The Old Preacher

Viewing the World through God's Word

Category: James (page 1 of 2)

Faith-Prayer

O PreacherMystified.  That’s me.  Over this . . .

Is any one of you sick?
He should call the elders of the church to pray over him
and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.
And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well;
the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.
(James 5:14,15)

Before I explain my puzzlement, let’s consider this final block of James’ letter.

Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise (5:13).

The Greek kakopatheo can be translated “suffer affliction, endure hardship, be in trouble.”  These are the trials of various kinds” (1:2) those dispersed-among-the-nations Jewish Christians are facing  Any one thus afflicted “should pray.”  While that counsel seems obvious, too often prayer is our last resort instead of our default setting.

Likewise, if anyone is “happy” (Greek, euthumeo—encouraged and so cheerful) he should ‘sing songs of praise.”  With both imperatives, James is calling these believers, whatever their situation, to turn their minds Godwarrd.  Trouble should move them to God in prayer.  Happiness should move them to God in praise.

Before we dig into my confusion, we’ll define some terms.  “Sick” (Greek, asthanay) can also be translated “weak”.  Besides physical sickness, it’s also used of spiritual weakness and the weakness suffered from being beat up (as in persecution) and bed-bound.

Commentators suggest a myriad of meanings for“anoint him with oil.”  Since oil is a healing agent, perhaps James meant, “Rub it on like medicine.”  Or, he may encourage its use as an aid to faith, especially when seen as symbolizing the Holy Spirit.  Or, since oil is a sign of consecration, James may want it used to signify that the sick person is being set apart to the Lord (“anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord”) for the Lord’s authority to rule in this illness and his care be given.  Since James without explanation instructs the elders (Greek, presbuteros—“shepherd” leaders of the church) to perform this act, we’re left to speculate on anointing’s exact significance.

What is “the prayer offered in faith”?  Earlier, writing about prayer for wisdom, James hinted at the answer . . .

“But let him ask in faith, with no doubting,
for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea
that is driven and tossed by the wind.
For that person must not suppose
that he will receive anything from the Lord;
he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”
(1:6-8)

The “prayer of faith”, then, probably refers to a prayer prayed with absolute confidence that the person praying will receive from the Lord.

The promise offers great encouragement to the sick.

And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well;
the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.
(5:15)

The sick will be “restored.”  ” . . . the Lord will raise him up” (from his sick bed).  And, “If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.”  The source of every illness is not the direct result of sin (though sickness and death are in the world because sin is (” . . . sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin—Romans 5:11), sometimes it is (“That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep”—1 Corinthians 11:30).  If that’s the case here, James promises, the sick sinner will be both healed and forgiven.

Therefore confess your sins to each other
and pray for each other so that you may be healed.
The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.
Elijah was a man just like us.
He prayed earnestly that it would not rain,
and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years.
Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain,
and the earth produced its crops.
(5:16-18).

Such sins should be confessed “to each other.”  Then praying for each other will result in healing (Greek, iaomy—used of both physical and spiritual healing).

James offers the explanation and promise—“The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective”—to encourage his readers.  The ESV translates:  “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”  We might ask, then, who is a righteous person?  Answer:  one who has trusted his life to Christ (to be credited with his righteous) and is learning to practice righteous living.

Elijah, that great Jewish prophets, provides the classic model.  He had “a nature just like ours” (ESV).  He was “a man just like us” (NIV).  Yet see the powerful effect of his earnest prayer!  No rain for three and a half years.  Then Elijah prayed again.  Drought and famine ended as rain fell and crops grew.  James means for us to be fortified in faith as we turn Godward on behalf of the sick.

My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth
and someone should bring him back,  remember this:
Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way
will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.
(5:19,20)

These dispersed Jewish Christians, enduring trials and facing persecution, are vulnerable to “wander from the truth.”  Why not, for instance, recant faith in Jesus and return to the safety of Judaism?  So the church must watch out for each other.  To turn “a sinner from the error of his way” is to “save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins” that would otherwise separate him from God  This, too, (perhaps especially) is living a Godward life.

My Mystification.

Is any one of you sick?
He should call the elders of the church to pray over him
and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.
And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well;
the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.
(5:14,15).

I’m mystified, because James clearly means these words to encourage.  Sick?  Turn Godward! He’ll heal you.

Yet, after 44 years of pastoral ministry, I’ve almost never seen this “work”.  As an elders team member I’ve prayed for more sick people than I can remember.  I myself was prayed for many times.  But I can’t remember one immediate (or soon thereafter) miraculous healing.  Not that no one’s health returned; it just happened over time in due course.

James lays out few conditions.  Church elders should be called.  (Though James seems to envision the elders being called to the ill person’s sick bed, I don’t think prayer in a church building violates this.)  We often used oil and prayed “in the name of the Lord.” 

Faith?  We could have prepared better in order to fortify our faith.  But in the end, God gives faith. “

The apostle Paul taught . . .

” . . .to another faith by the same Spirit,
to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit.”
(1 Corinthians 12:9) 

If ever we needed the spiritual gift of faith, it was then.  Also, the writer to the Hebrews taught,

“God also testified to [his salvation]
by signs, wonders and various miracles,
and gifts of the Holy Spirit
distributed according to his will.”
(Hebrew 2:4)

Couple that with 1 John 5:14,15 and we can comfortably conclude that God gives his gifts and answers our prayers according to his will . . .

“This is the confidence we have in approaching God:
that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.
And if we know that he hears us– whatever we ask–
we know that we have what we asked of him.”

James himself recognizes the Lord’s sovereign will when he reproves those who make their tomorrow-plans as if they are in control . . .

“Instead you ought to say,
‘If the Lord wills,
we will live and do this or that.'”
(James 5:15)

I’d rather let James explains James, rather than jumping around the Bible like a grasshopper.  But from generations of the Lord’s self-revelation recorded in the Jewish Bible (our Old Testament) and from God’s revelation in Jesus, these Jewish Christians understood that God is sovereign, as our Lord taught us to pray . . .

“Your kingdom come;
your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
(Matthew 6:10)

Therefore, my mystification fog has (mostly) dissipated.  James 5:14,15 is a wonderfully encouraging promise to the sick.  The Lord keeps that promise.  And we must trust when it seems  he doesn’t—it’s better.

And we know that in all things
God works for the good of those who love him,
who have been called according to his purpose.
For those God foreknew he also predestined
to be conformed to the likeness of his Son,
that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 
And those he predestined, he also called; those he called,
he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
(Romans 8:28-30).

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Be Patient Until . . .

O PreacherThe words to this video don’t precisely fit James’ message today.  But, I can’t resist playing it, because when our kids were small, they loved Music Machine.  Give a listen.
* * *
Be patient, then, my friends, until the Lord comes. See how patient farmers are as they wait for their land to produce precious crops. They wait patiently for the autumn and spring rains.  You also must be patient. Keep your hopes high, for the day of the Lord’s coming is near.  Do not complain against one another, my friends, so that God will not judge you. The Judge is near, ready to appear.  My friends, remember the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Take them as examples of patient endurance under suffering.  We call them happy because they endured. You have heard of Job’s patience, and you know how the Lord provided for him in the end. For the Lord is full of mercy and compassion.  Above all, my friends, do not use an oath when you make a promise. Do not swear by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Say only “Yes” when you mean yes, and “No” when you mean no, and then you will not come under God’s judgment (James 5:7-12, TEV).
* * *
News about intolerance toward American Christians comes in occasional reports, making the acts seem isolated—until they pile up in the following summary from “Time Magazine” . . .
 “Some of the faithful have paid unexpected prices for their beliefs lately: the teacher in New Jersey suspended for giving a student a Bible; the football coach in Washington placed on leave for saying a prayer on the field at the end of a game; the fire chief in Atlanta fired for self-publishing a book defending Christian moral teaching; the Marine court-martialed for pasting a Bible verse above her desk; and other examples of the new intolerance. Anti-Christian activists hurl smears like “bigot” and “hater” at Americans who hold traditional beliefs about marriage and accuse anti-abortion Christians of waging a supposed ‘war on women’.

“Some Christian institutions face pressure to conform to secularist ideology—or else. Flagship evangelical schools like Gordon College in Massachusetts and Kings College in New York have had their accreditation questioned. Some secularists argue that Christian schools don’t deserve accreditation, period. Activists have targeted home-schooling for being a Christian thing; atheist Richard Dawkins and others have even called it tantamount to child abuse. Student groups like InterVarsity have been kicked off campuses. Christian charities, including adoption agencies, Catholic hospitals and crisis pregnancy centers have become objects of attack”.

Jewish Christians faced harsher intolerance in the decade after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension.  While many Jews trusted Jesus as Messiah, many more held the Sanhedrin’s view that Jesus was a deceiver who diverted the Jews from ridding Jerusalem of the Romans.  Driven from their homes, these Jewish Christians often found themselves at the mercy of wealthy landowners.  To those Jewish Christians, James writes these encouraging words . . .

Call for Patience (5:7a).

“Patient” (five times in varied forms here) is the Greek makrothumeo—patient with stress on waiting.  How long?  ” . . . until the Lord comes.”  Then the need to patiently endure injustice will be no more.

Like the Farmers (5:7b).

Jewish Christian works see this daily:  landowners waiting for harvest they expect to come from the seasonal rains they expect to fall.  A lesson from God’s creation . . .

 Be Patient (5:8).

“Keep your hopes high” is “Today’s English Version’s” translation of the Greek stayrizo— “establish” or “strengthen your hearts” so they remain immovable.  Why?  ” . . . for the day of the Lord’s coming is near.”

No Complaining (5:9).

The stress of unjust suffering boils grumbling up.  Friend becomes enemy.  Nerves fray.  The closest brother turns into a convenient target.  But they mustn’t “complain against one another” so that they will not incur God’s judgment.  And he is near.  At the door.

 Remember the Prophets (5:10,11).

Suffering isn’t strange for God’s people.  Their prophets are their models.  These Jewish Christians stand in the prophets’ line.  And when we think of them, James reminds them, “We call them makarizom (blessed, happy, favored) because they endured.”  A beatitude:  “Blessed are those who endure suffering for the Lord is full of mercy and compassion.”  Not only with his coming will injustice end, but in today’s suffering there is favor for the forebearer.  And how can we be confident the Lord is full of mercy and compassion?  We see his mercy and compassion lavished on Job in the end.

 Speak Simply Honest (5:12).

 Perhaps in their suffering stress, these Jewish Christians brothers are promising to “do better next time.”  Hard to tell from the context.  One thing, however, is clear.  Swearing oaths to keep a promise should be unnecessary.  When they say “yes” they should mean simply “yes.”  When “no” they should mean simply “no.”  Plain, unvarnished honesty.
If these Jewish Christians lived in America today, they’d probably march in protest or sue the landowners!  Our society is litigious; that, is, we’re a contentious people prone to lawsuits.  So the imperative, “be patient until the Lord comes”, sounds quaint and falls on deaf ears.
Even so injustice remains.  Wrongs don’t get righted.  The poor and powerless are vulnerable to the rich and influential.  The summary of intolerance toward Christians (above) reminds us that, while we have legal recourse in America.  it seems as if anything pertaining to sexuality holds sway over religious freedom.

But the Judge, our Lord, is standing at the door.  He will come to right the wrongs.  And from then on forever righteousness shall reign.

BE PATIENT

 

 

 

 

 

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Corrective Tongue Surgery

O PreacherCan you believe it?  I preach or write about biblically-banned conduct, then find myself doing the very thing.  Just happened again.  James warns about the restlessly evil tongue, and I let loose angry words.  With trepidation, then, I move to the next block of James’ letter, where he takes his scalpel for more corrective tongue surgery . . .

Do Not Judge Your Brother!

Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you– who are you to judge your neighbor? (4:11,12).

I take “slander” (or “evil” from the Greek katalaleo) to refer particularly to judging one’s brother or sister.  (James repeats the word “judge” in some form six times in these four sentences.)

In what way, we wonder, are these brothers judging others?  Perhaps according to their outward appearance, as James condemned earlier . . .

” . . . you must never treat people in different ways according to their outward appearance.  Suppose a rich man wearing a gold ring and fine clothes comes to your meeting, and a poor man in ragged clothes also comes.  If you show more respect to the well-dressed man and say to him, ‘Have this best seat here,’ but say to the poor man, ‘Stand over there, or sit here on the floor by my feet,’ then you are guilty of creating distinctions among yourselves and of making judgments based on evil motives” (2:1b-4, TEV).

Such judging not only slanders the poor.  It also “speaks evil against the law and judges it.”  If a Christian speaks evil against the law, he presumes to put himself in the place of the “only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy.”  Hence, the cut-him-down-to-size accusation:  ” . . . who are you to judge your neighbor?”

What law, then, is James thinking of?  The same law he noted earlier.  ” . . . the royal law found in Scripture:  ‘Love your neighbor as yourself” (2:8).  Judge your brother/neighbor and you speak against that law.  Judge your brother/neighbor and you sit in judgment on that law.  Judge your brother/neighbor and you presume to take the place of the one Lawgiver and Judge.  Tame your tongue!  Do not judge your brother/neighbor!  Love him!

Don’t boast about tomorrow!

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.”  Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”  As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil.  Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins (4:13-17).

Spoken words are more than mere words.  They are the “leakings” of our heart.  Jesus:  “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).

What heart do the words of these merchants’ “leaks” reveal?  Godless self-confidence. Deliberate and designed arrogance.  More than planning; these are men whose profits make them presume to be captains of their destiny, masters of their tomorrows.  So self-assured, they’re convinced they have a year for their next project, and they will “make money.” 

James pops their balloon:  “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.”  Not only are they sinfully ignorant about tomorrow; they’re sinfully ignorant about their life.  “You are a mist (like the early mists of the Mediterranean mountains) that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”

Self-assured merchants aren’t sovereign.  Only the Lord is.  So they should say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”  Those are the words that should “leak” from the Christian’s heart.

To plan as if you hold the outcome solely in your hand is to brag and boast—and that is sin against the One who ultimately holds the outcome in his.

You wealthy, weep for coming miseries!

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you.  Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes.  Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.  Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.  You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.  You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you (5:1-6),

James switches to “you rich people.”  Like an Old Testament prophet, h e condemns them, though they can’t hear them.  “Misery” is coming on them.  Not because they’re rich, but because they’re greedy and unjust.  They abuse poor Jewish Christians—“the workmen who mowed your fields” are “crying out against you.”  The Lord Almighty” has heard.  On Judgment Day the rich’s wealth will stack up evidence against them.  Their riches will rot.  They will pay for their luxury, self-indulgence and murder “in the day of slaughter.” 

* * *

Here’s my prayer.  May it be yours too . . .

Father in heaven, my tongue is battered and bruised from James’ corrective surgery.  But it’s surgery I know I need because my tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  I cry out for your greater grace.  Enable me not to judge my brother or sister by appearances.  Empower me not to brag about tomorrow as if I hold it in my hand, when I know you do.  And please don’t lead me into the temptation of riches, so I need warning to weep and wail because of coming miseries.  Satisfy me with yourself and the good you supply, so my tongue will be free of wailing to sing your praises and speak love to my brother.  Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer!   In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

 

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Friend of the World? (2)

O PreacherPerhaps I made grace sound cheap with the final thought of my last blog:  “This,” I wrote, “is Gospel:   simply a humble confession from my heart that signals my desire to turn from sin is enough for God to pour in his always-greater grace.”  Just so there’s no misunderstanding, here’s a classic quote from German pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer to which I say a hearty AMEN! And which I hope clarifies I’m not for cheap grace.

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy  for which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.”

Hopefully with a clearer understanding of grace, we turn to James 4:7-10 where James delivers several strong imperatives . . .

So then, submit yourselves to God (4:7a, TEV).

”  . . . then” connects this imperative to what preceded:  But the grace that God gives is even greater. As the scripture says, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (4:6, ESV).  In other words, since God gives grace to the humble, “submit yourselves to God.”  The Greek verb is often used of submission to human authority.  James, then, is urging his readers to humbly submit themselves to the authority of God who opposes the proud but gives grace (“generous, active, effective help far beyond anything we deserve or have right to expect”–Adamson, The Epistle of James) to the humble.

God’s  grace is for the one who humbly submits to him.  Muslims (“those who surrender or submit”) may understand that better than Western Christians who re-made God into a cosmic-helper!  He is that, but only to those who bow and kneel.

 Resist the devil, and he will flee from you (4:7b, TEV).

This world is the devil’s realm (“the whole world lies in the power of the evil one”—1 John 5:19, ESV).  Pride is one of his primary projects.  We are“lured and enticed by our own desire” (James 1:14, ESV);  but the devil stands in the bleachers cheering us on.

How to resist?  Perhaps by a humble submissive prayer like this:   “God, I admit my pride-problem.  By your grace, I turn from it.  Please help me now live and speak with humility and lowliness.”  Before such prayer and presence, the devil will  run.

Come near to God and he will come near to you (4:8a, TEV).
“God goes out,” Jewish rabbis taught, “to those who approach him.”  So 4:8a was familiar language to these Jewish Christians.  But, we mustn’t attach any merit.  God doesn’t “come near” to reward our coming near to him.  He comes near by grace as we humbly submit ourselves to him and put away our pride.

Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded (4:8b, TEV).

James calls these Jewish Christians “sinners” because they’re “double-minded.”  While drawing near to God they’re living like “friends of the world.”    “Wash your hands” and “purify your hearts” calls for repentance and moral purity in act and attitude.

Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom (4:9, TEV).

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians offers the best commentary on James , , ,

Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it– I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while–yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us.  Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.   See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern . . . (2 Corinthians 7:8-11v, ESV).

(Confession:  my sin-concession to God often becomes emotionless, as if I’m admitting a spelling error.  “O God, surely there are sins my heart should break over!  Break me then.  Guard me from receiving your grace cheaply.”)

Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up (4:10, TEV).

James returns to his theme that threads through this segment.  Put aside “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition” (3:14, ESV).  Stop fighting and quarreling and coveting and praying to gratify your own passions.  Cut off friendship with the world (4:1-4).  “Lower yourselves before the Lord” like a proud mountain peak bowing at the command of His Majesty.

The imperative comes with a promise:  ” . . . and he will exalt you.” 

Once, invited to a feast, Jesus noticed how many guests chose seats of honor.  He told them a pointed parable . . .

“When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not sit down in the best place. It could happen that someone more important than you has been invited, and your host, who invited both of you, would have to come and say to you, “Let him have this place.’ Then you would be embarrassed and have to sit in the lowest place. Instead, when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that your host will come to you and say, “Come on up, my friend, to a better place.’ This will bring you honor in the presence of all the other guests. For those who make themselves great will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be made great” (Luke 14:8-11, TEV).
* * *
“Lord, enable me to abort arrogant words that create division and humble myself before you, so I might receive generous, active, effective help far beyond anything I deserve or have right to expect before you.  And please rivet these, your words, into my mind . . .”

God opposes the proud,
but gives grace to the humble.
(James 4:6, ESV)

Humble yourselves, then, under God’s mighty hand,
so that he will lift you up in his own good time.
(1 Peter 5:6, TEV)

 Image result for photo of people humbling themselves

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Wisdom That Grows a Righteous Church

O PreacherAh, the hilarious wisdom of old age . . .

The dispersed-among-the-nations Jewish Christians to whom James writes are neither aged nor wise (while professing to be—wise, that is).  Instead, they’re foolishly tongue-lashing each other (James 3:1-12), harboring jealously and selfish ambition in their hearts (James 3:14) and arrogantly fighting with one another (James 4:1-12).

Before we dig into James’ rebuke, note three key words, two of which don’t usually make our top-three-church-virtues today.  First, peace.  This we want.  A church at peace.  Without internal conflict.  No fighting.  Everyone loving everyone else.

Second, wisdom.  We want a growing church, a friendly church, a great-music church, a well-programmed church.  But who longs for a wise church?

Third, righteousness.  When’s the last time somebody congratulated your church for being righteous or the last time you read a magazine highlighting a righteous church?

It appears from James, God wants his church to be at peace, wise and righteous.

James starts this section (which really continues his thoughts from 3:1-12) with a question to grab attention . . .

Who is wise and understanding among you?  By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom (James 3:13).

Yes, who?  Not the members who speak and act as if they know more than everybody else.  Not simply members with a good sense of judgment.  But members who make right moral choices before God.  Specifically, in this case, members who do beneficial praiseworthy acts from a spirit of humility and gentleness.

Our churches are not always sanctuaries of peace, schools of wisdom and overflowing fields of righteousness.   True, the church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.  But sick sinners should be getting better!  And that improvement should be progressively obvious.  Apparently, in the churches to whom James is writing, the opposite was obvious . . .

But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. (James 3:14,15). 

” . . . selfish ambition” reminds me of politicians.  They solicit support more for their own political profit than the nation’s good.  A lost seat to a competitor would color them envy-green.  James rebukes church members like that.  In fact, he reserves some of his harshest language for them.  Paraphrase:  “You brag about how wise you are as a Christian, when your “wisdom” doesn’t come from above but from here on earth.  It’s just natural, human, totally absent God’s Spirit.  It is, in fact, demonic.  (Can you imagine a pastor preaching this rebuke today?  Church-shopping time!)

For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. (James 3:16).

On what does James base such a harsh diagnosis?  The churches’ disorderliness and confusion.  Their moral corruptness.  Their evil practices.  I can’t imagine describing a church like this.  Such “fruit”  can mean only one thing:  members are envious and selfishly ambitious.  And their so-called “wisdom” is “earthly, unspiritual and demonic.”  What a contrast “the wisdom that comes from heaven”!

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.  Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness (James 3:17,18).

” . . . wisdom from above” is . . .

  • pure.  It produces people of moral and spiritual integrity.
  • peaceable.  It produces people who are conciliatory peace-makers.
  • considerate.  It produces people who are fair and generous.
  • submissive.  It produces people who put themselves under others in importance for Jesus’ sake.
  • full of mercy and good fruit.  It produces people who show compassion and forgiveness toward those they have power to harm,
  • impartial  and sincere.  It produces people without prejudice or hypocrisy.

This is a peaceful church, a wise church, a righteous church reflecting the character of Christ himself.  But it doesn’t just happen.  It takes members, like farmers, “planting” these virtues in peace.  Nor is such a church born in a day.  It takes time for “fruit” to grow.  But it will; the Holy Spirit will work through “planting” members and eventually “a harvest of righteousness” will be the yield.

Wisdom is the necessary ingredient.  How shall we gain it?  James has already answered . . .

If any of you lacks wisdom,
let him ask God who gives generously to all without reproach,
and it will be given him.
(James 1:1:5)

Here’s a prayer we might pray . . .

O LORD, I turn my ear to wisdom that comes from your words and commands.
I apply my heart to understanding.  I call out for insight.
I cry aloud for understanding.  I look for it as for silver.
I search for it as for hidden treasure.
I am trusting that then I will understand the fear of the LORD
and find the knowledge of God.
I rest on the promise that you give wisdom
and from your mouth come knowledge and understanding.
This I pray in the name of your Son,
who is my wisdom and righteousness.  Amen.
(from Proverbs 2:1-6).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Friend of the World? (Part 1)

O PreacherI’ve always held to the “you-can-catch-more-flies-with-honey-than-with-vinegar” philosophy.  When I spoke with church members needing correction, I usually did it with gentle, kind  words.  James, on the other hand, went heavy on the vinegar.  But he ends this scorching segment with unexpected, sweet grace.

New Testament letters are occasional documents—most topics occasioned by issues in the recipient church.  Because so much verbal violence is raging in the churches of these dispersed Jewish Christians, James can’t band-aide their conflict; he has to shovel to the cause and root it out.  Hence he starts with questions . . .

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? (4:1, NIV).

The root cause of their rage is no mere difference of opinion.  They’ve each got a desires-war within.  The Greek word translated “desires” is haydomay)— “lusts”, used of natural, uncontrolled appetites.  Their fallen nature’s desire for self-gratification wars against their new-birth desire for righteous living.  Hence they are fiercely frustrated . . .

You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures (4:2,3, NIV).

Hard to imagine they were actually murdering one another.  Either James is using “kill” in the sense Jesus did for “anger” (“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment”—Matthew 5:21,22),  or he means (as the TEV translates) “ready to kill.”  Either way, they’re coveting what belongs to a brother and, unable to get it, frustration erupts in verbal war.

Can church members really behave like this?  After a lifetime of pastoring—yes.  My situation was never this  bad.  But even  when hostility between groups of members simmered beneath the surface, it was  dreadful.

James prescribes prayer . . .

“You do not have because you do not ask God for it.”

We shouldn’t miss the import of James’ diagnosis.  Jesus promised:

As bad as you are,
you know how to give good things to your children.
How much more, then, will your Father in heaven
give good things to those who ask him!”
(Matthew 7:11, TEV).
 

And the psalmist taught:  

“Seek your happiness in the Lord,
and he will give you your heart’s desire”
(Psalm 37:4). 

We’re to see our Father as our source of satisfaction and ask him for our heart’s desire.  Then rest in his answer, whatever it is, as good.  The alternative (to try to grab for ourselves, especially at others’ expense) leads only to fights and frustration.

When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures (4:3b, NIV). 

Motives matter.  Why didn’t they receive when they did ask God?  Because their passion in prayer was only their own desires.  “Pleasures” translates the Greek haydonays–used of indulgence or lack of control of natural appetites.   “Lusts” or “lustful pleasures” would be a good translation.

Jesus used”spend” (Greek, dapanaysata) of the prodigal son who “squandered his property in wasteful living” and spent everything” (Luke 15:13,14).  So we might translate:   “that you may waste all you get on your pleasures.”

You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.  Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely? (4:4,5, NIV)

“You adulterous people”.  No address could shock these Jewish Christians more.  Their prophets used it often of Israel’s  shameful unfaithfulness to God . . .

Oh, that I had in the desert a lodging place for travelers,
so that I might leave my people and go away from them;
for they are all adulterers, a crowd of unfaithful people.
(Jeremiah 9:2)

Then in the nations where they have been carried captive,
those who escape will remember me–
how I have been grieved by their adulterous hearts,
which have turned away from me,
and by their eyes, which have lusted after their idols.
They will loathe themselves for the evil they have done
and for all their detestable practices.
(Ezekiel 6:9)

What does James  mean by “the world” that friendship with it is “hatred (hostility, animosity) toward God”?  The “world” (Greek kosmos) is all of humanity alienated from God and hostile to Christ.  To be on friendly terms, then, with humanity that opposes God in Christ, is to identify yourself as one with God’s enemy.

The church in which  I grew up often identified “worldliness” with outward things—girls wearing short skirts, movie-going, dancing, etc.  Rarely was coveting “stuff” for yourself mentioned.  But the “unmentionables” are usually more insidious.

Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely?

A notoriously-difficult question to translate from the Greek.  Is “spirit” the Holy Spirit who is jealous for us?  Or is it our spirit that envies what others have.  I lean toward the latter, but will just leave it there to move on to unexpected, sweet grace.

I’m surprised at James. For five verses James has excoriated us.  Had I been one of those church members I’d feel mentally skinned alive.  He’s called us adulterers, God-haters, selfish and greedy pray-ers, friends of this fallen world.  I’m no better than the pervert who runs to a prostitute.  No more righteous than the evangelist who begs poor widows to give another offering so he can buy a new jet.  Instead of loving my brother, I’m angry enough to kill him.

But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (4:6).  

This “But” is a stream of cold water in a desert.  ” . . . he gives more grace.”  God’s grace (his “generous, active, effective help far beyond anything we deserve or have right to expect”–Adamson, The Epistle of James) is greater than sin in me.  By it God saves me from my adultery, my God-enmity, my selfish and greedy praying, my cozying-up to this fallen world.

Not, however, if I proudly refuse to lower myself and admit my sin.  Then God will surely set himself against me.

But if I humble myself and confess my sins, God will give grace greater than my adultery, greater than my God-enmity, greater than my selfish and greedy praying, greater than my corrupting friendship with this world.  This is Gospel:   simply a humble confession from my heart that signals my desire to turn from sin is enough for God to pour in his always-greater grace.

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Tongue-Taming

O PreacherI was 18 when Lois and I married—and immature.  My tongue spewed it in arguments.  Not curses.  Insensitive,  harsh, and callous words, impossible to take back.  Heart surgery may be more urgent, but James claims tongue-taming may be more critical . . .

Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.  We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check (James 3:1,2).

Hear ye, every prospective Bible college and seminary student, every Bible study leader and Sunday school teacher, every Christian parent!  Caution!  Tremble!  Because “the tongue . . . is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (3:8).  Because “ . . . we who teach will be judged more strictly” (3:1).  And because only a perfect person never sins with his words (3:2).  If that person could, he’d be able to keep his whole body from sin.  Such is the tongue’s deadly threat.

James issues this warning to Jewish Christians dispersed among the nations, probably trying to protect them from false teachings from without and unqualified teachers from within.  They’re suffering trials (1:2) and mustn’t fall prey like dumb sheep to hungry wolves.  Nor must they wound one another with their false or foolish words.  Neither must we.

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell (James 3:3-6).

James sounds tongue-obsessed.   Such a small organ!  But think of the bridle’s bit.  Not big.  Put In a thousand-pound horse’s mouth, it “can turn the whole animal.”  Only strong winds can drive a sailing ship through the sea.  Yet it needs only “a very small rudder” to direct it.  So our little tongue proudly wags sparking far-reaching devastation—for hearers and speaker alike.   An evil word (from heresy to jealousy) “corrupts the whole person” and “sets the whole course of his life on fire”, because his words’ source lies in hell itself.

“Whoa, James.  Little over the top, no?”  Well, think of a politician suspected of sexual immorality.  Guilty, but  he defends himself with a lie.  New questions arise; a second concocted.  More suspicions arise.  He lies a new one.  No conclusive evidence, but after months of lies, his career is in the can.  James might say,  “That’s the power of the tiny tongue!”  We Christians have even more at stake—the integrity of our Lord and his Gospel.  And, we’ll have to give account for every word.  “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken “(Matthew 12:36, Jesus).

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness.  Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.  Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water (James 3:7-12).

No man can tame the tongue?  Really?  It can’t be subdued or domesticated like wild animals on the new earth (Isaiah 11:6,9)?  Is is really an unstable, uncontrollable evil full of death”? 

At a particular elders meeting one elder voiced a decision that ticked me off.  Angry words exploded from my mouth. Instead of calming the situation, I had inflamed it.  Or, to continue James’ metaphor, instead of speaking healing life into a serious situation, I spoke poisonous death.  Later, I had to humbly ask forgiveness.  James’ tongue-description is sadly accurate.

The tongue I used that evening to angrily criticize my made-in-God’s-image brother in Christ was the same tongue I’d used a few days earlier to praise God in corporate worship.  O Father!  “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.”  It’s not right!  It mustn’t happen!  It violates God’s creation (and new creation) order.  The same spring can’t produce both fresh and salt water.  A fig tree can’t bear olives.  A grapevine can’t bear figs.  It’s abnormal, deviant, perverse.  Sometimes, according to James, I am.

*****

Because as pastor I taught God’s word for 44 years, I will be judged more strictly (James 3:1).  So will you if you’ve preached or taught Bible studies, Sunday school, or your own children.  It’s a terrifying thought, tempered only by the good news that God’s mercy will triumph over his judgment, if we have shown mercy to others (James 3:12,13).

The culprit in this scenario is our tongue.  In 3:8 James warns that it’s “evil and uncontrollable, full of deadly poison”, unable to be tamed by us.  Which is why, it appears, he leaves us in 3:1-12 with no hope of bridling it.  Yet in 1:26, he suggest it is possible to control that wagging hunk of flesh:  “If anyone does not control his tongue, his religion is worthless and he deceives himself.”  Not tame the wild-tongue-horse, but bridle
it so you control the animal.

So it’s all on us, then?  Thankfully, not at all.  James offers divine help when he writes of “the wisdom from above” (3;17).  Here, then, is what I infer we can do.  Pray for wisdom from above concerning what we say with our tongue.  God has promised to give it (James 1:5).  This is God’s part in tongue-bridling.

Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry (James 1:19).  This is our part.  As Ben Franklin says in Poor Richard’s Almanac, “it is better to be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”

Cute—at this age!

 

funny tongue photo: tongue tied tonguetied.jpg

But real soon—need the knot!

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Fatal Faith

O PreacherI woke up in a strange land.  A dangerous, decaying city where dark eyes stared threats wherever I turned.  I knew no one.  Nor the language.  Nor where to go.  On a narrow street a dark giant approached.  I cowered.  But, in my own tongue, he offered to get me home.  “You can trust me.  Just do what I tell you.”  This is the nature of James’ faith.  Faith that follows the one trusted.  Faith that transcends words and evidenced in action.

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no works? Can such faith save him? (James 2:14).

Well,  can’t it save him, Paul?  ” . . . a person is not justified by works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16).    Confronted with a classic contradiction.  James asks rhetorically  No good comes from faith without works.  No more than . . .

If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:15,16).

Another rhetorical.  Words won’t warm chilled bones or fill empty stomachs.

So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (James 2:17).

“Dead” faith.  Opposite of “alive.”  Opposite of “useful, effective.”  Faith that can’t save, not the naked nor the hungry nor the sinner.  Useless because it’s lifeless.

Proper to pause here.  Typically, we read this passage in theological terms only.  We feel pressed to answer: How shall we solve the doctrinal conundrum between Paul and James?  Not an unworthy question, to be sure.  James, though, is writing as a concerned pastor.  He’s anxious that his dispersed Jewish Christians may not be acting consistently with their profession of faith in Christ.

This is where James speaks to us.  Faith-professions have become “easy-believism.”   Occasionally observing unseemly behavior, a friend remarks,  “And she’s a Christian?”  To borrow a term from German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, faith that doesn’t show itself in action is cheap, just as grace that doesn’t “work.”

“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate” (Bonhoeffer).

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.  You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that– and shudder (James 2:18,19).

“Someone” seems to have gotten his challenge backward.  I’d expect him to say, “You have deed; I have faith.”  Confusing.  But Jame’s argument is clear enough—and hits with a harsh, blunt blow.  Intellectual faith (faith that believes that there is one God but lacks deeds) remains invisible  and is, in fact, demon-like.  ‘Nuff said.

You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?  Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?  You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.  And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend.  You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.  In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? (James 2:20-25).

James (rather un-pastor-like) calls this “someone” man “foolish” (Greek, kenosliterally “empty-headed.”)  Which reminds me of the old line:  “Be careful you’re not so open-minded that your brains fall out!”  In this case, it’s empty-headed to make faith whatever you want it to be.

To underscore his argument, James offers two key examples of faith from the Jewish Scriptures.

Abraham, the patriarch.  He was “considered righteous for what he did.”  Provocative, James.  A bit edgy given Genesis 15:6—“And [Abraham] believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”  God counted Abraham’s belief in the promise as righteous.  But James considers Abraham’s action that followed his faith. . . his faith was working together with his works.”  Not faith or works.  Not faith plus works.  Faith expressed by works.  Faith working together with his works (the zenith being obediently offering his only son Isaac on an altar).

A more mundane illustration I’ve used a thousand times.  “I believe  this chair will hold me.  It’s only living, useful faith when I sit down.”  (I sit.  Thankfully, chair held.)  Faith then is “made complete” (Greek, teleioo—brought to consummation, perfected) by what we do.  Faith without commensurate action is not firing on all cylinders.  John Calvin:  “Faith alone justifies, but the faith which justifies is not alone.”

Rahab, the prostitute.  Far less esteemed a person than Abraham, but the same family of faith.  Rahab believed the spies—and acted accordingly. 

Now a bit gross, a corpse example . . .

As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead (James 2:26).

No spirit in the body, the body’s dead.  No deeds in the faith-profession, faith’s dead.

* * * * *

What prompted James to launch into “faith without works is dead”?  One can only theorize.  But context brings us back to his rebuke against the sin of partiality (2:1-13).   He means for his Jewish-Christian readers to fulfill “the royal law” and ” . . . love your neighbor as yourself” (2:8),   Such love, irrespective of persons, is sorely needed among these dispersed-among-the-nations Christians.  They must not only profess faith in King Jesus, they must not only maintain ceremonial aspects of the faith, they must work their faith in neighbor-love.  It won’t merit them anything.  But it will prove in which master they truly believe.

It’s a strange land where we live.  Getting stranger by the day.  Someone has offered to take us home.  We must trust him.  And, trusting, do what he says.

 

 

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Discrimination-Free Zone

O PreacherBack in the mid-1970’s we planted a church in a prosperous northern New Jersey community.  Businessmen and women daily commuted to New York City and back.  And I fantasized:  “Maybe some honcho high on a corporation hierarchy will join our little church!  Think of the prestige!  The tithes!”  Well, we gathered in wonderful people, but no Exxon-Mobil executive.  Fine with James . . .

My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism (James 2:1).

James cares about his readers (“My brothers”)—Jewish Christians dispersed among the nations because of faith in the Lord Jesus Messiah, cut off from their homeland, struggling to survive.  And, therefore, most susceptible to fawn over the rich and ignore the poor.  “Don’t!”  Glory is not in possessions but the Lord.

Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in.  If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:2-4).

“Suppose” doesn’t imply make-believe.  James’ anecdote is true.  And why should it not be?   Can’t we find the same partiality in ourselves?  Had my Exxon-Mobil executive shown up, I would have tripped over myself making him welcome and comfortable, barely noticing the bad-smelling homeless man who came by bike.

The probing question:  ” . . . have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” 

Discriminated” implies evaluating the difference between things.  In this case, on the basis of outward appearance.  It leads to judging the finely-dressed to be worth more and the shabbily-dressed less.  Pastor Kim Riddlebarger’s comment reminds us how abhorrent their attitude:  “This is especially heinous at a time when such people (the poor Jewish Christians) are suffering, not because they somehow angered God who is now punishing them, but because they have come to believe that Jesus is the Lord of glory and now they are being persecuted because of their profession of faith in Christ” (http://kimriddlebarger.squarespace.com/sermons-on-the-book-of-james-p/).

Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?  But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?  Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?  (James 2:5-7).

In 1978 Donald Kraybill authored, The Upside-Down Kingdom.  So God’s reign is.  The world celebrates the wealthy.  When’s the last time a magazine published “The 100 Poorest People in the World”?  But God has chosen “those who are poor in the eyes of the world” to be rich in more than money–“faith.”  (A treasure given by grace and worth more than the Powerball Lottery prize.)   Ah, that poor beggar, rich?  Yes, now rich in faith with his name written as heir to “the kingdom [God] has promised those who love him.”

But, see what you’ve done, James urges.  By pushing aside the poor, you’ve opposed God.  You’ve actively treated the poor with contempt.  At the same time you’ve honored those who exploit you and drag you into court and slander the name of Christ your Lord.

(By the way, James doesn’t hint that the rich are all evil and the poor all holy.  He writes in general terms, which history shows accurate.  More often than not the wealthy enjoy their “heaven on earth”, while the poor stand more open to the Gospel.)

It occurs to me this rich man/poor man discrimination probably isn’t a Top Ten Problem in Today’s Church.  (Or maybe my church world is too small.)  Bigger than rich-poor discrimination is straight-gay discrimination.  As I see it, if we suspect a church visitor is gay, sirens flash.  We feel a sudden pressure to run to the rest room.  We “discriminate”  (evaluate their difference)— and decide that difference is a gulf too dangerous or unpleasant to span.  We certainly don’t treat them like an  Exxon-Mobil executive.  I know this isn’t a simple issue.  More needs addressing that I can say here.  Sure, God calls homosexual practice sinful.  He does the same with adultery.   But, since God loves the world, shouldn’t we?  Since we belong to the king who loved prostitutes, shouldn’t we obey our king’s royal law and love the gay?

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right.  But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.  For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.  For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker (James 2:8-11).

The “royal law” is “the law belonging to the king.”  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  No need for James to identify “your neighbor.”  It’s both rich man and poor, straight and gay.  In God’s eyes, neither holds an advantage.   Break this “royal law” of the King and you incur guilt.

Therefore, James prods the people  . . .

Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!  (2:12,13).

” . . . the law that gives freedom” is God’s Old Testament Law as fulfilled in Christ, marked by mercy and summarized in “love your neighbor as yourself”.   That’s the law, says James, by which you will be judged.  But remember this and tremble:  ” . . . judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.”  But rejoice:  for the merciful man, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

The lesson is written in red:  Don’t evaluate people by the world’s standards.  Mercifully love, especially the one you presume doesn’t deserve it.

* * * * *

“O God with whom there is no partiality, may I mark off a ‘discrimination-free zone’ wherever I am.  Help me remember I’d be rejected except for your mercy in Christ.  May I show mercy to those I’m apt to condemn.  And, thereby, may they come to know your mercy.  If I’m to err, may it be, not on the  judgment-side, but the mercy-side.   Empower me to live by the love-law of my King.  In his name I pray.  Amen.                                            


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Do What God’s Word Says

O PreacherI listen to God’s word like a couch potato.  (Do potatoes listen?)   Well, I don’t always listen that way.  But too often I listen without a mind to do it.  Which is what James warns against . . .

 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says [For] Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like (James 1:22-24). 

Hard words.  Especially given the occasion.  James’ Jewish Christian readers have been dispersed among the nations.  Some driven from their homes by persecutors.  Some living in foreign lands.  Many, I think, simply seeking  solitude in their homes repeating life-saving Gospel to themselves.  But, James warns,  hearing alone is self-deceptive.  “Do what it says.”  (The Greek verb tense implies “Keep giving yourself to do what it says.”)  An ongoing way of life, not merely an occasional obedience.

If we listen without doing the word our pastor preaches, we deceive ourselves.  Why is listening-without-doing self-deceptive?  James explains it’s like a quick look in the mirror, then forgetting what you look like.  I’m always far more handsome in my mind than in my mirror.   In the same way, James explains, if we don’t do the word we hear, we presume we’ve got it.

For example:  “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of many kinds . . . ” (1:2).  If I hear my pastor preach it, but don’t “chew” it over in my mind and start practicing it, I’ll forget it.  The word won’t affect my attitude or action.  And, instead of revealing Jesus-in-me, I’ll show others my sin-nature.

But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it– he will be blessed in what he does (James 1:25).

Contrasted with the mere hearer is “the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this . . . ”  No cursory look, an intent one.  The Greek is parakupto.  Luke uses it of Peter, who “rose and ran to [Jesus’] tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths . . . ” (Luke 24:12).  An investigative study longing to see his Lord.   Nor does the intent-looker forget because he starts to put into practice the word heard.

Now:  what is this “perfect law that gives freedom” (literally, “the perfect law of liberty”)?   It’s the Law of Moses—the only law these Jewish Christians know.  The mention of “law” demands comment, since we’ve learned from Galatians  that “by works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16). 

Comment #1:  God’s moral law (not ceremonial or dietary) remains in place.  Murder and adultery are transgressions.  No other gods before God remains the rule.

Comment #2:   Jesus fulfilled God’s Law.  (“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” (Matthew 5:27).  Therefore, he is the believer’s righteousness before God—one reason James calls this “the law of liberty.”

Comment #3:  The righteous requirement of the law is being fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:4).  The Spirit enables us to progressively “walk” (like little children)  in God’s good, perfect and righteous law—a second reason why God’s law now gives freedom.

Comment #4  The one who does God’s law is promised heavenly happiness.  ” . . . he will be blessed in what he does.”

James sums up this section of his letter by driving home applications about what he’s urged . . .

If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world (1:26,27).

To James (and thus to our Lord) words are consequential.  Therefore, our tongue (!) plays a far-reaching role, even (especially) in our culture where words are “cheap” because indiscriminately, often thoughtlessly, spouted.  Tight-reign the tongue!

Suppose, dear Jewish Christian reader, you are scrupulous about keeping the Sabbath holy and avoiding meat sacrificed to idols, but your unreigned tongue curses your neighbor?  All your scrupulous devotion to your religion is worth nothing!

Furthermore, dear Jewish Christian,  pure and undefiled religion in God’s eyes is what you may not consider “religion” at all:  caring for orphans and widows in their troubles and keeping yourself unstained from this fallen world.  In your dispersion and persecution many opportunities will arise for you to offer this care.  So will the danger of your becoming friends with this world (see James 4:4) and, thus, morally polluted by its corrupted ways.

* * * *

Far-removed from us is all this, no?  No!  How prone we are to hear God’s word with no mind to do it!  How ignorant of God’s word we are, not because we don’t hear sermons and read Bibles, but because our default position is to gather biblical information instead of pursuing biblical obedience.  The heavenly happiness that comes from doing what God says is too often absent from our lives, while we pursue happiness in wealth and possessions.  And, finally, perhaps we should fear near-perfect Sunday worship performances in favor of caring for the needy while staying free from the world’s moral pollution.

Help us, O God, to be better doers of your word
and not hearers only.

           

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