patience in the face of suffering and oath taking

Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!

Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.

Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.” Otherwise you will be condemned.

James 5:7-12

In light of James’s warning to their rich oppressors, James tells these believers to be patient until the Lord’s coming. Some say James expected the Lord to come within that generation. Maybe so. I’m not sure we can insist the language found here and in other places has to be interpreted that way. I think not. I would rather see it as God’s judgment being soon given the brevity of life, and that it’s imminent in that it could happen any time. And when life is done, judgment is next (Hebrews 9:27). Of course the judgment spoken of here is at the Lord’s second coming. Bear in mind that the future brings not only the resurrection of the righteous, but of the unrighteous, as well (Daniel 12:2).

James point to the farmer as an example of the kind of patience these Christians in faith are to exercise. There is a process which seems to take time along with God’s working. So patience is a necessity in this, yes, “in the face of suffering.” And with that in mind, James now points to the prophets we read of in a good chunk of the Old/First Testament (Hebrew Bible) who spoke in the name of the Lord. Suffering was their lot, as Jesus pointed out later. Persecution and martyrdom. Not easy, when you read their story. Speaking God’s message and living as God’s people will not go unchallenged in one way or another. And lest we think it’s only about identification with God before the world, it may be about our testimony in holding to God’s goodness and faithfulness in the midst of adversities of any kind, as Job did, even as he presented his case to God. And we remember the end of that story. And I want to just soak in James’s word after these points:

The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.

These words those believers needed to take to heart, and we do too. We wish this for our enemies as well, but if they refuse to respond to this kindness and goodness of God (Romans 2:4), and don’t accept God’s mercy on God’s terms, their end will be according to their deeds. But yes, we need to soak into these words, and let these words soak into us. God’s mercy for us, and for others, yes even for our oppressors. And yet judgment will come, and that too is a word of encouragement, particularly to those who face evil in the form of persecution.

And then James adds a word on oaths. I think it’s in line with making much of taking an oath, as if you are bound by it in a way that you are not bound when simply speaking. God wants our word to be as good as gold so to speak, completely reliable even if not bound legally, morally, and spiritually by taking an oath. Does that mean we can never change our minds, and take back our words, or break our promise? As a rule we shouldn’t. But there may be circumstances when we need to change, or may want to. Which is why we need to choose our words carefully in the first place, if we speak at all. We need to weigh everything in light of what we previously stated and the context. We have enormous freedom, I think, but it needs to be with Spirit-led wisdom. We want to be sure our witness of Jesus is not affected. We want others to see Jesus, and receive for themselves the good news in him. God has what appears to be a change of mind in scripture at times within his unchanging character. There does seem to be some genuine give and take in God’s relationship with people. And God swears an oath as well, we read both in the Old Testament and in the book of Hebrews. So oath taking is not intrinsically evil or wrong. It is the kind of oath taking being done in Jesus’s day and afterward that is evil. As if such an oath is binding in a way that one’s word is not. For God’s people, followers of Christ, there is no place for that attitude or practice.

 

a better way

When Jesus came he brought in a new way which we read in Hebrews is better than the old. There is most certainly significant continuity between the old and new covenants. But with Jesus comes a radical newness, indeed a fulfillment of the old, but not entirely predictable by the old. Like what C.S. Lewis describes in one of his writings when the new world is unveiled. Unimaginable before but is a perfect fulfillment or end to the old world. When God created, the goal was not creation but new creation out of the old through Jesus.

Under the old covenant oaths were not only common, but holy. As was the taking of human life at various times. Not to say there wasn’t plenty of sin going on around that, although these acts themselves were not counted as sin, and perhaps indeed were not sin in themselves during that time.

But now Jesus forbids oath taking, or swearing as in taking a vow; as well as killing, the taking of human life. Indeed in Jesus enters into this old world a new way, yes a better way, indeed the way, the truth and the life. The kingdom of God come in Jesus is the paradigm now by how the entire world is judged. Of course the new replaces the old by virtue of God’s saving work in Jesus. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection all is to undergo the same baptism so to speak through death into new life. Those who refuse this way will be judged with destruction.

Instead of oath taking, our word is to be good in itself. We are holy in Jesus and we are to fulfill what we promise, as well as be true to our words. Never are we intentionally to violate what we have said before God and man. We are made in God’s image and being remade through Jesus toward the goal of perfectly reflecting and indeed bearing that image.

And we are never to take the life of any human. Our way in Jesus is the way of life to all, including our enemies. To not only spare their lives, refusing tit for tat, but also praying that they will receive the new and eternal life in Jesus. Our way in Jesus indeed is the way of the cross. This is in opposition to the way of the sword. We do indeed resist evil, but only with God’s love, the love of God in Jesus, indeed a cruciform love. So that while we would avoid martyrdom if possible, we would give up our own lives before taking the life of another.

People need to see the new and better way, the way of Jesus in us. They need to see that we are different than the world. That we do indeed love our enemies by praying for them, doing good, and not resisting evil in the way the world does–with retaliation. But rather seeking to overcome evil by doing good. This is all found in the pages of our New Testament. We need to read them beginning in the gospels and note well the difference in the better way that is in Jesus.

I know I’ve applied this term “better” from the Book of Hebrews in a way that book does not in applying it to our words and actions toward enemies. I am assuming that while better applies to all the term is attached to in Hebrews, in a secondary loose way, we can apply that across the board to all that is of the new covenant. And that even if Hebrews did not use that term, it would be arguably justified when considering the fulfillment in Jesus in comparison to what it fulfills. Though we are probably unwise to try to imagine such a possibility since God’s revelation is important in each part.