“For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” That’s a high standard. Break only the slightest part of it (in this passage in James, the context is partiality), and you’re guilty of breaking it all. So I found it even more surprising that God was willing to let Judah off the hook if they just keep the Sabbath!
The prophet Jeremiah had the unenviable job of telling Judah about its grim fate: total destruction at the hands of Babylon. The reason? Judah’s idolatry, which was apparently even worse than Israel’s (Jeremiah 3:11)! Jeremiah’s prophecies were harsh, but God was not without mercy. Incredible, generous mercy! Consider Jeremiah 5:1ff:
Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem,
look and take note!
Search her squares to see
if you can find a man,
one who does justice
and seeks truth,
that I may pardon her.
If there is just one righteous person in the city, God would pardon the whole city! But there wasn’t.
Jeremiah prophesies another offer of pardon in Jeremiah 17:19ff: Keep the Sabbath holy and great things will happen; profane it, and the city will burn. The context here is markedly different from what James said, of course, but the offer seems too good to be true! Just that one thing? Just keep the Sabbath? That’s it? And Jerusalem will be the everlasting dwelling place of kings and God himself?
Needless to say this didn’t happen and Judah was exiled. But it could have been. What’s the application for us? Even in the midst of pending judgement, God is generous with mercy. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. And since the time of Jeremiah, he’s raised up another Prophet, a better one, who is also Priest and King: Jesus. Had we applied God’s offer to Judah today and tried to obey in just a single area, we’d have quickly discovered that even that is too much to do perfectly. We would’ve have failed. But God’s generosity was greater still in Jesus, who kept the whole law for us perfectly and took our shortcomings on himself at the cross, so that we might be holy and blameless in God’s sight. Just trust Jesus.
Photo: Jeremiah, as depicted by Michelangelo from the Sistine Chapel ceiling