Too often I start reading something thinking it will be encouraging, but find it filled with phrases like “post-Christian world,” or “Christianity’s decline.” I just read that apparently, I’m “living in the ruins of Christendom.” However, because Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” our faith and hope are not based on any ruin or decline we see in the communities and world around us. Other things may end up in ruins or in decline, but Christianity does not. It was not in decline on Good Friday and it is not in decline now.
In a recent post about the massive expansion of Christianity under Communist China, I wrote: “As Jesus said in Matthew 16:18 – ‘And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’ This rock is the gospel of the kingdom of God, and not even a brutal regime like that of Chairman Mao could prevail against it.”
The best of the kingdom of God is always in the future, never in the past, which brings me to the Rewind Wednesday part of today’s post, from last November:
“Today, many will hear the good news of the kingdom of Jesus, and some may hear and be saved! Also today, none will be snatched out of His hand! (John 10:28)
As a child of deaf parents, some details of stories from the life of Jesus especially catch my attention. This miracle recorded in Mark 7:32-37 is one example:
“And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him. And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’ And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. And Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.’”
In the second sentence, we see Jesus’ “bedside manner.” His compassion for this individual led to specific actions, as noted by Warren Wiersbe: “Since the man was deaf, he could not hear our Lord’s words, but he could feel Jesus’ fingers in his ear and the touch on his tongue, and this would encourage the man’s faith.” Not only did Jesus heal Him, but He did it in a way that would be meaningful to this one man.
Another detail Mark records is that Jesus spoke, but why, if this man couldn’t hear him? Jesus touched the man as a testimony to him, but these words were a testimony to anyone nearby that the power of Jesus healed this man, not the man’s response to the words, since he couldn’t hear them. There was to be no question as to the source of the healing.
Third, the word “immediately” appears many times in Mark’s gospel, including at least 5 references to healing miracles (1:42, 2:12, 5:29, 5:42, and 10:52). A big part of this miracle is that deaf people do not immediately “speak plainly” if they recover their hearing or begin using hearing aids. It can take years of training. By saying “he spoke plainly,” Mark makes clear that Jesus did not just put this man on the path to recovery; He gave Him a full recovery “immediately”!
Lastly, when the people said, “He has done all things well,” they were testifying that Jesus was fulfilling a Messianic expectation from Isaiah 35:5-6, which says:
“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert”
In this miracle and others, Jesus showed that He was the fulfillment of all the hopes of the Old Testament, and of all mankind. His kingdom could overcome any problem, and His kingdom is superior to any other kingdom. No problem He encountered was beyond His power and He offers a way to a world where all problems are solved for those who believe in Him.
 Wiersbe, Warren. Be Diligent (Mark) (1987). P. 95.
It’s common to think that the point of religion is to have the right laws and to follow them. However, James 1:27 says “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” This is a different definition of religion than we often think of. Today continues a series based on this verse, focusing on the insufficiency of laws as a way to salvation. Only by Christ’s fulfillment of the laws of God through His life, death and resurrection can we achieve salvation, or a restoration of a right relationship with God and with each other.
Which laws do I mean? In the Old Testament, there are three types, which include what many people think of as “religion”: moral laws of what is right and what is wrong, civil laws about what to do when those laws are broken, and ceremonial laws that explain requirements for restoring relationship with God. But also in the Bible are signs that all civil and ceremonial laws are provisional, or temporary and incomplete, even if they are designed by God. They exist because man cannot keep the moral laws, which is where this post begins…
The Poor Among You Consider these verses from the same chapter in Deuteronomy: “But there will be no poor among you; for the LORD will bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess— if only you will strictly obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today.” – Deuteronomy 15:4-5 “For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’” – Deuteronomy 15:11
Just a few verses apart, it says that “there will be no poor among you”, but then that “there will never cease to be poor in the land.” It seems like a contradiction, but the two thoughts can coexist because the first one is conditional on full obedience of the law – “if only you will strictly obey…” God knows His moral law is perfect, but also that our obedience is imperfect, which will lead to poor in the land. So, He further commands that His people take care of the poor. This second command shows that He provides additional moral and civil laws to help those who are hurt by the failures of people to follow moral law. Every failure of His people throughout time was known to Him when He gave the law, but He gave it anyway because it was not intended as an ultimate solution.
Jesus also recognized that poverty would not be solved until we reach Paradise, after He comes a second time. In Mark 14:7, He said “For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me.” He said this because His disciples were criticizing Mary of Bethany, who decided to use ointment worth a years’ wages to anoint Jesus rather than to sell it and help the poor. The gospel of John singles out Judas as the accuser of Mary, but also says that Judas “said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.” Elsewhere, Jesus quoted Isaiah, who said “this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me.” What we now call “virtue signaling” is not new. Throughout history, people have been better at promoting virtue in concept than in practice, and in others rather than in themselves. Therefore, even if the law we have is perfect, we will never achieve its ends.
Ruth and the Civil Law Second, the Old Testament story of Ruth shows that even a perfect moral law, perfectly followed, cannot solve every problem – specifically the problem of “orphans and widows in their affliction.” In addition, civil law can only limit the impact of some problems, not eliminate them. The civil laws for gleaning and levirate marriage are key to Ruth’s story, while providing examples of faithfulness in a broken society, are also reminders that society is broken in ways laws can’t fix.
Gleaning, provided for in Leviticus 19:9, 23:22 and Deuteronomy 24:19, is necessary because “there will never cease to be poor in the land.” God commanded His people to leave the edges of their fields unharvested, so the poor could eat what was there. Levirate marriage, defined in Deuteronomy 25:5-10, is necessary because there are widows and orphans in the world. It gives provision for widows by obligating relatives of the deceased husbands to care for, or even marry, the widow to preserve the family line and inheritance. However, these laws didn’t prevent Naomi and Ruth from becoming poor, or from losing their husbands.
One aspect of Ruth’s story is that people of faith can rely on God’s provision, both through His civil law and through others who follow it, to make a tangible difference in a world where many ignore God’s law. Good civil law can improve the conditions of the poor, the orphan, and the widow, if people also follow the eternal moral law of love.
Another aspect of the story of Ruth is how it keeps us “unstained from the world.” The world wants us to believe that with enough time, effort, resources, cultural revival, laws, coercion, or whatever, that we can produce a widow, orphan, and poverty-free utopia. But whatever its source, civil law is a provision for a fallen world, not a pathway to a perfect world. There will always be widows and orphans as long as there is death, and no law can overcome death.
Jesus, Our Religion For me, the power of thinking about James 1:27 this way is not that I come away thinking, “now I know what to do! Let’s go!” but that I come away knowing there is no way any of us could possibly measure up to the standard God requires. Every time we see someone left behind it is a reminder of our collective failure, evidence that we really don’t have the answer even to our own individual problems, much less a path to perfection for the world.
Fortunately for us, the book of Ruth ends with hope, in the form of a genealogy showing her as an ancestor of King David, and therefore an ancestor of Jesus Himself. Through His life, death, and resurrection, He overcomes both death and the cause of death – our inability to generate religion that is acceptable to God the Father on our own. Only Jesus, in a perfectly lived life, seeking out and loving “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” fulfilled the requirements of “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father.” He offered His perfect record to the Father in our place, so we could be accepted based upon His religion, not ours. He fulfilled the moral, civil, and ceremonial laws in our place, providing a way to a world with no poor, no orphans, and no widows.
For many in the world, civil law is their false gospel, their hope of salvation. But the Bible lets us know that in this world, we will always have poverty. There will always be widows and orphans here. However, because we cannot follow moral law perfectly, we need temporary civil law as a provision for a fallen world. To keep society from falling apart until Christ returns and molds us into new creations that follow the moral law of love naturally, with no need for civil or ceremonial law.
Until that day, Christ rejects both the tyranny of, and freedom from, law as the answer for His people. Any civil law – even that of the Old Testament – can only mitigate the damage of sin, but in many cases, the wrong laws can make the damage worse. However, absence of, or rejection of, all law is not the answer because the gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news of a Kingdom. Jesus said in John 8:31-32: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” This freedom is from the failed kingdoms of this world, but not license to reject His righteousness as our personal standard of behavior.
Jesus said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” His righteousness brings us into a Kingdom like no other, where to “Visit orphans and widows in their affliction” is the freely offered sacrifice acceptable to our Lord, and an example of what James refers to later in his letter: “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
This is the 3rd post in a series on James 1:27, which began here
Next Up in This Series: An Ethic That Puts People First and Issues Second
 John 12:6  Isaiah 29:13, Matthew 15:8, Mark 7:6  Ruth 4:17-22  John 14:6  James 2:18
If Christianity is a message of salvation to all people, in all times and places, then the practices it recommends must apply in every situation. The political and cultural societies we each live in today have only existed for a blink of an eye in the grand scheme of history, and people reading this post may be living in societies entirely different from the one I’m writing this in.
When James wrote: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” he didn’t just mean “pure and undefiled” right here and right now, but that to an eternal God whose character doesn’t change, there is a religion that remains pure in all circumstances. There is no expiration date on James 1:27.
To apply James’ words that way doesn’t mean he was using “orphans and widows” only as a metaphor for something other than actual orphans. He does mean to take care of them. But he was also using them as the best example of people unloved in his society and by the world – the ones who fell through the cracks of society, and that “to keep oneself unstained from the world” means that pure religion leaves nobody behind the way the world does.
The world has many people who believe perfect society is only a matter of time, effort, and ingenuity, and it also has many people whose very existence shows the folly of that belief. This tension reflects human history all the way back to Adam and Eve, who had to decide whether the kingdom of God they already lived in was what they wanted, or whether they wanted to build a kingdom based on their own ideas. This tension existed when Jesus ministered on earth in the Pax Romana, or “Roman Peace” of the society He lived in. The Caesars declared in what they called “gospel,” or “good news,” messages that they should be revered as gods for producing the most peaceful and prosperous society the world had ever known. When Jesus came, all He had to do was walk down the street – any street – and find problems not being solved in Caesar’s great empire.  Jesus didn’t shake his fist at the utopians in protest, He just loved those in need of love, exposing the immensity of the flaws that exist in any human system, and proving by example that His kingdom is better.
WWJD So, when James says “visit orphans and widows in their affliction” he means to do as Jesus did – to seek out and care for those left behind by the utopian imaginings of the world, and its related denials that these people matter. This does include literal windows and orphans, but it’s also whoever is left behind in your area of the world. The people in your neighborhood, country, organization, or even your church that the system doesn’t notice because there is nothing worldly to be gained by noticing them. In Jesus’ eyes, even Zacchaeus, a wealthy Jew in a Jewish society that valued wealth, was one of “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” because nobody saw him as a person with a personal and spiritual need. These “lost sheep” Jesus referred to in Matthew 10:6 and 15:24 need to know “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” because this world’s kingdoms have failed them.
Each and every world system leaves some behind, proof that Adam and Eve made the wrong decision to go their own way. There are always those who it is unpopular or uncool to pay attention to, even in your church. Therefore, James calls us to love the unloved and the genuinely oppressed, whoever they are, wherever you are. By definition, there’s no program to reach these people, because they are the ones who were missed. It takes the actions of individual, loving people to reach them and that’s kind of the point. Christianity is about the restoring of relationships, not systems.
But does this really apply in every time? How is the ethic of James 1:27 eternal, while other ethics are not?
At the risk of oversimplifying (inevitable in a blog!), the difference is that worldly ethics depend entirely on “progress” – on a solution that is theoretical and in the future. Those pursuing worldly utopia hope they will progress to a solution for the orphans and widows’ problem, but what about the widows and orphans of the past? Or right now? In a framework of Darwinian evolution, death is just part of the process and an inevitable circumstance we must except until we find a solution. Death itself is the philosophical orphan or widow they don’t want us to notice. A solution in the future has no real hope for people in the past or present.
In Christianity the solution already exists – it was available even to our first ancestors – and death is only the result of refusing to accept it. And in all times places and situations “love God and love neighbor” is the right ethic, epitomized by James 1:17 and to be consummated in Heaven. All those who have ever turned to God and accepted His solution, in the past, present, and future, will see His salvation. We don’t have to hope that someday our children, or their children, and so on, will be loved, and know love, perfectly.
Until mankind actually produces a utopia, it is unscientific to believe utopia is possible, but because Jesus exists and walked among us, it is scientific to say perfect love is possible, even in this world. From this perspective, Christianity is only horrendous if false; other systems are horrendous if true.
Today you may live in the greatest empire the world has ever known, or the worst tyrannical state, or you may live in a country most people on the world couldn’t find on a map. In every case, and all cases in between, there are orphans and widows among you because only the kingdom of God is a perfect solution and it will only be fully realized in Heaven. Find them in their affliction and visit them, “And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” – Matthew 10:7
This is the 2nd post in a series on James 1:27, which began here, and continues here.
Next up in this series: An Ethic That Shows No Law Can Provide Salvation
After another long pause, we return today to the Psalms of Ascent (120-134), used as a liturgy for ancient Israelites traveling to Jerusalem for annual worship festivals. The last post covered Psalm 122, where David wrote of the joy found in the house of the LORD in Jerusalem. Next comes Psalm 123, which discusses the attitude of the journeying pilgrims to that LORD, and the attitude of the world to them as a result. Here are the first 2 verses:
“A Song of Ascents.
To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens! Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maidservant to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he has mercy upon us.”
Earlier in Psalm 121, the pilgrims lifted up their eyes to the hills, away from their circumstances, to seek the Lord and His help. Here, the Psalmist emphasizes the Lordship of the Lord, who is “enthroned in the heavens.” His people look to him as “servants” to “their master”, or as a “maidservant” to “her mistress.”
While the idea of treating the Lord as an actual lord to be served should be obvious, it often isn’t, even for our Biblical “heroes.” In Acts chapter 9, when Jesus confronts Paul (who was still a self-righteous Pharisee called Saul) about persecuting Christians, Paul responded by saying “Who are you, Lord?” Apparently stricken by the miraculous light and voice, Saul somewhat ironically calls Jesus Lord before he even knows it is Jesus, and while he was on the way to threaten and arrest Christians. In Acts 10, Peter answers a command from Jesus by saying “By no means, Lord,” as if basing his disobedience on the very lordship of the one currently telling him to do something!
Right up to modern times, the Lordship of Jesus remains hard to accept. We would rather accept Jesus as Savior than as Lord, but the God who is one is also the other. The two cannot be separated any more than I can ask my boss to keep giving me raises and time off, while I insist on ignoring my job. If I wish for God to save me, but have no interest in what He wants to save me to, I might as well say “By no means, Lord,” or “Who are you, Lord?” If I wish to live for eternity in a world without sin, I need to agree that the Lord can define sin and that sin, especially my own sin, is bad.
While making the pilgrimages to Jerusalem and reciting the Psalms of Ascent, the Israelites would testify to the other nations that 1) God, as Lord, does not take disobedience lightly, but also that 2) He has provided a solution to their inability to serve Him, as symbolized in the temple and its sacrifices. Similarly, believers today gathering on a regular basis are a sign to the world that salvation is only to be found in another place, through sacrifice, and that it’s worth the effort to go there. Since the time of Christ, God’s people have been called the “ekklesia,” a Greek word translated as “church” in the English New Testament. “Ekklesia” literally means a “calling out” – a call into the kingdom of God under the Lord of that kingdom, and out of the kingdoms of the world. This new kingdom brings hope for a future world with no sin, bought by the sacrifice of One Eternal, Perfect High Priest on a dirty cross. In that world there will be no liars, no deceit, and no war. No evil of any kind, or in any degree.
Therefore, church – even if only a few are gathered together – should be a place dedicated to reminding us of the sacrifice required, and provided, to give us this hope. It should be committed to “preach Christ crucified” because “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”.
The ancient Israelites could seek help in many hills, but there is only one LORD. All hills are part of our world’s circumstances and can only provide us with more of what we already have, except for one hill. Our help comes from this hill in particular – the one called Calvary on which Christ was crucified. But the Bible also says: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” and Psalm 123 ends with:
“Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt. Our soul has had more than enough of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud.”
The kingdoms of the world, and those who have faith in them, have contempt and scorn for those who follow another way. When we return to this series, Psalm 124 explains that our Lord has not left us alone. In His mercy, He provides us help and comfort as we await the coming of His kingdom in its fullness.
If you’ve missed the earlier posts in the Psalms of Ascent series, the first post is here, and each post links to the next at the bottom.