Hebrews: The Epistle to the Hebrews does not begin with a “grace and peace” benediction. The author gets straightaway into teaching the reader about how our Messiah fulfils the prophetic types and shadows of the Old Testament.
We are taught about the peace with God that Christians enjoy: the spiritual and neverending rest for the people of God. For those who do not harden their hearts against God—those who evidence that they have heard God’s voice in the gospel preached to them, and that they have true saving faith, by their carrying on believing in him all their lives—do so because they are “made partakers of Christ” (Hebrews 3.7 ff.). For we are of Christ’s household only if we “hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end” (3.6).
This is genuine faith in Christ: the faith that holds fast, or perseveres. Where this faith in Christ is not in a person, there is someone who shall not enter into God’s rest and who does not know this peace with God. But where hold-fast faith in Christ is, there is someone who shall enter this rest, and who shall remain in it forever (3.19; 4.3).
We have this hope as a “strong consolation”—this is the very peace with God that we experience, which the author of Hebrews describes as an “anchor of our soul, sure and steadfast” because it is secured by Christ who has “entereth into that within the veil” into the true Holy of Holies in heaven for his people, where he is now both seated upon his throne and interceeding for us as our antitype of Melchisedec: our Priest and King (6.18-20; compare 7.24-28; 8.1; see also Romans 8.34).
“But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance” (Heb 9.11-15).
This is what we have, Christian—by the saving work of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Is was not by the blood of sacrificed animals that we have peace with God, but by Christ. “For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect” (Hebrews 10.1). But the blood of the Mediator of the New Testament both can make us perfect, and does so: “we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all…For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified” (v.10,14). As the prophet Isaiah said, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53.5).
The peace and healing that Christ gives begins in us with regeneration by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3.5; 1 Peter 1.3). It is the new heart that is enabled to believe and hope in Christ. We are “begotten…again to a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1.3). By “lively hope” Peter means eternal life in the presence of God in heaven. Where regeneration is, there is true faith, and hope, and peace with God experienced by the believer.
Our faith in our Saviour did not originate in ourselves—it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2.8), same as our lively, thriving hope is. Our faith is of one substance with all the things we hope for, from the hand of God—and it includes the peace that we now and always will have with God. Our very believing in our Saviour is itself the evidence that we have, and shall have, all these things that we don’t yet see with our eyes (Hebrews 11.1). This faith that Christ has authored in us, we can be certain he will finish and perfect in us, so that it folds fast and endures to the end of our earthly lives (12.2).
With this the apostle John agrees: “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5.4-5). That which has the victory over the world in our lives, even our faith in Christ, is born of God. Our belief in our Saviour is an integral part of what “born of God” in us, arising within our regenerate heart. That is why our faith overcomes the world: it is not ours in origin—it is born of God. So says John.
This peace that we have with God, whom we are given to believe in and experience, changes our life, so that we desire and strive to live as the author of Hebrews instructs us: “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord…Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, Make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is wellpleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (Hebrews 12.14; 13.20-21).
James: The apostle James, in his epistle, also did not begin with a “grace and peace” benediction. Was this benediction based on a traditional Greco-Roman tradition in letter writing (though both Paul and Peter improved upon it with Christian truth)? James, however, was writing to “the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad,” that is, to Jews who had received their Messiah among the diaspora in the Roman world (James 1.1; compare John 1.12). James simply bid “greeting” to his first intended readers, and then he went straight into words of comfort to remind them that the temptations and trials they were suffering for their faith—because it was true faith in the Messiah, their Saviour—would only strengthen their faith and, as it were, battle-harden their patience. They should therefore patiently take all that they were going through: “let patience have her perfect work,” enduring to the end when they would be “perfect and entire, wanting [i.e. lacking] nothing” (James 1.2-4). “Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him” (v.12).
Christians should not make the mistake of thinking that it was God who is tempting them, but their own lusts are being deliberately exascerbated by the world around them in order to tempt them and draw them away from Christ (vv.13-14). But it was not of our own selves that we have turned out of our old sinful ways: this repentance was the gift of God: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth” (vv.17-18a). With this in mind, James encourages his first readership, these Israelite Christians dispersed among the gentiles of the Roman empire, by saying that they “should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” in the church of Christ—a representative example for those who would follow them (v.18b).
The apostle James would have them combat these worldly temptations both negatively and positively. Negatively: “Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls” (v.21). And positively: “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves” (v.22).
Be doers of God’s word. But which word, in particular, does James have in mind? To answer that, see how inseparably together he links continuing in the “perfect law of liberty,” i.e. God’s moral law (v.25a; see also James’s expansion in 2.10-13), with being being a “doer of the work” as a manifestation of true Christian faith (v25b; see also his expansion in 3.14-26).
James also gives a few practical applications. Guard your speech by keeping a tight bridle upon your tongue (1.26; expanded in 3.3-12). Though you yourself may be harassed by temptations in this world, others have lost their husbands and fathers to persecution—therefore, you should show your faith by doing the work of caring for them: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (1.27).
Keeping God’s commandments, keeping control of your tongue, and keeping care of the church families that have lost people through the ravages of persecution, all go to upholding the peace of the church. But now there’s more: the apostle calls out the numerous intra-congregational conflicts among his readers and he points directly to their source: “From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts. Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God. Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy?” (4.1-5). But God’s grace is greater than even these grievous sins. “But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble” (v.6).
To be humble in the way that James is talking about means having God as your God in every area of your life. “Submit yourselves therefore to God” (v.7). Every area of our life including in our drawing near to God in worship and prayer (v.8), in our deeds, words and thoughts (“hands” and “hearts” as the apostle puts it), and in a realistic, sober-minded, non-frivolous attitude to our afflictions in life (v.9). And all this not with pretend humility, but with what God knows is real. “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up” (v.10).
Speak well of your brothers and sisters in the church, not evil, not being critical and disapproving of them all the time as though you are their judge (vv.11-12). Recognize that all that ever happens, happens because of God’s providence—and you are a wisp of vapour in comparison to God, who upholds you moment by moment (vv.13-16). And while you stop judging the Lord’s people, you must always still examine yourself in your circumstances, and you must always do the right thing. Omitting to do the good you know you should do is sin: “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin” (v.17).
Oftentimes that good involves being generous and hospitable, but when you keep it to yourself you will find that you cannot keep it: “Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days” (5.1-5). Such deliberate failure to do good with what God has given you effectively breaks the eighth commandment, says the apostle: “Ye have condemned and killed the just” (v.6a). That is what you’re doing, whenever you don’t do all you reasonably can do, as a brother or sister, to help the Lord’s people in need. Instead of keeping the peace of the Church of Christ, you are siding with her enemies, engaging with them in their war of attrition against the Church, by letting your Christian family suffer.
The Lord sees what you are doing, or rather, not doing. And so, it may be that you are already under his chastisement for it, but you haven’t humbled yourself. James moves on in his epistle to discuss afflictions and sicknesses in the church, though he doesn’t explicitly link it to what he was saying previously. And in your own case too, you don’t know the mind of the Lord, what his purpose is in your suffering. But the question is, will you humble yourself before God? And will you confess of your faults to your Christian family, and make amends? “Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms. Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him. Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (vv.3-16).
You need God to answer their prayers.