The LCMS Wednesday Bible study started up again. Here are some of the points that I got out of it.
A. One of the texts was Jeremiah 11:18-20, in which Jeremiah complains of people from his hometown (Anathoth) trying to kill him and desires God’s vengeance upon them. Jeremiah was unpopular because he was prophesying doom and gloom in a time of national prosperity. He may have participated in righteous King Josiah’s reforms against paganism and in favor of the consecration of the Temple and the Judahites to God. Now that Josiah was dead, Jeremiah was yesterday’s news. Jeremiah entrusts himself to the LORD of hosts, who is sovereign. The pastor told a story about how he counseled pastors whose congregations did not want them, and how that was a painful experience for these pastors.
B. Josiah tore down the high places, and the pastor gave background about those. High places were sacred sites on the hills that were dedicated to Baal, the weather god, and his wife Ashtoreth, In an agricultural society, people prayed to Baal because they wanted rain and to Ashtoreth because they desired fertility. Passages such as II Kings 21:3, 5 and Jeremiah 19:5 and 32:35 say or imply that there were Israelite high places where worship of Baal occurred. At the same time, there were also high places to Yahweh (I Kings 3:2-3), which ran counter to Deuteronomic centralization. The pastor got me thinking some about the high places, since there were kings of Judah who were righteous, yet they did not tear down the high places (II Kings 12:3; 14:4; 15:4, 35). Righteous kings pursued reform, on a limited level, but they did not challenge the popular practice of paganism.
C. The pastor asked if it is acceptable to desire vengeance because Jeremiah did. The pastor contrasted Jeremiah with Jesus in our New Testament reading, Mark 9:30-37. Like Jeremiah, Jesus was rejected by his hometown, in this case, Nazareth. Jesus did not desire vengeance against his enemies, however, but served them with his life. The pastor said that the reason the doxology occurs after Scripture readings is that it highlights that Scripture is to be read within the context of Christ. Psalm 137:8-9 ends by wishing that the heads of Babylonian babies would be dashed against rocks, but Christians read that remembering that Christ paid the penalty for sins. Proverbs 21:9 and 25:24 warns against living with a contentious wife, and Christians read that realizing that such contention can be healed through Christ.
D. Jesus in Mark 9:30-37 teaches humility and service. He exhorts his disciples to be like deacons, who waited tables and were the lowliest servants. The pastor said that the apostles apparently were slow to learn this lesson, since they did not want to wait tables in Acts 6:2! Jesus also exhorted his disciples to be like little children, in a world where children had hardly any status at all and were considered the property of their parents. Jesus held the child and gave him status, and that demonstrates that we gain status through our relationship with Christ.
E. The pastor moved on to the Epistle of James. The Epistle is directed to the twelve tribes scattered abroad (James 1:1). The pastor said that these were Jewish Christians scattered throughout the known world. Some were scattered due to persecution from Saul (Acts 8:1) and Herod Agrippa’s murder of James the brother of John (Acts 12:2). Some scattering occurred later, close to the time when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed (70 CE). Some Jewish Christians fled to Pella, some to Antioch.
F. According to the pastor, the Epistle of James is not about how to be saved, nor is it merely a rule book. It is wisdom literature for people who are already Christians. The pastor said that Lutherans distinguish between wider justification and narrow justification. Wider justification includes conversion but also sanctification, becoming practically righteous. When James states that faith without works does not justify, he is referring to wider justification. Narrow justification refers to conversion, and that is what Paul talks about when he affirms that people are justified by faith alone, apart from works. Related to this, I asked the pastor to define grace, since the pastor talked about James 2:6, where James says that God gives more grace, and that God gives grace to the humble. Is grace unmerited favor? Is it mercy? Is it the spiritual power to live righteously? The pastor said that it is God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense, and that includes everything that God provides to people due to the sacrifice of Christ. That would include God’s word, forgiveness, spiritual power to live righteously, and the list goes on.
G. James 3:17 states: “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy” (KJV). The pastor said that this describes Jesus: Jesus is the wisdom from above, and Jesus had those characteristics.
H. James 4:5 states: “Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy?” (KJV). The NASB translates it the way the pastor was interpreting it: “Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose: ‘He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us’?” The question, apparently, is whether pneuma (spirit) is the subject or the direct object. If it is the subject, the verse is probably criticizing the envious lusts condemned in vv. 1-4. If it is the object, it is talking about God’s jealous desire to have us with him—-for us to draw closer to him rather than to have friendship with the world. The pastor said that the spirit could be the Holy Spirit or the spirit that enlivens every human being: either way, God does not want that Spirit to go to waste but desires to be with that spirit. The pastor noted that v. 5 says it is quoting Scripture, but this verse does not exist in the Hebrew Bible.
I. The pastor and one of the people in the class were talking about devotions. The person in the class was saying that her I-phone was reading the Bible text aloud to her, and she did not like that. The pastor thought she meant that she preferred that, and he talked about how the biblical texts were originally intended to be read and heard aloud, not read silently, since few people could read back then. When he understood that she was making the opposite point, he said that she may have seen her devotions as her personal time with God and did not want another voice interfering with that.