I am not always lit up with joy or driven by purpose. I descend into dark episodes of resentment, dejection, anxiety, or sloth—even though I believe that death itself, which is at the root of these things, has been beaten for all time. I am thus this weird hybrid creature—half spirit and half flesh. Jesus Christ came into my life to transform me, but he left me this way. Why? And how am I to live?

The early church, the first believers, learned from direct experience that the world was not going to end soon after the life of Jesus. They learned this by seeing the years pass. These people shared the knowledge that Christ had risen, that reality itself had been transformed. However, reality was then (strangely?) left alone to play out further. The world that had been changed was still left spinning on its axis.

God changes us but leaves us in this life. God fills us but also leaves us in our circumstances, leaves us in our roles, in our bodies, and even in our pain. Clearly, he has a continued plan for the world, and a purpose for your place within it.

The early church that had seen the resurrected Jesus come and go must certainly have been wondering what came next, what they were to do. How should they understand their place in the world and how should they answer the confusion, struggle, and suffering they still faced? How now should they live?

These were important questions. These were valid questions. And around 45 A.D., the answers started to come. Starting with James, the New Testament began to be written.

James, in fact, addresses these questions head-on. If one word summarizes this letter, that word is “holiness.” The letter is about what it looks like to live a set-apart, sanctified life—doing so not as an angelic abstraction, but as a real person in the real world. In this real world, we have real troubles. James gets right into this with the second sentence of his letter, setting out to convey the radical and even crazy change in viewpoint that the defeat of death now makes available.

“Consider it joy,” he is now able to say, “when you face trials of various kinds....”

[Coming: 31 Days of James]

James 0

The Bible is not necessary for Christian faith. The New Testament was written to people who already had Christian faith. The gospels, the accounts of Jesus’ life, were written decades after the events they describe. Even the letter of James, the earliest New Testament text, came several years after Jesus. So what did those recipients of James’ letter believe, if they did not have the Christian Bible?

Scripture actually answers this. Paul, toward the end of one of his letters to the believers in Corinth, took his audience back to the first principles they shared. His letter reminds them of the good news he received and passed onto them, point by point. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, he wrote:

I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures, and that he was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that he was seen by over 500 brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that he was seen by James, then by all the apostles.

This is what Paul received, the first creed. This was the faith he accepted and transmitted. In the attempt to explore the first flowering of Christian scripture by reading James, this creed therefore represents an important starting point. If you will, this creed is James chapter 0. It was the assumption so fundamental to the New Testament audience that the first New Testament letter did not mention it.

That’s not to say that this is all the first believers knew. Jesus’ life and teachings were in the air and under discussion. Likely there were even some initial written accounts that no longer survive. But the people then could only have had very different levels of access to this information. Direct eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus knew a great deal, while far-removed believers knew little. That was OK, said Paul. Only a few elements are vital.

To paraphrase Paul’s passage above, those key elements are:

1. Christ died for your sins.

2. He was buried.

3. He was raised.

4. His death and resurrection unfolded as the Old Testament foretold; and

5. His return to life was a real historical event that real people saw.

That’s it. Just this much comprises the starting premise. To know just this much is to have enough equipment to set out, to begin a walk of faith. James takes it from there.

[Coming: 31 Days of James]

Jesus’ Kid Brother

Jesus had a kid brother.

He appears outside the Bible. Ancient reporters including Josephus and Hegesippus mention him as a leader of the early Christian church. Paul’s letter to the Galatians mentions him the same way (Galatians 1:19 and 2:9).

The Bible gives only piecemeal details about his personal story, but just those details are enough to outline a powerful narrative:

1. James was one of several kid brothers to Jesus—Matthew 13:55.

2. While Jesus was preaching, James didn’t believe his message—John 7:5.

3. But something changed. We later see James praying among the believers—Acts 1:14.

What changed? Paul makes clear what the moment must have been. In 1 Corinthians 15:7, Paul reports that Jesus appeared to James personally after Jesus had died, after he had risen from his grave.

In fact, in Paul’s list of the resurrection appearances of Jesus, only two witnesses are mentioned by name. Along with James, Peter (Cephas) also had a personal visit.

Later, these two men would both make important beginnings. Peter preached the first Christian sermon—in Acts chapter 2.

And James wrote the first New Testament text.

I am about to begin something different on this blog. Throughout October, I hope to devote daily posts to that very text—the letter of James. As I describe here, this concise letter provides an apt point of entry into the Bible, albeit an unusual one. I plan to begin 31 Days of James on Monday, October 1.

More Than Rules

Don’t worship other gods.

Don’t worship earthly things.

Treat God’s name reverently.

Work six days; keep the seventh holy.

Be humble toward your parents.

Don’t murder.

Don’t commit adultery.

Don’t steal.

Don’t slander.

Don’t resent others for what they have.

Those are the Ten Commandments as typically understood—a list of rules. The paraphrase above is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far.

The actual text of the Ten Commandments appears in Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21. Read either passage. The difference between the paraphrase above and the richness of the biblical text is the additional meaning that the fuller text contains. The context of this text provides more meaning still. The book I wrote explores the simple proposition that the Ten Commandments, the words God singled out for inscription in stone, have even more to say to us than the list of rules we usually see.

If you search the Web for content on the Ten Commandments, you find plenty of impugning directed at this text. The critique that the Ten Commandments are out of step with the times is as old as the Bible itself. Yet, as I describe in my book’s first chapter (available here), one of the commandments—the fourth—is actually more poignant and relevant today than it would have seemed to its original hearers. Criticism of the Ten Commandments practically always addresses the rules list above, giving little attention (let alone wonder) to the fuller biblical text. Those who oppose the text often don’t take the risk of reading it thoughtfully.

On this blog, I am about to start a new project—a month of appreciating the letter of James. One of this letter’s phrases is the “law of liberty.” That liberty applies directly to the Ten Commandments, because those who have this liberty need not have their spirits burdened by rules. This is equally true whether the burden takes the form of obeying the rules or bristling against them. Instead, there is another way, a more innocent way, a way of faith and freedom—the way of a child, said Jesus in Matthew 19. A rich, joyful understanding can grow up out of the liberty to see the Ten Commandments—to see this ancient text—not as a set of shackles, but as a teacher.