Tag Archives: Christian living

Behold Your God — Week Eleven Introduction

6 Aug

This week of Behold Your God may in many ways be the hardest for us to fully understand and embrace. The focus of this week’s study is pragmatism, a philosophy so deeply woven into the American psyche that it will take a serious work of the Spirit of God to free us from its grip. Pragmatism is based on the idea that whatever works is what we should do. In the church context, this idea of “what works” usually revolves around things like attendance, baptisms, budgets, a sense of excitement, and excellence in programming. None of these things are wrong in themselves, but when they become the focus, you can be sure that pragmatism will work into the mix somewhere.

The reason I say pragmatism is so difficult is that as I write this early on a Sunday morning I realize that if our attendance is off today, I will have to fight discouragement. My own heart wants to strategize rather than rest, plan rather than pray. There is, of course, a place for strategy and planning. We see this in the Bible often. But we put far too great a focus on these things.

Pragmatism is such a danger to us because it can cause us to take our eyes off of God and put them on measures of success that may or may not be very important at all. And this is really the ultimately deadly aspect of pragmatism: it insists on success. One of the reasons American Christians are so depressed and defeated and deflated is that they have been taught more about the American dream of prosperity and success than they have been taught the ways of God. They believe that their Christian lives ought to be one uninterrupted victory after another and that they should always be onward and upward. And the evidence of Scripture gives just the opposite picture. The kingdom of God is often not outwardly impressive. The kingdom is often filled with failure and stumbles and weakness. This is the truth we need to embrace and when we do, we will see the death of pragmatism in our lives. When we trust God enough to trust His ways and when we hope in God enough to make Him the goal, then we are on our way to living a life that is true to His calling for us.

Powerful Quotes from David Powlison’s “How Does Sanctification work?”

18 Jun

Last week I finished reading David Powlison’s new book How Does Sanctification Work? It is a small volume, but well worth reading. Powlison is the executive director of the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF). This book is powerful and helpful to all who want to grow in Christ. Here are a few quotes I found helpful . . .

“Jesus’s first three words (from the cross) reach with mercy to others. His last four words reach out in need to His Father. Why is this significant? Jesus’s actual first-person experience expresses the fundamental extroversions of candid faith and personalized love. We can easily imagine how being tortured to death and facing imminent asphyxiation would pull any one of us into a whirlpool of self-absorption in pain and vulnerability. A person in such agony reacts in typical ways: despair, impotent rage, self-pity, terror, and an overwhelming urge to numb or escape pain. But amid intense suffering, Jesus cries out to the Father and cares for the people around Him. We watch and hear how honestly He lives the Psalms. We witness how specifically He lives out the commandments to love His God and His neighbors. We stand in awe.” (p. 38)

“Ministry electrifies when it connects something to someone rather than trying to say everything to no one in particular.” (p. 42)

“There are good reasons why not every Christian is impressed with the one truth that may have revolutionized your life. That one partial truth may have really helped you, and it may be drawing a particular kind of person to your ministry. But when one truth morphs into The Truth — the whole truth — it becomes an ax to grind. It promises a panacea, a “cure all.” As this happens, it slides in the direction of a magic formula, a “secret” to be discovered, not the plain, simple wisdom of God. A word that helps some kinds of people can prove unhelpful — even misleading and destructive — to people who need one of the other kinds of help that God gives. Preachers and counselors, beware!” (p. 42)

I could go on with more great quotes, but that gives you a flavor of some of the wisdom Powlison shares in the book. I benefited greatly from the fruit of Powlison’s life and ministry shared in this book.

Book Review: Befriend (Scott Sauls)

11 Jan

Scott Sauls is the Pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville. He seems to be a pastor in touch with today’s world but still grounded in a commitment to Scripture. He would fall for me somewhere between Andy Stanley and Tim Keller, more committed to core evangelical values than Stanley but a little more progressive than Keller. This sense also comes through in the endorsements at the front of the book and in the foreword by Ann Voskamp. Sauls comes from a centrist evangelical position, with Matt Chandler on his right and Richard Stearns on his left (both endorsed the book). Sauls’ centrist position serves him well in this book. I came to his book Befriend having never read any of his other work and having only heard him speak on a couple of occasions. I appreciate the heart that comes through in this book. Befriend is a collection of twenty one brief chapters, the bulk of which are directed at encouraging readers to befriend various kinds of people. We all know we are to befriend all sorts of people but Sauls, having laid a gospel basis for friendship in chapter one, is very effective at applying the need for friendship toward all for his evangelical audience. Sauls covers all sorts of groups, including often contrasting pairs (poor and rich, unborn babies and their mothers, conservatives and liberals). The book has an edge because most readers will come to a chapter that makes them uncomfortable, challenging their prejudices and lack of love. Because he is covering such a wide range of topics, the chapters are a bit uneven in terms of content, with some of them just pretty conventional in a way that will just be review for most believers. The best chapters are the ones covering issues Sauls has wrestled with deeply in his own life. Throughout the book, Sauls probes for the sweet spot of fidelity to the Bible combined with an open and loving heart. He most often succeeds in bringing this sense of grace and truth across in his writing. The book is well-suited for a small group, as it contains further Scripture readings and questions at the close of each chapter, but it may run just a bit long to be ideal for a small group. It may be best used by two or three friends who read it and discuss over coffee or a meal. Individuals of course, can also profit from a careful reading of the book.

The last chapter, on the God who befriends you, is the best chapter in the book in my opinion and is a fitting conclusion to a well-written and insightful book. For a people thoroughly connected but lacking community, Befriend gives us solid guidance.

Pete Rose and the Airplane

9 Dec

Pete Rose starred for the Cincinnati Reds through much of his career and in September of 1985 broke Ty Cobb’s record for most hits in major league history. The story goes that once on a team flight the plane began to run into turbulence. Rose looked over at his seatmate, journeyman catcher Hal King, and said, “This plane is going down. We’re going down and I have a .300 lifetime average to take with me. Do you?”

This story gives great insight into Rose’s psyche and may explain part of why he was a great player. Rose was driven first by competition. He wanted to be better than everybody else. He wanted to work harder than anybody. The nickname “Charlie Hustle” was allegedly given to Rose when he ran to first base after being walked in a Spring Training game. It was a derisive nickname, but Rose wore it as a badge of honor. He was driven by his dad and his working class upbringing to prove himself. Rose was also single-minded. He was focused simply on being the best baseball player he could be. Rose was never the most gifted athlete on his team but he probably got more out of his ability than anybody. This story also shows us that Rose lived for recognition of his achievements. Rose wanted to be known as a lifetime .300 hitter. This was his goal. He didn’t care much about being a good husband or father. He didn’t care much about his character in general except when it came to baseball. Then the work ethic and the competitive spirit kicked into gear. There is no sense in this anecdote of any reckoning for his life after the plane goes down, only a sense that his legacy will be summed up by a batting average. The sad truth is that often people who achieve noteworthy things are pretty lousy people when it comes to character.

With Rose, his greatness has been tarnished by scandal. Rose bet on baseball, sometimes even on his own team while he was managing. For years he denied this, but a few years ago he acknowledged the truth. The powers that be in major league baseball have banned him from the game and he has heretofore not been elected to the Hall of Fame (my sense is that this will happen, but probably posthumously).

What’s the moral of this story? Never sit next to Rose on an airplane? Perhaps. But beyond this, we can see from Rose’s quote the idea of the tragic flaw very clearly. Your greatest strength is often your greatest weakness. Competitive? Make sure you are not measuring your worth based on your performance. Make sure you are gracious in victory and know how to handle defeat. Single-minded? Don’t excuse yourself from your responsibilities in other areas due to your pursuit of excellence in your area of interest. Also, watch out that the things that make you great in one area don’t ruin you in another. The same intensity that enables you to get things done in the board meeting may be damaging when brought into the home.

Above all, Rose should teach us to live for something more than a .300 average. This brings me to another baseball story. In the movie Field of Dreams Burt Lancaster plays Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, a man who only played in one major league game and never got to bat.  Graham went on to be a town doctor in Minnesota but always dreamed of coming up to the plate just once. The outlines of this story are true. There really was a “Moonlight” Graham and he actually played minor league ball and appeared in one game for the New York Giants in 1905. In the movie, Graham’s character says, “Well, you know I… I never got to bat in the major leagues. I would have liked to have had that chance. Just once. To stare down a big league pitcher. To stare him down, and just as he goes into his windup, wink. Make him think you know something he doesn’t. That’s what I wish for. Chance to squint at a sky so blue that it hurts your eyes just to look at it. To feel the tingling in your arm as you connect with the ball. To run the bases — stretch a double into a triple, and flop face-first into third, wrap your arms around the bag. That’s my wish, Ray Kinsella. That’s my wish. And is there enough magic out there in the moonlight to make this dream come true?”

Ray Kinsella says to Doc Graham, “Fifty years ago, for five minutes you came within… y-you came this close. It would KILL some men to get so close to their dream and not touch it . . . they’d consider it a tragedy.” And Doc Graham replies, “Son, if I’d only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes… now that would have been a tragedy.”

A life lived in relative obscurity for that which endures is of far more worth than a life focused on fleeting accomplishments. I have known many simple believers through my life who are far more inspiring to me than the latest “visionary thought leader” to come down the Christian Celebrity road. You don’t have to do anything spectacular and you don’t have to feel guilty for not doing everything. No one can do it all. That’s why we each have different gifts. The real trick is not making your gifts your goal. The golden rule is the goal. Leverage the strength of your life to love God and to love your neighbor. So much of what we are will be seen by no one, will receive no applause, will bring no outward recognition. But it’s the stuff that makes a life. Live well today, so that if your plane goes down, you will not boil your life’s worth down to being the employee of the year in 2013 or a shelf full of bowling trophies.



Notes on James 5:13-20

25 Aug

This last section of James works very well as a sermon outline. The massage of this passage is one of intercession for sickness and intervention for sin. The passage is a great encouragement to cultivate community in the local church, so that life can be shared with one another at such a level as to make deep caring and strong correction realities, helping to bring maturity among believers.

13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.

James turns away from the issue of economic oppression to the issue of suffering and sickness. The idea seems to be that there are trials of various kinds (cf. 1:2) and that if one has not been a victim of economic oppression it would still be very possible that they would fall into some sort of physical illness. The ancient world was one in which people regularly faced sickness and disease. Life expectancies were much lower. Medical treatment was much less advanced. So almost everybody would face the kind of physical suffering James is talking about. At the same time, there were also occasions for cheer. The reality of James’ time is similar to that in third world countries today. In the times I’ve had the opportunity to visit such places, I have found both more tragedy and more joy than I find in the more economically advanced places I’ve been. There is often joy even in the worst physical circumstances. So we should not be surprised that James in his day reflects these dual realities of suffering and joy. This is the human experience, a beautiful and broken world.

The responses to suffering and joy in this verse are instructive. Suffering should bring prayer, joy should bring singing. This, of course, is not the only response we can hae to either reality, but these things are to be a big part of our response. When we are suffering, we need to turn to God in prayer. When we are joyful, we need to return thanks to God.

14 Is anyone among you sick? 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.

The phrase “among you” reminds us that James is speaking to a body of believers and that these believers do not live separate lives from one another. They are intimately linked by their commitment to Christ to deep fellowship with one another. So when one is sick, it is taken seriously. Now it seems clear here that the sickness in view is very serious, so that the instructions given here are probably not for when church member John has a head cold but are for a more grave and threatening condition. The reason I say this is that the person being prayed for seems to be seriously ill. The person can’t go to the elders he has to call the elders to him. He doesn’t pray for himself, the elders pray for him. The elders are praying over him, giving the impression that the sick person is bedridden. In other words, this sickness seems to be beyond the everyday kinds of sufferings we face and seems instead to refer to a more serious illness. So the elders of the church are not called to pray over every single sickness in the church, but there are times when they are called to pray in this way, anointing with oil in the name of the Lord. This anointing with oil is not a magic spell but is a sign. Oil was the sign of God’s presence and the Spirit’s power in the Old Testament, and is used here as a reminder that God is with the one who is sick and that His power to heal is present. Since we do not see this practice of anointing with oil in the New Testament on a widespread basis we should remember that anointing oil is not required whenever we pray for healing but it may be useful reminder of God’s presence and power in times of serious illness.

15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.

This verse on the surface tends to point toward the healing of the one who is prayed for, if the prayer is one of faith. This verse stands as a great promise but it is one which is either diminished or overemphasized. There is great encouragement here to pray boldly but there is also no direct promise here that physical healing will come. The language is open to the view that both spiritual and physical healing are in view here. The use of the word “save” rather than “healed” is one clue that a more holistic view is in James’ mind. Further, the idea that the Lord will “raise him up” carries both the idea of getting out of the sickbed and the idea of spiritual growth. Finally, the sentence immediately following the promise has to do with the forgiveness of sins, again bringing a spiritual dimension to this verse. With all of these caveats, the reader may be tempted to dismiss or diminish the promise. But this would be as great a mistake as overemphasizing the power of my faith to effect physical healing. This verse is a clear promise of healing in response to the prayer of faith, but the method and means of that healing are in the hands of God. Sometimes God will raise up the person physically, sometimes spiritually, and sometimes both things will happen. Surely we should not focus on these verses in a purely spiritual way, since the context of the passage is physical illness. But we would also be wrong to diminish spiritual healing, which is fundamentally deeper and more significant than any physical healing. It is also clear from this verse that sickness and sin are related. All sickness is indirectly related to sin through the corruption of creation that has come through the fall but this verse also seems to indicate that sometimes specific sicknesses are related to sin. While I think it not wise for us to probe the souls of others for sin (like Job’s unwise friends) but that we should consider our own hearts to some degree in times of sickness does seem wise. And if we find any sin at the heart of our sickness, we should confess it, not simply for physical healing but for the more important spiritual healing which may be at the heart of our struggle with physical illness.

16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.

The forgiveness of sin is not an automatic by-product of the prayer of faith for the sick body or soul, but it comes in the context of confession and the context of community. This confession of sin is not only to God but it is also to one another. Confession, coupled with prayer, brings healing. This Greek word for healing is not the word “save” of verse 15 but carries the idea of ‘wholeness’ or ‘wellness.’ I believe the confession here is probably not first and foremost some grave moral failure as we usually think when we consider confessing sin. I think it is likely that the sins being confessed are the very ones James addresses so often in his letter: relational sins. I can see people among the believers James is addressing going to one another in confession, asking forgiveness for grumbling, for ignoring needs, for fighting with each other selfishly, for cursing one another, for all manner of relational sins. One great need of the church in James is relational harmony. There are envious factions. There is verbal and perhaps even physical conflict. James’ solution is confession and prayer in community. Humility and faith are great instruments of healing. And that is basically what James means at the end of 5:16 when he speaks of the fact that prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. He is telling us, when it comes to the conflicts that so often rule and ruin our lives, prayer works. Just recently, a friend facing illness told me that the prayers of fellow believers meant more to him than the words of the doctors. Prayer makes a difference.

17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.

Once again James roots his teaching on prayer in the Old Testament. He illustrates the principles he is teaching. In the case of Elijah, we see an ordinary man (“a nature like ours”) who had an extraordinary prayer life. He prayed fervently. He prayed specifically. And God answered. God’s answer came not because Elijah had magic powers or because he was sufficient in himself. Answers came because Elijah humbly trusted God. But the answer was not instant. And this may be why James chose to highlight Elijah’s prayer about the drought rather than his confrontation with the prophets of Baal or some other more direct working of God. Elijah’s prayer relating to the drought and the rain took years to unfold. Thus the familiar theme of patience throughout James’ letter comes forth in this illustration. In addition, the whole episode with the drought was centered on calling Israel to confession and repentance and ultimately restoration to God, so it fits well with the whole context of this last part of James.

19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

These last two verses are a fitting conclusion to the letter, though the conclusion is rather abrupt. The focus of these verses is on intervention and its spiritual benefits. We are not only called to intercede in prayer for our fellow believers, we are also called to intervene when we see on wandering from the truth. The word “wanders” has always struck me, because it seems consistently in the Bible that spiritual weakness is a slow process. Most people don’t run from the faith, they wander from the faith. They slowly become enamored with other things. They begin to pull away from relationships. They forsake activities in which they once participated enthusiastically. James encourages his readers to bring back into the fold of faith those who have wandered in this way.

The intervention in view here is most unnatural in our day. Surely it is true that efforts in this direction can sometimes be harassing or overbearing. But we are much more likely to err in the direction of inaction than we are to err in the direction of overbearing intervention.

I believe most of the time when one wanders away from fellowship with God and the church it is most often the case that one has relational conflict in some form. If this is true and if we note the context here in James 5, it would seem that the intervention here may be over relational sin (cf. Matthew 18) rather than some particular individual sin (drunkenness, for example). I don’t think this means that believers should not intervene in individual issues of morality, I only mean to say that perhaps James’ focus on intervention is different than we often think. The multitude of sins that we often focus on comes from relational dysfunction with God and with other believers. When we help people be reconciled to God and one another, we save them from a death-giving lifestyle and bring them to life and we cover a multitude of sins through our love.


Notes on James 5:7-12

18 Aug

“Patience is a virtue.” This cliché is true enough, but for most of us, patience is a virtue that is sorely lacking. The connection of faith to patience is the focus of James 5:7-12. The patience the readers of James need is far greater than anything we normally face, because their trials were much deeper and greater than the trials we encounter most of the time. So let’s look together at this passage . . .

7 Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains.
The “therefore” here is referencing James’ previous condemnation of the oppressive rich (5:1-6). James was speaking to rich, oppressive unbelievers in verses 1-6 and now he turns back to his original audience and he calls them “brothers” three times in this section, just to remind them after his harsh words to the rich of his affection for them. James has just told us that the judgment of the oppressive rich by God is sure, so now he urges patience among his readers so that they are not overcome by their oppressors. They are to be patient. The Greek word used here for patience is makrothumeo, not the more common word in James for patience, upomeno. Blomberg says the difference is found in that the word used here is not as passive as the more common word in James. Believers here are called to persevere in spite of persecution and this is not a matter of just enduring but is a matter of both awaiting the Lord’s coming judgment and deliverance and at the same time denouncing injustice in the present world. So we have here a way between the extremes of violence and pacifism. James is urging his readers in this section to wait for the coming of the Lord while also speaking with a prophetic voice (just as he has) to the failings of their culture. We can’t bring complete justice to this world but we can seek a more just world even as we wait for the coming of the one who will put everything to rights and eradicate all injustice.
     Like a good preacher, James illustrates his encouragement to endure through the use of the farmer. The farmer would have been a common illustration for James’ readers and many of them were probably involved in farming. The key principle of this illustration is waiting. The farmer can’t plant the seed and harvest the seed but in the meantime he can’t make the seed grow. There are ties here to the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 7:16-20) and the use of the early and latter rains may have a spiritual significance.
     James’ readers would have been familiar with the early and latter rains, a common weather pattern in the eastern Mediterranean. The early rains came in the fall while the latter rains came in the Spring. Planting and harvesting happened during these rainy seasons. So the farmer would sow and reap in two seasons but in between he would wait not passively, but actively, cultivating the soil to get the best possible harvest. The connection to James’ readers is that are living between the two seasons right now. The early rains of Jesus’ ministry have already happened but a latter rain harvest is still to come at His return. In this meantime, His people are to remain faithful and patient.
    That James calls the fruit here “precious” is unusual because this was normally a term used for jewels and treasures. But I think James uses this word because he recognizes that in contrast to the rich oppressors, whose riches are moth-eaten and rusted and fading, God’s people will enjoy the true riches of spiritual fruit at the second coming which will cause earthly trials and hardships to be seen as passing things. Thus the fruit of God’s renewing work is our true treasure.
8 You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.
    So in this time between the rains, James urges patience for his readers. But this patience again is not inactive. While we wait, it is time to address our hearts. The coming of the Lord is at hand, it is the next thing, but in the meantime we may be tempted to doubt the coming of the Lord, to give up hope. We know James’ stance toward double-mindedness (see 1:7-8) so the focus here on establishing our hearts is important. You can preach to yourself. You can tell yourself the truth. You can remind yourself of God’s promises and His faithfulness. All of this is an important part of establishing your hearts. In this time between Jesus’ two comings, we need strong hearts to endure the many hardships of this life with patience.
9 Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door.
    James now returns to the issue of relationships in the church. He started with the individual and now moves out into the church as a whole. If the individual hearts of the church are not directed Godward, the whole group will falter. But having addressed the need for enduring patience and strong, hopeful hearts, James now turns to the issue once again of sinful speech. There is evidently a problem in the church, believers there are at each other’s throats verbally, and in this way their verbal violence is akin to the physical violence of the rich oppressors. Thus James’ readers in practical terms are modelling their lives more after the rich oppressors than their good God who gives every good and perfect gift. Because the believers are aligned in action with sinful people, they are subjecting themselves to God’s judgment. So the judgment of the oppressors by God which had been a source of comfort to these believers could also serve as a sort of warning to them, if they themselves walked in the same ways. There is a strong parallel here to something James has already said. In chapter 4:11, 12, we read . . .

11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?
     This matter of evil speech is critical to James. He says one of the big things that is undermining the church in his day is believers in the local body verbally slandering one another. In both passages, the element of judgment is featured. The security of the believer is a spiritual truth clear in Scripture but the judgment of works is also clear and it is clear that James believes the slanderous words of his hearers toward one another will not speak well of them in the day of judgment.
     I wonder if pondering the judgment of God might help us today weigh our words more carefully?
10 As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
     In verse 10, James takes a group of people whose very lives were tied to their words: the prophets, and makes them an illustration of the kind of attitude he is encouraging among his readers. James says his readers should follow the way of the prophets. Jesus had said something similar in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5:13). James uses the prophets because their speech was edifying even in the midst of much hardship. The prophets also walked that middle ground between advocating either violence or pacifism. They spoke truth to people in power, they called for justice, but they did not incite riots or violence or the overthrow of governments. They were faithful to their ministries even when their ministries made them deeply unpopular or even brought active opposition. James is saying his readers should have this same spirit. Not the worldly spirit of self-seeking but the godly spirit of the prophets: patient endurance and faithfulness in speaking of Jesus.
11 Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.
     James’ final example in this section is Job, the model of steadfastness under unusual trials. We are glad to call people who remained steadfast under trial blessed. All James’ readers would have admired the prophets and all would have admired Job. We look up to the prophets, we just don’t want their life, we don’t want to suffer like they did. So James turns our attention to Job. To be sure, Job was vexed by his trials yet he did not take his wife’s advice to “curse God and die.” Instead, he spoke from the heart and wrestled with God all without losing hold on the reality of God in his life. In the end, God said Job had spoken truthfully about him (see Job 42:7). Job is the great Old Testament example of patient endurance and in the end he was rewarded by a compassionate and gracious God. The foundation of our hope is a theological one. Without the knowledge of the nature and character of God the ground of our hope is shaky and subject to domination by doubt ultimately leading to despair. But with a firm theological grasp, we can approach life from a God-centered rather than self-centered perspective. This is James’ hope for his readers. He is showing them that as the farmer who waits has a harvest and the prophets who endured were vindicated and as Job through his patience was blessed, so it will be with his readers as they hope in God in the midst of their trials as they await the return of Christ and the making of all things new.
12 But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.
     This verse forms an odd ending to this passage until you consider the whole story of the book of James. If you start at 3:1, you see in James a consistent focus on speech and severe warnings against ungodly speech. So when we come here and James says in verse 12, “above all,” I see him as summarizing this whole section, from 3:1 forward. And his summary statement is a nearly direct quote from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Don’t swear, but let your word be true and so escape judgment over your words. Don’t be like the rich oppressors, using words to wield power. Even when shady speech could earn you advantage or give you a feeling of power, don’t give in to its temptation. Instead, let your word be known as reliable. Not double-minded but simple and true. This is James’ hope for his readers. Blomberg brings out the contrast between Herod Antipas from the gospels, with his rash vow that led to John the Baptist’s death, and Job, who was called on by His wife to curse God but refused. We don’t need to swear oaths because that often puts us in a tough spot. Instead, we should be people of integrity in our hearts and in our speech. We endure hardship as the people of God but this is not a cause for doubt or despair. Instead, we lean into God even more fully. The old song by John Michael Talbot speaks to me with regard to these issues . . .

Notes on James 5:1-6

11 Aug

The first paragraph of chapter 5 is the harshest paragraph of the whole book. James rails against those who trust in riches. The passage has an amazing number of parallels to statements Jesus made in the gospels. But how does this paragraph fit into the bigger picture of James? That is what we’ll consider below.

5 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you.

The issue I have wrestled with in this verse is whether the rich here are believers. I am convinced that the traveling businesspeople of 4:13-17 were part of the church James was addressing but I am not as persuaded that the people in chapter 5 are true believers. It is possible they could be part of the church but were people with a false profession of faith. This lines up well with James’ words in chapter 2 about faith and works and favoritism and about poverty and riches in chapter 1. The works of the rich here in 5:1-6 and the threat of God’s judgment seem to bring us to a point where we must acknowledge that these people were not true believers, even if they were part of the church outwardly.

The rich rejoice in this life. They have it all. But James says they should weep and howl. That Greek word howl carries the idea of an uncontrollable shriek of horror. And this state of emotional turmoil would not be because of a true repentance like in chapter 4 but because of the fearful expectation of judgment (“the miseries that are coming upon you”). The wealth which they acquired through evil has been their hope. But that hope is fading away (cf. 1:10) and now all that is left is the judgment of God.

2 Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten.

Here we see the parallel to the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ words about storing up treasures on earth (Mt. 6:19-24). Jesus said the very reason not to store up earthly treasure was its temporary nature. Not treasure on earth, treasure in heaven is the goal. Live for that which is eternal. James uses the perfect tense in Greek, pointing to the material possessions of the rich as having a standing of uselessness and an ongoing uselessness. Rotten and moth-eaten, riches ultimately fail to satisfy in this life and will be of no help in eternity.

3 Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days.

Precious metals like gold and silver do not rust or become corroded, except when they are mixed with other substances. In this case, James is probably using this illustration to show that the wealth these people had accumulated was not pure but was mixed with impurity (namely the oppressive actions used to acquire it) and therefore the fact that it was corroded was evidence of their impurity in obtaining it. The judgment that would come is the horrible judgment that their riches would eat their flesh like fire. This appears to be an eternal judgment with an earthly component. These people are going to die in misery and face an eternity of misery.

The phrase “You have laid up treasure in the last days” can only be understood rightly if we understand the New Testament view of the last days. Unlike our time, when we think of the last days as the days immediately preceding the return of Christ, the New Testament views the last days as being marked from the dying, rising and ascending of Christ until the second coming. So all of time marked from the coming of Jesus is viewed as the last days. Therefore, James is saying these rich people are laying up treasure now, on this earth, in the days when they should be focused on eternity.

4 Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.

Here I think of Cain and Abel and how after Abel was murdered by Cain the Lord said to Cain that his brother’s blood “cried out to him from the ground.” Here the rich are carrying around dirty money, money that has been gained through cheating. This money, the reward that should have gone to the laborers for their hard work, is crying out against the rich. God knows this money came by fraud. God knows the laborers were being cheated and so this dirty money metaphorically cries out against the rich, another thread of evidence bringing God to a judgment of condemnation. In addition, the harvesters themselves are aware that they are being cheated and so are crying out to the Lord for justice. This brings to mind the children of Israel oppressed under Egyptian slavery, crying out to the Lord for deliverance. These cries have reached the ears of the Lord, He is attending to them, and that is not good news for the rich.

5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.

James continues his indictment of the rich by pointing to their lives of luxury and self-indulgence. The self-centeredness with which they live is indicated by the fact that they have fattened their hearts in a day of slaughter. This is the picture of self-satisfied hope in this life and its pleasures. The legitimate good and perfect gifts of God have been distorted and deformed through an obsessive pursuit of pleasure in material things. The “day of slaughter” here is not the time of their judgment but is the time when they were killing those they oppressed, even as the filled their own lives with pleasure and indulgence.

6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.

The rich through their oppressive ways have stood as judges, feeling the right to condemn and murder the righteous person. They have taken the place of God. These workers who have been oppressed have not resisted. There is an echo here of Christ, the perfectly righteous One who did not resist His oppressors. So the rich are put in a place of comparison with the ones (Jews and Romans) who crucified the Lord. And Jesus is shown to have solidarity with those who are oppressed.

CONCLUSION: Are We “The Rich”?

This is a sobering question. It is true that most Americans are richer in material things than probably 98% of people who have ever lived. We mostly have pantries, closets full of clothes and some money in the bank. We have air conditioning, refrigerators, garages for our cars, large homes, swimming pools and all manner of electronics to keep us entertained. Certainly by the standards of James’ day almost every American would be considered fabulously rich. So what do we say about this passage? Are we in danger of falling under the condemnation of the rich man? I think there are two ways in which the answer to that question might be yes, but thankfully both ways can be avoided. First, if our material possessions have a grip on our hearts, so that we would find it difficult to live without them, we might fall into the category of those in chapter 5:1-6. If our focus is so much on our pleasure that we pursue monetary gain for the sake of what we can own, we are adopting a pattern of life very different than that of our Savior, who told us not to lay up treasure on earth. The second way our material wealth may be a snare to us is if we have acquired it through dishonesty or oppression. So a disciple of Jesus should not be involved in business ventures which are inherently immoral. Further, we should consider whether our consumeristic ways are supporting things which are sinful in the eyes of God (buying clothes manufactured from oppressive overseas labor, for example). We want to stay far from the attitudes and actions of James 5:1-6, because these actions reveal a heart that is not in a good place with God and a heart that is subject to His judgment.

Notes on James 4:13-17

10 Aug
The self life or the grace life? This is the choice that faces every believer every day. The goal is not to be good or to just avoid doing bad things. The goal is knowing Jesus and living under His reign. This life in Christ results in the good fruit of faith: good works. Problems arise for us when we either ignore the importance of works as an indicator of authentic Christianity or emphasize works to the point that they become the root of salvation rather than the fruit of our salvation.
The battle between the self life and the grace life is a battle in our souls. Our mind, will and emotions work together and, along with various external influences, we live by a certain worldview. Now we may not even be fully aware of our worldview and many of us have not sat down and taken time to think through our worldview, but everyone has a worldview. We all take a certain approach to the realities of life. And this approach is based on fundamental beliefs about the nature of reality. And these beliefs are based on our experiences, observations, values and what sources of knowledge we accept as authoritative. Many churchgoers have a fundamentally non-Christian worldview. In other words, their approach to life is not shaped by Jesus but by their culture. And many non-Christians carry forward some aspects of Christianity from our culture into their worldview. Our goal as Christians should be to have a worldview shaped by conformity to Jesus Christ. Foundational to this Christ-centered life and worldview is a trust in the sovereignty of God and a turning away from trusting in riches. These two truths are the foundation of a right worldview, and a right worldview can lead to a righteous life (see 3:17,18 for a description of this righteous life).
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—
We should say, first of all, that this passage is not saying we should never make plans. Plans are OK, but are not to be the ground of our trust. Proverbs acknowledges that a man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps. So the problem here is not advance planning but arrogant presumption. It is one thing to make plans, it is another to assume they will come to pass without a hitch. James opens both 4:13-17 and 5:1-6 with the phrase “Come now.” This phrase introduces a discussion with an imaginary person whom James sees as representing some of those to whom he was ministering.
As is the case throughout the letter, the issue of wealth and poverty is implied in this paragraph. James is talking in general terms about trusting in the sovereignty of God and not arrogantly presuming our plans will come to pass, but the pursuit of riches are the illustration he gives for this general truth. All the “we will” phrases in verse 13 show the arrogance of these businessmen as they express their confidence in their planning and do not acknowledge God. And of course their goal is to make a profit. Again, I don’t think there is anything inherently evil about making a profit. Profits made through oppressing others are wrong, but here the evil of making a profit seems to be found in the attitude of worldliness that is found in those who are pursuing profit. The profit, not God and His kingdom, has become their pursuit. Their minds are on what material blessing they can derive from this life and that takes them on a straight line to the self life, as they will consistently put their own needs above the needs of others.
14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.
James attempts to shake the confidence of his readers in verse 14, reminding them that in spite of their plans they do not know what tomorrow will bring. This is yet another parallel to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 6:34). And of course in the Sermon on the Mount, the antidote to worrying about this life is to “seek first His kingdom.” Freedom from the self life comes through the pursuit of the grace life.
All of us know, once we’ve lived long enough, that we can’t know what tomorrow may bring.  What is your life? From God’s perspective it is precious, precious enough for Him to send His Son to redeem you. But from the perspective of longevity and certainty, our lives are temporary and, from our perspective, uncertain. James compares our lives to a mist, a meteorological phenomenon with which his readers in Palestine would have been very familiar. Like the fog off the Mediterranean burning off in the dry air of the wilderness, so is our life, a mist, here and gone.
15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”
Rather than trusting in our own ability and planning, we need to recognize that our lives are temporary and that our lives are in God’s hands. We can’t do anything apart from the sovereignty of God. We do nothing apart from God permitting it. So James is reminding his readers, in particular those who pursue wealth, that they live under the authority of God. So we need to live with an awareness of God’s rule over us and we need to live with a flexibility and willingness to alter our plans while submitting to the Lord.
Now here we want to avoid the trap of magic words. We can’t just do what we want and put a “Lord willing” on top of it as a kind of pious frosting on our worldly cake. We can say, “Lord willing” or “praise the Lord” or “glory to God” or “I’m praying for you” or any number of other pious phrases and be as worldly and wicked as the next person. So don’t be worried about always using the phrase “Lord willing.” Instead, focus on the attitude of your heart. Are you living in the way of wisdom (see 1:6), asking God for guidance and living with an awareness of His sovereignty and your place under His Lordship? If you don’t live in this way, you fall into the error of verses 16 and 17.
16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.
James says these traveling businesspeople boast in their arrogance. This is an interesting phrase. I think it means that they are proud of their assumed autonomy. These people are happy to be what they are: God-neglecting, worldly-minded, and presumptuous. Today, they might be writing Christian leadership books. Rather than living under God’s authority, they are trusting in their own ability. This kind of life is evil. It is friendship with the world and enmity toward God (see 4:4). It is choosing the self life over the grace life. Rather than a life of humility there is a life of pride.
17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
This last verse in chapter 4 struck me at first as strange. It doesn’t immediately seem to fit the passage, but it really does fit right in if it is aligned with the previous discussion. The key is in determining what is “the right thing” James is speaking of here. I believe based on the context that the “right thing” here is the truth of living in humility under the Lordship of Christ. That these people would know this right thing means that James is speaking to believers (as I think he is throughout the book) rather than unbelievers.
Knowing the right thing to do and not doing it is sin. This is the well-known idea of the “sin of omission.” Sin is not just what we do but what we fail to do. We need to think about this often. We will likely find that we sinfully leave undone even more than we do. The key to avoiding this sinful path and living the grace life is found in the opening section of chapter 4 (submit to God, resist the devil, draw near to God, live from a stance of repentance and humility).
The first paragraph of chapter 5 is the harshest paragraph of the whole book. James rails against those who trust in riches. The passage has an amazing number of parallels to statements Jesus made in the gospels. But how does this paragraph fit into the bigger picture of James? That is what we’ll consider below.
5 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 2 Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. 4 Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Jas 4:13–5:6). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

Notes on James 4:1-12

5 Aug

James unleashes some of his strongest words in the entire letter in chapter 4, verses 1 through 12. James’ concern is two-fold. He wants his readers to love God and to love their brothers and sisters in Christ. The focus of this section is to draw out the two ways people live: the self life or the grace life. Verses 1-5 describe the self life.

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?

The Christians James was speaking to were in a state of conflict. We have already seen conflicts over favoritism and over poverty and riches in the book and now we see how these conflicts overflow into fights and quarrels. The end of chapter 3 told us about the life we should live: a life of mercy and gentleness and peace. But James’ readers were not living this life. They were not living a life for God but were living for self. And this living for self is what caused the conflict, because conflict is not a matter of outward controversy but of warring inward desires.

You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.

The self life manifested itself in self-centered desires which led to murderous action, covetous action, and fighting. And James says, “your desires aren’t met because you do no ask.” Rather than saying this as a way of telling us that we can have whatever we want, James is saying that if we drew near to God in prayer, our desires would align with His will and He would give us what we want (see Ps. 37:4, Mt. 6:33). But the self-life wants sinful, worldly desires and so even when prayer does happen, it is self-centered prayer.

You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

The harsh image of adultery makes it clear that James takes the worldliness of the church very seriously. The conflict and sinful desires of the people were an affront to God, a breaking of the relationship with the One who has done so much for us, even when there was nothing in us deserving of such grace. The self life spits on grace, counts it as nothing, and goes running after other loves. The Old Testament is filled with examples of the people of Israel, to whom God had bound Himself by covenant, going off in unfaithfulness against Him. One of the prophets favorite illustrations of this rebellion is the picture of adultery. One book (Hosea) even revolves around this metaphor. Jams minces no words. Friendship with the world is an act of hostility against God. Want to be God’s enemy? Cozy up to the world.

Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”?

This is a difficult verse in the Greek text. It could be read “The spirit He put in us yearns jealously.” This would mean that James is saying that we have a bent toward worldliness and envy, so you must be aware of this and be proactive in our pursuit of God. The other way this verse could be rendered is “He yearns jealously over the spirit He has made to dwell in us.” In this case, James is saying that God is jealous for the affections of His people. This fits well the context of spiritual adultery and has Scriptural support in the ideas from Exodus and elsewhere that God is a jealous God. I can’t say with 100% certainty which interpretation is right, but I lean toward the second one.

But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

God is a jealous God. But His grace is greater. He loves us in spite of our adulteries. But He doesn’t restore us unless we are broken. If we continue in pride and worldliness, if we continue to prefer our false loves to love for God, we should not expect God’s presence and blessing. This brokenness, this humility, is not passive though, but is expressed through actions of allegiance and commitment.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

On the basis of the grace God gives and the humility He honors, submit yourself. It is intentional humbling of self, intentional bowing the knee. In a world where submission is dishonorable and is even viewed equated with a loss of personhood, this command is distinctly counter-cultural. Having submitted to God, we resist the devil. The order is important. We can’t stand against the devil if our heart is not submitted to God. And when we resist the devil, he will flee. His power over us is in convincing us to believe lies. So when we stop believing lies, his power over us is broken. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. What a blessed picture. How great is our God to draw near to us! How kind is He even after we have turned away from Him to restore us! How do we draw near to God? By cleansing our hands (repenting of outward actions of evil) and purifying our hearts (repenting of our inward attitudes). We rejoice in God’s grace but we mourn the sin of our lives and come to God with an understanding that we deserve nothing but judgment. The life of flippant laughter and putting on a happy face which our culture values so highly is truly worthless. But the humble life of repentance and submission brings true blessing to our lives and it changes the way we relate to others. This is what verse 11 and 12 point towards . . .

11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?

The grace life leads to a life of grace toward others. We are not out to nitpick people or to stand against people needlessly. We have an awareness of the grace we have received which causes us to deal with others humbly. Since we all stumble in many ways, we who are lawbreakers speak against the law when we hold others to law-keeping in which we ourselves fail. God is the judge, we are not. So we look to God to deal with all things rightly and to show us the way to interact with others. James urges us to deal with one another from the overflow of our relationship with God. People who know a lot about God but don’t walk with God tend to be harsh toward others, judgmental in tone and condemning in manner. But those who walk with God tend to be gentle, peaceable, meek, loving, and gracious. Those who walk with God take sin seriously but they take their own sin most seriously and even in dealing with the sins of others they deal from a perspective of redemption rather than condemnation. Mercy triumphs over judgment.


Comments on James 3

27 Jul

James chapter 3 with commentary . . .

3 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.
This chapter is a clean break from the last chapter. Of course, there is a sense in which the issue of speech is a demonstration of faith which issues in works (in this case, words that build up rather than tear down) but the focus here has shifted from one of James’ themes (the reality that true faith produces works) to another of his themes; the application of godly wisdom (here in the area of speech).
James begins with a warning about becoming teachers. These teachers from context are clearly teachers within the church but it is less clear whether they are specifically pastors or could also include those who are not pastors within the body. The fact that they will be judged with greater strictness may mean that God will call them to greater account because of the great responsibility of sharing His Word or that others will judge them more strictly because they are in a prominent position. It could be both but I think at least the first is in view here because of all of the judgment language in this chapter.
With that said, I think it is important to note two things here. First, James doesn’t discourage teaching (he himself is a teacher) but he does encourage prospective teachers to approach their task soberly. Second, we must remember than in James’ day a teacher was much more than a talking head. People looked at the teacher’s whole life and sought to emulate their character. Good or bad, this was reality. In our day, most of the most popular teachers in the Christian world are personally unknown to those who listen to them. Thus we are sometimes surprised at a moral failing but we really shouldn’t be surprised because we actually had no idea what kind of person this teacher was, because we only heard him on the podcast and never personally saw his life.
2 For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.
James is not limiting his discussion here to teachers. The sinful stumbles of speech and other areas of sin are true of all of us and are true in many different areas. No one is above the battle with sin and no one has just one area of sin that if they conquer will result in their moral perfection. So James puts out the first statement of verse 2 as a kind of blanket coverage. It is as if he is saying, “Teachers, don’t become puffed up in your knowledge and think that you are above it all. At the same time, let me remind you that all your hearers are struggling too.” With this said though, James does say that self-control in the area of speech can have a perfecting effect on the rest of our lives. In other words, show me someone with a loose mouth and I’ll show you someone with a loose life. The approach we take with our words often flows over into other areas of life. Self-control in speech is like a bridle on a horse: through our speech we can control and direct the rest of our lives. Here we must reject the “word of faith” false teaching which preaches a kind of mystical “speak it into reality” approach to life. But as we reject this false teaching, we must not swing to the other side, ignoring the importance of our words. What we say really does affect how we live.
3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4 Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.
Preacher James likes his illustrations. Here he pulls one from land and one from sea. The focus of both illustrations is that a very small thing (a bit, a rudder) controls a very large thing so that in spite of great strength or size these things only go where the rider or pilot wants them to go. These are, of course, apt illustrations for the power of the tongue, a small part of our bodies that makes a great difference. It is instructive to those of us who are preachers and teachers how simple James’ illustrations are throughout this letter. Illustrations should never detract from the core scriptural principles being shared, they should illuminate those principles. Thus when James writes here he uses brief, true to life, simple and powerful illustrations. In this way, his teaching is much like that of Jesus. Good illustrations are essential to good teaching, but we must be careful to keep them simple and keep them tied to the truths of the text.
5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.
How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!
Verse 5 brings to a head the illustrations of the previous verses. But rather than showing the power of the tongue to direct, this verse and those to follow move in a dark direction. James will focus here not on the directive power of the tongue but on the destructive power of the tongue. Like a cigarette tossed out a car window on the highway sets ablaze a great forest, so the little tongue in its boasting causes great damage.
6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.
James plays off of his fire illustration in verse 5 as he comes to verse 6, calling the tongue itself a fire, a world of unrighteousness. What makes the tongue a world of unrighteousness is that it can speak knowledgeably about any area of sin and can express any variety of sinful heart attitudes. It is in fact often the mode of expression for those sinful heart attitudes. I may not notice someone is angry until I hear their frustrated words. I may not be aware someone is proud until I hear their boasting. I may not know someone is a liar until I hear their exaggerations. The tongue is a world of unrighteousness set among our members. Here “members” is not individual persons but the parts of the physical body. The tongue is a part of the body but it stains the whole body (again, probably not the body of the church, which is more of a Pauline metaphor, but the physical body). The power of the tongue to affect one’s destiny is strongly displayed in this verse. We see here the power of the tongue is a hellish power. The demonic language of the rest of the passage shows us that where the tongue speaks with unrighteousness it is speaking hellishly. The origin of evil speech is the evil one. One who speaks evil gives allegiance to Satan rather than God. It is interesting that Satan’s temptation in the garden came through the mode of dishonest speech. The first sin was a response to a lie.
7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
James goes back to the natural world for another illustration, showing us how creatures of all kinds have been tamed by people but that no one can tame the tongue. This small part of our bodies is the physical instrumentation of a whole world of evil in our hearts. And what comes from our tongue has the capacity to kill, to poison, lives.
9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.
Now James comes back from a negative description of the tongue to application to his hearers. He acknowledges in them and in himself (“we”) a tendency to be double-tongued, to bless God and curse people. This may connect to his earlier words about favoritism and rich and poor. It may be that James’ readers were speaking evil of the poor (the idea of the likeness of God mentioned here may be an indicator that they were looking down on those of whom they were speaking). James makes a very strong point here, namely that if we are believers in God we can’t curse people because they are made in God’s image. Therefore to dishonor God’s image-bearers is to dishonor God. The idea is that blessing God and cursing people is hypocrisy.
10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.
James makes clear in verse 10 that what is should not be. We have this tendency to praise God and curse people and this must stop. Blessing and cursing do not belong in the same mouth. James then goes on to illustrate this principle.
11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
James again appeals to nature (one of our best sources for illustrations as God’s book of nature reflects the patterns He has laid down in His Word) to show us the absurdity of blessing and cursing flowing from the same mouth. No one thinks of a spring giving forth fresh and salt water. No one thinks of trees of one sort yielding fruit of another sort. These ideas are absurd and so is it absurd to think of a follower of Jesus going to church and praising God and then driving home railing on all the people at church he doesn’t like. As absurd as this is though, we know it happens. And it is this spirit, this restlessly evil tongue, which James is seeking to address here. Faith and speech are intimately linked, not only in the positive things you say about Jesus or the ways you share Him with others but also in the negative things you don’t say about others, in the boasts you don’t make, in the lies you don’t tell. God is glorified as much by what you don’t say (especially when your heart is turning away from sinful attitudes) as by what you do say.
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.
James now brings us back around to wisdom. This has really been his theme in this whole chapter but he began with speech to show the area where we most often need wisdom. Most of the time we think we show wisdom by our words, our writings or our teachings. But James says we show wisdom through our conduct, especially as that conduct is carried out with meekness. The wise person does not think too highly of themselves or better, the wise person tends to be God-centered and others-centered rather than self-centered. This doesn’t mean that words are unimportant. The famous phrase “preach the gospel wherever you go and if necessary use words” is wrong on so many levels. Words are critically important for the glory of God and the good of people. After all, James is writing a letter using words, using speech, to communicate important spiritual principles to his readers. So James is not pitting words against conduct, as if we can only have one or the other. He is saying that wisdom shows more through the life of the person than the words of the person. Almost anyone can say the right things but how many people live the right things? This doesn’t mean teaching is unimportant, this simply means teaching can be disconnected from living in such a way that valuable things can be said without being lived. James says this is unwise and ultimately destructive. I remember reading some years ago the story of Ted Haggard, who was a popular preacher ultimately living a double life of sexual immorality behind the scenes. What I remember about one article was one church member marveling about how good his sermons had been in the weeks just before the scandal broke. It is critical for all Christians and particularly all teachers of the word to pay attention to their lives and their example above and beyond their popularity or influence or importance. When a person has sound doctrine wedded to a sound life they have a combination God uses greatly.
14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.
James is speaking to all Christians here but he seems to me to still also be addressing teachers. Because the teacher in his day was viewed in such a holistic way, teachers tended to draw followers. Sometimes this following tended to bring out jealousy and selfish ambition. These negative attitudes could lead to boasting, self-exaltation in order to get an edge over others. To live in this way is to be false to the truth because all of us from the greatest teacher to the lowliest struggling Christian, are alike totally undeserving of God’s grace and deserving of hell. But God is so good to us that He gives us every good and perfect gift and most of all causes us to be born again (1:18) so we even have the privilege of living this life in Him and sharing this good news with others.
The competitive spirit is something that churches and ministers today need to lay aside and fight strenuously when it rears its ugly head in our hearts. When God appears to be blessing another church, let us rejoice and pray for them. When a pastor is facing hardship, let us not comfort ourselves that it wasn’t us. When we are trying to build ministries, let us make sure we are not doing it for our glory but for God’s glory. There is nothing wrong with God-oriented ambition but there is everything wrong with selfish ambition. Let us as ministers of the gospel not live fearful, embittered lives angry at God over what we don’t have. Let us serve faithfully in life and word among that community God placed us for ministry.
15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.
This jealousy and selfish ambition is not the wisdom from above (1:17) so it is not of God. It is earthly, unspiritual and demonic (the famous biblical combo of the world, the flesh and the devil). The inward attitudes of jealousy and selfish ambition lead to disorder and every vile practice. The fall of ministers is not a fall caused by sexual proclivities or financial fears or authority dysfunctions. Ministers fall because the are jealous and selfish and proud. Ministers fall because they forget they have a great responsibility and that God will judge them for their stewardship of ministry. Ministers fall because they begin to think of themselves as being smarter than God, being able to lay aside His commands to do what they want. Every vile practice flows from a self-centered heart. Contrast this with the heart described in verses 17 and 18.
17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
Wisdom from above is pure. In our day, we think of purity almost exclusively as a sexual thing. But in the Bible, purity has a much broader meaning, extending to the state of one’s heart. At its core, biblically speaking, to be pure means to be without guile, without pretense, to be meek and having a right view of self. One who has been touched by the wisdom from above will have this kind of spirit. Further, they will be peaceable. This doesn’t mean they will never stand for truth, it means they will not be quick to be defensive or self-focused. They will look for what brings harmony rather than what gives them a leg up on everyone else. The one touched by heavenly wisdom will be gentle. Further, they will be open to reason. A self-centered person thinks they are always right. A humble person is willing to be corrected. The wise man here is full of mercy and good fruits, impartial (remember 2:1) and sincere. The list here is incredibly similar to Galatians 5:22,23, causing some to say that when James speaks of wisdom, he is really speaking of the Holy Spirit, much as Proverbs in the opinion of some equates Wisdom with the Holy Spirit at different points in the book. I do not believe it is necessary to draw a straight line in the book of James between Wisdom and the Holy Spirit. I do not believe James is saying Wisdom IS the Spirit. But I do believe James would say Wisdom flows from the Spirit. The wisdom he is talking about here is wisdom from above and the gifts of this wisdom are gifts which elsewhere in the Bible are mediated to us by the Holy Spirit.
Verse 18 is a beautiful closing to this section. Here we find not a harvest of conflict and bitterness and rivalry and jealousy and cursing and evil and unspeakable impurity. We find a harvest of righteousness and peace. This is what God does for His people. He gives us righteousness and peace with Himself and as a result we live in righteousness and peace with others. In our world today, the kinds of qualities on display in James chapter 3 are more needed than ever. Let us seek, as teachers of the Word, as Christians, as believers in local churches, to pursue peace and righteousness with one another, so that we will be characterized as God-focused, people-loving, grace-speaking, mercy-giving, holy-living people. Then we will be salt and light in a world of desperate need.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Jas 3:1–18). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
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