Thursday, September 27, 2018

God’s covenant people: Why most believing Jews in Paul’s day weren’t in the body of Christ (Part Three)

Israel’s Covenant-Based Obligation

In Psalm 103:17-18 (Concordant Literal Old Testament), we read, “Yet the benignity of Yahweh is from eon unto eon over those fearing Him, and His righteousness continues for the sons of sons, to those keeping His covenant and to those remembering His precepts, to do them.

What “precepts” was the Psalmist referring to in v. 18? Answer: the precepts of the law that God gave to Israel through Moses. In Exodus 19:4-8, the prelude to the giving of Israel’s law reads as follows:

“You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” So Moses came and called the elders of the people and set before them all these words that Yahweh had commanded him. All the people answered together and said, “All that Yahweh has spoken we will do.” And Moses reported the words of the people to Yahweh.

It was this covenant which placed the nation of Israel under the obligation to keep the law given to her, or else suffer the consequences threatened by God. But is this covenant still in effect today? The most commonly-held position among Christians seems to be that this covenant ended when Christ died. In fact, one believer once assured me that the author of the letter to the Hebrews “emphatically declared that the old covenant had been done away with.” However, the author of Hebrews declared no such thing (despite the fact that he easily could have said this, had he thought it to have been the case). Rather than saying that the old covenant had been “done away with,” the author instead wrote the following concerning it: “In saying ‘new,’ [God] has made the former old. Now that which is growing old and decrepit is near its disappearance(Heb 8:13).

To say something is “growing old and decrepit” and is “near its disappearance” is not the same as saying that it has, in fact, ended or been abolished. And since that which the author wrote was true at the time when he wrote his letter (which was likely more than 30 years after the death and resurrection of Christ), it would mean that Christ’s death and resurrection did not end the old covenant.

Some believe that the events of 70 AD (which involved the Roman siege of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple and the exile of the Jewish people from their land) should be understood as implying that the Mosaic covenant ended at this time as well. However, this was neither the first time that the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, nor the first time that the Jewish people had been exiled from their land. The same thing happened in 587 BC under king Nebuchadnezzar. And we know that this event didn’t involve the end of the old covenant. On the contrary, that which took place at this time was in accord with the Mosaic covenant (which threatened Israel with curses for disobedience; see, for example, Lev. 26:14-39 and Deut. 28:15-68). As such, both the events of 587 BC and of 70 AD can be understood as proof that the Mosaic covenant was in effect at that time.

But how could the disappearance of the old covenant (and the implied implementation of the new covenant) be referred to as something that was “near” at the time when the author of Hebrews wrote? The “nearness” of the disappearance of the old covenant (and the implementation of the new covenant) is consistent with the motif of “imminence” that runs throughout the Greek scriptures. In Hebrews 1:2 the author referred to the era in which he wrote as “the last of these days” (cf. Acts 2:16-18; 1 Pet. 1:20), and in Heb. 10:25 he referred to the future day of the Lord as “drawing near” (cf. verses 26-31). James wrote that the “presence of the Lord is near” and “the Judge stands before the doors.” Peter wrote in his first letter, “Now the consummation of all is near.” Insofar as the nearness of Christ’s return was true when the author of Hebrews wrote, the disappearance of the old covenant could be said to have been “near” as well, since it is at the consummation referred to by Peter (when the “Chief Shepherd is manifested”) that the old covenant will disappear, and the new covenant will go into effect.

But if the old covenant is still in effect, does this mean that Israel is still under a covenant-based obligation to keep the law given to her by God? Yes, it does. In fact, even when the old covenant is replaced by the new covenant at Christ’s return, Israel’s law (as well as her obligation to keep it) will remain. Although it’s commonly believed that the old covenant and the law of Moses are identical, I think it would be more accurate to say that the old covenant is the arrangement that involves blessings to Israel for keeping the law of Moses, and curses for breaking it. Rather than resulting in the disappearance or abolishing of the law given to Israel, the implementing of the new covenant will involve the supernatural empowerment of Israel to keep the law, so that the nation will never again come under the curses with which God threatened Israel under the old covenant.

In part one, Ezekiel 36:24-31 was quoted in support of the position that, when the new covenant goes into effect, Israel will be dwelling in the land God promised them. Because of its relevance to Israel’s covenant-based obligation, I’d like to bring the reader’s attention to this passage once more. This time, however, the emphasis will be on the fact that Israel will be faithfully keeping God’s law while they’re dwelling in the land God promised to them:

“For I will take you from among the nations, and gather you out of all the countries, and will bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. I will also give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you shall keep My ordinances, and do them. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and you shall be My people, and I will be your God. I will save you from all your uncleanness: and I will call for the grain, and will multiply it, and lay no famine on you. I will multiply the fruit of the tree, and the increase of the field, that you may receive no more the reproach of famine among the nations. Then you shall remember your evil ways, and your doings that were not good; and you shall loathe yourselves in your own sight for your iniquities and for your abominations.”

From this passage it’s clear that, when the new covenant is in effect, Israel will be caused by God to keep the statutes and ordinances that he gave to Israel. God will ensure that Israel will never again become guilty of breaking his law, and Israel will never again become deserving of the curses that were threatened in the old covenant.

God’s covenant people during Christ’s earthly ministry

The importance of Israel’s keeping the law in fulfillment of her covenant-based obligations – even up to (and into) the coming day of the Lord – is evident from one of the final statements found in the Hebrew Scriptures. In Malachi 4:4, God exhorts Israel as follows: “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.” In accord with this exhortation from Malachi, we read that Zechariah and Elizabeth were “both just in front of God, going in all the precepts and just statutes of the Lord, blameless” (Luke 1:5-6). From this verse it’s evident that there was an inseparable connection between an Israelite’s righteous standing before God and their faithful, law-keeping conduct. For believing Israelites such as Zechariah and Elizabeth, faith in God and his promises to Israel was expressed through (and was inseparable from) the keeping of “the precepts and just statutes” that God had given to Israel through Moses. No one with a covenant-based obligation to keep God’s law could, without repudiating their covenant status as a member of God’s covenant people, simply choose not to keep it. And as members of God’s covenant people, Zechariah and Elizabeth had a covenant-based obligation to keep this law.

Of course, we need not believe that Zechariah and Elizabeth were sinless, and had kept the law of Moses perfectly their entire lives (in fact, within the law itself there was provision made for violations of it). However, despite the failings that Zechariah and Elizabeth undoubtedly had with regards to their attempt to obey God perfectly, their faith-based conduct was such that they could be counted among those who qualified to be raised at the “resurrection of the just,” to enjoy eonian life in the kingdom of God (Luke 14:14; 20:35).[1]

Now, when we fast-forward to the start of Jesus’ earthly ministry, it’s evident that the words of Malachi 4:4 remained just as applicable and authoritative as they were when they were first written. Concerning the importance and continuance of the law, Christ himself declared the following to his disciples during his “sermon on the mount”:

"You should not infer that I came to demolish the law or the prophets. I came not to demolish, but to fulfill. For verily, I am saying to you, Till heaven and earth should be passing by, one iota or one serif may by no means be passing by from the law till all should be occurring. Whosoever, then, should be annulling one of the least of these precepts, and should be teaching men thus, the least in the kingdom of the heavens shall he be called. Yet whoever should be doing and teaching them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of the heavens. For I am saying to you that, if ever your righteousness should not be superabounding more than that of the scribes and Pharisees, by no means may you be entering into the kingdom of the heavens.” Matthew 5:17-20

To “demolish” the law and the prophets would’ve been to put an end to them, and to make them no longer applicable to (or authoritative for) Israel. This is the very thing that Christ declared he did not come to do. Instead, he came to “fulfill” them. There seems to be quite a bit of confusion among Christians concerning what, exactly, the word translated “fulfill” (pleroo) means here. Many Christians interpret the word to mean “bring an end to.” However, such an interpretation is clearly illogical and absurd, as it would essentially have Christ declaring that he didn’t come to put an end to the law or the prophets, but to put an end to them!

The literal meaning of the word pleroo means to “make full,” and – like many words – can convey different ideas depending on the context in which it’s used. In this context, it’s clearly used in contrast with the words translated “demolish” (or “destroy”) and “annul.” So however the word pleroo is to be understood in v. 17, it can’t be understood in such a way that it expresses the same idea conveyed through the words “demolish” and “annul.” The key to its meaning here is, I believe, found in the fact that it’s connected with both “the law” and “the prophets.” When a certain prophecy is “fulfilled,” that which was written or spoken is not “ended” or “terminated.” Rather, that which was prophesied actually occurs or is brought about. It is, in other words, carried out, or carried into effect. For a prophecy to be “fulfilled” (or “made full”), then, is for it to be carried out, or carried into effect.

The same meaning of pleroo is found in Matt. 3:15, where Christ declared that it was “becoming for us [himself and John] to fulfill all righteousness.” Christ didn’t mean, of course, that it was becoming for them to bring an end to all righteousness. Rather, he meant it was becoming for them to carry it out fully, or put it into effect. In the same way, Christ wasn’t talking about putting an end to the law or the prophets. He was talking about carrying out, or fully implementing, what was written in the law and the prophets. Christ then went on to declare, “For verily, I am saying to you, Till heaven and earth should be passing by, one iota or one serif may by no means be passing by from the law till all should be occurring.”

Why did Christ begin by saying, “Till heaven and earth should be passing by?” Well, we know that heaven and earth were said by God to be the two witnesses to the giving of the law to Israel:  “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil, in that I command you today to love Yahweh your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments, his statutes, and his judgments, that you may live and multiply; and Yahweh your God will bless you in the land which you go to possess…I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live (Deut. 30:15-19).

This is why “heaven and earth” must pass away before the law will. Christ knew that, as long as heaven and earth remained, the law would remain as well. But what did Christ mean by “till all should be occurring?” Based on the immediate context, the “all” that Christ said “should be occurring” is likely a reference to everything written in the law and the prophets (which Christ declared he came to fulfill). In other words, the law given by God to Israel will not be passing away till everything written in the law and the prophets occurs. And since we know from the prophets that the law given to Israel will continue to be in effect during the eon to come (e.g., Isaiah 2:3; 66:22-23; Jer. 31:33; Ezekiel 36:27; 37:24; 44:15-17, 24; 45:21, 25; Micah 4:1-2; Zech. 14:16-18; etc.), it follows that the passing of the law cannot occur before the end of the eon to come.

Thus, God’s covenant people were no less obligated to keep the law during the days of Christ’s earthly ministry than they were when Moses first spoke the words of Deut. 30:15-19. Thus, we read the following in Matt. 23:1-3: Then Jesus speaks to the throngs and to His disciples, saying, “On Moses’ seat are seated the scribes and the Pharisees. All, then, whatever they should be saying to you, do and keep it. Yet according to their acts do not be doing, for they are saying and not doing.

When we keep in mind that those to whom Christ spoke were members of God’s covenant people, Israel (and thus had a covenant-based obligation to keep the law), this exhortation from Christ makes perfect sense. Keeping the law was never just a matter of “cultural preference” for Israelites. It was a matter of covenantal obligation. And with the coming of Christ, their covenantal obligation to keep the law did not cease; rather, what changed was that faith in Jesus – i.e., faith that he is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:13-17) – became just as necessary to their salvation as faith in Yahweh, the one God of Israel.

The necessity of faith in Christ as an additional requirement for salvation is made especially evident in John’s Gospel Account, where one of the central themes of the book is that faith in Jesus as the Christ and Son of God is essential to having eonian life (John 20:30-31). So it's clear that one of the ways in which Christ believed his disciples did the will of his Father was by believing the truth concerning his Messianic identity (cf. 1 John 3:23). However, despite the emphasis in this book on believing that Jesus is the Messiah/Son of God, it would be a mistake to think that “faith without works” was sufficient for an Israelite’s doing the will of God and being worthy of an allotment in the kingdom during the eon to come. The new requirement of faith in Jesus for salvation – i.e., faith in his Messianic identity - did not replace the need for faithful, obedient conduct. “Doing the will of God” was, for Christ’s disciples, inseparable from their conduct. 

According to Christ, if an Israelite wanted to be saved and enter into the kingdom of God – which, as we’ve seen, is the kingdom that is to be restored to Israel - their righteousness had to “super-abound” more than that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 5:20), and it’s clear from the immediate context that this involved keeping the precepts of the law given by God to Israel (vv. 17-19). Although the righteousness that made an Israelite worthy of entering into life in the eon to come undoubtedly involved the heart rather than the external conduct only (we find this point emphasized throughout Christ’s teaching), it’s also clear that an Israelite’s conduct (i.e., keeping God’s precepts) was inseparable from their being worthy of entering the kingdom that is to be restored to Israel. According to Christ, it was not “workers of lawlessness” but rather those who were “doing the will of [his Father] in the heavens” who would “be entering into the kingdom of the heavens” (Matt. 7:16-23; cf. vv. 24-27). Notice that Christ contrasted doing the will of God with “lawlessness” (see 1 John 3:4). “Lawlessness” is, of course, the opposite of keeping God's law/commandments.

When asked by a young man what one needed to be doing in order to have life eonian in the kingdom of God, Christ replied, “If you are wanting to be entering into life, keep the precepts” (Matt. 19:16-17). In other words, keeping the precepts of the law was not an option for God’s covenant people if they wanted to “be entering into life.” It was a requirement. Christ went on to list five of the “Ten Commandments,” as well as what he considered the second of the two “greatest precepts” given to Israel: “You shall be loving your associate as yourself” (vv. 18-19; cf. Mark 12:29-34), which is from Leviticus 19:18 (the other greatest precept being from Deut. 6:5). It is impossible for an Israelite to keep what Christ referred to as the “greatest precepts” while, at the same time, living in violation of the very precepts which God himself inscribed in stone and - through Moses - delivered to Israel (Ex. 24:12; 31:18).

In addition to affirming the essential involvement of the heart in keeping God’s precepts (Matt. 5:27-28), Christ also warned his disciples against being “snared” by the temptation to break one of the precepts given to Israel with the following exhortation:“Now, if your right eye is snaring you, wrench it out and cast it from you, for it is expedient for you that one of your members should perish and not your whole body be cast into Gehenna [i.e., the Valley of Hinnom]. And if your hand should ever be snaring you, strike it off and cast it from you, for it is expedient for you that one of your members should perish and not your whole body pass away into Gehenna…It is ideal for you to be entering life maimed, rather than having two hands, to be cast into Gehenna…” (Matt. 5:27-30; Mark 9:42-48). Clearly, Christ did not understand the keeping of God’s precepts as a mere option for his disciples. Again, a failure to keep God’s precepts constituted “lawlessness,” and it was the “workers of lawlessness” whom Christ declared would not be entering the kingdom of God (Matt. 7:22-23).

In contrast with those who would not be entering the kingdom of God, Christ referred to those among God’s covenant people whom the Father would be giving the kingdom as the “little flock” (Luke 12:32). Those constituting the “little flock” that will be receiving the kingdom are those who not only believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, but who also – as an expression of their faith in God and Christ - do whatever Christ said needed to be done in order to be entering life (such as keeping the precepts of the law given to Israel).

God’s covenant people during the final years of this eon

According to Christ in his Olivet Discourse, all believing Israelites who will be alive during the time of “great affliction” must remain “vigilant” (Luke 21:36), “watchful” (Matt. 24:42; 25:13), and “faithful” (25:21-23). They must avoid being “snared” and “deceived” (Matt. 24:4), and must “endure to the consummation” in order to be “saved” (Matt. 24:13). We know that the “consummation” Christ had in view in this verse refers to his coming in power and glory at the end of the eon, and that being “saved” involves being worthy to stand before Christ at this time and to enter into life in the kingdom (Luke 21:28-31). And based on John’s words in Rev. 14:12, it can also be reasonably inferred that the “enduring” Christ had in mind entailed keeping the precepts of God and the faith of Jesus.” See also Rev. 12:17, where we’re told that the dragon went away to do battle with the seed of the “woman” (the believing Jewish remnant of Judea), who are “keeping the precepts of God and who have the testimony of Jesus.”

That the salvation program according to which Israelites could be saved during Christ’s earthly ministry did not terminate with Christ’s death and resurrection is evident from the post-ascension words of Christ himself. In the 2nd and 3rd chapters of the book of Revelation, we find Christ delivering messages to the “messengers” of seven different churches in Asia. Although I believe these ecclesias will all exist at a future time (and were not in existence at the time John wrote Revelation), it should be noted that a fulfilled, “historical” interpretation of Revelation 2-3 (which views these ecclesias as contemporaneous with John at the time he wrote) is equally consistent with the position being advanced in this article. 

Regardless of whether these seven ecclesias existed in John’s day or will exist at some future time, the point that needs to be emphasized is that Christ’s messages to them all presuppose the same view of salvation as that found in the Gospel accounts – i.e., one’s being worthy of life during the eons of Christ’s reign is dependent on both faith and faithful, precept-keeping conduct. From the perspective of those to whom Christ delivered the words in these chapters, their future salvation is not something that will come to pass irrespective of what they do and how they live; rather, to be worthy of having life in the kingdom during the eons of Christ’s reign will require continued obedience, diligence and faithfulness:

“I am aware of your acts, and your toil, and your endurance…But I have against you that you leave your first love. Remember, then, whence you have fallen, and repent, and do the former acts. Yet if not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, if ever you should not be repenting…To the one who is conquering, I will be granting to be eating of the tree of life which is in the center of the paradise of God (Rev. 2:2-7). 

Become faithful until death, and I shall be giving you the wreath of life…the one who is conquering will not be injured by the second death (Rev. 2:10). 

I will give to each of you as your works deserve…the one who is conquering and who is keeping my acts until the consummation, to him will I be giving authority over the nations (Rev. 2:23, 26-28).

“I am aware of your acts, that you have a name that you are living, and are dead. Become watchful, and establish the rest who were about to be dying; for I have not found your acts completed in the sight of my God…Yet you have a few names in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. The one who is conquering will be clothed thus in white garments, and under no circumstances will I be erasing his name from the scroll of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his messengers.” (Rev. 3:1-5) 

Notice that, in the above passages, Christ wasn’t merely talking about receiving something beyond salvation, as an “added bonus” for faithfulness. He was talking about having eonian life itself during the last and greatest eon (that which pertains to the “new heaven and new earth”). Having access to the “tree of life,” receiving the “wreath of life” (and avoiding the “second death”) and not being erased from “the scroll of life” are undoubtedly about being saved rather than unsaved. And as was the case before and during Christ’s earthly ministry, both faith and faithful conduct will be necessary for God’s covenant people to be worthy of eonian life in the kingdom. 

God’s covenant people during the apostolic era

In Acts 21:17-22 (Concordant Literal New Testament) we read the following:

Now at our coming to be in Jerusalem, the brethren welcome us with gratification. Now by the ensuing day, Paul had been in, together with us, to James. Besides, all the elders came along. And, greeting them, he unfolded, one by one, each of the things which God does among the nations through his dispensation. Now those who hear glorified God. Besides, they said to him, “You are beholding, brother, how many tens of thousands there are among the Jews who have believed, and all are inherently zealous for the law? Now they were instructed concerning you that you teach all the Jews among the nations apostasy from Moses, telling them not to be circumcising their children, nor yet to be walking in the customs. What is it, then?”

Paul arrived in Jerusalem around 59 AD. This means that, approximately 30 years after the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, there were “tens of thousands” of believing Jews in the land of Israel that were “all inherently zealous for the law.” These believing Jews - among whom James and the other Jewish elders would’ve undoubtedly counted themselves - also believed that it would’ve been wrong for any of them to apostatize from Moses (which would’ve involved no longer circumcising their children or “walking in the customs” of the Mosaic law), and that anyone who taught otherwise was wrong (Acts 21:18-22). It was these believing Jews who comprised (or who comprised part of) what Paul referred to as the “ecclesias of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 2:14). Among these believers were also the “poor of the saints who are in Jerusalem” to whom the saints in the body of Christ were making financial contributions (Rom. 15:25-27), in accord with the agreement that we find referred to by Paul in Gal. 2:9-10.

But why were all of these believing Jews “inherently zealous” for the law? In light of what’s already been said in this study, the answer should be obvious to the reader: as members of God’s covenant nation, Israel, these “tens of thousands” of believing Jews had a covenant-based obligation to keep the law. Thus, their status as a people in covenant with God required the sort of zeal for the law that we’re told by James that they all had. We have absolutely no evidence that any of these believing Jews had been informed by any of Christ’s apostles that Israel no longer had a covenantal obligation to keep the law given by God to the nation, or that keeping the law had suddenly become “optional” for God’s covenant people. Rather, the divinely-woven thread of Israel’s covenantal obligation continues unbroken through the Hebrew Scriptures, the four Gospel Accounts and the book of Acts. The following words of Psalm 103:17-18 were just as true for Israel when the book of Acts was written as they were when the Psalm itself was written: “Yet the benignity of Yahweh is from eon unto eon over those fearing Him, and His righteousness continues for the sons of sons, to those keeping His covenant and to those remembering His precepts, to do them.

This view is confirmed by what James wrote in his letter. In reading this letter, it must be kept in mind that those to whom James addressed his letter were “the twelve tribes in the dispersion.” James was, in other words, writing to those who self-identified as individuals belonging to one of the tribes of Israel. If James had been writing to members of the body of Christ – a company of saints in which ethnic and fleshly distinctions are irrelevant – why would he reinforce the idea of fleshly, ethnic distinctions by addressing the recipients of his letter as such? Why write an entire letter to only Jewish members of a company of saints in which we’re told that there is neither Greek nor Jew, nor circumcision or uncircumcision (Col. 3:11)? The very fact that James addressed his letter to the twelve tribes of Israel is, in itself, evidence that there were, in his day, Israelites who, although believing that Jesus is the Christ, were not members of the body of Christ.

This is further confirmed from what James went on to write. Although James clearly believed that faith was essential to the salvation of those to whom he wrote, he also believed that works were no less essential. Consider, for example, the following excerpts from chapter two of James’ letter (which was written anywhere between 20-30 years after the death and resurrection of Christ):

“What is the benefit, my brethren, if anyone should be saying he has faith, yet may have no works? That faith cannot save him.”

In the context, the salvation that James had in view is clearly that which is the result of being justified, and involves receiving eonian life. James is saying that one who has faith but no works is not justified, and will thus not be saved.

“Thus also, is faith, if it should not have works: it is dead by itself.”

According to James, it is not faith alone that saves. Faith without works is a “dead” faith; faith must be “perfected” by works in order to be a “living” faith that saves. This is evident from the next three quotations:

“Abraham, our father, was he not justified by works when offering up his son Isaac on the altar? You are observing that faith worked together with his works, and by works was faith perfected. And fulfilled was the scripture which is saying, Now ‘Abraham believes God, and it is reckoned to him for righteousness,’ and he was called ‘the friend of God.’”

You see that by works a man is being justified, and not by faith only.”

“For even as the body apart from spirit is dead, thus also faith apart from works is dead.”

As should be clear to the reader, the sort of justification that James had in mind was based on faith and works. According to James, works were just as essential to the justification of the Israelites and proselytes to whom he wrote as was faith; faith was understood as “working together” with a person’s works, and as thus “perfecting” one’s faith. This is in accord with what Christ taught during his earthly ministry. According to Christ, both faith and obedient, precept-keeping conduct were necessary in order for an Israelite to be saved and to enter the kingdom of God. This is because – as we’ve seen – God’s covenant people have a covenant-based obligation to keep the law, and their salvation as members of God’s covenant people requires not just faith but a faith that expresses itself in faithful and obedient conduct.

We also know from the context that the sort of works that James had in mind as being essential to the justification of those to whom he wrote were works that were done when “discharging the royal law” (James 2:8-13). What is this “royal law” to which James was referring (and which James referred to in 1:22-25 as “the perfect law, that of freedom”)? Answer: it is the same law for which the “tens of thousands” of believing Jews in Jerusalem were, according to James himself, all “inherently zealous” – i.e., the law given by God to Israel. This is, I believe, evident from several considerations:

1. This “royal law” was a law to which those among the twelve tribes to whom he wrote would’ve been regularly listening in their synagogues (1:22-25; cf. 2:2).

2. It was a law to which “the scripture, ‘You shall be loving your associate as yourself’” belonged. And where is this “scripture” to which James was referring found? Answer: James was quoting from Leviticus 19:18. By showing partiality, those to whom James wrote were “working sin” and “being exposed by the law as transgressors.”

3. The law which exposed them as transgressors is obviously the same “royal law” to which James just referred, and that can be none other than the law of Moses (significantly, Lev. 19:15 condemns the sin of partiality, which is the very sin to which James is responding in chapter 2 of his letter).

4. James immediately went on to refer to two of the ten precepts constituting the Decalogue (or “Ten Commandments”), which is, of course, the most well-known part of the Law of Moses.

James went on to exhort the recipients of his letter to be speaking and doing as those “about to be judged by a law of freedom,” which he said would be “merciless to him who does not exercise mercy.” Most Christians would undoubtedly scoff at the idea of the law of Moses being referred to as either “perfect” or as being a “law of freedom,” but this just shows how vastly different the attitude of most Christians is from the attitude that James and those to whom he wrote would’ve had concerning the law that God gave to Israel. A believing member of God’s covenant people (such as James) would’ve had the same attitude toward the law as that which was expressed by David in Psalm 19:7-11: The law of Yahweh is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of Yahweh is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of Yahweh are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of Yahweh is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of Yahweh is clean, enduring forever; the rules of Yahweh are true, and righteous altogether.  More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward(see also Psalm 119, much of which extols the virtues of the law).

To a believing Israelite like James, the law was “a law of freedom” because, by discharging it (as an expression of one’s faith in Christ and God), one was obeying God. And a life of faith-based obedience to God meant not being a slave to sin and corruption (cf. John 8:34-36; 2 Pet. 2:18-29). Since Christ himself taught that his disciples must keep the precepts of the law in order to enter into life (Matthew 5:17-20; 19:16-17; 23:1-3; etc.), a believing Israelite could not be said to remain in Christ’s word (and thus be his disciple) without keeping the precepts of the law. Failing to “endure trial” by transgressing the law that James had in mind (and thus “working sin”) jeopardized the future salvation of those to whom James wrote, and disqualified them from obtaining the “wreath of life” (which, as seen from Christ’s words in Revelation, means qualifying for eonian life rather than having one’s name erased from the “scroll of life,” and being among those who will be “injured by the second death”).[2]

[1] It must be noted that, for God’s covenant people, faith has always been essential to being “just” before God. The words of Habakkuk 2:4 (“the just shall live by faith”) and Hebrews 11:6-7 (“apart from faith it is impossible to be well pleasing, for he who is coming to God must believe that He is, and is becoming a Rewarder of those who are seeking Him out”) have always been true for God’s covenant people. However, it would be wrong (as well as illogical) to conclude that, because an Israelite’s righteous standing before God has always required faith (and has never been based solely on law-keeping), it follows that an Israelite’s conduct is completely unrelated to their righteous standing before God. For those who have a covenant-based obligation to keep the law given to Israel, their faith has always had to find expression in their attempt to keep the law.

[2] Unlike those in the body of Christ, the justification of those to whom James wrote was not “through the faith of Christ.” If it was, those to whom he wrote would’ve been in no danger of losing or forfeiting the “wreath of life,” or of being erased from the “scroll of life.” Their receiving eonian life would be just as secure as the life that Christ is enjoying right now (since the basis for their deserving it would’ve been Christ’s own faith and obedience to God, rather than their own).

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