James, a fall bible study
Thematically, James and the Beatitudes have a lot in common. They both defend the poor as blessed. If one is studying the book of James, then the Beatitudes are an excellent cross-reference.
20 Looking at his disciples, he said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22 Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
23 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
The Beatitudes, historically, are not my favorite. The Beatitudes were introduced to me as particularly meaningful and loved by Christians everywhere, but I did not get it – and I probably still do not. However, I am following a bible study outlined by my old church, and one of the assigned passages is the Beatitudes in Luke 6. His version of the Beatitudes connects to James 2 by the shared topic of the poor – not poor in spirit like Matthew’s gospel, but the actual poor. Despite my unholy disinterest, I found two hooks for myself (as a blogger, I should find the hook for you, but for this passage, I just need to find a way for me to be interested): Jesus as a context-rich and receiver-oriented communicator and a comparison of the Beatitudes to the now classic Four Spiritual Laws.
Pauline soteriology is straightforward. Aside from a couple of metaphors that he says to reflect on to find the deeper meaning (e.g. 2 Tim. 2:4-7), Paul is predominately analytical and explicit in his teaching. He considered clear communication to be his responsibility: he was speaker-oriented in his communication. Jesus, on the other hand, was a context-rich and receiver-oriented communicator. 1 Receiver-oriented communication is a type of communication that trusts that the hearer will do the work to understand what is being said, and context-rich communication imbues meaning to words from the immediate context. Jesus pulled from Israel’s culture, knowledge, and environment. He spoke in illusions, metaphors, hyperbole, and parables. I do not know if he was typical in his communication style for Israel in the first century. Paul’s style matches modern Israeli culture of straightforward communication, but perhaps Jesus was more old fashioned or drawing from his early childhood in Egypt. (I read somewhere that Egypt tends to have a more receiver-oriented communication patterns than Israel.) Or perhaps Jesus was side-stepping all cultural influence and merely fulfilling prophecy. Either way, Jesus intended his hearers to think about what he said to find the truths embedded in his allusions and multi-faceted yet succinct teachings.
THE PROMISES OF GOD – “blessed”
The Beatitudes are about blessing. If Jesus is a receiver-oriented communicator who wanted his crowds listening to meditate on his words, then the Torah, aka Old Testament, is the first place I want to look because even the most uneducated person in first-century Israel knew the gist of the Torah. We are accustomed to thinking that the love of money is the root of evil, but God intended to give prosperity as a gift to Israel if they would only obey his law. Trying to be spiritual, we say that money does not buy happiness, but God knows it helps. The word “blessed” means happy. The central story of the Old Testament is that God wanted to make Israel happy with prosperity, with the intent of blessing all of the earth through Israel. Material wealth is a blessing, and we can see it through all of the Old Testament.
The theme of work and blessing showed up pretty early in Genesis. We do not know how long the world spun around in a blissful Eden, but as soon as humanity sinned, God revealed to them the consequences of their choice: the God of life would be removed as the proper ruler of both the man and woman, ending in subjugation by other humans and death for all, and prior to death, creating and sustaining life apart from God would be hard work and suffering — whether childbearing or farming.
Even the covenant with Noah, who received a bare minimum, “Ok, I won’t kill EVERYONE–look, here is a rainbow,” had a reference to crops. True, it was a promise of the basics: that the world would keep spinning and keep having harvests. The quality of those harvests seem to be another story, but God does build on his promises. So, the first promise was that the world would keep having harvests. The second major promise was to Abraham, who actually had a multi-pronged promise, but the one most relevant for today is that he would be blessed with land, and land is a potential source of income. He was also promised that through his descendant all peoples of the world would be blessed. As you know, Abraham had Isaac, who had Jacob, who had Joseph. There’s a big famine; Joseph saves the day; and the whole clan ends up in slavery in Egypt. They are slaving away in Egypt, crying out to God, then Moses is given the task of helping them escape. What is the big focus? The promised land flowing with milk and honey.
Moses is given a lot of laws, and he is told that if the people obey these laws, they will be blessed economically (and as a national power), but if they do not obey those laws, they will be cursed in all the ways where they had previously received blessings, bringing economic and political ruin upon themselves. I would say the rest of the Old Testament is the story Israel and the result of their disobedience, with a few exceptions such as Song of Songs and the other wisdom literature; however, there is one other major promise.
David was made king over Israel, and he was promised that his descendant would have an eternal kingdom that would never end. When people called Jesus the Son of David, they were calling him the promised king. 2This promise of a king is the promise least related to economic prosperity, but I think it is implied that the kingdom is a prosperous kingdom. Later prophecies do reveal the coming kingdom to be prosperous in every way, from plenty to eat, water to drink, and harmonious relationships.
Okay, so Jesus was teaching in the context of Israel, and most people know the gist of the Torah: good things happen when you obey God, and bad things happen when you disobey.
“are the poor”
Perhaps Jesus taught the Beatitudes surrounded by people dressed in rags, smelly, and begging. Perhaps his disciples were asking again who sinned. Perhaps Jesus is giving his sermon surrounded by weird people possessed by demons. The common understanding at that time was that these poor, hungry, and sad people were cursed by God. But Jesus’s approach is crazy-different. He knows he can make a difference, and he does heal people throughout his ministry. But his solution and good news moves far beyond this life: the kingdom of God and rewards in heaven await even the poor.
His words allude to the blessings given by Moses (see Deut. 28), but he sounds like he has an opposite version. The poor are the ones who are blessed. Why? Is Jesus negating the law given to Moses? Jesus does not explain. But elsewhere Jesus says that the law is not passing away (Luke 16:17) and that he came to fulfill the law (Matt. 5:17). The Beatitudes reveal a missing link. If the law has not disappeared, then who is the righteous one who will bring the blessings promised in Deuteronomy 28? Hint: I think it’s Jesus.
I should just end there, but let’s take a closer look seeing how the salvation alluded to in the Beatitudes compares with the classic “Four Spiritual Laws.”
THE FOUR SPIRITUAL LAWS 3 – “the kingdom of God”
(1) “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.”
The “wonderful plan” might be post-death, but, yes, in the Beatitudes Jesus was teaching that God has a wonderful plan for all people, even the poor. The plan of blessing for people that would otherwise not be blessed, i.e. the poor, is what Jesus chose to highlight.
(2) “Humanity is tainted by sin and is therefore separated from God. As a result, we cannot know God’s wonderful plan for our lives.”
Jesus was not explicit on this point of human sin and separation from God. In fact, the Beatitudes are really weird because they seem to contradict the idea of sin and judgement. Jesus’s choice to highlight the poor as blessed was in contrast to the Mosaic law and the understanding that disobedience brings curses. To say that the poor are blessed indicates that another way is being provided for people to be counted among the blessed than their own righteousness; moreover, I think that we can learn a lesson from Jesus’s evangelism. He does not harp on the negative. He joyfully and compassionately shares the positive news and brings an intrigue: how do the poor cross from cursedness to blessedness?
(3) “Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for our sin. Through Jesus Christ, we can have our sins forgiven and restore a right relationship with God.”
The third “spiritual law” addresses the problem introduced previously in the second, namely, that Jesus is the one who enables our sins to be forgiven. Surprisingly, the Beatitudes do allude to a savior. Jesus subtly connects the blessing of the poor with affiliation with the Son of Man when he says, “Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.”
The “Son of Man” is a powerful image of righteousness. The Ancient of Days is sitting there as a judge, with the books open, yet the Son of Man is able to walk up to him, complete in his goodness. He is able to come into the presence of the Ancient of Days in relationship with him. Daniel 7 focuses on the Son of Man’s power and kingdom, but if he is a good king, then he will bring goodness to all whom he rules.
I am sure you know this passage, but I always love to reread this portion of Daniel prophesying about the Son of Man. I like to include the first bit about the Ancient of Days, even with the little interjection regarding the “horns” (some power opposed to God):
9 “As I looked,
“thrones were set in place,
and the Ancient of Days took his seat.
His clothing was as white as snow;
the hair of his head was white like wool.
His throne was flaming with fire,
and its wheels were all ablaze.
10 A river of fire was flowing,
coming out from before him.
Thousands upon thousands attended him;
ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.
The court was seated,
and the books were opened.
11 “Then I continued to watch because of the boastful words the horn was speaking. I kept looking until the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire. 12 (The other beasts had been stripped of their authority, but were allowed to live for a period of time.)
13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
(4) “We must place our faith in Jesus Christ as Savior in order to receive the gift of salvation and know God’s wonderful plan for our lives.”
Again, this fourth spiritual law connects with the Beatitudes through Jesus’s inclusion of people persecuted for the Son of Man. Somehow those persecuted have an affiliation with the Son of Man, but Jesus does not give the details in the Beatitudes. Even so, both Matthew and Mark record that Jesus said that those who receive a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophets reward:
“The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward.”
“Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.”
Apparently, those who receive the Son of Man as the “Son of Man” will receive the Son of Man’s reward.
This series is inspired (but not sponsored) by FBC (First Baptist Church of Davis) and their fall focus running from October 4, 2015 through November 28, 2015. When I first heard FBC was doing this series, the lectionary reading and sermon that day at my own church, Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church, was from the book of James, and it really spoke to me; James is also the first bible study I completed on my own: I was fourteen, and I wrote with colored markers in a spiral notebook each morning before school, using an observation-reflection-action method similar to the one outlined in FBC’s bible-study guide. I am looking forward to spending more time meditating on this challenging book of the New Testament. I will be using the bible study guide provided by FBC with the accompanying scripture throughout this series; however, my methodology might hop around from anecdotal to more analytical word study. My goal is to do this study daily, or at least a few times a week! A big thanks to FBC for their theme, chosen scriptures, and structure of this study.
Monday – James 2 [James 2:1-5 for FBC]
Tuesday – [James 2:1-13 for FBC]
Wednesday – [James 1:19-27 for FBC]
Thursday – Mark 2:13-17
Friday – Luke 6:20-23 (ok, on Saturday)
- Yes, Malcolm Gladwell’s popular book, Outliers, with its chapter on pilots and plane crashes reminded me of different modes of communication. (Maybe I need to reference more than just Malcolm Gladwell…) ↩
- The promise to David and many of the prophecies in the Old Testament had both an immediate fulfillment and a fulfillment in Jesus. ↩
- See http://www.cru.org/how-to-know-god/would-you-like-to-know-god-personally.html. ↩