Two Sets of Letters


Earlier we looked at the transition from the Old Covenant to the New as it’s described in the Letter to the Hebrews. It was there that I pointed out two distinct New Covenants.

There’s one for the Jewish believers noted in chapter eight and one for us in chapter ten. And each covenant has its own laws directing how to convey its gospel message.

To Us Non-Jews

In short, the one with us says that first God puts His laws into our hearts  . . . the place where we keep our core values and beliefs. He does that by putting the Holy Spirit there to be our Comforter and Counselor; He severs the direct connection between our minds and our fleshly values; and He reveals our relationship with Jesus as His bride. That’s generally what we tell others about as we experience this new life.

Then second, God writes His laws on our minds . . . gradually renewing our ways of thinking so that our actions and words come into agreement with those new beliefs. All the while, His Spirit is directing our souls to care for others in ways that He knows are best. That’s what Paul wrote about in his letters, calling it his gospel. And it’s the basis of how we live out our faith.

To the Jews

The New Covenant with the Jewish believers says that first God puts His laws into their minds . . . His Spirit is there giving them new actions to do and words to say so that their lives reflect Jesus’ fulfillment of the Old.

Then second, He writes His laws on their hearts . . . new beliefs and values are formed as they experience the Holy Spirit’s work within them. That’s how they’re to present the gospel to other Jews. This is what James, Peter, John, Jude and the author of Hebrews wrote about. We’ll focus on their letters shortly to see how they fit in.

The Law for the Jews’ ministry demands proper behaviors and gradually faith is realized. The one for our ministry begins with faith and gradually new behaviors are realized.

Two Apostleships

Those passages in Hebrews strongly suggest the two ministries, but Paul made the distinction plain in his letter to the Galatians . . .

Seeing that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised (for He who effectually worked for Peter in his apostleship to the circumcised effectually worked for me also to the Gentiles),

and recognizing the grace that had been given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, so that we might go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. (from Galatians 2:7-9)

That meeting took place in Jerusalem fourteen years after his salvation on the road to Damascus. Paul had gone to those highly respected church leaders to confirm that his message was well-founded. Their concurrence set the separation of ministries: they would stay with the Jews and he would leave his people to reach us Gentiles. Of course there was overlap . . . he hoped to reach them too.

Peter acknowledged the validity of Paul’s ministry . . .

Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation;

just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand,

which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:14-16)

The Other Letters

All of the New Testament letters encourage faith in Jesus so they all have great passages to read, re-read and meditate on. Yet, we non-Jewish believers who are familiar with, and rely on Paul’s writings, will find apparent contradictions with parts of those others.

That’s especially the case for an insecure believer who is young in the faith and is trying to please God through good behaviors. That person is still wrestling with the fact that a life of grace (through faith) only comes after leaving behind the fear of God’s justice under the Law . . . and the hope for His mercy.

One of the most discussed differences is Paul’s “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (from Ephesians 2:8-9) set in opposition with James’ “faith, if it has no works, is dead” (from James 2:17-18).

Those differences have been argued and rationalized for years, and confusion continues to divide non-Jewish believers. It doesn’t have to; they’re letters for two different ministries. Up to this time we’ve gone over Paul’s letters to us; now here are some excerpts from ones to the Jews . . .

The New Testament letters to the Jews reflect the law for their ministry. We non-Jewish believers can avoid misunderstanding them by knowing that difference . . .

James

He addressed his letter “to the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad” (from James 1:1). It was to those who fled during the brutal Roman occupation.

Right away he laid out the purpose of life’s troubles (even their dispersion). “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (from James 1:2). We can identify with that; it’s what God is doing with all of us: growing our trust-faith-love relationship with Him.

But then there’s “Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him” (from James 1:12). That insecure non-Jewish believer that I mentioned above (and like I was) might read this (thinking it’s addressed to him) and logically ask: “If those trials are suppose to lead us to love God and receive salvation, how can a person ever be sure that he’s saved since trials keep on coming?”

Still in chapter one, James said “But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls” (from James 1:19-21). It sounds like good advice for everyone to be careful of what they say and do, but it also begs a question: “If you do those things and receive the word implanted so that your soul can be saved; must you keep doing them to stay saved?”

Skipping to the end (for the sake of brevity), “My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (from James 5:19-20). That non-Jewish believer who’s struggling with “grace through faith” could reasonably conclude that his salvation is always in danger if he doesn’t avoid being a sinner by “obedience to the Law.”

Those are real issues that merit real answers . . .

His letter isn’t a set of instructions for us to live by, it’s a description of how God is working out salvation for the Jews. He’s challenging them to leave their religion (that deteriorated into mere do’s and don’ts) and to adopt a life of faith in Christ. Then their outward lives will influence other Jews too.

At one point (in chapter one), James used an allegory to chastise his people. He compared “a man who looks at himself in a mirror and then walks away and forgets what he saw” to “being a hearer of the perfect law of liberty, but not a doer.” They were that man and the “perfect law of liberty” is the whole Law that Jesus fulfilled, completed, finished. He urged them to “be doers of the word” . . . for their behaviors and their faith in Him to be in agreement.

James also spoke to them about the “royal law.” They knew what it was. He didn’t need to say: “Leviticus, chapter 19, (where the Ten Commandments are further explained and then summarized) tells us: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” He was telling them what their core beliefs and values ought to have been from the beginning . . . when the Law was given to Moses to squelch their arguing with each other at Mount Sinai.

As you read James’ letter, keep in mind that Jesus has already set you apart from the world; you have eternal life with Him; there is no condemnation awaiting you; and as His bride, you are absolutely perfect in His eyes.

Peter

He identified the intended recipients of his letters in First Peter chapter one . . . calling them aliens who had been scattered. In chapter two he referred to their Jewish heritage, their temple worship, their race and priesthood, they were aliens and strangers in the world, and they were to remain separate from the Gentiles. And according to chapter three of Second Peter, those recipients were the same as the first: “This is now, beloved, the second letter I am writing to you . . .”

Repeatedly Peter asked those born-again believers to make others aware of God by behaviors that were proper for a holy people. He reminded them of their security: trials would come, but the purpose was to prove that their faith was real by the salvation that followed.

Here are some of his more frequently quoted passages . . .

Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart, for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God. (1 Peter 1:22-23)

Note the emphasis that he put on the Jews’ outward behaviors to draw attention to God’s holiness . . .

Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:11-12)

Some of his instructions seem contrary to what we’ve become accustomed to, but this is their God-given way of presenting the gospel . . .

Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.

Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable. For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly.

For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God.

For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps. (1 Peter 2:16-21)

There’s nothing wrong with doing these things. Just keep in mind that your motivation should be from the Holy Spirit who’s appealing to your mind to love others . . . not because of guilt or fear. You’re already alive in Christ and saved from death; that’s why His Spirit lives within you.

John

Of his three letters, the one most frequently quoted is the first, especially 1 John 1:9. That verse is sometimes referred to as the “believer’s bar of soap” because believers use it to scrub away their sins . . . trying to confess them all to get God’s forgiveness for each and every one. That’s quite ironic since in his gospel, John himself recited Jesus’ definition of sin.

He (Jesus) was speaking about His own departure and the Holy Spirit’s arrival, “when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment; concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me” (from John 16:7-11). And the author of Hebrews warned “don’t be like your forefathers who didn’t believe God and refused to enter His Sabbath Rest” . . . equating disobedience and sin and unbelief with not following Jesus into salvation (from that letter’s chapter three).

Like the other letters to the Jews, these put actions (behaviors) before faith . . . maybe to chide them. They were known for being a stubborn people.

In that vein, let’s look at some more of John’s passages to see how graphically he spoke to spiritually awaken them . . .

Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him. (from 1 John 3:4, 6)

Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (1 John 2:15)

No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother. (1 John 3:9-10)

Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. (1 John 3:15)

Each of these is a contrast . . . being saved or being lost. Unlike 1 John 1:9 which many of us have committed to memory, we tend to read these and quickly set them aside, or ignore them entirely, hoping they aren’t aimed at us. They’re not . . .

They’re to the Jews . . . but John wasn’t condemning his people by saying that they were lost or that their salvation was in peril; instead he was telling them to be His witnesses by their behaviors.

Before leaving his letters, I must tell you that one of my all-time favorite Bible passages comes from 1 John 4:16-19 . . .

It begins with “God is love” and ends with “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.” Your relationship with God can’t be made perfect as long as you’re fearful in any way of what He will do or what He thinks about you. Comprehending His love for you will cast out all of those fears.

John’s letters contain fabulous passages like this one . . . just remember their purpose is to bring the Jews to faith in Jesus.

Jude

His letter refers to events that took place in the early world and in Israel’s history to warn about infiltrators. The wording is more pointed, but nonetheless consistent with Paul’s First Timothy, Romans and Galatians . . . along with John and Peter’s letters. Their message is to be careful of men who use Scripture to draw people away from faith in Christ.

The Author of Hebrews

We’ve examined several passages, and even looked at an overview of that Letter to the Hebrews. It’s filled with their stories, only mentioning us in passing. Yet it contains breadcrumbs that we can follow as we read the Old Testament . . . to understand God’s patience with mankind; to see the many ways that He predicted Jesus to be the Savior; to know the Jewish foundation for our church traditions; and to know our Bridegroom more personally, more intimately.