in Jerusalem for approximately 15 years.  He is mentioned multiple times in the book of Acts as holding this position and being a part of many of the councils and meetings that took place there.  An interesting fact about this is that, for several generations after the formation of the church, tradition has it that a relative of Jesus was appointed to be the head of the church in Jerusalem.

Different than much of the rest of the New Testament, James is a very practical book, focusing on the application of theology in everyday life.  For some, this makes James a favorite while for others, it can be confounding and theologically confusing.  There have been many arguments about how James’ theology mixes with that of Paul.

There have been many arguments about how James’ theology mixes with that of Paul.  James seems to have a “works first” approach, whereas Paul is all about grace; they often appear to be in conflict with one another.  However, when we bring them both together, especially looking at the whole of Paul’s writing, we see that works, how we live our lives in response to the Gospel of grace, are very important.  We are called to live transformed lives.

However, when we bring them both together, especially looking at the whole of Paul’s writing, we see that works, how we live our lives in response to the Gospel of grace, are very important.  We are called to live transformed lives in response to God’s love, not simply continuing on in our old patterns.  Our lives should reveal the faith that we attest to and James gives practical examples of how to do just that.



Hebrews 13 – A "brief" Note

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As the author of Hebrews concludes the letter with the customary final greetings, he/she encourages the audience to take what has been written, especially the exhortations (appeals, advice, arguments, persuasion, etc.) seriously.  This letter, the author says, is much briefer than it could have been.

Certainly, that is true of all the writing of Scripture.  There is so much more to say on all of these topics.  John, at the end of his Gospel, attests to this as well:

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.  John 21:25

That being said, Scripture doesn’t continue on in this way.  I think of the many dozens of books that I was encouraged to read in seminary, tens of thousands of pages, and the thousands upon thousands of books that have been written on Scripture and theology; we could go on forever… and will!!  But the author here has a way of summing it all up in a couple of “brief” exhortations.

Keep on Loving – This first and primary exhortation is the crux of the whole Gospel, the whole Law, and all of Scripture.  Keep on loving God.  Keep on loving each other.  The author offers some practical ways in which this can be lived out but essentially the message is the same as Jesus’ message in Matthew 25, “Whatever you did for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did for me.”

Hold to sound teaching – This is a message that endures throughout the New Testament.  As the church continued to grow, it continually faced a number of different threats from different groups that would offer “new teachings” or “new revelations.”  These, however, often steered people way from the faith and away from grace.  They were in direct contradiction of Jesus statement in John 14, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no one comes to the Father except through me.”

Pray – Prayer is a continual exhortation throughout Scripture as well.  Paul writes that we should “pray in the spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.”  Jesus too taught His disciples to pray and modeled a prayer life that we are called to follow.  Even at the right hand of God, Jesus is said to be praying, interceding for us on our behalf before the Father.

There is so much more to say here.  But, I suppose, I should take my cue from the author of Hebrews and keep it “brief.”  Much more will come as we begin our reading of James!



Hebrews 12 – Cloud of Witnesses

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Do you ever feel like you are standing alone in your life?  Do you ever feel like the world is not on your side?  Lately, it seems, Christians have been a lot more isolated in North America because of their faith.  We don’t feel like we can talk openly about anything or even share our points of view because it seems to be no longer welcome.  We’ve been labeled, dismissed, and in some cases, even forcefully put to the margins of life.  It can feel very lonely.

In the context that the book of Hebrews was written, Christianity was facing some hard times, much worse that anything that we have experienced today.  Christians were hunted, imprisoned, and killed in numbers greater than pretty much every other time in history.  You can imagine that this was a bit isolating; a very trying time for the young Church.

However, the author reminds us here that we are never alone in our struggles.  It seems rather obvious for us to say that “God is always with us,” but the author is saying that and more here.  Yes God is with us in the same way that God has been with so many that have come before us, that have persevered through the life of faith, through all the trials and tribulations, and who fixed their eyes on the Messiah who would save them from all the evil of this world.

And so we are called to persevere, to run the race marked out for us.  We fix our eyes on Jesus because He is the one who gives us the strength and ability to run this race.  He also gives us the model for how we are to live in the midst of persecution, peacefully and lovingly, so that all will look and see Jesus Christ in us.



Exodus 32 "Sacred Cows"

1. Can you relate to the people of Israel waiting on God in your own life? Have there been times when it seems like God is silent, distant, or missing? What are those times like? How do you react?

2. Idols made of precious metals, stone or wood are obvious to spot, but the idols of our own lives often aren’t. Do you have a “Golden Calf” in your life? What is it?

a. Do we have “Golden Calves” in the life of this church? What are they?

3. What do the golden calves in our lives signify? Why do we seek them our and set them up? What are we really longing for in our lives?

a. What are we longing for as a church?

4. Think of some ways in which you grasp for control. In what sense might this grasping be seen as a longing for God?

5. What emotions arise as you place yourself in the Exodus story, waiting for the return of Moses? Do you experience anger, regret, sadness, abandonment, loss? How do some of these feelings play out as you wait on God today?

6. In the midst of God’s seeming absence, he is really quite busy. How does knowing that God continues to pursue you encourage you in difficult times?

*Some questions taken from Leaving Egypt, by Chuck DeGroat



Hebrews 11 – Faith's Hall of Fame

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The 11th chapter of Hebrews is sometimes known as the “faith hall of fame” and it is an important part of the point that the author is trying to make here as well.  Often Christians have an idea that the Old Testament is all about the Law and works while the new Testament is all about grace and faith.  Nothing could be further from the truth, though.

While the Old Testament does emphasize the Law, it isn’t a “works-righteous” (work to earn your salvation) model.  In fact, the Law’s emphasis is all about heart and life change, the stripping of an old identity of slavery and the building of a new identity as the people of God.  For this to happen, though, faith is required.

Actually, all of the great people that followed God did so out of faith and we can see this here.  Many of these folks lived out their faith long before the law was every given too.  The faith, life, and actions of all of these people, however, pale in comparison to the life of Jesus Christ.  Whatever faith they showed, Christ’s was greater.  Whatever hardships, suffering, perseverance, etc. they showed,  Christ’s was greater.  But not only that, Christ did so perfectly and selflessly for the sake of the whole world.

What is revealed here in chapter 11 is the reality that God has never been one who has demanded “works” or “service” from those He calls in order to earn His favor.  Quite the opposite is actually true.  Out of Love, God calls each of us to Himself, desiring a relationship with us, desiring to free us from sin.  Because there is no way for us to do this for ourselves, God sent Jesus to make that way, to remove the barrier of sin, and to wash us so that we could stand before God once again as His adopted Sons and daughters.



Hebrews 10 – Once for All

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As the author has been working to draw forward many of the themes of the Old Testament, he or she has also been showing how Jesus Christ fulfills many of those things in His life, death, and resurrection.  He perfectly and eternally fills the Old Testament offices of Prophet, Priest, and King.  The Law is also fulfilled through Him.  Jesus is the realization of God’s redemptive plan, worked out over a couple thousand years!

One of the reasons and ways that Christ fulfills all of these things is that He is the perfect sacrifice to end all sacrifices.  The “Once for All” nature of Jesus’ work on the cross is an important theological point that cannot readily be overlooked.  Old Testament sacrifices were continuous because the blood of animals and the sacrificial system were, as the author states, “only a shadow of good things that are coming…”  They were never meant to be an end unto themselves.

Jesus Christ was that end, the great sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.  He was the perfect “Passover lamb,” the perfect “atonement offering.”  After Him, no other sacrifices were required.

While this is an important theological point made in Scripture, it is emphasized in Reformed Theology because of its intentional distancing for Roman Catholic tenants.  For Catholics, every time Mass was celebrated, Jesus Christ was said to be “re-crucified” or “re-sacrificed.”  For reasons made clear in Hebrews 10, a constant “re-sacrifice” is not at all necessary or theologically correct.

With all of this said, the Author moves on to talk about the application of this truth in the life of faith.  Jesus has opened the way for us to draw near to God once again.  Jesus was the “curtain,” that which separated the people from God in the Temple.  When Jesus died, the curtain was torn, a moment signifying that the barrier had been broken and our relationship with God can be restored.



Hebrews 9 – Outward and Inward

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Continuing on the theme of Christ’s fulfillment of the Old Testament and the Old Covenant, the writer of Hebrews now speaks specifically about the work of Christ as it relates to worship and the sacrificial system at the temple.  In the Old Testament, the sacrificial system was part of the cleansing rituals that took place so that people could come before God in worship.

In the Old Testament, the sacrificial system was part of the cleansing rituals that took place so that people could come before God in worship.  This applied, in a very particular way, to the position of the high priest on the day of atonement, when he would enter the Holy of Holies to make restitution of the people’s sins in the very presence of God.  The high priest used the blood of animals, sacrificed in the appropriate way, both for himself and for the people.  All of this, however, was just a matter of outward cleansing.

The true cleansing that takes place is one of inward cleansing.  Hebrews’ author points out that the sacrifice of animals is not able to clear the conscience of the worshipper; it was a matter of outward cleansing that points to a deeper cleansing that would happen through the blood of Jesus.

Throughout the Old Testament, there is a continual pointing forward to a future time when God would do something “new.”  He calls a people, they will eventually be a blessing to the whole world.  He gives the Law, but a time will come when it won’t just be an external thing but it would be written on the hearts of people.  He talks of sacrifices and offerings, but the true sacrifice God desires is an inward one.  He provides prophets, priests, and kings, all of which are shadows of what is to come.

All of this finds its fulfillment and deep meaning in Jesus Christ who, as the only way to the Father, provides a path from outward action to inward transformation, from outward washing to inward cleansing through His blood and God’s grace.



Hebrews 8 – Shadows and Dust

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Building on the notion that Jesus is the fulfillment of an ancient priesthood, established by Melchizedek, and that this priesthood also has Kingly “intonations” which are also fulfilled by Jesus, the author moves ahead to point to Jesus as also fulfilled the old covenant while also establishing a new covenant.

There are a number of things that make the writer points to as being superior about that which is established by Jesus.  His priesthood is eternal because Jesus Christ is the eternal God, the resurrected Lord, who lives and reigns forever.  He is seated at the right hand of God and Scripture tells us that Jesus is forever interceding for us.  Whereas the priests of the Old Testament had to continually offer sacrifices for the sins of the people as well as worship God in the earthly sanctuary built for Him, Jesus fulfills these roles perfectly both on earth and in heaven before the presence of God.

All of these things, the author points out, are shadows of what was to come in Jesus.  Though at the time they carried great meaning for the people, they now give meaning to Jesus’ life, work, and position in redemptive history.  Jesus’ sacrifice means a lot, but it gains its deep meaning and from the Hebrew sacrificial system that was performed for many years and set up by the law.

In the same way, the Tabernacle and the Temple were built in such a way to be a shadow of the true Temple of God in heaven, God’s true dwelling place.  There was a need for them to be built in such a way as to do this well on earth, but their meaning and purpose point to the greater reality of God in heaven and of the work of Jesus Christ to bring salvation to the world and to reconcile all things which will reach its greatest and true fulfillment when Christ comes again.



Hebrews 7 – Melchizedek

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The Old Testament priest, Melchizedek, is a rather mysterious character in the Bible, showing up only a couple times throughout all of Scripture.  He shows up in Genesis 14 and blesses Abraham after he returns from battle.  In return, Abraham gives 10% of everything he had.  This event, though isolated, becomes a rather a foreshadowing of things to come.

Everytime time Melchizedek is mentioned in the Bible after Genesis 14, he is mentioned by saying “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”  This saying is unique, and it appears to be said in a manner which suggests familiarity from the reader, though its true meaning in an ancient context is probably no lost.

Interestingly, the name Melchizedek means “righteous king,” and it is noted in Scripture that he is the king of Salem, which means “peace.”  There may be something to these meanings that is drawn forward and fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ.

In addition to this, Melchizedek combines the functions of both king and priest, something only two other people do in Scripture: King David and Jesus Christ.  So when the writer of Hebrews is talking about Jesus being like (better than) Melchizedek, it is likely that the writer is referring to this in the same way that David mentions this in Psalm 110:4.  While David is an imperfect echo of Melchizedek, both David and Melchizedek are foreshadows of greater things to come, the true fulfillment of both King and Priest (and Prophet) in Jesus Christ.

In addition to this, Jesus Christ fulfills this role eternally as the resurrected Lord, the Great High Priest (in the order of Melchizedek), and the true prophet of God who brings the Word of the Lord to the people, and also represents the people before God.  Everything that comes before Him is a foreshadow, pointing to Jesus Christ and the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption that came through Him.



Exodus 19-31 "Defining Freedom"

  1. Think about your first experience with the 10 Commandments. How were you introduced to them?  What were you told about their purpose or how you should be following them?  How has that impacted your view of the Old Testament Law?
  1. After leaving Egypt, God had a lot of work to do replacing the identity of the people of Israel as slaves with the identity of being God’s chosen people. How does the giving of the Law help that process?  Do you think that these things could be helpful for us today as we leave our own personal “egypts?”  How?
    1. Do you think the Law could give our church some direction when it comes to leaving our “egypts?” How?
  1. Essentially, the giving of the Law and God’s work to re-identify Israel as His people is an invitation to Love. This is different than slavery’s demand of work and striving.  How does God’s invitation to love challenge you?  What are some of the biggest obstacles to loving well?
  1. Far too often for us, the Law becomes more like “rules” and “regulations” rather than “boundaries.” What is the difference?  Does that difference change your perspective of the Law?  Of God?  Of how we approach the Law in our own lives?  How?
  1. Egypt seeks to take away our true identity and replace it was that of a slave. God begins the process, here at Sinai, of piecing together Israel’s identity once again.  Have you had a “Sinai” moment in your life?  What lies needed to be replaced with truth in your life?
  1. How does knowing that you are called a “treasured possession” make a difference? How do you feel when you hear the words of dignity and love that God speaks over you?

*Some questions taken from Leaving Egypt, by Chuck DeGroat



Hebrews 6 – Moving Forward

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There are some difficult sayings in this chapter that, when we read them, don’t always jive with what we think we know about Scripture and what we know about God’s grace and salvation either.  The author says that it’s impossible for those who are of the faith and then turn away “to be brought back to repentance.”  How does this stand up next to Paul’s words in Romans 8, that nothing can separate us from the love of Go that is in Christ Jesus?

Considering these words, and looking at those around them, and the context in which the author is writing, it doesn’t seem so much that the author is trying to set down some sort of new doctrine where salvation can be lost, but rather to cast a warning about falling away from the faith and the impact that it can have both on the life of the believer and on the church as well.

None of this, however, negates the promise of God, originally made to Abraham, to be God to His people.  Because of God’s mercy, love, and enduring faithfulness, we know that God will always be with us and never turn His back on us.  No matter what we do, God promises to be faithful to us.

This promise was confirmed to us in Jesus Christ, who came to the earth as a human to make a way for us to be in a relationship with God.  As Jesus eternally fulfills the role of “priest,” as the writer of Hebrews says, He eternally intercedes for us before God.  As the sacrifice for our sins, He washes us clean so that we have the hope of salvation which can never be taken away.

Here the writer of Hebrews encourages us to move forward, deeper into this relationship.  As we realize the love that God has for us, we respond in relationship with God, growing closer to Him and taking greater hold of our hope and salvation.



Hebrews 5 – The Great High Priest

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There are three major offices, or important positions, in the Old Testament: Prophet, Priest, and King.  Each one has its own function.  However, each represents God to the people in a different way.  Jesus fulfills the roles of each of these offices.  He is the King of kings, the one true King who will reign forever.

He is also the Prophet to which all the prophets before pointed.  Jesus is the very Word of God, as John says, and represents the ultimate way that God speaks to His people and communicates His love.

Here, the writer of Hebrews talks about Jesus as fulfilling the role of  Priest.  In the Old Testament, the priests serve as a mediator between God and the people.  Priests represented the people before God through the sacrificial system, bringing the sacrifices of the people to God and seeking forgiveness.  They were also responsible for the worship in the Temple, bringing the worship of the people before God.

In the same way, they represented God to the people, communicating that forgiveness as well.  The priests were set apart from the rest of the people, consecrated and clean, keeping to the rituals of cleansing so as to be able to do the work of worship as part of their calling.

Jesus fulfills this role in many ways.  He represents God to the people, the incarnation of God in human flesh.  Being human, Jesus understands our weaknesses, but being God, He is able to come before God.  He also communicates the forgiveness of God through his ministry and also through His work on the cross, not just offering a sacrifice, but becoming the sacrifice for our sins.

Because of this, the author of Hebrews writes, we can approach God’s throne with confidence and boldness, knowing that we have been cleansed through the blood and offering of the Great High Priest and are welcomed into God’s presence as His own people.



Hebrews 4 – Sabbath-Rest

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The theme of “sabbath” is much greater than a simple “day of rest” once a week that the people of God are called to honor.  Sabbath is about intentionally honoring God through the putting aside of one’s self and the things that we value in life and giving that time to God.  When I was young, we knew some people that wouldn’t let their kids even ride their bikes on Sunday because it was the Sabbath…  while I can see now what they were trying to instill in their children, I think, I do believe that rules like that entirely miss the point of the Sabbath.

Sabbath has often been relegated to the notion of self-care as well.  We take our own “sabbaths” from work in an effort to regenerate or re-energize ourselves.  Though self-care is an important part of our lives, sabbath’s focus is directed toward God, not self or rules, and it is in that intentional redirection that we find true rest.

But the notion of Sabbath extends far beyond physical or even spiritual rest.  God’s true Sabbath rest for His people was the fulfillment of His promise to bring them into the promised land.  The reality, though, is that the physical land was not actually what brought them the rest, it was following God, His Law and living into the identity that He gave them; something they did not do.

Jesus, through His life and ministry, draws this idea forward, offering a Sabbath rest for all people by grace, through faith.  The true promised land, then, is a relationship with God and the salvation that comes by putting our faith in Jesus Christ.  Because of what He did, the way is opened for us to enter this Sabbath rest which is actually a new beginning, not an end unto itself as the Israelites thought the promised land was.

What is no longer necessary is work, striving for salvation… here we find rest.  Here, then, we find true freedom and life in Christ, responding freely to the grace we have been given.