James 3

Scripture: James 3:1-18

Overview:

  • Jim Jam tells his peeps that they might want to think twice before they go for the power position in their church–the teacher’s and preacher’s spot–because it’s a tough job, one that God has high expectations of and really cares that we do right.
  • “All us teachers mess up,” James says. “To be perfect at teaching others (like God is), you have to really watch what you say. Keep your whole self in check.”
  • Jay then delves into some analogies on the power of our speech: “The tongue, though a small part of your body, controls everything. Just like a bit in a horses’ mouth or a rudder on a ship, the small thing  can make the big thing go right or left.”
  • But the tongue is not just small and controlling, it is also small and uncontrollable, “Like a tiny spark that can turn a whole forest into a raging inferno, your tongue is a small flame, born in Hell itself, that can set your thoughts, actions and whole life, on fire–spinning them out of control.”
  • “People have tamed birds, monkeys, lions, you name it,” Jay Jay says, “but no person has ever tamed the tongue. It’s like a snake, full or poison, ready to strike.”
  • James goes on to say, “You praise your God with that mouth? You say people are lame one minute, but God is great the next? Really? Did you forget that God made people in his image? We talk out of both sides of our mouth when we use our words to praise God and knock down people. You can’t get fresh water and salt water from the same source, just like you can’t get olives from a fig tree or figs from a grapevine. Ain’t happening.”
  • “So how do you know someone is truly speaking God’s wisdom?” James asks. “You’ll know it by the life they lead. Wise people do good things, humbly. People that appear to be wise but have jealousy, bitterness, or selfish ambition in their hearts, are getting their wisdom from the world, or more accurately, from demons. Where selfishness, jealousy and ‘looking out for number one’ prevail, the result is chaos and all around bad news.”
  • Jaybone wraps it up by reminding them that wisdom from God is shown in a life lived in purity: a life lived peacefully, considerate of others, not putting oneself first, showing undeserved kindness to everyone, being blind to people’s differences and acting and speaking genuinely all the time. “Peaceful peeps acting peacefully produce a proper relationship with our praise-worthy Pop. Peace out.”

Historical Context:

“Gehenna” or Hell

Gehenna is the Greek form of a Hebrew word meaning “the valley of Hinnom.”  This valley was a place where followers of various Ba’als and other Canaanite gods, including Moloch (or Molech), sacrificed their children by fire (2 Chr. 28:3, 33:6).8  King Josiah tore down the altars making it a place of refuse and abomination ((2 Kings 23). Due to the Hebrew detestation of the place, the name came to stand for the idea of eternal punishment for the wicked (Isa. 30:27-33; 66:24; Dan. 7:10, Psa. 18:8).2

In the synoptic Gospels Jesus uses the word Gehenna 11 times to describe the opposite to life in the Kingdom of God.James is the only other New Testament author to use the word “Gehenna.”

The power of words in other Scriptures

Proverbs often mentions the power of an individual’s speech:6, 7

  • “Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death, is the man who deceives his neighbor, and says, ‘I was only joking!'”(Proverbs 26:18-19)
  • “In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise. The tongue of the righteous is choice silver; the heart of the wicked is worth little. The lips of the righteous feed many, but fools die for lack of wisdom.” (Proverbs 10:19-21)
  • “There is one who speaks like the piercing of the sword but the tongue of the wise promotes health.” (Proverbs 12:18)
  • “Anxiety in the heart of man causes depression, but a good word makes it glad.” (Proverbs 12:25)
  • “Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the bones.” (Proverbs 16:24)
  • “Death and life are in the power of the tongue and you can give life or you can give death.”(Proverbs 18:21)

Jesus often talks about the connection between a person’s speech and their inner character, as well as the responsibility that comes with leadership:2, 4, 7

  • “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7:15-23)
  • “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:33-37)
  • “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48)

Observations:

  • James focuses on the responsibilities of teachers due to the fact that: (1) Christian meetings were open, unstructured and informal assemblies. Anyone wishing to be heard could rise and speak (see 1 Corinthians 14:26-40). (2) There was a great honor attached to the work of teaching, as indicated in 1 Cor. 12:28, where teachers were ranked second only to apostles and prophets.2
  • The problem James is addressing with teachers is not that there are spreading false doctrine (as would often be the concern in Paul’s letters). James is addressing the problem of arrogance, which can be present even when correct doctrine is being taught.4
  • James mentions “stumbling” because in Judaism walking denotes the course of a man’s conduct.2
  • James use of the word “perfect” is the same as Jesus’ usage when he says God is “perfect” (Matthew 5:48). James, and Jesus’ expectation was that “perfection,” though normally unattainable by men, could be achieved “in Christ” alone (Colossians 1:28,29).2
  • James’ first two illustrations talk about the tongues’ control over larger things, (the horse bit and the ship’s rudder), but the third illustration shows how the tongue is beyond control–it is the tiny fire that burns down a whole forest.2
  • The “whole course of a man’s life” in the original Greek is literally the “the wheel of birth.”  The Greek word, trocov, means a wheel, or anything made far revolving and running. The Greek word, genesiv, means, procreation, birth. Most translators think James is talking about the wheel which is set in motion at birth, and which runs on through life.3
  • James bluntly points out that cursing God’s creation (i.e. man) is equivalent to cursing the Creator himself.3
  • The wisdom James describes is moral rather than intellectual. Genuine wisdom, like faith, is a practical matter; it shows up in how one lives. Literally James says, “Let him show by good behavior his deeds in the humility of wisdom.” Wisdom, then, is not something possessed in one’s head; if a person is wise, it will be demonstrated in their conduct.2
  • Earthly origin implies inferiority to heavenly origin. James’ description of false wisdom is the same as that of the uncontrolled tongue (3:6)—they are both from hell. James’s intention is to point us to a wisdom from heaven in contrast to the wisdom from hell, a wisdom far superior to any wisdom we find in ourselves naturally, and certainly superior to that which comes from demons.4
  • Meekness, gentleness, or humility, is often mentioned as a characteristic trait of Jesus himself and of his followers in other New Testament books. In Matthew 5:5, Jesus pronounces the “meek” to be blessed. In Matthew 11:29, Jesus invites people to come and learn from him specifically because he is himself “gentle.” In Matthew 21:5, Jesus is pictured as the “gentle” messianic king promised in Zechariah 9:9. Paul lists humility as a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:23) and a trait of Christ (2 Cor 10:1) to be exhibited by all Christians toward other people (Eph 4:2; Col 3:12; Tit 3:2).4
  • The Greek word for gentleness, prauteti, occurs in non-biblical literature to describe a horse that someone had broken and had trained to submit to a bridle. It pictures strength under control. James is saying to his readers that only way to control the tongue is to place one’s mind deliberately under the authority of God and to let him control it.5  One doesn’t solve the problem of an unruly horse by keeping it in the barn, or the problem of a hard-to-steer ship by keeping it tied to the dock. James is not advocating silence. He is advocating control by God rather than man.6
  • To James, purity is not just one quality among others but the key to them all.5

Discussion:

  • Do your words unite or divide? Do they bring peace or chaos to situations? How aligned are what you say and what you do? Would an outside observer see any contrast between how you talk about God and how you talk about your worst enemy?
  • Again and again in his letter, James emphasizes that true religion, true wisdom and true faith are known only by their deeds. Believing “in your heart” or knowing “in your head” is not enough. How can we de-intellectualize our faith? How can we better externally manifest our inward convictions? What is the empirical evidence of our faith?
  • Research now indicates that upwards of 55% of all communication is non-verbal. What do you think James would say about our body language? Is it as critical to tame as the words we use? What would James say about those times when our body language and our verbal speech don’t align?
  • An increasing amount of interpersonal communication is happening through texting, social media and online — mediums that lack the majority of our typical communication indicators (i.e. body language, tone, etc.). What would James say about these ways of communicating? Do they increase or decrease our ability to detect and project sincerity? What has the anonymity of the internet done to our communication? How have you experienced it, positively and negatively?
  • It is natural to think that saying nothing is the best course of action in taming the tongue. As our mothers often told us, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing at all.” Yet James doesn’t tell his audience to be quite, he tells them to be pure. James isn’t focused on what comes out of a person’s mouth, but rather where it comes from inside.  It’s not the tongue he’s really worried about, it’s the heart. How does this change our view on our mother’s advice? Is it still good advice? Why, why not?
  • Use this discussion guide to talk about “taming the tongue” in these other forms of communication: 1) culturally influenced vocabulary, 2) body language, 3) internal dialogue.

References:

  1. Mackervoy’s commentary
  2. Coffman’s commentary
  3. Barnes’ commnetary
  4. IVP commentary
  5. Constable’s commentary
  6. Guzik’s commentary
  7. Hawkins’ commentary
  8. Gehenna
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Coffee and Theology Podcast: Episode 4 – Life and the Afterlife in the First Century

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In the latest episode of Coffee and Theology special guest, Scott the Scholar, talks with us about greater context of the world at the time of the formation of the New Testament.

We also discuss the influence of Vikings on video games, why Boba Fett and Judas shared the same fate, what you should name your pet wolf, and other burning issues surrounding the Afterlife.

Yes, we go from the first century to life after death. That’s just how we do it.

As always, the coffee is provided by Urban Pioneer, the finest coffee in all of Long Beach.

You can also find us on iTunes. Subscribe today!

Mark 9

Scripture: Mark 9:2-50

Overview:

  • Six days later, Jesus, James, John and Pete head up to a high mountain. On the mountain top, Jesus transforms into a shiny, white, glimmering dude.
  • Moses and Elijah then appear and chat with Jesus.
  • The disciples are (understandably) terrified and Peter blurts out, “Let’s set up little houses of worship for everyone!”
  • A cloud shows up and covers them, then a voice from the cloud says, “This is my son, listen to him!”
  • Suddenly it’s just James, John, Pete and Jesus again.
  • On their way down the mountain, Jesus tells the disciples to keep the whole incident under wraps until after his resurrection.
  • The disciples are confused by Jesus’ mention of his death/resurrection and ask him if it’s true that Elijah is supposed to come before the messiah.
  • Jesus replies that Elijah did come before the messiah, and that the way Elijah (i.e. John the Baptist) was treated (i.e. killed) would be how the Son of Man would be treated.
  • When they get back to the disciples, there’s a crowd and a commotion regarding a demon-possessed boy that the disciples can’t seem to heal.
  • Jesus is fed up with everyone and has the boy brought to him.
  • The boy goes into convulsions at the sight of Jesus. Jesus asks the dad about the symptoms.
  • The boy’s father tells Jesus that he’s been like this since he was little, and that the demon in the boy often tries to kill him.
  • The boy’s father begs Jesus to help… if he can.
  • Jesus says, “If I can?” [the disciples think, “Oh no you didn’t”]
  • The boy’s father says, “I do believe! Help my unbelief!”
  • Jesus casts the demon out and the boy looks like he’s dead. Jesus helps him up and everything’s cool.
  • The disciples ask Jesus why they couldn’t cast the demon out and he tells them that it can only be done with prayer and fasting.
  • Jesus continues on his journey and teaches the disciples more about his upcoming death and resurrection.
  • When they get back to Capernaum Jesus knows that the disciples have been talking about who among them would be the greatest, so he reminds them that the first shall be last. He then takes a child and says that the one who welcomes the lowest person in society (“Like this little kid”) is the one who welcomes him.
  • John pipes up and says, “There was this guy casting out demons in your name, but he wasn’t one of us, so we told him to stop.”
  • Jesus replies, “Leave him alone. If he does something in my name, he’s on my side. Whoever helps out a believer is cool with me. Whoever hinders a believer is in deep, deep doo doo–you might as well be drowned in the sea.”
  • Jesus then tells them that, “If anything is going to cause you to work against me, you’re better off ditching it than ending up in hell (the very, very unpleasant place God will put all his enemies in the end). Everyone is going to be tested, everyone is going to be purified. Don’t lose your purity, because then you’re good for nothing. Let your purity bring peace, not conflict/dissension/division between you.”

Historical Context:

Transfiguration

The Greek word means “to change in form” (morphe), and occurs only four times in the New Testament (9:2; Matt. 17:2; Romans 12:2; 2 Cor. 3:18). In each instance it denotes a radical transformation.[1]

Mark doesn’t usually give specific time references, but here he denotes that the transfiguration happens six days after Peter’s confession. This may be an allusion to Exodus 24:15-17 where Moses waited six days before being summoned by God for revelation on Mount Sinai. Six days is also the time period between Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and Sukkot (Feast of the Tabernacles – which commemorates the Jews’ wandering in the wilderness for 40 years).[1]

Bright white garments are often signs of heavenly beings (ex. Dan. 10:5; Rev. 3:4; etc.). Matthew (17:2) and Luke (9:29) mention that Jesus’ face shone as well, which heightens the comparison with Moses whose face shone very brightly because it reflected the glory of God (Ex. 34:35).[1]

Peter, himself, wrote about this experience (2 Peter 1:16-18) reflecting how he was an eyewitness to Jesus’ majesty and how he heard God confirm him as his son.[3]

Moses and Elijah

Moses and Elijah are most often understood to represent the Law and the Prophets. How the disciples recognized the two individuals as Moses and Elijah is not explained.

It is also likely that the joint appearance of Moses and Elijah recalls the final verses of the Old Testament (Malachi 4:4-6), where Israel is commanded to remember the instruction of Moses, and where Elijah is introduced as the prophet who would turn the heart of the people to repentance on the Day of the Lord.[1]

Tents/Tabernacles

The primary reference here seems to be the booths or tabernacles set up by the people during the Feast of the Tabernacles.[1] These are small, walled structures set up and slept in to remind of the Jews of the fragile dwellings of their ancestors while wandering in the dessert for forty years with Moses.

The implication of Peter’s intent to build the tabernacles was possibly in a way to both glorify his visitors and enable them to stay a while.[2] Peter may have also been reflecting the long-held Jewish hope that God would once again “tabernacle” (dwell) with his people as in the time of the Exodus.[1]

Rising from the dead

Resurrection was a prominent belief held among Jews in the first century (especially the Pharisees). They believed that one day, God would give “life to the dead.” This belief finds its origins in the prophets Ezekiel and Daniel.[7] The Jews understood that both the righteous and wicked would rise from the dead on the day of judgment, the righteous to life eternal, the sinners to punishment and execution.[7]

The disciples would’ve surely known what rising from the dead meant.  They were probably more likely puzzled by Jesus’ insistence that he, an individual person, would die and rise from the dead before “the end of the age.” Resurrection of the righteous was generally understood to be a collective and eschatological (end of days) event.[1]

The Jews of Jesus’ day expected only one coming of the Messiah into history and this coming was related to the military victory and supremacy of national Israel on a global scale.[2]

Who is the greatest

Ancient rabbinic writings frequently commented on the seating in Paradise and argued that the just would sit nearer to the throne of God than even the angels (since people such as the just, righteous teachers or martyrs were considered to be “the greatest”). Earthly seating orders at worship and meals, or authority within or dealings with inferiors and superiors were seen as preparation for the future order (cf. Psalm 68:24-25).[1]

“Servant” is translated from the Greek word diakonos, or  “one who executes the commands of someone” and looks after his needs. It refers to personal devotion in service as opposed to service as a slave.[1]

Up to this point in history, the mark of success was always measured by service received; not by service given.[1]

Children

Children were essentially “non-persons” in ancient culture. This was likely due to the high infant mortality rate, the great demand for human labor, and the fact that children (along with women) were totally dependent on others for food, shelter and protection. Children hand no right for self-determination. A man could not expect to gain anything either socially or materially from kindness to a child.[1]

“Being like a child” means to forgo status and to accept the lowest place. The use of a child as a teaching aid is explicitly about social status, not any child-like character traits.[1]

Only in Mark’s gospel does Jesus embrace the child (“take into his arms”). Jesus is literally showing his disciples how welcoming they should be of the insignificant and the ignored.[1]

Since they are back in Capernaum, possibly in Peter’s house, this may have been Peter’s child.[2]

The Aramaic word ‘talya’ can mean both ‘child’ and ‘servant’, there was no distinction in their social status.[2]

Invoking Names in Exorcisms

First century exorcists invoked various formulas and ‘words of power’ (such as the names of God, the angels, King Solomon, etc.) in their exorcisms and their incantations. Their widespread influence can be seen through the appearance of various Hebrew names of God (ex. “Iao”, “Adonai”, “Eloai” or “Sabaoth”) in magical amulets and papyri.[1]

The name of a spiritual being presumed to be greater than the possessing spirit was invoked by exorcists as a way to overpower the demon and free the person’s soul.

Hell/Gehenna

“Hell” is literally translated as Gehenna and refers to the Valley of Hinnon near Jerusalem. In Jesus’ day it was the place where the city’s garbage was burned. It had come to be used in this way because the valley had an embarrassing and revolting history for the Jewish people– it was there that in the past they had worshipped the fertility fire god, Molech, through the practice of child sacrifice.[2]

The valley is mentioned five times in the book of Jeremiah (7:31,32 19:2,6 32:35) as the place in which the people would “burn their sons and daughters in the fire.”[6]

King Ahaz of Judah sacrificed his sons there according to 2 Chron. 28:3.  The same is recorded of Ahaz’ grandson Manasseh in 33:6.[6]

The book of Isaiah does not mention Gehenna by name, but the “burning place” (30:33) in which the Assyrian army is to be destroyed.

Jesus quotes three times the final verse of Isaiah which concerns the fate of those who have rebelled against God, Isaiah 66:24.[6]  Here, in the final section of Isaiah, the prophet is describing the great prosperity of the kingdom of the Messiah, and that the people of God shall go forth, and look upon the carcasses of men who have transgressed against God. The messiahs’ enemies shall be overcome. The people of God shall triumph. The prophet says that there will be heaps of dead, slain in battle, whose number shall be so great, that the worm feeding on the dead shall not die, shall live long–as long as there are carcasses to be devoured; and that the fire which was used to burn the bodies of the dead shall continue long to burn, and shall not be extinguished till they are consumed.[4]

King Josiah destroyed the shrine of Molech to prevent anyone from sacrificing children there in 2 Kings 23:10. Jeremiah would still later include a prophecy that Jerusalem itself would be made like Gehenna and Topheth (19:2-6, 19:11-14).[4]

Salt

In Jesus’ day, salt was an important means of healing, purification, and preservation. It also was used to seal covenants (Num. 18:19).[2]  The Jews put salt on a gift/sacrifice to God (Leviticus 2:13) as a sign of the agreement between God and his people.[3] 

The implication may be that the disciples, via trials, beatings, persecutions, etc., were to be prepared as a sacrifice and offering to God.[4]

The text may also be implying that just as salt preserves meat, so too will the wicked be preserved by fire in their sufferings. .[4]

The terms salt and fire seem to both represent purification in this context.[2]

Observations:

  • Luke says the Transfiguration happened “eight days” after Peter’s proclamation of Jesus as Messiah. This may be a contradiction, however, Luke admits that he is estimating (“Now it happened that about eight days after these sayings…”).[1]
  • Scholars are not in agreement on the location of the “high mountain” Jesus’ transfiguration took place on: some say that Mount Hermon is it due to its proximity to Caesarea Philippi and height (9,200 ft.), though many early Christian Fathers, place it on Mount Tabor (1,500 ft.), eleven miles west of the Sea of Galilee.[1]
  • Clouds were a sign that God was present. In Exodus, the cloud (God) led the people, and when Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the Law a cloud covered the mountain for six days.[3]
  • When the voice in the cloud says, “listen to him” this is reflective of Deut. 18:15 in which God says he will raise up a prophet like Moses who should be obeyed.[2]
  • Jesus’ answer to the disciples’s question about Elijah is two fold: 1) He affirms that he, as Son of Man, is part of the same sequence of events as the return of Elijah; and 2) that Elijah’s experience has been one of rejection, which foreshadows what will happen to the Son of Man. Jesus links John the Baptist’s suffering and death with his own.[1]
  • The symptoms of the demon-possessed boy seem to describe an epileptic fit, however, Matthew, Mark and Luke all clearly state that the healing was done through an exorcism. Matthew includes the termselēniazetai (literally “moon-struck” or “lunatic”).[1]
  • Mark’s account of the epileptic/demon-possessed child focuses on the restoration of speech. Neither Matthew or Luke mention a speech defect.[1]
  • When Jesus takes the seemingly dead boy by his hand and raises him up, it echoes the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (1:31) and the raising of Jairus’ daughter (5:41-42). The language of lifting up (egeirein) evokes the idea of a ‘resurrection’ – a motif confirmed by the addition of the verb anistēmi (“arose”) immediately afterward.[1]
  • When the boy’s father “cried out,” this can be interpreted more literally as he “said with tears.”[1]
  • When John, the apostle, says he wanted to stop the actions of a man “not following us,” it is implied that the person casting out demons didn’t have membership in the “authorized” circle of Jesus’ followers.[1]
  • Jews, as a rule, feared the sea (note how Revelation 21:1 describes heaven as a place where there would be no more sea). They regarded drowning as a horrible form of death – a symbol of utter destruction. When the rabbis taught that pagan and gentile objects were to be destroyed utterly, they say that it must be cast “into the salt sea.”[1]
  • The “little ones” Jesus warns the disciples not to make stumble seems to be young believers. The disciples were not to cause new believers to lose their faith by being exclusive or hierarchical.[3] Jesus issues a dire warning against his followers making it their business to monitor and pass judgment upon the works of others.[5]

Discussion:

  • What areas of our life do we need to ask Jesus to help us believe more?
  • What is the role of faith in soliciting Jesus’ help? How strong does it need to be? What happens if it’s not enough? How do we know it’s not enough?
  • Who is the lowest person in our society? How can Christians serve them?
  • Who do you consider to be outside of those who follow Jesus but invoke his name in their actions? Are they with God or against him? How do you know?
  • How do we exclude “little ones” from our belief? How are we hierarchical/exclusive in our thinking about who’s in and who’s out of the faith?

References:

  1. Catholic Answers
  2. Utley’s Commentary
  3. Free Bible Commentary
  4. Barnes’ Commentary
  5. Coffman’s Commentary
  6. Gehenna – Wikipedia
  7. Resurrection – Wikipedia