"For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God, and the LORD hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth." ~ Deuteronomy14:2

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Raising The Standard: Endurance Is Setting Aside Privileges Which Weaken Me Or Others

"For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds." ~ Hebrews 12:3
"It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak." ~ Romans 14:21
One measure of a mature Christian is his willingness to refrain from activities which some Christians think are right and others believe are wrong. Who clarified God's will on questionable activities in an early church council? James the Bishop of Jerusalem. James had the rare privilege of growing up in the same family as his older brother, Jesus, suggesting that he was the second born of the family (Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3). If this was the case, he would have spend more time with Jesus during His youth than any other person. He would have eaten, slept, played, worked and gone to school with his older brother. By setting aside privileges, James strengthened the church as well as himself. A man carefully chose the best lamb of his flock and made his way to the heathen temple. There he sacrificed it according to the temple ritual. A pagan priest took the lamb, slipped out of the temple and went directly to the meat market. In order to get money quickly for the lamb, the priest sold it at a low price. Many Christians shopped in this village meat market. They knew that the meat available at a bargain price came from a heathen temple. They also knew that it was the best meat available. It was easy to find reasons why it was perfectly proper to purchase this meat. Some thought it was right; others felt strongly that it was wrong. The controversy grew. Soon it threatened to divide Christians, and a church council was held. The leaders of the early church gathered together. Several questions were presented and vigorously discussed. One man waited until everyone else had expressed their thoughts. Then he spoke. Everyone had great respect for him and listened attentively to his suggestion. When he finished speaking, they all agreed that his conclusion was in harmony with the principles of Scripture and the leading of the Holy Spirit. His conclusion was written in a letter and sent to Christians in the early churches who were waiting for it. That letter explained that the unanimous decision of the church as confirmed by the Holy Spirit was that all Christians abstain from meats that were offered to idols. This decision established a precedent for all future questionable activities. The speaker of that council was the apostle James (From Acts 15:1-35). We know nothing specific of James' relationship with Jesus until they were both grown men. In one incident, James was certainly among the brothers who wanted to talk to Jesus and discourage him from his strenuous ministry. They evidently thought Jesus had become so exhausted that he was losing control of his mind (Mark 3:20-21 and 31). James did not understand that his own brother was the promised Messiah he had learned of in the synagogue. James and his brothers tried to persuade Jesus to leave Galilee and go to Judea with them... "For neither did his bretheren believe in him." (John 7:5) Next we hear of James is after the crucifixion and death of Jesus. We do not know the details, but he had become a staunch believer and the leader of the infant church of Jerusalem. His conversion must have been a surprising and unexpected event to the disciples who had known his previous attitude toward Jesus. James' chief contribution to the early church seems to have been his handling of the first church council which was held in Jerusalem. A crisis had arisen as a result of Paul's first missionary journey. The great influx of Gentile believers had led to a separation between believing Gentiles and believing Jews who still obeyed the Law of Moses. Some Jewish Christians wanted the Gentiles to be circumcised and promise to keep the Mosaic Law; others merely avoided eating and having fellowship with them. The church in Antioch felt the brunt of this controversy and referred the problem to the church in Jerusalem headed by James. After hearing all the arguments, the wise and respected James decided upon a compromise. He clearly favored freedom from the Mosaic Law for Gentile believers, but he urged Gentiles to avoid practices which would unnecessarily offend Jews. Because James himself had been such an example of setting aside privileges which would weaken or offend others, his decision was accepted without controversy. Josephus, the contemporary historian, relates the death of James. During a transition of governors, the high priest, Ananias, charged James and others of breaking the law. As a result, he was stoned to death. Josephus reports that this unjust act was protested by pious non-Christian Jews who respected him so highly. As a result, the high priest was relieved of his office. James died a Christian martyr about A.D. 62. From The Pages Of Scripture: True love will always show deference. Deference is limiting our freedom in order not to offend the convictions of other Christians. The alternative to deference is defending our right to engage in a questionable activity. This defense usually involves trying to prove that the activity is acceptable, but the real question does not concern the activity at all. The real question is whether we are willing to cause a weaker Christian to stumble. In every period of church history there have been questionable activities which have caused Christians to be divided. When this matter was discussed in the very first church council, clear principles were given which required Christians to set aside any activity which would spiritually weaken themselves or others.
What Was The Reason For James Unexpected Conversion?
While Jesus was ministering on earth, James and his brothers were not in agreement with His claims. When Christ was rejected at Nazareth, He implied that opposition was ever "among his own kin" and "in his own house." (Mark 6:4) But when James wrote his epistle, he began, "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ." (James 1:1) He didn't refer to himself as the Lord's brother or even as his apostle. The word used literally means slave. The details of his conversion are not given, but it appears that his skepticism was completely removed by a special appearance of the risen Christ. "After that, he was seen by James; then of all the apostles." (1 Corinthians 15:7) Like Paul after him who saw the risen Lord on his way to persecute Christians in Damascus, James' life was completely turned around. The fact that he believed that his brother was the Son of God is very significant. One of the main tenets of Christianity is that Christ was without sin in His own life in order that He might die for the sins of others (John 1:29; 2 Corinthians 5:21). The fact that James believed this truth proves that not once during the many hours they had spent together as children, teenagers, and young men could James recall a single incident when Jesus committed a sin.
Why Did James Rise to Leadership So Quickly After His Conversion?
It is true that his human relationship to the Lord as brother would have made James an important and credible witness to the claims of Christ. But the fact that he was elected to such a significant and key position in the mother church of Jerusalem indicates the respect he held. Non-biblical writings and traditions support the New Testament picture of James as a man of impressive character and intense piety. One historian says that James was known as "the Just" and as "the bulwark of the people." His knees were said to be hard as a camel's because he was so constant in prayer for his people. Even non-believing Jews respected him for his exemplary life.
What Was The Result Of James' Decision To Set Aside Privileges Which Would Weaken Others?
With remarkable tact and equity, James announced his conclusion to the council at Jerusalem that Gentiles should not be troubled with circumcision and the Mosaic Law. He suggested certain restrictions which would enable Jewish Christians to be able to live with their Gentile brothers. The Gentiles would be expected to abstain from meat offered to idols and meat which contained large quantities of blood, a Gentile delicacy. These foods were objectionable to strict Jews and would hinder Jews and Gentiles from eating together, thus preventing an important form of fellowship. He also warned against participating in the sexual immorality so common to the Greek and Roman world. Such practices were offensive to Jews and harmful to the Gentiles (1 Corinthians 5:1). When James finished, his decision pleased the "apostles and elders, with the whole church." (Acts 15:22) After news reached Antioch, the church "rejoiced for the consolation." (Acts 15:31) James had averted a disastrous split and corrected false teaching in the early church. As a result, the young church continued to grow among Gentiles and Jews alike. Illustrated In The World Of Nature: Lumbering through the tall grass, the hard shelled creature forged ahead in search of food. It was a laborious and cumbersome task to transport its bulky, bone-like covering from one place to another. The inconvenience of the large, heavy shell often created extra hazards and obstacles which were of no significance to other animals.
How Does The Turtle Illustrate The Need To Set Aside Privileges Which Weaken It?
Fallen logs in the path of this creature often required a long trek around instead of over the obstacle. Turning over on its back could be a major problem --- it might even prove fatal --- if it were not able to right itself. Lack of speed was another disadvantage, especially when it came to moving out of the path of an oncoming car. This apparently misfortunate creature was the box turtle --- more precisely the eastern box turtle. The ground over which it crawled was still damp from a heavy, mid-summer rain. It was the peak of the berry season now, and it had been a good year for wild fruits. Dark stains around the turtle's jaw betrayed the fact that it had been eating one of its favorite foods --- sweet, succulent blackberries. Without a care in the world the turtle leisurely ambled from plant to plant. Its home, 250 yards in diameter, contained an abundance of food and a convenient pond. As the berry feast continued, the turtle's tranquility was broken by an unwelcome sight. The perceptive eyes of a raccoon had detected the feeding turtle and the masked bandit quickly scampered over to investigate. The box turtle viewed this intruder as an inconvenience but not as a real danger. For although the shell did have its drawbacks at times, it also had advantages. And at times like this, these advantages were very much appreciated. The turtle's tough, bony covering protected it from the teeth and claws of potential predators. The box turtle's shell in particular provides an advantage even greater than that of other turtles. The bottom of its shell is hinged in such a way as to allow the animal to pull itself completely inside, leaving no part of its soft skin exposed. It can hold this position for hours, if necessary. Today it was more difficult to retreat into the shell. The turtle had overeaten. It had all it could do to hold the shell tightly closed. As the raccoon determinedly gnawed on the outside of the shell, the pressure on the turtle to hold the shell together became more and more intense. It waited and waited until finally it could hold on no longer. The turtle had to relieve the pressure. The privilege of the morning's over-indulgence and now a moment's respite from the pressure didn't seem too crucial. Just slightly, it released the hinged bottom to relieve the pressure for a moment. But that slight opening was all that the raccoon needed. With its strong jaws and nimble paws it pried the shell open and exposed the soft skin of the little creature. Had the turtle just waited a little longer, the raccoon would have given up and moved on --- the turtle would have been safe. But because the turtle weakened its endurance by overindulgence, it forfeited its life.

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