1 Peter 2

The second chapter of 1 Peter begins with a continuation of the theme of holiness and living an obedient life to which we were called. It tells us to remove anything that hinders this holiness. It’s interesting that in Peter’s list in 1 Peter 2:1, the priority is the relationships we have with one another. Malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, slander are all about how we view or interact with others. Therefore, our holiness is not an individual thing that we obtain through distancing ourselves from others, but it is actually obtained in communion with others.

This idea is further expanded upon in verses 4-10. Each believer is a spiritual stone, that is being formed to create a temple. The foundation stone of that temple is Jesus. What is also interesting is how a temple is where God’s presence that dwells on earth. We have often been told about how God dwells within us. But often we consider it an individual idea, but there seems to be quite a few verses that explore the idea of a community believers being his dwelling place. I imagine that it is a bit of both: we are individually chosen as stones for a wider body which creates a dwelling place for the manifest presence of God in the world. Verses 9 and 10 use a variety of images that have a group and community aspect to it.

Peter then tells us to live under the authority and rule of unkind masters. First, he discusses the emperor, who would have been Nero. Nero oppressed and killed Christians, so it was not something that was easy. Then, again the topic of slavery comes up. This is because slavery was widespread during the writing of the New Testament, in the context of the Roman Empire. Here, Peter acknowledges the injustice of it, but also asks the slaves to patiently endure. We are to take our model from Jesus, who suffered the greatest injustice of history without retaliation. The key is to trust God as the one who his just. Therefore, it is through remembering Christ’s sufferings that we too are able to endure sufferings.

James 5

The last chapter of James starts off with strong condemnation against the rich. It tells of their fate on the day of judgement (namely, much weeping and wailing). They have not helped the poor, they have been selfish, they have failed to act justly. Therefore, they are condemned and their corruption will destroy them. The imagery is graphic and striking. There can be no mistaking it: James does not think highly of rich people, especially those who exploit, demean or reject the poor.

Of course, once again, it makes me look to Western culture and society. How much of our values are about accruing wealth without thought of who it affects. This can be from our throw-away culture, with cheap clothes and plastics, that usually mean sweatshops and environmental damage. Or the selfishness of the banks, the business and the political leaders.

There’s an allusion to Jesus’ words in Luke 12:33-34: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroy. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” This verse concerns me. How many of us actually take these words seriously? How many of us give abundantly generously to the poor and are willing to sell what we have to do it? Would I be willing to sell my laptop or my motorbike or my furniture in order to give the money to the poor? Or am I more concerned about accumulating items that provide fleeting comfort or simply look nice?

We might think, “Oh, I already tithe, I give regularly to charity, I give my 10%” But Jesus’ words would have been addressed to his fellow Jews. They were already giving money and offerings to the temples and giving tax to the Roman Empire. Around 1-2 thirds of their income would have gone this way. Now Jesus is asking them to give more. So, this is a challenge to us. I look around and I see so much stuff. Clutter and books and papers and exercise equipment I hardly use and decorative things that have no actual real function. I’m not sure this is the life that I am called for and I’m pretty sure something needs to change.

The next passage reminds us again of the importance of patience, especially in suffering. Then it discusses the importance of prayer, rejoicing and confession. Finally, James ends with thoughts about leading those who have gone astray back to righteousness.

Reflection

  • How do we live so we pursue justice for the poor?
  • What should our attitude towards money be?
  • How generous is enough?
  • Should we really sell all our things and give to the poor?

James 4

James 4 deals with a few issues: quarrelling and fighting; not receiving what you want from God; not following the world’s pattern; life with the Spirit; humility; true repentance; slander; and finally, arrogance. It quickly moves from one topic to the other, but James manages to link them all.

The quarrelling and fighting is caused by our sinful nature, envy and desires. These desires are a result of not receiving what we want from God, such as wisdom. Of course, it is proper to ask God for things, but James points out that his readers ask these things for selfish reasons: self-indulgence or for superiority. Therefore, God does not grant these things. Rather we should be asking, in prayer, in humility and for the sake of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

He then goes to rebuke people for following the world’s pattern. That is one of selfishness, egocentric behaviour and a sense of entitlement. It does make me think about modern Western society. (Especially when we consider the response of simple things such as having to wear masks in the face of COVID-19. ) It seems that personal rights, freedoms, liberties, comforts take a higher importance than obeying Scripture. This, of course, means careful consideration about appropriate responses to oppression. (I do not think there’s a Biblical argument to not fight against injustices. I’m just not yet sure how.)

James then reminds us, that we are to embrace the way of God and the indwelling of the Spirit within us. This is where we humbly acknowledge our sinful nature, and with a grief and burden from sin, cry out to God. James, here, does not ask us to be miserable but instead recognise the gravity and repugnance of our sin. The joy comes in knowing that we are given grace and that God lifts us out of our sinful state.

This humility makes us realise that we cannot slander others, because we don’t have a leg to stand on. Who are we to condemn others when we know the full state of sin within our own hearts? We perhaps only know a few of the sins of our neighbours; but if we were honest about ourselves, we truly know how terrible and sinful we truly are.

The humility also has another response: that we are aware our lives and times are God’s and not our own. Of course, 2020 has been a huge lesson in this. We are to know that we are living within God’s will, so therefore must be humble and not boastful. We cannot say that are plans are certain and not make huge boasts about business ventures or mighty schemes. Because, we simply do not know what tomorrow brings.

Reflection questions

  1. What are my motives when I ask for something in prayer?
  2. How do we put obedience, submission and scripture over person desires, wants and ambitions?
  3. How do we acknowledge God’s will in what we do?

James 2

James 2 starts off with ideas of justice and fairness, looking at the idea of favouritism. In the Roman period, rich people were given a higher legal status and generally treated better. This behaviour was not, however, Biblical, so James was condemning it.

Furthermore, James explores the idea that God gives the poor a rich faith and they also will inherit the kingdom. This reminds us of the famous words of Jesus that it easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to inherit the kingdom of God. It makes me wonder how many church goers activity associate with the poor (I don’t mean soup kitchens)? Why is the church always seen as a place where you dress your best and make sure your face is clean and scrubbed? I feel like we have perhaps lost sight of the idea that churches are meant to be messy, difficult and inclusive. I wonder whether the desire for propriety has robbed us of something far richer.

Verses 12-13 are somewhat reassuring to me. As a teacher I always struggled with the conflict between judgement and mercy. My bent is always to be merciful, but others can be a bit more exact in their application of the rules. The idea that mercy triumphs over judgement is helpful. Also, that is definitely seen in the cross of Jesus Christ: God’s mercy triumphed over judgement; Jesus had to endure an agonising death to ensure it would happen.

James’ statement about needing deeds may seem on a surface level to contradict Paul’s teaching of faith leading to grace rather than our deeds leading to grace. However, they are all a part of the same process. Our faith causes us to receive an underserved grace. This grace is transformative and powerful, resulting in a passionate, fruitful outworking of the Holy Spirit’s activities in us. This is the deeds aspect. Therefore, our faith needs to have deeds too.

Reflection Questions

  1. How does the church integrate and welcome people from all walks of life?
  2. How do we prevent the “Sunday best” culture in our churches?
  3. How do I get the balance between judgement and mercy right?
  4. What deeds are there in my life that show the fruit of grace?

James 1

James is named after its author, rather than its recipient, as in some of the other letters. It is likely that this is James, the brother of Jesus. This letter is also probably addressed to Christians of a Jewish heritage, given its style and its content. (Thank you, Biblegateway plus for the wealth of information!)

The first verse talks about the tribes of Israel scattered among the nations. The original context is a) a play on words (James is English for Jacob, one of the tribes b) reverent c) referencing prophesies. So in that one line, you can see how rich that text is. However, as some reading it in a cafe in Phnom Penh, it has a significance for me: linking both the past and present. It’s often hard to consider ourselves as a part of the story of the Old Testament, but we very much are.

James does not hold back any punches. Between verses 4-8 James addresses:

  • perseverance and joy in the face of temptations
  • perseverance leading to maturity and completion in faith
  • asking for and receiving wisdom in generous portions
  • believing that you will receive the wisdom
  • those who doubt are double-minded and shouldn’t expect wisdom from God.

Then verses 9-11 discuss how those that are humble are exalted, but riches wither and fade humiliating those in high position (this humiliation, James ironically notes, is something to take pride in). James was the leader of the church of Jerusalem, where urban slums would have existed. Furthermore, the Jews during James’ time were persecuted, leading to poverty, so it was likely many of his readers were facing great difficulties.

However, once again, it definitely speaks to me as someone currently living in a country that faces poverty. I don’t want to fall into the trap of simplifying the difficulties of the poor or using the cliched “they are so grateful for what they have”. That being said, the outworking of these verses about perseverance is evident. The faith of the believers in Cambodia, who do need to overcome these struggles, is far richer and deeper and simultaneously more simple in their assertions. They say God helps them. There doesn’t seem to be the caveats or scepticism you might see elsewhere. Maybe it is this that is the humiliation of the rich: our poorer faith.

James, again, not holding back, blames anyone who fails to resist temptation. Circumstances, difficulties and, certainly not, God do not cause people to fall into sin. Our desires and the fulfilment of those desires does.

James reminds us of God’s goodness and generosity. Only good gifts come from God, so the bad is not from God. One of the gifts is grace and rebirth, which we must remember in times of temptation.

Verses 19-26 are also highly practical. It’s based around the idea of listening, but leads onto the idea that we should listen to what the word tells us and act on it. It calls out hypocrisy, saying those that listen to the word but don’t act are like those who can’t remember their own reflections after looking in a mirror.

It also challenges me about the future. I will be doing a lot of training over the next few years (including an MA). This makes me reflect on how I should put these ideas into practise and not treat it just as an academic exercise.

These verses are also interesting, telling people to hush their mouths and don’t be hasty to speak in anger. Given the context of the time was a lot of angry and revolutionary Jewish people, this is counter cultural. It also makes me wonder about how Christians respond to the Black Lives Matter and issues those that are oppressed and persecuted. Again, this gives rise to questions about a theology of oppression and justice, one that I haven’t really thought about or formulated for myself. But, evidently, thoughtless, angry and ill-considered statements aren’t the way forward. I think, however, James asks for a practical response rather than one of just words: in the last verse of the chapter he asks for the care of orphans and widows.

Reflection Questions

The process of blogging about my Bible reading seems to more often create questions rather than answers. I decided to make a note of them here, so I can hopefully go back to them and answer them. I might even do some posts where I try to reflect on them and give my personal thoughts.

  • How do I persevere in times of trials?
  • How do I live with humility despite being from a privileged Western background?
  • Who or what do I blame for my failures?
  • How do I make sure I put teachings into practise?
  • How should I respond with words and action to injustices in this world?

2 Thessalonians 1

Obviously, the second of Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, and apparently (at least according to the NIV version on the YouVersion Bible App on my phone), it wasn’t written that much longer after the first.

Again, this starts off with thanksgiving for the recipients. Then it goes into the somewhat messy topic of divine justice. It talks about God being just, but a good who also pays back that causes other people’s suffering and the destruction of those who do not know God and do not know the gospel of Jesus. The terms of it are somewhat absolute.

Therefore, Paul continues to pray that God will make the Thessalonians worthy of God’s calling, and that their desires for goodness are realised. Again, it reminds me that God is sanctifying me and that I should desire goodness in accordance with God’s will and he will make me worthy of his calling.

Amos 7-9

I have been keeping up with my Bible reading, but not with the blogging. Although the most important aspect is, of course, reading the Word, writing about it can really help me consolidate and concentrate on what I’m reading. Over the last few days, my internet has been intermittent in the evenings, so blogging was a bit harder.

In Amos 7, the prophet begged the Lord not to show his wrath against Israel. However, God finally told Amos enough was enough. He had measured the people of Israel and the results showed that they were left wanting. They did not measure up. God, the God of justice, needs to correct this.

Obviously, Amos’ prophecies upset a few people and in this chapter, he was told to leave. However, Amos told them that it was God who had told him to say these things and the consequences for Israel’s disobedience would be dire.

Amos 8 again shows the sin of the people of Israel. Their dishonest economic practises have disadvantaged and oppressed the poor. The people have cheated or sold short their goods. They “trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land”.

As a result, God will destroy them. Not only this, but he will hide his face from them. This is perhaps more terrifying, that though they seek for the word of God, they will not find it. Amos 9 reiterates how total the destruction of Israel will be. It seems utterly hopeless.

However, the book of Amos ends with Israel’s restoration. Despite this destruction, he will lift Israel again. There will be redemption. There will be rebuilding. There will be hope. Is this the time we live in, when Jesus is restoring and redeeming this world? Sometimes it’s hard to know which. But we can have hope, that God is restoring his people back to him; that Jesus will come again and Jerusalem will once and for all be made new.

These are the questions that Amos 7-9, and indeed the whole book, have made me ponder:

  • What current political or economic practises are happening that are detestable to the Lord?
  • How are we complicit in the trampling and oppression of the poor?
  • What will the consequences for us?
  • How do we let justice flow like a river?
  • How do we show are we a people of hope of a new heaven and new earth?
  • How do we usher in God’s holy and just kingdom to where we are?

Amos 6

There seems to be two themes in this chapter: pride and complacency. We see that the people of Israel are enjoying life. The drink wine, have beautifully furnished homes, eat delicious food, listen to music, relax and have fun. It all seems great.

But this wealth and status has made them arrogant. They look down on the poor; they have stopped caring about them. It also means they’ve forgotten about God and his desires. Their worldly gain has been their spiritual loss. It’s stopped them doing what is right and good.

And the result we be destruction. The big mansions will be destroyed. Israel will be oppressed. The Lord detests their ways.

Amos 5

God calls the people of Israel to repentance. He tells them again and again “Seek me and live.” This is what we are to do. We too are sinners; like Israel we turn astray. Although our idols are not the gods of foreign nations, we have idols. But we are to seek God and live.

He is particularly condemnatory of those who “turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground”; “hate the one who upholds justice” and “detest the one who tells the truth”. Those who levy unfair taxes will see their wealth and homes destroyed. Those “who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts” are to experience God’s wrath. Again, it feels like these accusations can be about many people we see today in the media, people in very influential positions.

It’s interesting what it says in verse 13. It says, “Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times, for the times are evil.” It makes me wonder if this too is a moral judgment against the “prudent”. It seems a bit like cowardice here. It also makes me ask, “Are these evil times?”

Verse 14-15 set some ways to please God and live: seek good, love good, maintain justice and hate evil.

The end of Amos 5 is pretty famous. It mentions religious ceremonies. They are doing what is seen to be right. Here, perhaps, is the emphasise on the word seen. These offerings, festivals and assemblies are outward displays of righteousness. However, they are just window-dressing; they are glitter on a turd. You can still smell the stench, no matter how much you put on.

For it is the lack of justice, the oppression, the hatred of truth that is what angers God and is what needs to change.

And the more I read Amos, the more I feel it was written for now. For the times are evil.

Amos 2

Amos 1 warns various countries surrounding Judah and Israel about their future. Moab gets the next warning in Amos 2. God will destroy Moab’s rulers.

Then God’s anger turns on his own people. Judah rejected the law of God; they worshipped idols. Again, Judah too will experience consuming fire.

Israel’s list of sins is quite extensive. They sell vulnerable people for gain; destroy the poor; fail to help the oppressed; they are involved in sexual scandals and the use of prostitutes; they use their power to make themselves rich. Those that should be honouring God the most – the prophets and the Nazirites – have all fallen into sin.

This list is somewhat terrifying. It’s not just because what they have done is wrong; it’s because the list is all too recognisable. There have never been as many slaves as there are today. People work in sweatshops for the profit of multinational business owners. London has become a hotbed of people-trafficking. Desperate refugees are used to make profits. The poor are being made poorer and the oppressed are still hindered through systematic, institutional and cultural prejudice and injustice. So many leaders and celebrities have been reveal to have been sexually immoral. People, even world leaders, abuse their power to get what they want. Churches are involved in such scandals nowadays it makes one weep.

Even “Christian” nations are full of these sins. They are the Israels of Amos’ times.

What does God tell them? He tells them he will crush them. It will be swift and no one will escape.

It’s a terrifying warning, especially as the picture looks so recognisable. It does make me wonder what might happen to the nations and the leaders of today.