Tag Archives: Christian living

Sermon: Jericho

17 Jul

In our day of high technology we might think that military battle has changed. In some ways it has. To be sure, in Joshua there were no drones or missiles. There were no battleships off the Mediterranean coast. It was just man-to-man combat. But even today, military leaders study the battles of history, because there are principles there that are unchanging. With the people of Israel, as the returned to the land God had promised them, they used two tried and true strategies. First, they divide and conquer. Jericho was in the heart of the land. By cutting through the middle of the land and establishing strength, the peoples of the land would be weakened and become more subject to defeat at Israel’s hand. Second, Israel’s strategy is to claim the high ground. They go into Jericho which is at the foot of the hill country. From Jericho as a base they can go up into Ai and from there they can go into all the hill country and have the military advantage. So the things Israel did were not unusual on one level. They were strategies that were tried and true even in that day. But when we actually read Joshua chapter 6, we find that the way they carried out this well-worn strategy was highly unusual, because it was all directed by God and involved God’s miraculous intervention.

As Christians, we don’t look particularly different from the rest of the world. We all do many of the same things the rest of the world does: we eat, sleep, get dressed, work, travel, manage money, have families, go to school and all the rest. But there is in the life of a Christian to be a pattern of life that is unique. This pattern is laid out in the account of the battle of Jericho but it appears all through the Bible and is still at work in our lives as well. The pattern works whether we are in the battle of Jericho or whether we are in the battle of school or whether we are in the battle of the office or whether we are in the battle of parenting toddlers or teenagers or whether we are in the battle of aging. There is a time-tested, Holy Spirit-inspired pattern for living which we would do well to remember: it is simply this . . . God Gives the Word, God Gives the Way, God Gives the Win.

GOD GIVES THE WORD     Look at Joshua 6:1-2 . . .

Now Jericho was shut up inside and outside because of the people of Israel. None went out, and none came in. And the Lord said to Joshua, “See, I have given Jericho into your hand, with its king and mighty men of valor.

In Jericho, God gave the word to Joshua. He gave it in the form of a command and a promise. The command had been the long-standing call of God for the people of Israel to go back from Egypt into their God-given land and conquer that land. The promise was that the Lord would be with them and that they would be successful. This theme of command and promise runs all throughout scripture. This is how God works. He calls us to His purposes and gives us His promises. Our calling first and foremost is to trust Him. This is what Joshua and the Israelites did at Jericho. This is what we are to do in our lives. When we see a command of God that is for us in the Bible, we should trust God enough to walk in that truth. It is true that we are not under law but under grace but it is also true that Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commands.” Jesus’ chief commands to us are to believe on Him and to love God and one another. But the New Testament is filled with specific ways we can love God and one another and though we are not under the Old Testament law, it too is filled with God-inspired wisdom for living. So the question is not only will we believe the Bible is the Word of God, the question is will we really listen to what it says and walk in its truth? I know there are people today who take the Bible literally but they don’t take the Bible seriously. Jesus really did say what He said for our sakes. His sayings should not be quarantined for some other age. The apostles wrote letters to churches which were intended for the saints through all the ages. And the Old Testament, as Paul reminds us, was written for our instruction. So we are to hear and heed the commands of God by faith. But the other part of that well-worn biblical formula is true as well, with the command comes a promise. The reward of obedience is real. God rewards faithful obedience. When we walk in His ways we reap life and strength and blessing. When we wander from His ways we reap weakness and confusion and defeat. This is why Israel in obedience had victory over the larger city in Jericho but in disobedience was thrown into confusion and defeat in the tiny town of Ai. Remember this truth. Command and promise. God Gives the Word.

 GOD GIVES THE WAY        Look at verses 3 through 5 . . .

You shall march around the city, all the men of war going around the city once. Thus shall you do for six days. Seven priests shall bear seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark. On the seventh day you shall march around the city seven times, and the priests shall blow the trumpets. And when they make a long blast with the ram’s horn, when you hear the sound of the trumpet, then all the people shall shout with a great shout, and the wall of the city will fall down flat, and the people shall go up, everyone straight before him.”

God gives the way for His commands to be fulfilled and His promises to be unleashed. When we read of His way in Joshua 6 we should be struck by the oddness of His ways to our way of thinking. No weapons, no siege works and military posturing. Just a march around the city, the blowing of trumpets, the presence of the ark. But with it the promise of a miracle. Walls will fall.

The ways of God are foolishness to the unspiritual person. God’s seemingly strange ways are on display all through the Bible. Noah builds an ark before an incredulous audience. God calls Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac and Abraham is willing until God intervenes. God elevates the slave Joseph to second in command in Egypt. God calls Moses at 80 years old to lead Israel out of Egypt. Gideon has this huge army to square off against the Midianites until God tells him to whittle it down to 300 and gives him a strategy that involves torches and breaking pitchers. Over and over all through the Bible God’s strange ways are on display. And nowhere is this more evident than in the coming of the Lord Jesus Himself. God comes to us as a baby, a baby. A baby born to a family of lowly means, a baby raised in an obscure place. A baby who is the Son of God yet who had no form or majesty that we should look at Him and no beauty that we should be drawn to Him. A King who has nowhere to lay His head. One who controls nature and demons and disease and death and yet submitted Himself to death, even death on a cross. The God-Man, who cried out in agony “My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me?”

Hallelujah, what a Savior! God Gives the Way. Jesus, who said, “I AM the WAY and the truth and the life, no man comes to the Father except through me.”

God Gives the Word, God Gives the Way and finally . . .


Look at verse 20 . . .

20 So the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpet, the people shouted a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they captured the city.

God gave the win. This is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith. If you will believe God’s Word and follow God’s Way you will have God’s Win. This doesn’t mean of course that all in your life will be blessed according to your desires or definition but it does mean you will be blessed. You will be blessed with deeper and fuller intimacy with God. You will be blessed with a heart that can see and savor God as never before. You will be blessed with stability of heart that can take both the hardships and joys of life with a right perspective of humility and hope. God defines the win but it is indeed a win. God can define wins better than we. We sometimes think something is a win when God knows having that thing would destroy us. I don’t want my wins, I want God’s wins for me. And I know that if I trust in God’s Word and follow God’s Way I will experience God’s Win. In fact, even my losses will be wins because God will work in all things for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. The dividing line between the miserable and the mighty in faith is this message. To hear a Word from God and to know the Way of God and not walk in it is of all things most miserable. Like going to a weight loss seminar when you have no intention of changing your diet. You see the success stories, you hear of the exciting changes but deep down you know you are just going to keep eating Twinkies. That is the life of many people in churches all over America today. I suggest to you that the perpetually discouraged person has faltered somewhere along the line to believe that God gives the Word, God gives the Way and God gives the Win.

If you are discouraged, defeated, burned out, broken down or otherwise just inwardly drained this morning, I encourage you to carefully consider the pattern we see in Joshua 6: God gives the Word, God gives the Way, God gives the Win. In thinking about your life, is your heart in alignment with these three truths? Or is your faith failing at one or more of these points? This is the issue that you need to settle in your heart and re-affirm in your mind day by day. Today I will take seriously what God has said, I will follow the steps He has given me for my life, and I will experience His victory on His terms for my eternal good, for His glory and for the blessing of others.

Nowhere is the truth of this passage clearer than at the cross. God gave the Word before the foundation of the world that He would redeem a people for Himself through the sacrifice of His Son. God gave the Way: in the fullness of time God sent His Son born of a woman, born under the law to redeem those under the law. It looked foolish to many. Many said he had a demon. His own family said He was crazy. But Jesus set His face like a flint to obey the Father. This was His mission first and foremost: obedience to the Father. And God gave the Win. Through suffering, through death, through the empty tomb, God gave the Win. It was difficult a road of suffering that led to victory. And so it will be for us. Wins are costly. Our victory cost the life’s blood of God’s Son and our daily victories cost us death to self. But they are victories. As we partake of the Lord’s Supper today, remember this word from Joshua 6 and from all the Scriptures: God Gives the Word, God Gives the Way, God Gives the Win.  We are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. Amen.

Sermon: Joshua’s Seminary

17 Jul

          I hope you have been doing your daily Bible reading and that you were blessed in reading the first five chapters of Joshua this week. As we get Back to Basics in 2018, Bible reading, prayer and meditation should be an important part of your life as a follower of Jesus. So I hope you will read the scriptures each day, and think about what you read, and pray it back to God, along with your other requests. To be honest, reading the Bible is not very helpful without meditation. If you don’t spend some real time prayerfully thinking about what you read, most of the time Bible reading won’t strengthen you spiritually as it should. So just a word of encouragement.

          Now today’s message is going to be unusual because I am not actually going to talk this morning about the chapters you read this week. Instead, I am going to talk about the things Joshua experienced leading up to the time when he assumed leadership of Israel in Joshua 1. So I’ve called today’s message Joshua’s Seminary. We are going to look today at the training God gave this man for leadership. In so doing we will have a better grasp on the book of Joshua and, Lord willing, we will gain many insights into our lives as followers of Jesus. God’s training is not just for those who go to school formally. God wants to teach us all through the school of life to follow Him. His school unfolds over a period of years. God work in our lives isn’t time-restricted, He can work right now into your lives things that may not become apparent until many years from now. So this is a message about God’s ways and work in our lives.

          Joshua’s story starts long before the book that bears his name. He experienced the events of deliverance in the book of Exodus. He saw the plagues against Egypt, he took part in the Passover meal and saw the blood of a lamb protect him and his household. He saw the angel of death strike the firstborn of Egypt. He ventured out with the people of Israel as they left Egypt. He saw God’s deliverance at the Red Sea. He walked through on dry land. In the fearful wilderness, he saw God’s provision of manna . . . and he saw the challenges of leadership Moses faced. He saw sinful human nature on full display in the people of Israel. Joshua was there, seeing all these things. But we don’t meet Joshua formally until Exodus chapter 17. He is a military leader of Israel’s armies, going out to face the Amalekites, a people who had expressly opposed not only the nation of Israel, but the living God. A nation which God opposed because of their rebellion against Him. So our first introduction to Joshua comes in a battle that was both physical and spiritual.

And in that first battle in Exodus 17 God introduced Joshua to an important principle: the battle is the Lord’s. Yes, we are called to do things, yes, there are missions and callings God gives us, but without His empowering, it’s all in vain. You see that first battle in which Joshua was mentioned was the episode at Rephidim where the Amalekites attacked the Israelites as Moses sat on a nearby hill with the staff of God in his hand. When Moses raised the staff, Israel prevailed, but when his arms got tired and drooped, the tide of battle turned. In the end, Aaron and Hur came alongside Moses and held up his arms so that Israel won the battle. The truth of this victory was not to be lost on Joshua, and neither should it be for us. The battle is the Lord’s. We trust in His power to bring victory. This is supremely true of course in our salvation. We are helpless and hopeless without the Lord, lost in our sins, under God’s judgement, destined for hell. But God brings us victory through the sinless life and sacrificial death of His Son Jesus. Jesus died on the cross as a perfect sacrifice, bearing the penalty of our sins, bearing the wrath of God. When we turn from trusting in self and sin and trust in Jesus, God wins the battle, Satan is defeated and heaven rejoices. This lesson Joshua learned early on is an essential truth of life: Salvation is of the Lord! So we might call Joshua’s first Seminary class Principles of Spiritual Victory.

We encounter Joshua next in Exodus 24 at Mt. Sinai, after God gave the law to Moses. Here Joshua is with Moses among a group of leaders; Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and 70 elders of Israel go partway up the mountain where they see a revelation of God’s presence and eat together in the presence of God. Then the Bible says Moses and Joshua were called up higher upon the mountain, to receive the tablets of stone, and there God’s glory was manifested. Exodus 24:17 says, “And the sight of the glory of the Lord was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel.” So in this episode Joshua learned of the grace and glory of God. The God of the universe would condescend to be presence at a meal and share fellowship with these men, but in the next breath Joshua saw the blazing power of this God on the mountain. Theologians talk about God’s transcendence and immanence, that He is not like us but at the same time He is near us. Joshua learned this truth about God in a very personal way long before he led Israel. In this episode Joshua also learned another important lesson. Three of the men who went with him: Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, saw the same things he saw. They ate the meal in God’s presence and saw God’s glory on the mountain. And yet, each one of them turned away from the Lord in a significant way; Aaron through his involvement in the golden calf incident and Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons, through offering an offering according to their own designs in Leviticus 10, a sin for which the Lord put them to death. Joshua would see a very clear example of the fact that being in a position of leadership and even having great experiences of God’s power does not make you a godly leader. Aaron and Nadab and Abihu were priests of God, but their hearts were not right with God. It is a sobering fact that those who shared such intimate fellowship in God’s presence could rebel so deeply against Him. But is it not true that we have seen His glory? Is it not true that we are invited to fellowship with Jesus? So Joshua’s lesson should be ours: don’t presume a knowledge of God or experience of God guarantees a life-long pattern of spiritual maturity. And if you are a leader, don’t let your past real experiences of God blind you to your need to continue to walk closely and humbly with Him. Joshua’s Second Seminary class we might call: The God of Grace and Glory.

When we next meet Joshua it is in the aftermath of a national tragedy: the golden calf. Here Joshua, coming down the mountain with Moses after having received the tablets of commandments, heard the people in the valley after they had made the golden calf. As a general, Joshua’s mind turned to war. He told Moses, “I hear the sound of war in the camp.” But Moses said, “No, it is not the sound of war, it is the sound of singing.” Normally singing would be better than war, but not this time. God had told Moses what the people had done, and he knew this singing was the singing of an idolatrous people. These people had made a false god and attached the true God’s name to it. And, as always happens when we worship idols, they descended into immorality at the foot of the mountain, throwing a wild celebration of a false god, even as Moses was coming down the mountain with the stone tablets of commandments of the true God.

Joshua learned much through this event. He learned about the pull of idolatry and how we naturally turn toward worshiping false gods or trying to refashion the true God to suit our own desires. He learned about how easy it is for a leader to succumb to pressure, as Aaron was persuaded by the people to make the calf. But Joshua also saw the glory of true leadership in Moses. On the one hand, Moses threw down the stone tablets and had the calf ground to dust which he made the Israelites drink. There was in Moses the righteous anger of a good leader in response to the sins of the people. It is true that some preachers just preach with unrighteous anger, they are just letting off steam on those unfortunate enough to be hearing them. But a true leader will be grieved at sin in himself and in those he leads, and will express that grief at times in real ways. That was what I was feeling last week in the message from 1 Thessalonians 4 about sexual immorality. All last week I just felt the heaviness of the sexual sin that is all around us and how tragically it undercuts our intimacy with God. I grieve over so many lives here, including myself during some periods of my life, who could be so much more for the kingdom if they would align their sexual lives with God’s standards and turn away from worldly standards of sexual morality. So I urge you, if you haven’t read that sermon yet, to get it online and read it. But Joshua not only saw the intense desire for holiness that is evident in every good leader, he also saw Moses’ heart of love. Most people don’t associate the golden calf incident with love on Moses’ part but it is an episode of tender love, which would not have been lost on Joshua. You see, as I said a minute ago, before Moses ever got down the mountain, God told him what the Israelites had done. And God told Moses He would destroy the Israelites and begin again with Moses as a great nation. But Moses, with the love only a great leader could have, interceded for the people, begging God on the basis of His promises to Abraham to spare them. And God did spare them. Joshua saw here the tender compassion of a man who had every reason to just go along with God on this. Moses could have been the father of the nation instead of Abraham and rebellious people could have been rightly judged. Moses could have started fresh with a group of people who were not such troublemakers. But he does none of that. Instead, he lifts these very rebellious people up to the throne of God. My friends, would you pray for your pastors to be men like Moses? Would you pray that we would be committed to a life of holiness but also full of compassion for sinners? Would you pray that we would be men who do not first and foremost criticize church members, but intercede for them? Would you ask God to strengthen us to be men of prayer? What lessons Joshua was learning in these years of preparation. We might call Joshua’s third Seminary class: Spiritual Leadership.

          The fourth and final encounter we have with Joshua in the book of Exodus is found in chapter 33. We read there in verse 8, “Whenever Moses went out to the Tent of Meeting, all the people would get up and stand in the entrances of their own tents. They would all watch Moses until he disappeared inside. As he went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and hover at its entrance while the Lord spoke with Moses. When the people saw the cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, they would stand and bow down in front of their own tents. Inside the Tent of Meeting, the Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Afterward Moses would return to the camp, but the young man who assisted him, Joshua son of Nun, would remain behind in the Tent of Meeting.” Now it is not clear cut as to why Joshua remained behind. Perhaps he was there to assist others who may have come by with a need to the Tent of Meeting. But regardless of why he lingered, think for a minute about the fact that Joshua was here with Moses at the Tent of Meeting. Consider the effect Moses’ intimate relationship with God must have had on Joshua. Consider how he must have been shaped by the prayers of Moses, by the wonder of the truth that God would speak with a man as a friend with a friend. Do you have anyone you can walk beside in this life, who could serve as a spiritual mentor to you? Maybe you could ask God to show you someone like that or bring someone like that into your life. Joshua’s fourth class we might call Spiritual Formation.

          Up to this point Joshua’s actions have been mostly positive, but in Numbers 11 he learns a hard lesson in leadership . . . 24 So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord. And he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people and placed them around the tent. 25 Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. And as soon as the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied. But they did not continue doing it.

26 Now two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the Spirit rested on them. They were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. 27 And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” 28 And Joshua the son of Nun, the assistant of Moses from his youth, said, “My lord Moses, stop them.”29 But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” 30 And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.

Joshua’s fifth class might be called . . . Leadership for the Glory of God. Joshua made the mistake of trying to defend Moses rather than honoring God. He thought that Eldad and Medad were somehow disrespecting Moses or trying to take leadership from him. But Moses was not offended. Moses was happy about any display of God-glorifying ministry. Moses did not feel like he had to do all the ministry. He had once felt this need to do it all early on, but his father-in-law Jethro told him the work was too much for him and that he needed helpers. Now Moses, in the maturity of his years, welcomes ministry from all the people. Joshua had not yet gotten to this point of surrendering the territorial instinct. He had not yet progressed spiritually to the point of seeing that while leadership is important, the contributions of all the people are equally important. I have struggled with this through the years. On the one hand, I am looked to as a leaders, and I am one of the people who gets paid, so I should bear a certain responsibility. But the life of the church must never be about me getting my way. It must never be about me turning everyone to my agenda. This is a hard thing to carry out because there really is a biblical calling to leadership but at the same time there is not a biblical calling to lordship. We are leaders, not lords, and the responsibility of God’s kingdom work rests on all the people of God. My hope for you is that this church would become a place where your gifts are expressed and your service is valued and that we would never be a pastor-centered church but would always be a Jesus-centered church.

Perhaps the most famous appearance of Joshua before the book of Joshua itself is his part in Numbers 13, where he was one of the 12 spies of Israel who checked out the Promised Land as the Israelites prepared to enter it. Of course most of you know the story. All of the 12 entering the land said it was a great and bountiful land, but only Joshua and Caleb recommended going in to take the land. The others turned away in fear because of the people who lived in the land. The people were persuaded by the ten to not go in. Joshua and Caleb responded with great faith . . . And Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes and said to all the congregation of the people of Israel, “The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.” I call this class in Joshua’s Seminary: Profiles in Courage. What a life of courage Joshua and Caleb lived before the people. In the aftermath of the statement they made, they didn’t see a great agreement with them. Instead, the people wanted to stone them. Even when almost everybody was against him, Joshua took his stand with God. May we follow in his steps in a world that does not value God’s Word and God’s promises.

In the end, Joshua graduated God’s Seminary. In Numbers 26 the mantle of leadership was confirmed and in Deuteronomy 31 when Moses addressed the people he spoke words of encouragement and commission to Joshua . . . And he said to them, “I am 120 years old today. I am no longer able to go out and come in. The Lord has said to me, ‘You shall not go over this Jordan.’ The Lord your God himself will go over before you. He will destroy these nations before you, so that you shall dispossess them, and Joshua will go over at your head, as the Lord has spoken. And the Lord will do to them as he did to Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites, and to their land, when he destroyed them. And the Lord will give them over to you, and you shall do to them according to the whole commandment that I have commanded you. Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.”

Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel, “Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall put them in possession of it. It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”

If you read the first five chapters of Joshua, you will remember that the Lord’s word to Joshua was the same as Moses’ “be strong and courageous.” But notice Moses’ commission of Joshua was not based on Joshua’s goodness or ability. It was not based on Joshua’s importance. It was not based on anything in Joshua at all. Joshua was told to be strong and courageous based on two things: the presence of God (the Lord you God goes with you, He will not leave you or forsake you) and the promise of God (you shall go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them). You can face your days with courage if you are mindful of Joshua’s Seminary. You may be facing difficult circumstances. Are you facing them in your own power or are you trusting in God for victory? Are you encouraged that you serve a God of infinite power and abounding grace? Do you as a Christian desire to walk in God’s ways through a life of holiness and love? Do you desire not only to walk in God’s ways but to walk with God? Will you walk humbly with Him, being willing to worthy to learn from your failures and mistakes in service? Will you live with courage, clinging to the presence of God and the promise of God? As God leads you through your life’s seminary, may you grow closer to Him through His Son Jesus and go in service to Him all your days.








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.
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