Tag Archives: New Testament

Sermon — Matthew 3:7-12 — The Gospel: Comfort and Warning

18 Oct

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” I remember one time when I was a youth leader having a yard sale. Yard sales usually make very little money for the amount of time you have to put into them. So here I was with a yard sale at another church. And the people of the church brought all their stuff and we filled up the church fellowship hall and then people started coming. Before we started I noticed a big ceramic frog sitting on a table. I chuckled. It was the ugliest thing I’d ever seen. Big round bright green frog with a cartoon face. I said to one of the youth, “There’s no way anybody’s going to buy that frog.” Well, you probably know how the story ends. Somebody bought the frog during the first fifteen minutes of the yard sale. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. And you know, that’s the way I think the gospel is to people. To some people, it’s worthless. To others, it is the greatest treasure in the world. Of course, in reality, it is the greatest treasure in the world, not because of how we feel about it but because God has made it so. The worth of all things is defined by God, not by us. Still, though, we often reject God’s view of things. Sometimes we even reject God’s view of things while still being very religious. There’s a whole category of people today who say, “I’m spiritual” but they totally reject what God has said about the realities of life. They are making a god in their own image and feeling good about it. And that is not unlike what the religious leaders of the Jews: the Pharisees and Sadducees, did. And this is why John the Baptist addressed them when they came out to see him. He wanted to call them away from their false image of God and themselves to a true and real repentance and faith. And so he points them to the comfort and warning found in the good news of the kingdom. This morning we’re going to look at Matthew 3:7-12.

 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

Wow, John, that’s kind of harsh! Calling these guys the offspring of snakes! Yet again, John is basically saying what we said last week, “Wake up!” The Pharisees and Sadducees were religious leaders, and as such they were the most likely to put their security in their own religious activities and not really consider the condition of the hearts before God. Have you ever wondered how preachers can fall into affairs and all kinds of terrible sin? It happens way more than we’d like to admit. And I think the reason it happens is because preachers, in bringing the Word of God week by week, sometimes lose the wonder of knowing God. We become inoculated against the very things we preach week by week. The condition of our hearts does not match the content of our words. The one thing all preachers and teachers must focus on most is their own heart. If I do not cultivate a heart of repentance and faith I am a sitting duck for hypocrisy. And so are you. This was the chief problem both John and Jesus had with the religious leaders: their inward life bore little resemblance to their outward life.

The Pharisees and the Sadducees were very different people. The Pharisees were numerous and popular, viewed as the upstanding, godly people of their day. They cared about the law of God and even built a fence around the law, coming up with additional regulations that were supposed to keep you far from breaking God’s law but which actually became a law unto itself that degenerated into legalism and formalism and self-righteousness and hypocrisy. Jewish heritage was all-important to the Pharisees. They saw their lives of purity as the key to national revival in Israel and the rule of God overcoming the rule of Rome. The Sadducees, on the other hand, were considered more liberal in their standards, rejecting the traditions of the Pharisees but also rejecting some truths that were clearly from God, like the reality of a future resurrection and a future judgment and the reality of angels and spirits. They were too sophisticated for such beliefs and they often cultivated a lavish lifestyle and sought cultural power.  They were respected because of their position and power and people in Jesus’ day, even as in our day, often considered a rich person blessed by God and a poor person cursed.

These Pharisees and Sadducees were coming to John’s baptism probably to check it out, maybe even to see if there was some way they could exploit John’s popularity for their own ends. John sees right through them and gives this stern warning.

John associates these religious leaders with the offspring of snakes. By calling them offspring John is probably connecting them to the corrupt priests of the Old Testament who persecuted the prophets. So John is saying the leaders of his day are just as bad as the leaders of yesterday. The religious leaders appear to be the cream of the crop but because of their hypocrisy they lead others away from spiritual life. In this way, they are like that original serpent, the devil, who led Adam and Eve away from spiritual life with the promise of a new and better life. Jesus will go on to make this association directly, calling the religious leaders children of the evil one.

John not only called out the religious leaders for their true identity, he also talked about the wrath to come. This would have struck a nerve with the Sadducees in particular, as John was making clear, contrary to their beliefs, that a judgment was coming, God’s wrath was going to be poured out. The way to get out from under that wrath is found in 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.  Repentance and faith. Sadly, the religious leaders had neither. They were self-assured. This is why John gave them such a harsh message. The old cliché is right: “Good preaching comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” Consistent with the preaching of the New Testament, we find a holy boldness in confronting unrepentant people and compassion for those who repent. And both actions are loving, because without repentance no one will believe and be reconciled to God. If I saw my child in danger in the middle of the road with the truck bearing down on them but didn’t want to upset them by speaking to them harshly, I would not be loving them, I would be hating them. Having my child upset because I yelled to them, “Get out of the road!” is worth it, because that yell saved them from death. In the same way, a strong message of repentance to a self-assured people can be life-giving. John goes on to point to the weaknesses of the Pharisees and Sadducees in order, starting with verse 8 . . .

 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.

This must have cut the Pharisees deeply. They were the pure ones, the examples of virtue for the whole nation, yet John says their fruit is rotten. Fruit in keeping with repentance is about recognizing our sin and turning to God in humble faith. The Pharisees were about recognizing the sin in others and trumpeting their own so-called acts of righteousness. Much like the fig tree with leaves but no fruit, the Pharisees had the outward appearance of spiritual life but there was no inward reality. The fruit of repentance for us is to walk in the light of the Lord, as we read in Ephesians 5:8-11, for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), 10 and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. So John’s first challenge, primarily to the Pharisees, is that their apparently fruitful lives are not so fruitful after all. His second challenge to them comes in verse 9 . . .

And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.

John goes after the Pharisees next on the matter of their heritage. Don’t trust in your hypocritical works and don’t trust in your heritage as children of Abraham. The people coming to be baptized were getting this. They were recognizing that they needed hearts of repentance and faith not merely blood relation to Abraham if they were to be the people of God. So they adopted the approach of the Gentile convert to Judaism by being baptized. “We’re just as needy as the Gentiles, we’re not trusting in Abraham’s bloodline.” This was an attack on everything the Pharisees stood for because they though salvation was theirs by right through their being part of the covenant people of God and here comes John saying what Paul will basically say in the book of Romans, “A Jew is not a Jew outwardly, but from the heart.” The heart is all-important. The kingdom is at hand. If you are going to get in on it, you have to repent. It’s really very similar to the discussion Jesus had with the Pharisee, Nicodemus, “You must be born again.” Everything you’ve been relying on will do you no good.

Isn’t it interesting that John doesn’t hold back from giving the bad news? I mean, we are so tempted to hedge on things like God’s judgment and hell because we don’t want to make anybody mad. We shouldn’t preach hell with a smile on our face, we shouldn’t want anyone to go there but we must be willing to warn people that hell is a reality with which we must reckon. So many times we want to get to the good news before we’ve really laid out the bad news. But that approach just leads to a bunch of unrepentant people professing Jesus with their lips and denying Him with their lives. Until we feel the weight of our sin against God and the reality of His judgment against sin, we will not be compelled to repent. And without repentance, there can be no true enjoyment of the good news.

So this is John’s message to the Pharisees: Don’t trust in your track record, and don’t trust in your heritage. Repent. In verse 10, I believe, he turns his attention back to the Sadducees . . .

10 Even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

The Pharisees were legalists, holding onto heritage and self-righteousness to make their way with God. So they needed to be warned that their works were not as good as they thought and their blood relation to Abraham was no guarantee of being in God’s family. The Sadducees, on the other hand, were worldly. They were about acquiring wealth and influence, they were very much focused on this life. So they needed a wake-up call about the true nature of reality, which John begins to give them in verse 10.

The ax is at the root of the trees. The root. That’s an unusual way to cut down a tree, unless you’re trying to be totally rid of a tree. Then you go at the roots. But here there is no stump, it is roots and all. Proud Sadducees, all your energies have gone into this life, building up your own little world of influence, making for yourself a legacy, but now the ax is coming down on the roots of that life, it’s all going to be taken from you and cast into the fire. There’s still time. The ax is there but it’s not swinging yet. So repent.

To bear good fruit is to live a life of repentance and faith. To bear bad fruit is to live a life of pride and self-reliance. Good fruit leads to life, bad fruit leads to damnation. So John is pleading with the Sadducees not to merely live for today, but to think about the future, to consider their destiny. In verse 11, he warns them of the coming of the King, a coming that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

John makes a comparison between himself and the one to come: Jesus. John makes it clear that there is a stark difference between himself and Jesus. John is not worthy of to be Jesus’ lowly servant. Jesus is far more powerful than John. And Jesus will bring a very different kind of baptism than John, not a baptism of water for repentance but a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire.

The comparison John makes is amazing because by earthly standards John is incredibly powerful and the Holy Spirit is with him. It is obvious that John was highly sought after by the people, deeply courageous in speaking the truth to the powerful and totally willing to give his life to the purposes of God. Jesus Himself would later say, “Among those born of women no one has arisen who is greater than John.” Yet here John says in comparison to Jesus he is not worthy to be the lowliest household slave. There can only be one reason why such a great man as John would say what he says here about Jesus. It can only be that Jesus is not a mere man. John is not speaking with false humility, he is just recognizing how much greater Jesus is than he is.

The same truth is clear when John talks about the Holy Spirit. It is clear that the Holy Spirit was active in the ministry of John. There is no way all those people would have gone out into the wilderness to be baptized if the Holy Spirit had not been working. I mean, it’s easy to get people to come out for a show. That’s true in church life and in life outside the church. Put together a show and people will come out. But John’s ministry was not a show. The people who came out were not coming out as spectators. John was calling them to an action, baptism, which would crush all their pride as Jews. Since baptism was one of the ways a Gentile converted to become a Jew, John’s ministry was a humbling and costly ministry to those Jews who participated in baptism. They were basically admitting that they were no better than Gentiles, that they too were in need of baptism. So John was not doing something that would have been naturally appealing to people. So for his actions to receive such a favorable response from the people is a sign that the Holy Spirit is at work.

And yet John says that the One who is to come is far mightier than John. He says He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. So this coming One, Jesus the Messiah, will bring the work of the Holy Spirit to a whole new level. And of course we know the rest of the story: Jesus, dying for our sins, rising from the dead, ascending to heaven, on the day of Pentecost sends the Holy Spirit and He fills the believers there and all believers since. So John is not saying, before Jesus, no Spirit, after Jesus, the Spirit. He is instead saying, before Jesus: the work of the Spirit prepares the way, after Jesus: the fullness of the Spirit at work in God’s people.

And this is what the prophet Jeremiah had said would happen when the Savior came, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”

So there is great comfort in John’s words because there is a great Savior coming who is going to deal with the sin the people are repenting of. It’s not enough to repent. That’s a starting point but repentance in itself doesn’t save us. Sin must not only be acknowledged and regretted and turned away from it must also be dealt with. And we, as sinners, cannot save ourselves from our sins. We need a Savior. Jesus has come to be that Savior. And when He saves us, he gives us freedom from God’s wrath, freedom from sin’s power over us, the promise of eternal life, the presence of the Holy Spirit and a thousand other gifts of grace. So John’s ministry, as powerful as it was, was limited. It was a preparatory, foundational ministry. Repent in order to prepare your hearts for the salvation that is coming. But if the salvation had never come the repentance would have been utterly meaningless. But salvation has come, full of grace and truth.

But I also believe John has given us a warning here, because not only will Jesus baptize with the Holy Spirit, he will also baptize with fire. Now this fire baptism has been debated through the years. What does John mean, he will baptize you with fire? And the reason it is debated is because fire in the Bible is used to illustrate both judgment and purification. Sometimes fire illustrates how God will bring judgment on a non-believer and sometimes fire is used to illustrate how God will refine or purify a believer. So which is it here? That is the question that people have discussed through the years. When I first started studying this passage I thought John was talking about the refining fire the Holy Spirit would bring in the lives of believers. But I now think the context of the passage points strongly to the fire Jesus brings here being the fire of judgment on unbelievers.

Jesus will bring the Holy Spirit to those who repent and believe, like the ones here who are coming for baptism. But He will bring the judgment of fire to the unrepentant and unbelieving, like the Pharisees and Sadducees who have come to see John. If you look at verse 10, you see a reference to fire, and it is the fire of judgment. If you look in verse 12, you see a reference to fire, and it is the fire of judgment. So here in verse 11, it seems that consistency would lead us to say that this fire too that Jesus brings is a fire of judgment.

 John MacArthur explains how this view of the baptism of fire being judgment in this passage is backed up by the prophecy of Malachi. He says, “It had been predicted by Malachi that the Messiah would purify the nation.  He predicted it.  He predicted that when He came He would come with fire, that He would purify.  But listen to me.  Listen to Malachi 3:1 “Behold I will send my Messenger he shall prepare the way before me”…that’s John the Baptist…”and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant…”  Now, what happens when He comes?  “…who may abide the day of His coming?  And who shall stand when He appeareth?”  Listen to this. “For He is like a refiner’s”…what?…”fire…And He shall sit like a refiner and purifier of silver…purify the sons of Levi, purge them like gold and silver…”  Now, this tells us that He’s coming to purify the nations.  But how?  By just removing the dross, just cleaning them up a little bit?  No.  Chapter 4, it tells us how, verses 1 to 3.  “…the day cometh that shall burn like an oven and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly shall be stubble…the day that cometh shall burn them up…”  In other words, this isn’t just purification; this is consummation…shall burn them up, see.  The fire predicted in chapter 3 is described in chapter 4 of Malachi as that which burns up, consumes the wicked like stubble.  And, beloved, John the Baptist, 400 years later, picked right up where Malachi left off and he says, Israel, He’s coming and He’s coming for salvation and He’s coming to baptize you with the Spirit, but if you reject Him, He’ll come with the baptism of fire, just as Malachi said it 400 years ago.”

Now you might say, “Well, I thought Jesus in his first coming did not come to bring judgment but salvation. And there is certainly truth to that, He came to save. But Jesus also by His very nature makes neutrality impossible: you must reject Him or receive Him. And this makes His coming, while a glorious gift of grace, also divisive. Jesus even says in Luke 12:49 “I have come to send fire on the earth . . . do you think I have come to bring peace on earth? No but rather division. From now on houses will be divided, family member against family member.”  So with his words about the ministry of Jesus, that He would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, John is comforting the afflicted (promising the repentant that they would have the Spirit) and afflicting the comfortable (warning the Pharisees and Sadducees that a fearful fiery judgment was coming). And verse 12 says that judgment is coming soon.

 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

The ax is at the root of the tree, the winnowing fork is in His hand. Words of warning. The winnowing fork is used to toss the grain into the air as a way to separate the good wheat from the chaff, the debris that is gathered along with the wheat when it is harvested. This verse is talking about the future judgment. Jesus will gather His people but the unbeliever will be like chaff that will be burned with unquenchable fire. The amazing comfort is in the security of the wheat being gathered into the barn. Nothing can touch it. It is safe and secure. And it is all gathered. And so it is for all who repent and believe. We are safe in the presence of God and forever can enjoy Him and one day will be gathered with Him forever. The grace of this passage cannot be overstated. For those who repent and believe there is the promise of salvation and a fruitful life and the Holy Spirit and the final gathering into the presence of the Savior, forever safe and secure. But the horror of this passage can also not be overstated. For those who reject Jesus the Savior, there is the reality of damnation, a fruitless life, the fire of judgment marking a person as chaff, worthless, only to be thrown out and burned with unquenchable fire. Unquenchable. Forever safe or forever damned, that is the picture Jesus is giving us here. Judgment and salvation will be thorough, no one will escape. And judgment and salvation will be right. There will be no mistakes. No wheat will be thrown out, no chaff will be retained. There will be no mistakes in separating believer from unbeliever.

This passage is a word of comfort to those who know they have nothing to offer God but empty hands of faith. It is a joy to those who are burned out, beat up and broken. All we need to do is repent and believe. Turn away from sin and turn to God.

But this passage is a terribly fearful passage for the secure. For those who feel like they have it all together, for those to whom outward appearance is everything. Our danger as churchgoers is that we never come to the waters to repent but we only come to observe. Our danger is that we never personally give ourselves to the life of the kingdom even as we are there watching it all unfold in other people’s lives. Our danger as churchgoers is that we become Pharisees or Sadducees, either leaning on our own righteousness or just writing off the reality of God’s judgment as being something not realistic. Trying to bring in the kingdom through our own wits and willpower or denying the kingdom altogether and just trying to build our own little kingdoms of wealth and fun and success. And John comes to us today and says, come to the One who is now here. Come to Jesus. He will forgive and restore and give you new life. The alternative is to go your own way and in rebellion face a fruitless life and a Christ-less eternity of punishment.  Isaiah 45:22 says, “Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth. For I am God and there is no other.” Some today criticize hell. They act as if God is saying, “Love me and if you don’t I’ll send you to hell forever.” They don’t understand that we God’s judgment as the fruit of a faithless life. It is not arbitrary but is an expression of His holiness against sin and rebellion. As Christians, we do not celebrate hell but we dare not deny it. Our job is to offer hope to the hopeless and warning to those who are trusting in their own righteousness while at the same time making sure we don’t become hopeless or self-righteous ourselves. This is our message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is here.” That’s good news. 

 

Behold Your God — Week Five, Day Four

29 Jun

Salvation is bigger than you think. Today’s study is largely a matter of looking up and summarizing key New Testament verses on salvation, focusing especially on what God has done for us in salvation. Tomorrow the focus shifts to what God does in us in salvation.

These two days of study clearly show us two truths . . . salvation is a work of God and salvation is much more than the forgiveness of sins. I don’t want to diminish the forgiveness of sins or the initial faith in Jesus which leads a person from darkness to light, from hell to heaven but it is important to remember that the saving work of God really changes everything. We are given a new status, no longer slaves to sin but now sons of God. We are given new power for living, as the Spirit comes to dwell in us and strengthen us. We are given new eyes for spiritual truth, so that the Bible comes alive. We are given the promise of growing holiness. We are given the promise of eternal perfection. We are given the promise that God will never leave us and that we will be with Him forever. Salvation is much more than we think. Spend your time thinking about these things, and then share them with others. God’s plan of salvation is more exciting than any church program or activity, than any entertainment or vacation, than anything. Let the gospel be your life-long fascination.

Behold Your God — Week Four, Day Two

20 Jun

One of the most significant verses in the New Testament is shared in today’s study. Luke 24 recounts the story of Jesus’ meeting with the two men on the road to Emmaus. Jesus walks with them after His resurrection, His true identity hidden from them. Jesus asks the men what has been going on and the men tell Him of the death of Jesus and reports of His resurrection. The men seem bewildered about what has happened, but Jesus stops them cold — “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into His glory?” And then the great verse from Luke . . . “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.”

Luke 24:27 is so important to me because it establishes the fact that the story of the Old Testament is the story not only of God and Israel. It is also the story of Jesus. When Jesus wanted to explain the cross and the empty tomb, He went to the Old Testament. The story of the New Testament is inextricably linked with the story of the Old Testament. And notice not only Jesus’ commitment to Scripture, notice also His view of the importance of the order of things. He began with Moses. Here the text doesn’t mean that Jesus began with the story of Moses, but with the first five books of the Bible, whose authorship is attributed to Moses. So what Luke 24:47 is saying is that Jesus began with Genesis and then traced the story of God throughout the Old Testament.

I love the fact that every time I go to the Old Testament, more than likely I will see some promise, some shadow, some connection to Jesus.

In taking all of this back to the attributes of God, we can trace the continuity of the Scriptures to God’s sovereignty (through inspiration) and immutability. The Old Testament and the New Testament are not two totally different stories because God is unchanging. He hasn’t changed His plan in the New Testament. His plan has been building throughout the Old Testament to reach its fulfillment in Jesus but the plan itself to bring sons and daughters to glory has not changed.

Comments on James 2:1-13

13 Jul
Continuing our discussion of the book of James, today we enter into chapter 2, a chapter which has been at the heart of the controversy over this book through the years. The chapter divides very clearly into two sections. Verses 1-13 revolve around the issue of favoritism among Christians and verses 14-27 focus on the necessity of good works as evidence of true faith. The subtext in both sections is the issue of rich and poor which we have said (along with trials and wisdom) is one of James’ key themes.
Understanding poverty and wealth in the ancient world is no easy task. This is more and more true as the years go by and we continue to move away from an agrarian economy. So much of our experience of economics is vastly different than the ancient world. While we may sense in our country a growing gap between rich and poor, there is still a much larger middle class in our world than what existed in Bible times. In addition, we can’t forget the spiritual significance granted to poverty and wealth in the biblical world. Many people believed that riches were a sign of God’s blessing so that the rich were looked at as a cut above even spiritually. Finally, we need to understand that the context of chapter 2 is the gathering of believers. The principles about favoritism explained here certainly have a broader application to our world at large, but we should still confine the bulk of our discussion to the gathering of believers, who together by the way they handle favoritism mark themselves as the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
The passage has a fairly straightforward outline . . .
1. Favoritism Condemned (2:1)
2. Favoritism Illustrated    (2:2-4)
3. Favoritism Rejected        (2:5-11)
4. Favoritism Replaced       (2:12-13)
So let’s get into the text . . .
 My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.
The word translated “partiality” (or “favoritism” in many translations) is a rare Greek word in the New Testament, used elsewhere only in Romans 2:11, Ephesians 6:9 and Colossians 3:25. In each of these cases, the point is made that there is no favoritism with God. This case in James is the only time this word is used in the New Testament to urge people not to show favoritism. Of course there is a connection between this passage and the others that use this word. Those reading this letter are “brothers and sisters”, so as followers of Jesus they should emulate His character. We remember Jesus in the gospels eating with the tax collectors and sinners, talking with the Samaritan woman, touching the leper, welcoming the children. So if our Lord acted with such disregard for the societal norms of class or status, how much more should we as His followers disregard such things? It is those who are holding the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ who are to show no partiality. This Jesus is the Lord of glory, a subtle pointer to God the Father, with this reference to glory. The glory of the Old Testament was the manifest presence of God in the tabernacle and temple. Now Jesus has come and tabernacled among us and we have beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. James then gives the motivation for not showing partiality a theological flavor. Partiality is condemned because it does not reflect the character of God. In verses 2-4, James illustrates this partiality.
2 For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, 3 and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” 4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
The illustration James chooses in order to explain the evil of partiality revolves around the response of believers to rich and poor. Two people come into the assembly, one rich and one poor. The word “assembly” is not the word often used in the New Testament for a local church gathering but is the same word used for a Jewish synagogue. This has caused some scholars to question whether James had in mind a church meeting or some kind of legal dispute in a court. A good argument can be made either way but I lean toward the assembly here being a local church gathering and the word synagogue being used mainly because James was among the earliest New Testament books and this language for the assembly would have been normal for Christians from a Jewish background. On a more personal level, the contrast between the two people could not be more stark. On the one hand a man enters with a gold ring and fine clothing and the other man is shabby and poor. James tells us if we treat with greater respect the rich man, giving him a place of prominence while we put the poor man in a lowly place, we have become judges with evil thoughts as we have made such distinctions among ourselves. So the issue of showing favoritism among rich and poor is a matter of sin. In society, it is expected to honor the rich and ignore the poor. But in the Church, all are to be honored. We really are to be a different kind of people, not given to the class distinctions so prominent in our society. We need to recognize here that in the Jewish culture from which the church in Jerusalem emerged, such class distinctions were common and ingrained. Because there was the idea that God blesses the wealthy and because synagogues could be blessed through the wealth and benevolence of rich members, there was a temptation to give special honor and respect to the rich in the synagogue in the hopes that they would bring prestige. If we are honest, it is no different today. Many churches even aim their outreach strategies and even their locations at the wealthy, the stable, the ones who seem to have it all together. I have often thought (cynically I admit) about how church planters in America so often target the suburbs, where the well-to-do live. Few church planters relish the opportunity to plant churches in housing projects or transient neighborhoods. At the same time, it is clear that established churches often work within these same boundaries as we try to woo members who we believe will keep the budget strong and resist giving our attention to those who are needy. We must confront the subtle and not so subtle ways we make distinctions in the church because as disciples of Christ we are called to love all believers without distinction. In the next section, James grounds is illustration about rich and poor in theology, making it clear that favoritism is to be rejected.
5 Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?
8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.
Verse 5 is shocking because at first glance it seems to approve what is condemned in verse 1: favoritism. It seems God has chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom. If God has chosen in this way, is this not a form of favoritism? Why would God condemn us for something He is doing? In reality, this passage is not saying that God has chosen all poor people to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom. It is those who love Him who are part of His kingdom. So this isn’t a blanket statement that all poor people will be saved. What is in view here instead is the principle of reversal so common in Scripture. Just as few selections will suffice . . . “The first will be last and the last will be first. The greatest among you will be your servant. God has chosen the foolish things to shame the wise. I will boast in my weakness that the power of God might be manifested in me.” And not only the words of Scripture but the personalities of Scripture illustrate this principle of reversal. Abraham the childless man will become the Father of a great nation. Joseph the slave will save the world. Moses the murderer will lead Israel out of the Promised Land. Rahab the harlot will deliver Israel’s spies to safety. Ruth the Moabite widow will be great-grandmother of the great king. Barren Hannah will be blessed to give birth to the great prophet-priest Samuel. David, the youngest and lowliest of the sons of Jesse, will be anointed king. Solomon, the son of the woman with whom David committed egregious sin, Bathsheba, will be Israel’s greatest king. Josiah, the boy king, will bring revival to the land. Esther will rise from the king’s court to deliver the Jews. Jonah, the reluctant prophet, brings revival to Nineveh. Jeremiah, the fearful prophet prone to depression, will pen the message of the promise of the new covenant fulfilled in Christ. The twelve disciples, among them a hated tax collector, a political revolutionary and a bunch of ordinary guys, will be Jesus’ change agents in the world. Their impact has been immeasurable. The women who followed Jesus, disregarded by most of their society, were privileged to be the first witnesses of His resurrection. And these first readers of James, Christians from a Jewish background, scattered by persecution, yet following Jesus. God loves reversals. He loves to take nothing and make something. In this way, He is not showing favoritism to the poor, He is choosing the poor to show that He makes no distinctions but accepts all people who come to Him by faith. If God chooses the poor, the lowly, the Mary Magdalene’s of the world with a checkered past and no future, then He can choose me, He can choose you.
James scolds His readers for turning away from the poor in light of the grace of God which caused us to be born again due to nothing good in us but by His grace alone. In fact, James says we honor those who abuse us. He charges his readers with being infected by the same worldly spirit that causes Christians today to be enamored with celebrities (even celebrity pastors). What we so rarely realize James brings home to our hearts . . . we are being used. The rich are willing to go to court. The rich are oppressing you and dishonoring God. Just as James would not say that all poor people are chosen by God, so all rich people are not evil and worldly. There are biblical examples of people who had wealth (Abraham, Job, Lydia) but were also godly people. But in general in James’ day it was often the case that those who were rich wielded power ruthlessly and did what they could to hold on to what they had. This too has changed less than we would like to admit.
In verses 8-11, James brings the issue down to a simple choice . . . will we make distinctions among our fellow believers or will we live by the royal law to love our neighbor as ourselves? Our neighbor is anyone in proximity to us, anyone whose life we might touch. So if we steer clear of people because they are needy we are failing the test of neighbor love. If we try to get next to the rich person because of what they might give us but neglect the poor person, we are failing to walk in neighbor love. And this is the royal law, the law of the kingdom, what Jesus called, along with the command to love God, the greatest commandment. If you love God and neighbor you are walking in obedience to God. If you fail to love your neighbor, you are walking in disobedience. This makes you a transgressor of the law. Keeping the law, walking in obedience to the law, is an all or nothing thing. The law is a whole thing, you have to keep it all. It’s not enough to be free of adultery if you are a murderer. So you begin to feel here the crushing burden of the law. We all know ourselves to be transgressors. We can try to deny it but we know it is true. We lie, we boast, we lust, we steal, we do all sorts of things and think in all sorts of way that dishonor God. So if we are going to life out what God has worked in, as we saw last week, we must have some different basis than law-keeping. We must have some different power than our own effort, because our own effort never produces lasting results spiritually, except to take us farther from where we need to be. So if we are transgressors, marked especially by the ways we make distinctions between ourselves and others, what is the answer? How can we escape this trap of favoritism? Verses 12 and 13 give us the answer.
12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
Here we have the “law of liberty.” Is this the same thing as the “royal law” or is it different? I believe it is different. The “royal law” comes straight from Leviticus and is followed by descriptions of two of the ten commandments. The flavor of verses 8-11 is decidedly condemning. We feel the need to keep the law and if we do keep it we do well. But the problem is we don’t keep it because it is a whole thing, if we break one part we break it all. So the royal law, while in its standards is good and flowing from the nature of God (thus “royal”) does not bring freedom but bondage. And living by this law and living by our performance of it will inevitably lead us regularly to one behavior: comparison. And our tendency to compare will lead us to judgment. And judgment will lead us toward making distinctions among people. And distinction will lead us to favoritism. So as we live under the law we see not only our own inability but our own souls also become soured as we seek to grasp for self-worth through elevating ourselves above others. Inevitably we will be filled with either pride or despair based on how we match up with others. So what is the solution? The solution James gives us is to live by the law of liberty. There is a way that brings freedom, not freedom to do whatever we want but freedom to joyfully do what God calls us to do . . . to care for orphans and widows and to keep ourselves unstained from the world. How can we possibly be people that live by the law of liberty if we know we have fallen so short of God’s standard? There is only one way. We must be recipients of God’s mercy. And we can receive God’s mercy because we have one who perfectly fulfilled God’s law and then died in the place of every sinner who trusts Him. He lived the life we should have lived and died the death we should have died. His name is Jesus and He is the fulfillment of the law and the fountain of mercy. And now, having been so graciously forgiven by such a glorious Savior, we are able to freely extend mercy to others and live in a merciful way toward everyone around us. We are freed up from the comparison game, where we judge people by clothing and cars and beauty and race and status. We are freed up from the performance trap where we spend our lives trying to figure out whether we have satisfied God enough or whether we have made our parents proud or whether we are good enough. There is one who has satisfied God and we’re not Him. But He lets us live off His track record. So relax. The one who bore the wrath of God in His body on the tree also said, “Come to me, you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me. For I am meek and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Mercy triumphs over judgment. So because we have received mercy from God we live mercifully toward people. We don’t hold people in judgment, we are quick to forgive, we don’t make distinctions based on status.
In this passage, favoritism has been condemned as being unworthy of followers of Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. Favoritism has been illustrated in our interactions with rich and poor and we have been challenged to remember that God loves working contrary to worldly expectations and societal norms. Favoritism has been rejected as being central in an approach to life where personal performance is exalted even as its inability to provide lasting hope, joy or fulfillment is shown time and time again. Finally favoritism is replaced in this passage by a focus on mercy, both the mercy we have received from God and the mercy we give to others, and even to ourselves. Throughout the passage we see the great change in our outlook on life which comes through faith in Jesus. We have nothing to earn, we have nothing to prove, we have been loved so well we are free to love. When we live in these realities, our lives take on a quality which makes us unique, like salt and light in a self-obsessed world.

Comments on James 1:9-18

1 Jul

Continuing with brief commentary on James, here are my notes on James 1:9-18 . . .

1:9 Now the believer of humble means should take pride in his high position. 1:10 But the rich person’s pride should be in his humiliation, because he will pass away like a wildflower in the meadow. 1:11 For the sun rises with its heat and dries up the meadow; the petal of the flower falls off and its beauty is lost forever. So also the rich person in the midst of his pursuits will wither away. 1:12 Happy is the one who endures testing, because when he has proven to be genuine, he will receive the crown of life that God promised to those who love him. 1:13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one. 1:14 But each one is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desires. 1:15 Then when desire conceives, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is full grown, it gives birth to death. 1:16 Do not be led astray, my dear brothers and sisters. 1:17 All generous giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or the slightest hint of change. 1:18 By his sovereign plan he gave us birth through the message of truth, that we would be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.
Biblical Studies Press. (2005). The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible (Jas 1:9–18). Biblical Studies Press.
Here James begins his first discussion of poverty and wealth, a prominent theme in the book of James. He also revisits trials and goes into more detail in discussing the nature of temptation. Ultimately, he ends this section with two verses which point to the grace and sufficiency of God.
1:9 Now the believer of humble means
This would have been a great majority of the Christians James was addressing in his letter. Indeed, by our standards almost everyone he was addressing was living in humble means. It is clear here that the context is that of the church by the use of the word “believer.” James is not talking about a general principle that applies to all people but about how poverty and riches apply to the people of God.
should take pride in his high position.
Here we have one of the great reversals the Bible is famous for. With affinities to Jesus’ teaching that the last will be first and the first last, James tells those believers of few means to boast in their high position. What we all consider a position of lowliness is actually an exalted place, likely in James’ mind because our need drives us to deeper dependence on God and strengthened faith.
1:10 But the rich person’s pride should be in his humiliation,
On the other hand, James tells the rich person to boast in his humiliation. Now the fact that he says “person” rather than “believer” has prompted some to speculate that this second statement is a blanket condemnation of the rich rather than something aimed only at believers. But I believe the context tends toward believers, in light of the verses to come. The fact is that the rich are told to exult, and unless these verses are an attempt at sarcasm by James, there is a way the rich can exult. Their exultation is linked to humiliation. This sounds bad but in God’s eyes it is good. When humiliation produces humility then faith can grow. The source of the humiliation in this case is the recognition that riches are a passing thing not ultimately worth pursuing. Note verse 10b and verse 11.
because he will pass away like a wildflower in the meadow. 1:11 For the sun rises with its heat and dries up the meadow; the petal of the flower falls off and its beauty is lost forever. So also the rich person in the midst of his pursuits will wither away.   Certainly in James’ day, and often in ours as well, rich people were regarded with special respect, high esteem and some envy. The one who seemingly has it all is often viewed as being someone on an elite level in comparison with others. But James levels the field as he speaks of the fact that these riches will pass away as even the rich person himself will fade and pass away. And then what? An eternity in which earthly riches will do absolutely no good for us. So whereas the temptation of the poor is to think badly of themselves because of their poverty and maybe even question God for their place in life, the temptation of the rich is to depend on their riches in such a way that they trust in their wealth more than they trust in God, a strategy which will leave the rich person cold in the end. 1:12 Happy is the one who endures testing, because when he has proven to be genuine, he will receive the crown of life that God promised to those who love him.
There are great riches, just as Jesus promised in the Sermon on the Mount, for those who endure the testing of life. Remembering how endurance is earlier connected with faith, I take this to mean that the one who endures testing with a heart of faith in God is the one who is happy, or blessed. The testing proves the genuineness of faith, much as Peter says in his epistles. This proven faith, this persevering faith, is crowned with the eternal life God promised to those who believe in Him (John 3:16). Notice here how love is connected to enduring faith. The one who says, “I love God” but is not seeking to trust God daily is on very shaky ground.
1:13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one.
Now James turns to the subject of temptation. There are “fightings within and fears without” for the Christian and James knows this. Therefore, just as he would not want us to shake our fist at God for the circumstantial trials we face but instead rejoice in them for their faith-strengthening effect in our lives, so he does not want us to blame God for the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil we face in everyday life. We tend to de-spiritualize trials and over-spiritualize temptations. The outer circumstances we face are not just luck but are ultimately part of God’s design. On the other hand, our inner trials are most often because of the pull of our flesh, as James will go on to say in the next verses.
1:14 But each one is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desires. In temptations my problem is not from God but is because of my own desires. Temptation is the enticement to turn away from a life of faith to a life of temporal self-satisfaction. When I choose this path daily it becomes my lifestyle and is the opposite of godliness. Worldliness comes when I daily choose to serve myself rather than God.  1:15 Then when desire conceives, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is full grown, it gives birth to death.
James illustrates this principle of temptation in a very sobering way. He pictures the life cycle of a person from conception to death and says that this move from desire to sin to fully grown sin leads to death. In contrast to the enduring faith and life that comes from trials joyfully faced, there is only the promise of death for those who build their lives on the desires of the flesh. Why? “No man can serve two masters.” Or as John says in his first epistle, “Love not the world or the things of the world. If anyone loves the world the love of the Father is not in him.” These are severe warnings but James is looking at it from the perspective of the overall trajectory of life. Here is a man or woman who has given their heart to pursuing a life of sin. This is a person whose end will be death. In contrast, the person who endures trials and temptations with a heart of faith shows that their heart belonged to Jesus, thus they will have eternal life, not because of their works, rather, their works demonstrated the condition of their heart.
1:16 Do not be led astray, my dear brothers and sisters. 1:17 All generous giving and every perfect gift is from above,
The great temptation we face here is that we regard what the world offers as better and more satisfying than what Jesus offers. We begin to look at a God who brings trials into our lives and allows us to face temptations as a God who is less than good. So James reminds us that God is good and the giver of good gifts. He is generous and perfect in all His ways. We cannot always see this but we can trust that it is true.
coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or the slightest hint of change. We can also take the character of God to the bank, knowing that He is light, in Him is no darkness, knowing that He will not change. For us a lack of change is boring but for the infinitely perfect God, His unchanging nature provides us great comfort and endless joy and a solid hope for our lives.
1:18 By his sovereign plan he gave us birth through the message of truth, that we would be a kind of firstfruits of all he created. This last verse points us to the truth that in the end it is the sovereign hand of God that has given us even an inch of standing in Him. We didn’t save ourselves, He saved us. It was His sovereign plan. It was a new birth (see John 3:3). This new birth came through the message of truth (what an encouragement to us to share the gospel as God’s sovereign plan is to use the gospel proclaimed as His means of saving souls). This new birth results in the believers of James’ day being among the earliest generations of Christians, the firstfruits of the work of Jesus. More is coming. God is bringing a new world through the work of His Son, and we are part of that new world as well. Praise God for His generous, good, unchanging character. Praise God that He can use both trials and temptations to make us more like Jesus.

Comments on James 1:1-8

30 Jun

Over the next couple of days I will be making some brief comments here about the first chapter of James. Here is the text for today . . .

1:1 From James, a slave of God and the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes dispersed abroad. Greetings! 1:2 My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials, 1:3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 1:4 And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything. 1:5 But if anyone is deficient in wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without reprimand, and it will be given to him. 1:6 But he must ask in faith without doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed around by the wind. 1:7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord, 1:8 since he is a double-minded individual, unstable in all his ways.
Biblical Studies Press. (2005). The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible (Jas 1:1–8). Biblical Studies Press.
1:1 From James,
We have already established in our introductory notes that this is the Lord’s brother who was the chief elder of the church at Jerusalem.
a slave of God and the Lord Jesus Christ,
With both a physical link to Jesus and the authority of his eldership in the church at Jerusalem, it is noteworthy that James does not rely on these marks of authority but calls himself instead a slave. In one of the many echoes to the Sermon on the Mount in the book of James, we find in the author one who is not serving two masters but is serving the Lord alone. This designation of himself as slave is fits the description of James in early Christian literature as a devout and humble man. James’ introduction to the letter is much less developed than what we see in Paul’s letters.
to the twelve tribes dispersed abroad.
James is writing to Christians from a Jewish background who are scattered around the eastern Mediterranean. The scattering probably happened in the aftermath of the stoning of Stephen, when a persecution broke out against the Christians in Jerusalem. If this is true, then the trials mentioned in chapter one, while not limited to persecution, may be primarily focused on persecution.
Greetings! James doesn’t use the longer Pauline greeting “grace and peace to you” but he does use a common greeting in the Greek world. And he uses it not only to express good wishes but as a form of wordplay to make his words stick in the minds of his readers. This word for greeting (charein) will be followed a few words later by a key word in verse 2, “joy” (charan). This similarity between words occurs several times in James and serves to make the book easier to remember for those who first heard it read.
 1:2 My brothers and sisters,
This Greek word (adelphoi), is often translated “brothers” but almost all scholars agree that when it is used in the plural form to refer to the church, it is speaking of all believers male and female. Because many in our society today would read the word “brothers” as only referring to males, several translation have moved to this broader translation and even those who retain “brothers” only often note the viability of this alternate translation.
consider it nothing but joy
The danger of the way this is often translated is that we may get the idea that James is urging us to act happy when in the middle of all trials. But the focus of the text is not on being happy with everything about the trial but in being joyful at what the trials produce. The only way to such joy is to “consider” trials as joy. In other words, James is not as concerned about how we feel about our trials as he is how we think about them. Interestingly, these words are not far removed from what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:11-12, when He tells His followers that they should rejoice under persecution.
when you fall into all sorts of trials,
This is interesting wording, because the idea isn’t that we should pursue trials, but that trials will come to us and often by surprise. The “when” points to the inevitability of trials. The phrase “fall into” indicates the often unexpected nature of trials. The word trials here can also be translated “temptations.” The key to determining when to translate the word as trial or temptation is the context of the passage where the word is used.
1:3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance.
Here is the key to the first paragraph. We endure trials not because we are gluttons for punishment but because enduring trials with joy is a key to developing an enduring faith. There is a connection here between endurance and faith which is critical to recognize. Endurance is not a separate thing from faith but is bound up with it, so that the endurance that we need is not just the ability to outlast our tough circumstances but is rooted in a deep trust in God in the midst of and through the storms of our lives. In other words, it is enduring faith which is in view here. As I go through hardship James says I should reckon these hardships as joy because of the positive impact they can have on my spiritual maturity if I approach them with a heart that trusts God. The common image of gold refined by fire is both biblical and an appropriate illustration of the paragraph in verses 1:2-4.
1:4 And let endurance have its perfect effect,
Enduring faith has an effect and the effect is perfect (telos). This Greek word is notoriously broad and quite often used in the New Testament. The meaning may range from perfect to complete to full to mature. Here the idea is that endurance has a complete effect or a perfect effect. There is a fullness to the result of enduring faith. Enduring faith does something that can’t be done through a life of ease, it leads us down a path of spiritual maturity. Perhaps this is the reason that Christians who long to be spiritually mature seemingly often face difficult trials, while others without a deep hunger for maturity perhaps have an easier life. This truth is captured powerfully in the John Newton hymn “I Asked the Lord that I Might Grow” . . .

I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek, more earnestly, His face.

’Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust, has answered prayer!
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair.

I hoped that in some favored hour,
At once He’d answer my request;
And by His love’s constraining pow’r,
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.

Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in every part.

Yea more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.

Lord, why is this, I trembling cried,
Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?
“’Tis in this way, the Lord replied,
I answer prayer for grace and faith.

These inward trials I employ,
From self, and pride, to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st find thy all in Me.”

Now it is true that Newton spoke in his hymn of inward trials. But I want to say, are there any other kind? In the end, do not all our outward trials ultimately become a matter of our inward response? This would certainly seem to be the perspective God holds, as He looks not at the outward appearance but at the heart.

so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything. I know there is a confusion that arises with this word “perfect,” as if James means to say we can be sinless, but the idea here seems to be that of spiritual maturity. Again, there is an echo of the Sermon on the Mount . . . “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The goal is that we would not lack anything we need for life and godliness. Indeed 2 Peter 1:3,4 has promised us that God has given us everything we need for life and godliness. Philippians 1:6 promises that God will complete the good work He has begun in us. So we have these great promises of godliness and spiritual maturity. James serves to remind us that the pathway for these promises to become true in our lives is often the pathway of suffering. This of course is a prominent New Testament theme, even if it is one we often overlook. To be truly like Jesus, which is our calling, we must suffer. Jesus Himself warned us of the reality that we would face trouble in this life and the rest of the New Testament consistently reiterates this fact. Peter in particular in his first letter has an apt word for our comfort-seeking American culture,

4:12 Dear friends, do not be astonished that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as though something strange were happening to you. 4:13 But rejoice in the degree that you have shared in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice and be glad.
Biblical Studies Press. (2005). The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible (1 Pe 4:12–13). Biblical Studies Press.

1:5 But if anyone is deficient in wisdom, The proof that James is not teaching sinless perfection in verse 4 is his acknowledgement of a possible remaining deficiency in verse 5. Why does James bring up wisdom here? Because in the midst of a trial wisdom is our greatest need and is the one thing which will allow us to face our trials with joy. Wisdom is nothing less than seeing reality from a God-oriented point of view. So when I know and live the truth of God I am walking in wisdom. Why would James be concerned at a lack of wisdom, based on this first paragraph? I believe the discussion of wisdom here is intimately related to the issue of facing trials. If I am going to face trials well and with joy, I must understand that they come from the hand of God. God is working through them and using them for my good, for my growth in Him. A lack of wisdom would be to face trials with a fist raised to the heavens, questioning God’s love and goodness. A lack of wisdom might also be displayed by just regarding trials as meaningless, just as things that happen to all people, something to be tolerated but not embraced as a means of spiritual growth. So in order to face trials well with a view toward spiritual growth, I need wisdom. And I must acknowledge that I often lack wisdom. I am prone to knee-jerk reactions when trials come. Things like worry, anxiety, scheming, brooding, depression and anger dominate my thinking rather than the wisdom to consider the good designs of God in my trials. So what should I do if I find this lack of wisdom in my heart?

he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without reprimand, and it will be given to him. So the solution to a lack of wisdom is prayer. And even in this statement there is a hint toward the key to having the wisdom to face trials rightly. God is the one who gives wisdom generously to all and without reprimand. Now I take this to be James’ encouragement to us that when we are dealing with God, we are dealing with one who is gracious toward us and is not against us. This is a helpful bit of knowledge to have when we face trials. Even though your life looks dark, as a follower of Jesus God is for you and is working for your eternal good. So as we ask God for the wisdom to face trials with joy, we must remember that we are dealing with a good Father. God doesn’t mind you asking for what you don’t have. He delights to give you what you can’t give yourself. We should not feel ashamed to ask God for anything we need in order to grow in Christlikeness. It seems to me the all here may be a reference to God’s common grace, but is more likely saying that God gives wisdom to all who ask. And the promise here is firm, we will have wisdom when we ask. This reminds me of the Sermon on the Mount again, as Jesus teaches in chapter 7, “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you.” But there is a condition here in James chapter 1 . . .

1:6 But he must ask in faith without doubting, The question here is what does it mean to ask in faith without doubting. It seems to me that the issues of faith and doubt here are connected to our confidence, or lack thereof, in the character of God. Do we believe that God is a good Father who will not reprimand us for asking for wisdom? Do we believe that God is good in the first place when we are in the midst of a trial? Do we believe that God is powerful enough to work in our trials for our growth in grace? These are the questions of faith and doubt James is concerned with here. The doubting person will tend toward unsteadiness and immaturity and lack of endurance, not because they are emotionally weak or personally deficient but because their view of God is insufficiently high because only a high view of God can lead to a deep faith. The life of faith is the life which trusts in the character of God.

for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed around by the wind. This is the first of several illustrations from James taken from everyday life. This is an affinity He shares with Jesus’ teaching style. Illustrations like this are common in preaching, showing that James is most likely a collection from his sermon material. Douglas Moo speaks powerfully about this image of the wave in his commentary on James, “the picture here is not a wave mounting in height and crashing to the shore, but of the swell of the sea, never having the same texture and shape from moment to moment, but always changing with variations in wind direction and strength.”

1:7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord, That person is the one who doubts, the one who is vacillating between two masters. That one should not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord. The Lord, being gracious, may still bless him, but there is no settled assurance like those who trust in the Lord for wisdom. The life on the fence is a most miserable place to live.

1:8 since he is a double-minded individual, unstable in all his ways. The reason this person would have no expectation of God’s supply of wisdom is that he is a double-minded man, therefore unstable in all his ways. The one who doubts the character of God while also longing for the blessing of God is going to inherently be unstable because of divided loyalty. This again accords with Jesus’ words about not being able to serve two masters in Matthew chapter 6. Blomberg says, “This description hits close to home in an age of nominal Christians who attend church from time to time, perhaps even regularly, but who refuse to let God interfere with their daily lives and goals.”

 

 

 

James: An Introduction for Deeper Study

28 Jun

“An Epistle of Straw”

The great reformer Martin Luther used this description for the book of James. In saying this, Luther was not saying the letter of James was worthless, simply that there were other New Testament books which were more solid in their teachings about Christ (such as John’s gospel, Romans, and Galatians). These books were considered more significant by Luther because they dealt more directly with salvation and justification by faith alone in particular. James on the other hand is more concerned with how we live after we have come to believe in Jesus rather than how we come to believe in Him in the first place.

Luther’s assessment has negatively influenced the popularity of the book of James for a long time, but in recent years this book has been rediscovered in some circles.

Still, as one begins to study James, it becomes clear that the structure of the book and its overall themes are not as clear as most of Paul’s letters, for example. So this introduction is presented in order to provide those who want to study this letter in more depth the background information which will help the careful Bible reader to a fuller understanding.

It is hoped that an exploration of authorship, date, outline, themes, structure and the situation in which the letter was written will give readers a framework for study which will enhance understanding both as sermons on the book are preached and the letter is discussed in home groups.

Who Wrote James?

The first verse of the letter tells us that the book was written by “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” So obviously, the book was written by James. The problem is there are several men named James in the New Testament and we have no idea just from reading the letter which of these might be the author of the book or even if this James might be one who is not even named in the New Testament (as James was a very common name).

One thing we do notice in the description of the author in verse 1 is that the description is very general, as if all those reading the book knew who this author was without a great deal of detail. Thus this James seems to be someone who was well-known by the audience to whom the letter was originally written. While it may be possible that this could be someone not named in the New Testament, the likelihood that this well-known James would have had some connection to the apostles of the early church and the Lord Jesus without being mentioned in the New Testament is small.

So since it is likely that the author of the book is one of the four men named James mentioned in the New Testament, which of the four is the most likely author? Among those named James in the Bible, two were among the twelve disciples of Jesus: James the son of Alphaeus and James the son of Zebedee and brother of John. Of these two James the son of Alphaeus seems an unlikely candidate because he is hardly mentioned apart from the Twelve and no further record of his ministry is given in the New Testament. James the son of Zebedee is a stronger candidate, because he was a prominent disciple of Jesus, among Jesus’ inner circle. The problem is he was killed by Herod Agrippa (see Acts 12:2) in 44 AD. It is likely that James was written after 44 AD therefore the likelihood that James the son of Zebedee is the author is extremely remote.

The third James in the New Testament is also linked to the twelve disciples. James the father of Judas, one of the disciples. This was not Judas Iscariot, but another of the Twelve named Judas. The only mention of this James is in association with his disciple son so it is most unlikely that he is the author.

This brings us to the fourth James mentioned in the New Testament, James the half-brother of Jesus and leader of the church in Jerusalem. James was a son of Joseph and was likely part of the family of Jesus mentioned in the gospels, who at first did not believe Jesus was the Son of God. After the resurrection, though, we find that the brothers of Jesus do believe (see Acts 1:14). James becomes a prominent leader in the church and serves as a kind of senior pastor for the church in Jerusalem. Early tradition from outside Scripture speaks of James’ faithfulness to God and his life of prayer. Of the four men named James in the New Testament, this James seems to be the most likely author of our letter. Interestingly, the Greek of the letter of James bears some similarity to the speeches of this James in the book of Acts (see Acts 15:13-21 and 15:23-29). In addition, the book is written to Jewish Christians and James’ ministry was concerned with Christians of a Jewish background. James position as leader of the flagship Jerusalem church would also have given him an assumed authority to speak to the “twelve tribes of the dispersion” (Jewish Christians scattered from Jerusalem). Further, after the death of Stephen, we have a record of a persecution which scattered many Jewish Christians from Jerusalem into the surrounding regions.

Traditionally, this James, the half-brother of our Lord, has been regarded as the author of the letter of James and we have seen that his background and story best fits the facts.

When Was James Written?

We know, if in fact James was written by the half-brother of Jesus, that the book must have been written before AD 62, because we know that James was martyred in this year. But there are indications that James was written much earlier than this and may in fact be one of the earliest written New Testament books.

First, there is an indication in the way James discusses issues in his letter that this book was written before the Jerusalem Council of AD 49. The Jerusalem Council (see Acts 15) discussed whether Gentiles were required to keep the Jewish law in addition to trusting Jesus in order to be saved. James sided with Paul to say “no,” faith in Christ alone is sufficient, while also encouraging Gentiles to steer clear of certain behaviors which had been a part of their pagan past.

We see little indication in James that there was a conflict over the place of the law in the believer’s life. This conflict really began to become a big issue in the early church around AD 49. That James, in speaking to Christians of a Jewish background, would not linger over this issue may mean that the issue had not yet arisen when the book was written. Finally, the theme of the rich and poor in the church James discusses in the book fits well the historic situation in and around Jerusalem in the late 40’s AD. There was a famine in Judea in AD 46 and this would have caused severe socio-economic difficulties in the region where James wrote his letter.

These issues when taken together give us a date for the letter of AD 45-47. This puts James among the earliest New Testament writings.

Why Was James Written?

James, like most of the New Testament letters, was written to provide instruction and encouragement to churches. The instructions of the book of James are relevant to the situation facing the original intended audience of the book.

James discusses issues like facing trials, dealing with issues of favoritism, the rich and poor, prayer, wisdom, and speech. The most pressing theological issue dealt with in James is the relationship of faith and works. In looking at all these issues, it is clear that James’ goal is to deal with matters of everyday importance to his readers. He is instructing his readers about how to live as followers of Jesus in a challenging world.

What is the Structure of James?

Almost everyone who studies James says that it breaks down into 12-15 sections of instruction. From there the diversity of opinions about how those sections fit together, if at all, is staggering. James is often compared to the wisdom literature of the Old Testament (in particular it is somewhat like the book of Proverbs). Yet I am not convinced that James is really wisdom literature. Instead, James seems to be sermonic in form, perhaps even the collection and organization of James’ sermons into a written form. There is a combination of exhortation and illustration in the book which seems to fit the sermonic form best and has an affinity with the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels.

The best understanding of the structure of James seems to me to be found in the work of Craig Blomberg and Mariam Kamell. Their outline revolves around three central themes: Trials, Wisdom and Riches and Poverty. They outline the book like this . . .

I.    Greetings (1:1)

  1. Statement of Three Key Themes (1:2-11)
  2. Trials in the Christian Life (1:2-4)
  3. Wisdom (1:5-8)
  4. Riches and Poverty (1:9-11)
  • Restatement of the Three Themes (1:12-27)
  1. Trials/Temptations in Relation to God (1:12-18)
  2. Wisdom in the Areas of Speech and Obedience (1:19-26)
  3. The “Have-Nots” and the Responsibility of the “Have’s”: The Thesis of the Letter (1:27)
  4. The Three Themes Expanded (2:1-5:18)
  5. Riches and Poverty (2:1-26)
  6. Favoritism Condemned (2:1-13)
  7. The Problem of Faith without Works (2:14-26)
  8. Wisdom and Speech (3:1-4:12)
  9. The Power of the Tongue (3:1-12)
  10. Wisdom from Above and Below (3:13-18)
  11. The Misuse of Speech in Quarrels and Slander (4:1-12)
  12. Trials and Temptations (4:13-5:18)
  13. Planning apart from God’s Will (4:13-17)
  14. Responding to Oppression (5:1-12)
  15. Anointing Prayer for Serious Illness (5:13-18)
  16. Closing (5:19-20)                                                                                                                                                            This outline, while not perfect, is the best I have found in

summarizing the key themes of the book. My only uncertainty with this outline is that the passage on faith and works seems to me to hold a more prominent place in James’ argument than Blomberg and Kamell afford it in their outline. Nevertheless, this outline gives readers a good general framework for approaching the book.

What Does the Book of James Teach Us?

God

James focuses on God’s generosity toward the believer, His judgment of the unbelieving and the rebellious and His perfections, both in the giving of blessings and in His inability to be tempted by evil. James also emphasizes the oneness of God as he discusses other issues. James reminds us that there is one true and living God who is generous and good to all who seek Him and who will judge rebellion against His holy will.

Eschatology (last things)

James often dwells on end times themes like the impending judgment of God (see 5:8-9) and the promise of eternal reward to those who are faithful (see 1:12).

The Christian Life

It is here that James probably makes his greatest contribution to our faith. James is filled with godly wisdom about how believers are to live in this world. We are to live with an undivided heart, with a heart of faith in God. We are to live mindful of the needs of others and be careful not to practice favoritism. We are to beware of the dangerous temptation of riches. We are to be people of prayer, asking for wisdom and power as we draw near to God. We are to be doers of God’s Word, not merely hearers. The letter is filled with ready application to our lives as believers.

Faith and Works

In his discussion of the connection between faith and works, James makes an important but often misunderstood contribution to our understanding. Because Paul says we are justified apart from works while James says we are justified by works, many readers see an irreconcilable conflict between the two. As believers in a God-inspired Bible, we know this to not be the case, but we must explore each man’s teaching to see how their approaches actually complement one another.

We must first understand that each man was battling different tendencies in his readers. Paul was battling a tendency among his readers to try to rely on obedience to the law in addition to faith in Christ for salvation. This “Jesus-Plus” formulation is flatly rejected by Paul. James, on the other hand, is likely battling an under-emphasis on works, the kind of idea that if I only believe the right things it doesn’t matter what I do. So the different audiences explain how one can say “you are justified by faith apart from works” and the other can say “you are justified by works.” Paul is looking at the issue from the point of entry into the Christian life and saying “there is nothing in you and nothing that you can do which can earn God’s favor. You must be born again. You are made right with God by faith alone apart from works. Faith is the root of your salvation.” James on the other hand is looking at the issue from the standpoint of one who has already trusted Jesus and saying, “having trusted Jesus, now your life will display the fruit of good works for the glory of God. Your works demonstrate your faith and in this way your rightness with God is shown by your works. Words are the fruit of your salvation.” So Paul is addressing legalism while James is addressing complacency. And interestingly, if we read them carelessly, we can accuse Paul of giving place to complacency and James of giving place to legalism. But neither man had this intention in his teachings. Paul says, and James would agree, “by no means, may it never be, that we would teach either legalism or complacency.”

One final support to the view of the contrast between Paul and James that I have presented here is their use of Abraham to illustrate their positions on faith and works. Paul uses Abraham to illustrate that we are justified by faith apart from works and James uses Abraham to illustrate that we are justified by works. Interestingly, Paul pulls his example (the promise to Abraham in Genesis 15) from near the beginning of Abraham’s story, while James pulls his example (the sacrifice of Isaac) from the end of Abraham’s story. In this way, Abraham is used to show that faith is the root of salvation and the fruit of salvation. The teachings of James and Paul do not conflict but complement each other. And both men affirm what the other teaches. James 1:18 is a key text which shows that we are born of God by the hand of God. Our salvation is from Him, not our works. And Paul, in Galatians 5:6 and elsewhere, affirms that it is “faith expressing itself through love” which counts before God (very similar to the way James speaks of faith and works).

Conclusion

I hope this short introduction has whet your appetite for this great book. James is filled with memorable passages, comforting words and great challenges to live as a faithful follower of Jesus. The message of the book is sorely needed in our world today. May we as a church grab hold of the truth of this book as we study it together.

Bibliography

Blomberg, Craig L. and Mariam J. Kamell (2008) James: Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).

Bratcher, Robert G. (1984) A Translator’s Guide to the Letters from James, Peter and Jude (New York: United Bible Societies).

Burdick, Donald W. (1981) James: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).

Davids, Peter H. (1982) James: The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).

Moo, Douglas J. (2015) James: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press).

 

 

 

 

A Look at the Book of James

27 Jun

This Sunday our church is starting a summer series on the book of James. In July and August we are planning to preach through the book and meet in homes to discuss the book. I will be planning to use this space to give some introductory material and commentary on each week’s passage. The following is the outline for the sermon series.

July 3 — James 1:1-17

July 10 — James 1:18-24

July 17 — James 2:1-13

July 24– James 2:14-26

July 31– James 3

August 7 — James 4:1-12

August 14 — James 4:13-5:6

August 21 — James 5:7-12

August 28 — James 5:13-20

Sermon Notes, Matthew 5:17-20

9 May

Here is a manuscript which reflects my study of Matthew 5:17-20 in preparation for a recent sermon.

Matthew 5:17-20

A Greater Righteousness

 17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Two men were walking down a road. They were on a seven mile trip. Along the way they were joined by another man who walked up to them and asked them what they were talking about. I know in our culture this all seems strange (walking seven miles, having a stranger come up alongside and start talking) but 2000 years ago this was all very ordinary. The latest news didn’t come from CNN but by word of mouth. So this stranger asked the men what was new. Cleopas was astounded that anyone wouldn’t know the events of the last few days, where Jesus had been crucified and now how His body was no longer in the tomb. The men on the road to Emmaus were uncertain about what had happened to Jesus’ body. So the risen Jesus, who was the stranger on the road to Emmaus, His identity hidden from the men at this point, said these words, “How unwise and slow you are to believe in your hearts all that the prophets have spoken! Didn’t the Messiah have to suffer these things to enter into His glory?” Pretty strong words from a stranger, but not from the Lord. But what is even more powerful is what Luke says Jesus did next . . . “Then beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted for them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.”

How many of you would have liked to have listened to that!?! Jesus recounting the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. And of course when Jesus said this the New Testament had not yet been written, so the Scriptures He is talking about is the Old Testament, the law and the Prophets. So as we come to Matthew chapter 5:17 this morning, we need to remember this conversation on the road to Emmaus, because it helps us understand what Jesus meant when He talked about fulfilling the law and the prophets.

In the Sermon on the Mount so far, we have seen the description of a Christian in the Beatitudes: one who is poor in spirit, mournful, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, a peacemaker, ready to endure persecution for the sake of Jesus. And this kind of person, having a heart transformed by the grace of Jesus, is salt of the earth and light of the world. People like this bring wisdom and blessing to the world. There is a familiar and I think true, cliché out there that goes, “Hurt people hurt people.” The flip side of this slogan is also true though, “People touched by the grace of Jesus spread that grace.”

          There was a group of people in the gospels who never understood grace: the religious leaders. They were people who valued the Scriptures, they were people who wanted to please God, they were the moral and cultural leaders of their society, they were highly respected. But they lived for self-glory rather than God’s glory and they tended to focus on external appearances rather than a heart of faith.

The words Jesus will share in the passage we’re going to look at today must be read in light of the religious leaders. The religious leaders were certainly in the minds of those who heard the Sermon, because they contrast at the end of the Sermon the powerful authoritative message of Jesus with the teachings of the religious leaders.

When Jesus mentioned good works in verse 16, his audience may have begun to think about how these good works were connected to the law of Moses. As Jesus laid out the Beatitudes, there was not a word about morality or obedience or the law of God. Was Jesus introducing a new word here? Was He doing away with the law of God? Was Jesus trying to do away with Moses?

The Pharisees thought Jesus was doing this. They didn’t like the fact that He did not have the religious training of sitting under a rabbi. They looked down on His humble and somewhat questionable beginnings. The religious leaders questioned by what authority Jesus said and did what He did. And in Jesus’ actual ministry, He seemed to treat the law differently than the Pharisees wanted. He healed on the Sabbath and ignored the traditions of the religious leaders. Finally, Jesus’ associations were questioned by the Pharisees. They didn’t like that Jesus spent time with tax collectors and sinners.

Warren Wiersbe says, “Pharisees were convinced they were the guardians of God’s law and the people were convinced too, yet it was the Pharisees who were destroying the Law. By their traditions, they robbed the people of the Word of God; and by their hypocritical lives, they disobeyed the very Law that they claimed to protect. The Pharisees thought they were conserving God’s Word, when in reality they were preserving God’s Word: embalming it so that it no longer had life! Their rejection of Christ when He came to earth proved that the inner truth of the Law had not penetrated their hearts.

Jesus made it clear that He had come to honor the Law and help God’s people love it, learn it, and live it. He would not accept the artificial righteousness of the religious leaders. Their righteousness was only an external masquerade. Their religion was a dead ritual, not a living relationship. It was artificial; it did not reproduce itself in others in a living way. It made them proud, not humble; it led to bondage, not liberty.”

So we need to keep this contrast between the way of Jesus and the way of the Pharisee in mind, not only in this week’s message but in most of the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is not contrasting His message with the Old Testament, He is contrasting His message with the false message of the religious leaders of His day. And we will learn that the false message of the Pharisees was not limited to Jesus’ day. We can very easily fall into the same traps. The Sermon on the Mount helps us avoid these traps.

So let’s look at verses 17-20 . . .

 17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

Jesus is making it clear in verse 17 that He was not defying the law through His teaching. Jesus is not contradicting the law but at the same time He is not merely preserving it, keeping the status quo. He is instead fulfilling it, bringing it to its intended goal.

All of the Old Testament applies to us, but it is all interpreted through the person and work and teaching of Jesus Christ. Any righteousness of our own rests on Him and Him alone. He fulfills the law and the prophets through His perfectly obedient life and through the advancing of God’s plan His life and ministry brings. All the blessings of the Sermon on the Mount, from the Beatitudes to the heart of love for God that emerges in the rest of the Sermon flows from Christ and what He has done for us. Any other way of looking at the Sermon on the Mount just makes it a moral code and turns it into a system of works-righteousness, in which we will fail every time. Without understanding that Jesus has fulfilled the Scriptures, the Sermon on the Mount just makes us better Pharisees.

With this said, though, it is clear that some aspects of Jesus’ fulfilling of the Old Testament means that for us some aspects of the Old Testament are illustrative for us but no longer binding. The sacrificial system is a good example of this. We don’t offer sacrifices as atonement for sin anymore not because Jesus abolishes sacrifice. We don’t offer sacrifices because Jesus fulfilled the goal of the sacrifices by the once and for all totally effective sacrifice of Himself.

Some people think Jesus came to set aside the law, to obliterate it, to make it useless. This is not true. Think about it like an acorn. I can destroy an acorn by smashing it with a hammer. But I could instead put it in the ground and see its purpose fulfilled as it grows into a great oak tree. I want to propose to you that THIS is the way Jesus has fulfilled the law. He hasn’t smashed it to bits, His kingdom has emerged from the seed of the Old Testament which in the fullness of time has brought forth the fulfillment of God’s plan for the ages.

Nothing of that seed of the Old Testament Scriptures is wasted. Look at verse 18 . . .

 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

I could preach on just this verse for a long time, because it is one of the greatest verses affirming the full verbal inerrancy of Scripture. The absolute authority of Scripture is in view here. The smallest stroke of a letter will not pass away from the law. This word of God will endure. Aren’t you glad this morning? We have a trustworthy word. This is a great gift of God’s love. I have had a sense at times in my life of God’s internal leading. But I am always tempted to question these leadings. Was it really God? Was He leading me or was I just doing what I wanted? But when I come to the Word, I realize, yes, God has spoken and I can trust what He says absolutely. What a gift. It will not pass away until the end of time, until everything is accomplished. Again, we have here the language of fulfillment. The Old Testament will have enduring value until the end of time and it is to be interpreted on the basis of the one who fulfilled it: Jesus Christ. Since the Old Testament will not pass away until the end of time, we should take it very seriously. Look at verse 19 . . .

19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus couldn’t have made it much more clear how seriously He expects us to take the Old Testament. He tied our eternal rewards to how seriously we take the Scriptures. This is His answer to any of the religious leaders who might question His loyalty to the Word of God, any leaders who might charge Him with giving His followers freedom to sin. At the same time He is telling those sinners who are hearing Him and are attracted to His message that their obedience to God matters. Whoever relaxes these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. I think He is thinking here not of the Pharisees but of those who are His followers, because both those who relax the least of the commandments and those who do and teach the commandments are in the kingdom of heaven. The difference seems to be an issue of rewards. This is a very important truth for us to hear. God intends you to live according to His commands. Now this causes us who have been taught the grace of God to bristle. And on one level, this is right, because we know that we can’t obey God’s commands in our own strength. We must trust in God’s power for strength to obey. And we bristle too because some of things Paul teaches seem to tell us that we are not under the law any more. But Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And what are Jesus’ two great commandments? “Love God and love your neighbor.” And James says following these two commandments is the fulfillment of the law. So how does this all fit together? We are called to obey the commands of God. But, God has given us the provision of His Son who fulfilled the law and the prophets. And Jesus does two things for us. First, because He obeyed the law perfectly and died for our lawbreaking in His crucifixion, God counts all who trust in Jesus as being righteous in the sight of God on the basis of Jesus Christ. But that is not all that Jesus has done for us. Through His dying and rising and present reign fulfilling the Word of God Jesus intends to make us righteous in actual day-to-day living. And He does this as we trust in His power by leading us to a life of faithful obedience to His Word. This means, in light of the ways He has fulfilled the Old Testament, Jesus intends us to walk in conformity to the commands of the Old Testament and the New Testament, while keeping in mind the ways that Jesus Himself has fulfilled the Old Testament. So the Ten Commandments and the principles of God still apply to us but they are all interpreted through the lens of Christ and His work. We are free from the law on the level of depending on our own strength to keep it, but we are not free from the law in the sense that we can now go off and do whatever we want and just put our Jesus stamp on it. This is worth talking through because in our day there is a huge tendency in our culture toward doing our own thing, even among Christians. So I make a life of ignoring the clear commands of God and doing my own thing and then I wonder why I don’t feel close to God or why I am not growing spiritually. There is a temptation among some to say, “well, I trusted Jesus years ago and now I just kind of do what I want to do. I just kind of live based on what I want and I’m not under the law any more so I just kind of do what feels right.” This is how people who profess to be Christians end up in all kinds of horrible sin. We take grace as a license to ignore obedience to God. I even saw one preacher in Britain who was preaching that it was OK to shoplift if you took from a big store because it is just a big greedy corporation but it was wrong to steal from a small business, because they had very little margin. And I know that sounds crazy, but we are incredibly adept at shaping the commands of God to work around to what we really want to do. Jesus is going to make it abundantly clear that we can’t just have an outward obedience to the law. There must be a heart change. But when there is a heart change it will result in conformity to the Word of God, not a relaxing of God’s standards but a desire out of love to God to move into a deeper obedience, an obedience on the level of motivation and action. This life of deeper obedience, obedience flowing from a heart of love and faith, is the fundamental difference between the righteousness of the Pharisees and the righteousness of the citizens of Jesus’ kingdom. Look at verse 20 . . .

 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

The Pharisees had a certain kind of righteousness but the disciples have an entirely different kind of righteousness. It is a righteousness that exceeds the Pharasaic righteousness. And I think the exceeding here is not a matter of quantity but of quality. The kingdom person has a quality of righteousness that is altogether different and better than the Pharisees. This verse would have been a shocker to Jesus’ Jewish hearers, who considered the religious leaders the epitome of righteousness. Man looks at the outward appearance but the Lord looks at the heart. The Pharisees were the height of human righteousness, highly respected moral men. But their righteousness was insufficient because it was external. Jesus says they are like cups which are clean on the outside and filthy within. Jesus says they are like painted tombs full of dead men’s bones. There is in Jesus’ view of righteousness a necessary inward transformation which must come. And you might say exactly what the disciples would say at one point, “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus’ reply? “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” True righteousness comes through the work of Christ. As Romans 3 says, “But now the righteousness of God has appeared apart from the law, although the law and prophets testified to it, even the righteousness of God through faith in Christ to all who believe.” The rest of the Sermon on the Mount is going to show, as the Beatitudes have, the reality of the heart transformed through faith in Christ. And the order is essential. Christ transforms the heart and then the heart lives in obedience a fruitful spiritual life. Obedience is the result of transformation not the way to transformation.

We have a Savior who is the fulfillment of the Scriptures. We have Scriptures which are entirely trustworthy. We are called to a life which does not minimize the Scriptures but seeks to live and teach them in light of the work of Christ. And through faith in Him we chart a course away from both man-made efforts at self-righteousness and the God-ignoring license to sin which so characterizes our culture. As I close today let me just ask you a question from Ligon Duncan. “Where is your heart? Is your heart with the Pharisees, grudgingly obeying God or is your heart, or with the followers of Christ, delighting in His law and wanting more than anything else to be conformed to His image and to be exalted not in ourselves but in His righteousness and in His sanctifying work in us that we might become like him. May God cause us to be the followers of Christ and not the Pharisees. Let us pray.”

Bible Reading Blog — January 18,2016

18 Jan

Today’s Readings — BREAK & Mark 3:20-34

I want to use today’s passage to look at the Greek manuscripts which are behind the English translations of the New Testament we enjoy. There are thousands of fragments and portions of the New Testament which have been hand copied through the centuries. A few of these are from within decades of the original text, others within a century or so, and many others from the early centuries of the last millennium. The New Testament has more copies in existence than any other work from the ancient world, and it is not even close. The next several works with the most copies could have all their copies combined and still fall short of the 24,000 or so New Testament manuscripts.

With that said, there are lots of differences between the manuscripts. Most of these are small matters that don’t affect anything significant. Most scholars say the differences do not affect anything important in 90-95% of the cases. Even in the cases where meaning is affected in a significant way, because there are so many manuscripts, we can usually do some detective work and determine which is the original reading. As we compare manuscripts to one another by age and by place of origin, we can usually construct plausible ideas about when the text was changed and why.

The text for today’s reading is one of the cases where we can see a probable altering of the text in some manuscripts. In Mark 3:20 and 21 we read,

Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. 21 And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.” The phrase “his family” in verse 21 is the Greek phrase hoi par autou, which means “the one’s close by him” (i.e., “his family” or KJV “his friends”). The phrase is a little vague but seems to point to Jesus’ family. Jesus’ family tried to take Him out of the crowd, saying, “He is out of His mind.”
But a couple of manuscripts have a different reading. These manuscripts have the reading,

peri autou hoi grammateis kai hoi loipoi (“when the scribes and the rest close by him”). Now this reading is obviously very different than the other reading. It is not just a matter of someone copying the wrong letter from one manuscript to another. This is an intentional alternate reading. What is the explanation? It seems most likely that this reading exists because of a desire to protect the family of Jesus from criticism. If the religious leaders can be implicated in calling Jesus crazy, this is more palatable than the words coming from Jesus’ family. But the context of the passage, along with the overwhelming number of manuscripts which support the first reading, point toward an alteration. The context where Jesus points to His true family as those who do the will of God would seem to close the case on the original reading in verse 21 being a reference to Jesus’ family.
Copyists are humans too. Sometimes, out of a motivation to protect those whom the church would later revere (Mary and the brothers of Jesus), a change is made to the text.
Those who haven’t studied Greek can still know something about manuscript differences by reading the footnotes in the Bible or by comparing translations. Most of the time the reasons for differences can be easily explained, giving us a New Testament we can fundamentally trust.

 

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