What about Jesus and the Ten Commandments?
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If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, "Love your neighbour as yourself," you are doing right. But if you show favouritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, "Do not commit adultery," also said, "Do not murder." If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment! (James 2:8-13)
This passage reminds us of a more famous one from the Gospels, the Sermon on the Mount, which shows us that, just as in our sound-byte-driven world, where snippets of information fly through the media in its many guises, the writers of Scripture in the 1st Century were drawing from a pool of quotations, teachings and observations. I find that very real and comforting and conjures up an atmosphere of shared excitement and the bursting of a desire to get the story out.
The royal law, also known as the golden rule, is actually part of the Hebrew Scriptures, from Leviticus:
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:18).
It is then expanded by Jesus in the aforementioned Sermon on the Mount:
You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.'But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you ... (Matthew 5:43-44)
And, later on, when the Pharisees were trying to tie him up in theological knots, he cleverly undid them.
One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:35-40)
In this statement Jesus was simply summarising the Ten Commandments, knocking them down to the bare bones and declaring that they are really just about love, primarily for God but also for our fellow man. This is not wishy-washy glassy-eyed sentimentality, this is real, practical, get-your-hands-dirty love, expressed as devotion to the Lord God and also reflected in the way we conduct ourselves with our fellow man.
Love for God is expressed in our worship of Him alone and our respect for His name, by not swearing or blaspheming. Love for our fellow man, our neighbour, is expressed in honouring our parents and not to murder, sleep around, steal, lie or covet.
These are all external actions, or, in the words of James, one’s deeds.
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? (James 2:14)
So it’s back to James’ letter to the Jewish Christians, dispersed throughout the Roman world. We have seen the importance of wisdom, but learned that without faith it is useless. Now we see that faith is also useless without deeds. James says it even more strongly ...
As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead. (James 2:26)
Faith is the common factor, as well it should be, because faith is our lifeline, our connection to God. Without faith we’re swinging aimlessly over an abyss, without a hope in the World.
So faith in God underpins our wisdom, which compels us to perform our deeds.
Here’s where we are. We have distilled a central message of the letter from James to the early Jewish believers in Jesus. The centrality of faith is evident, both in how we process the information that bombards us daily and how we convert it into action.
How have individual churches fared against this plumb-line? Have they always acted with godly wisdom? Next week we will comb the pages of history and look for evidence.