James on participating in the divine nature

I’m going to start leading our small group Bible study through a series on the Letter of James tonight. The thing I am most excited about is that this small group has become increasingly open to dig deeply into the Scriptures and into the dark places of our souls. We seem more willing to share with one another about the things we are struggling with and to keep one another accountable in our walk of faith. That’s what James is all about.

Since we didn’t decide until yesterday that we would be doing this study, I gave them a quick reading assignment to prepare: James 1:1-2 and 5:19-20. James is written to the twelve tribes living in the Diaspora. The people of God who have been scattered. By the end of the letter it is clear that this is no mere geographical designation. It is written to brothers and sisters who have wandered off the path of truth. And it is written to brothers and sisters who are in such a relationship with God that they can be His instruments to steer their wayward family members back onto the path of life.

Peter talks about participating in the divine nature through the promises of God (2 Peter 1:4), and James has his own message along these lines. In the beginning of the letter, James lays out a contrast between our own evil desires that lead to death (James 1:14-15) and the desire of our heavenly Father to give us new birth through his word of truth (James 1:17-18). This divine word is the only thing that can truly inspire us with godly wisdom, save us from the filth around us, and give abundant life to our mortal souls.

By the end of the letter, James presents a picture of the church accomplishing through prayer what only God can do: healing the sick, forgiveness of sins, stopping the rain and making it rain again (James 5:15-18). When we come alongside a wandering brother or sister in Christ and turn them back to God, we participate in the nature of God by saving others from death and covering over a multitude of sins (James 5:19-20). Surely, the prayer of a righteous person is very powerful since it is God who makes it effective (James 5:16).

May we each not forsake our first love (Revelation 2:4). May the love of God well up within us and overflow to all those around us.

Non-imperatives in Romans 12:9-13.

Why can’t we translate the non-imperative clauses in Romans 12:9-13 as something other than imperatives? I don’t see any reason why not. In fact, I believe that translating these non-imperative forms as commands puts too much emphasis on our human effort that just isn’t in the text at this point. The introduction of 14 commands in this passage also has the effect of hiding the more relevant theme that must be continuing in this passage of the Spirit’s control of our minds (cf. Rom. 8:4ff; 12:2,6). The tension within the ethics of the New Testament is that we are frequently commanded to do what we are only able to do through the gift of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The pages of the New Testament do also give plain descriptions of what Spirit-regenerated life looks like, and these should not all be reduced to the rhetoric of direct instructions.

Understood descriptively, vv. 9-13 offer a detailed picture of what love looks like after the preceding discussion of gifts (analagous to 1 Cor. 12-13). It is not a series of orders, but it would have been heard as an attractive description of what love does. Certainly this should motivate us to those actions, but the real power behind any of these loving behaviors is the control of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. These aren’t just mitigated commands. The expository nature of the text leaves more room for figuring in the role of the Spirit.

The real difficulty is how to translate this passage into English when there are some surprising subject-verb agreement features of the Greek text that can’t be automatically carried over into English. The first phrase says “Love (singular) [is] unhypocritical (singular),” but the following supporting phrases are all plural verbal participles (e.g. “abhorring (plural) evil, clinging (plural) to the good…”).

I think the main reason all our English translations go the way of expressing all 14 of these clauses as commands where there isn’t a single imperative verb is this: in trying to do justice to the apparent discrepancy of the lack of number agreement between the first singular clause and the following plural participles, making them all commands apparently solves this problem in English.  By supplying an implied command (“let be”) for the first clause (“let love be unhypocritical”), there is no longer any lack of agreement between the subject of the first clause and the assumed plural “you” subject of all the following participles. The subject now is always ‘you’.

The big problem, however, is that the grammatical subject of this whole paragraph is ‘love’. The traditional English solution loses that and shifts the entire focus to ‘you’. A second person plural subject is not expressed in any form in any of these 14 clauses in vv. 9-13 (nor in the previous 5 verses).

A better understanding of the apparent mismatch in the Greek subject-verb agreement of vs. 9 is that Greek normally allows the semantics of the situation to dictate the forms of the subject and verb. This is regularly seen in various disagreements for person and number when there are compound subjects, and for a variety of semantic reasons (see my summary of the issues here). In Rom. 12:9 the disagreement comes about because the true initial subject of the paragraph is the singular notion of love, but Paul is talking about love that is expressed by the multiple members of the body of Christ. The mismatch in number agreement happens when the singular abstract concept of ‘love’ is introduced and then described by participles that are plural due to the multiple agents in view.

Here’s my first attempt at a translation. Notice that the first command does not occur until vs. 14…

9 Love is unhypocritical: it is people abhorring evil, clinging to the good, 10 affectionate to one another with brotherly love, leading the way in showing honor to one another, 11 not shrunk back in eagerness, boiling over in the Spirit, serving the Lord, 12 rejoicing in hope, enduring suffering, persevering in prayer, 13 sharing their possessions for the needs of the saints, pursuing love between strangers. 14 Bless the ones pursuing you; bless and do not curse.

After translating this passage to more carefully reflect what is happening in the original text, a few things stand out that are not so apparent when all the dependent clauses are translated as separate commands…

The single sentence that includes vv. 9-13 starts off with the broad thematic content of the paragraph, namely, that love is unhypocritical. This theme is illustrated by a broad movement in the following participles from showing love to the brothers in the community who are called saints to a love that endures suffering and is sought after even between strangers.

The transition from the string of participial and adjective phrases in vv. 9-13 to the commands in vs. 14 is marked by the double use of DIWKW ‘pursue’ in vs. 13 in the sense of ‘hospitality’ (or more literally “pursuing love between strangers”) and in vs. 14 in the sense of “bless the ones pursuing (i.e. persecuting) you.”

Understood as a description rather than a series of commands, it also becomes more reasonable to understand the TW PNEUMATI as “the Spirit” rather than as the human spirit that one can manipulate. And that, I believe, is the whole point of Paul using participles in this paragraph rather than imperative verbs. It’s the Spirit’s work, first of all, before it is our own.

Blessing and Cursing our Brothers

Dr. Ben Witherington III, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, has issued a corrective for Wiley Drake, the California pastor who has called his congregation to pray curses on those who have opposed his combined religious and political activites. Witherington gives us a more appropriate hermeneutic for understanding human curses found in the Bible…

His supposed Biblical precedent for this is the imprecatory psalms of David. I don’t know what seminary this pastor went to, but boy has he misunderstood those psalms. They don’t reveal the will of God in such matters, rather they shed God’s light of truth on what is in the wicked heart of human beings, including in David’s heart, that old murderer and adulterer.

Witherington continued to point out Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings in the New Testament (Matthew 5.44; Romans 12.14) about loving our enemies, blessing them, praying for them, and NOT cursing them.

This is a good reminder to me. I have recently considered the appropriateness of following in the footsteps of Elijah and calling down fire from heaven. Seriously, when my house and my family are threatened, my first inclination—even my second, third, and fourth—is to respond in kind. And I don’t mean kindly, but in the same kind of way, but perhaps worse. After all, I’ve got God on my side, and I could show them what power really is, right? But when the disciples considered doing this, Jesus rebuked them because that was not the right spirit…

When His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.”

Luke 9.54-56

One response to the Witherington’s post raised the issue of God’s purposes in OT curses…

What is the best way to view these psalms of cursing? I have been reading Christopher Wright’s book Mission in the OT and as I read the post I was reminded of the Abrahamic promise that God would curse those who curse Abraham’s descendants. I wonder if some of these psalms are outworkings of this promise. Of course, it should always be kept in mind that the central purpose of the covenant with Abraham was to bless the nations with the knowledge of God.

I appreciate Witherington’s follow-up comments, especially since he brings James into the mix…

I think actually Luther had a very good point when he said that in the prophets God speaks to us, but in the psalms we speak to God, and what is in and on our hearts is truly and truthfully revealed. How then are such psalms God’s Word? The answer is not difficult– they show God holding up a mirror to us so we will see our own hearts and what is in them– ranging from praise to cursing. As James once said– blessing and cursing should not be coming out of the same human mouth or heart for that matter.

I love this illustration of God’s word being like a mirror so that we can see our own hearts. The last devotion I gave in the Greek course this week was from 2 Corinthians 3.18…

Beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, we are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.

Even though mirrors normally just show us the reality of what we look like (imperfections and all), when we look at God’s word as a mirror, or when we look at our Lord Jesus as a mirror, God uses the mirror to actually change us. We are transformed so that the glory in the image of Jesus is reflected back into us. We become like Jesus. His desires become our desires.

What is so interesting to me about the comparison between the comments of Jesus and James in Matthew 5.44 and James 3.1-12 is that they both have the spiritual status of the Christ-follower in mind, not primarily that of the enemy. Thus, not only does Jesus say to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” in Matthew 5.44, the next clause says, “so that you may become sons of your father in heaven.” While we are urged to pray for our persecutors, the issue in focus in Matthew 5 is our own standing before the Father who acts graciously to both the just and the unjust. I’m surprised that the text doesn’t urge prayer so that ‘your enemies’ can come into relationship with the Father. Instead, it says so that YOU may become sons of your father. Perhaps that’s what Pastor Wiley Drake should be concerned about.

And what about Christians who follow Jesus’ ethics? Has Pastor Drake in some way become our enemy? How should we respond to him and about him? Let’s hope we reflect our Father’s character.

By the way, the follow-up comments to Ben Witherington’s post includes an interesting translation-related question regarding the Arabic name for God, Allah. Arabic Christians and Muslims worship a God named Allah. But the Muslim Allah is the God of jihad and curses, and the Christian Allah is the God of blessing and love for one’s enemies.