Wednesday, April 29, 2015

James 2:10-13

As we move through James, we have seen clear teaching as to the nature of hard times that arise in the Christian life. James began with the truth that suffering will come, and that in the face of adversity we should not forget that God is in control and that He has not brought trying times for our destruction, but for our good. James continued by explaining that we must understand that not all painful times are brought about as a result of our Providential God seeking to sanctify us. Some come as a result of consequences of the sinful tendencies in us. In exposing this self-injuring tendency, James further explained that one of the most common sin problems that we are tempted to fall prey to is the sin of respecting one individual over another. Instead of loving others as Christ would command, we turn to rude vitriol or to crassness veiled in comedy.
Many people end up in this deadly trap of sinfulness. Imagining that they are obeying the commands of God, they instead neglect a key command – Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. This buffet-style, pick-and-choose obedience is not what God has called us to. James illustrates our failure to obey God as simply as possible. While someone perhaps has not committed adultery, if they commit murder, we do not regard them as a follower of the law but as a transgressor. No amount of law-obeying makes up for law-breaking. There is no scale of justice where good works are weighed against evil. Rather, all evil works are immeasurably heavy on the scales of God’s justice, and must be punished. Calling ourselves right and holy while at the same time not loving our neighbor well is completely inconsistent.
James explains that in our tendency to show favoritism for one person over another, we have become judges of them. Announcing love and kindness on the one and hatred and disgust on the other, we move from a position of equality under the need for God’s grace in our lives to a place of judgment over their lives. Instead of extending mercy and grace, we make ourselves the judge of their motives and their words and their actions. We fail to realize that they are human beings in need of the grace of God too, and instead categorize them as something less than us. This dark, pride-laced, others-degrading judgment is not just or right. Just as we have received the grace and mercy of a holy God, we should be willing to extend grace and mercy to those around us.
Again, extending mercy and grace does not mean that we see sinfulness and call it right. Rather, in love and kindness we can address that sinfulness as sinfulness. But others’ sinfulness should not incite a hatred and vitriol against them. Seeing their sinfulness should awaken our hearts to their needs. They are in need of transformation, not our judgment and condemnation. There is a judgment and condemnation coming for them if they fail to repent of their sin, but it is not our duty to meet out that judgment. Rather, in love we should engage and embrace and draw them to repentance that they might receive the grace of God. We should be stirred to care for them, not neglect them.

Food For Thought: What should motivate us to engage with grace and mercy those who are different from us instead of judging and condemning them?

Thursday, April 23, 2015

James 2:8-9

God made mankind in His own image, and as image bearers, every individual should be treated with equal dignity. This thinking demonstrates itself naturally when in Scripture the example is given of someone taking the life of another person. In lacking respect for another, God demands that the offender be put to death. What is demanded is a life for a life. Furthering the command for respect, God established His law, displaying his desires for all of mankind and our interaction with one another. After establishing the prime law, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God,” God opened the broad gate of human respect and dignity when He commanded, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Attached to the dignity of each person is the God ordained command that every human being love every other person. Just as a life required a life, God’s love requires our love.
In modern American culture, we find terms like “Islamaphobia,” and “Homophobia,” and “racist,” and “sexist,” all of which indicate that at some level, there may not be a full obedience to the God-given command to love all others. The religion of Mohammed, Islam, is a dreadfully distorted one. The categorical misuse of women and the pragmatic perspectives of terroristic jihadists have led to a myriad of flagrant unloving atrocities in almost every country in South Asia and North Africa. The command of God is not to love Islam, it is instead to love Islamists or Muslims. Either they are made in the image of God and should be afforded the same love that God demands for everyone or they aren’t made in the image of God and should be talked about and joked about and judged as subhuman. The unmerited grace of God was poured out on me, God’s undeserving enemy. This unwarranted grace is the God-made pattern for my interaction with Islamists. Anything less than loving them is disobedience.
Similarly, in a whirlwind, our culture has spent a large measure of effort creating a cultural safe haven for those attracted to people of the same sex. Scripture makes it explicitly clear that God distinctly and perfectly made the human race as “male and female.” And, when we come to the New Testament we find that the Old Testament condemnation on sexual activity between any two people outside of the marriage of a man and a woman is reaffirmed. This condemnation of sinfulness does not negate the humanity of those who live with same-sex attraction. Sadly, many people (even ones who call themselves “Christian”) have resorted to using inflammatory, rude, crass, hateful, and ultimately disobedient-to-God, non-loving language and actions towards those who live this way. Instead of heeding the command to love, they instead relish in jokes and digs towards those of this persuasion.
In James 2:8, James says, “If you fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, you do well.” Many walk away from that verse imagining that they are incredibly kind, loving, gracious and obedient, and turn very shortly thereafter into mockery, ridicule and hateful vitriol towards those who are culturally different than they are. For this, James continues in verse 9, “But if you have respect to persons, you commit sin, and are convinced [convicted] of the law as transgressors.” Playing favorites, in the church or out of the church, is always sinful. Loving some but not all is always disobedient to God. It is a fine, but a clearly distinct line that must be drawn and held by those who call themselves Christian – while we must not accept the choices of everyone as good and right, we must love everyone with the undeserved and unmerited love that we received from God.

Food For Thought: Who do you find you don’t love as you should? Sometimes we couch our lack of love in a punch line and argue that we didn’t really mean it. All words are tattle-tales of the heart.

Monday, April 20, 2015

James 2:1-7

In showing that all believers everywhere are susceptible to trials and hard times, James clearly demonstrated that there is an equality amongst those who are in Christ. When James writes to “brethren,” in chapter 1, he eliminates the barriers that our sinfully inadequate minds often draw distinguishing one person from another. With the simplicity of a human mind, we often use external distinguishers like skin color, clothing, family name, or social status to delineate between those we favor and those we do not. If we realize what James explains in chapter 1, there is no other distinction that should be drawn within the body of the church than that of Christian.
In James 2, James acknowledges that one of the worst abuses of this segregation was in regards to the treatment of those perceived as wealthy and those regarded as poor. In a first-century house church, the segregation was glaring. Those who walked in adorned with the height of Roman fashion were ushered to the choice chairs of prominence, while those who were less than socially elite were forced to retreat to the standing areas at the edge of the room, or worse, at the feet of the wealthy, well-seated individuals.
James wrote in his epistle that this type of partiality was in direct opposition to the design of God’s gospel. Jesus had died for the sins of all who would believe. He did not then set up a special hierarchy with those he loved more and others he loved less. He did not show respect to some and none to others. Rather, the free gift of His gracious forgiveness and peace is extended to all equally without regard to ethnic, social, or any other physical separation. The only distinction that exists in the eternal realm is believer and nonbeliever. To make other divisions falsely is to act as though there is something greater than what Christ came to accomplish. To place primacy on something other than the gospel is to disbelieve the importance of what God has placed as most important.
It is with this same disgust for senseless temporal division in the body of Christ that Paul wrote Colossians 3:11, “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.” The most distinguishing fact of a person is whether or not they redeemed by Jesus. If they are redeemed, then love them like a brother. If they are not, then love them like Jesus did and call them to join the family of faith. There is no place for mistreatment by way of action, word, or attitude. We may see differences, but in the gospel of Jesus there is only one difference, those who trust Him and those who don’t.

Food For Thought: Do you ever treat people differently because of the family they come from or the clothes they wear? Take time to repent of this narrow-sighted gospel approach to the body of Christ.

Friday, April 17, 2015

James 1:22-27

Have you ever spent a whole day out and about and later walk past your reflection in a mirror or in some glass only to notice that something about your appearance is totally off? There have been countless times where part way through the day this has happened to me. I remember one time I made it to work with a dryer sheet clinging to the back of my pants leg. Another time I had a few rogue hairs that had somehow evaded my hurried hair routine in the morning, only to see them spazzing out in the mirror when I went to wash my hands later in the day.
If you are human like me, perhaps you have a list of stories funnier or even more embarrassing than me, or you are a robot and this has never happened to you. Either way, as James continues his epistle he turns to an illustration much like this one to teach a truth about the Christian life and our tendency to be less than obedient to the Word of God.
James began his letter by telling us that we will grow and mature as Christians when we patiently endure suffering and hard times. He then moved on to explain that sometimes we experience trouble in our lives because of our own sinning, and if we are experiencing difficulty we need to make sure that it is not because we are sinning. After establishing these two truths about hard times, James continues his message by explaining that trouble also happens because believers are not fully obedient to God.
In James’s estimation the formula for obedience is basic: stop your constant slavery to your own sinful lusts and instead follow exactly what God says in His word. Being lured by our own sinful desires into making absolutely devastating decisions is a constant danger that we need to be on guard against, but without the equally important obedience to what God says we will only continually fall prey to our own destructive lusts. Using the illustration of a mirror, James says that there are times that we are confronted in God’s word with errors in our own lives. Like the reflection in a mirror revealing a horribly inconvenient truth, the Word of God is powerful and exposes all areas of pride, evil motive, laziness, sinfulness and wrongdoing. Just as you would naturally fix your physical problem after noticing it in a mirror, you should be willing to address maladies in your spiritual life as well.
James speaks of two types who fail to fix the problems that are clearly revealed by the mirror of God’s word. First there are those who deceive themselves into thinking nothing is wrong. They use the opinion of equally as messed up people to vindicate their poor decisions and disobedience dismissively rejecting any reproof ever offered to them. They are deceived into thinking their way is better than God’s. Secondly, James tells of another group that strives to do right, but fails to control their own tongue. Their bodies become obedient but their hearts never do, and all the while, their tongues tattle-tale on their hearts revealing the sinfulness that lies beneath the surface. Outwardly they may seem obedient, but the problems revealed by God’s word go much deeper than the outside. Finally, James warns believers that they should always be ready to act out in obedience to the word of God as the Spirit helps them understand its truth. After seeing the problem in the mirror of God’s word, we should not rationalize it away or pretend it doesn’t exist, rather, there is nothing left to do but fix it.

Food For Thought: What areas have you seen in the mirror of God’s word that need fixing?

Thursday, April 16, 2015

James 1:13-21

The hazy sunlight filtered down through the floating algae creating columns of highlighted water from the shadows above. In the chilled, lower layer of the lake lurked a large-mouthed, round-eyed, seven-finned master of his own destiny, a slave to none but his own desires. Daily, smaller fish would swim through the columns of filtered sunlight above casting a shadow of their own demise on the beady eyes beneath. In a dash and a gulp, a massive jaw would open engulfing the prey leaving nothing but swirling algae as a reminder of the little life recently lost. On this morning, as the roar of a thousand grasshoppers began to drill across the lake, there was a splash in the water above. As a little fish darted above carelessly, the beady eyes locked onto their target. With the carefree swimmer dancing through a column of sunlight, the monster from the depths leapt at the sparkling little body and gathered it into its mouth in one fluid gasp.
But as the mouth closed around the prey, something was different. From within the little fish a thin wire led out of the large fish’s mouth. As he gulped the little fish, something yanked on the wire and a sharp hook imbedded itself in the mouth of monster. Splashing and jumping, rolling and flipping, fighting with every ounce of strength his body could muster could not prevent the inevitable. By his own uncontrolled desires he had been snared and had now become prey himself. Desire had brought his death.
Many of us go through life seeking to live by principles and making all our moves by distinct direction and resolve, but unfortunately there are moments that we, like a mindless large-mouthed bass leap at the bait of our own desires. With the view of danger and destruction clouded by desire and the offer of pleasure, we blindly abandon principles and inhibitions and plummet headlong into our own demise. Our unbridled desire brings our own destruction.
As James continues to explain the need for wisdom in the life of a Christian, he takes us on a tangent truth that must be clarified. He started his book talking to believers about the inevitable persecution and challenges that they would face and described how they should endure patiently through their suffering by trusting in the goodness and wisdom of God. There is however a different set of troubles that we may experience at times and we should not simply confuse these with the sanctifying work of a gracious God. These other troubles, as it were, come from our own sinfulness. James tells us that before we go on enduring trials as if they were God sent, we should first check to see if we were brought into these hard times by our own unbridled desires that have cultivated a quickly metastasizing sin problem.
If like the duped fish, we have been baited into sinning, endurance is not what is needed, repentance is. We should turn from our sin immediately. James tells us that we should “lay apart all filthiness,” and in verse 16, he says, “do not err,” and that we should “receive with meekness the word” of God which is “able to save our souls.” Endure trials. But if those trials are self-inflicted by our desire and sinning, realize that repentance is what is needed. If we go on sinning, we will not survive. James warns that those who let sin run their lives find only death and destruction at the end of it. The pursuit of Godless pleasure brings Godforsaken pain.

Food For Thought: Why do people sin? What is the difference between how we should react to the trials brought by God and trouble brought by sin?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

James 1:4-12

Hard times come. Life is not painless. Those who breathe feel, and those who feel hurt. So what are we to do in tough times? How are we to respond when the waves of ache and hurt come crashing down on us incessantly? First, we are to turn our gaze away from the shadows that are looming over us, and instead see that shadows are only cast when a great light is shining. Confidence and hope can be ours in the midst of the darkest moments because we know that God has not left us nor neglected us.
We must realize that God has not forgotten us under the jackhammer of trouble, rather, he is the one who is operating the jackhammer for our good. It is with this realization that instead of running in desperation and frustration in the midst of trouble, we should instead “count it all joy” knowing that God is working in us. But what is God working in us? James uses the word “patience” to describe the work that is going on. In this context, patience is not a blind, numb toleration of trouble. Rather, true biblical, spiritual, faith-filled patience is a forbearing endurance with faith and hope. True patience is acknowledging the trouble, but also acknowledging that God is in control and He can be trusted through the trial. It is resting in His character and enduring the trial because we know that He is good, and He is wise.
After teaching that we must have patience and joy in hard times, James issues a bit of a warning. “Let patience have her perfect work.” We must not short-circuit the working of God in our lives. The call of faith and hope in patience is one that transcends all the scope of circumstances. It is not good enough for us to be patient in one area of life and not another. We cannot choose to be patient when dealing with friends but not with family, or with finances but not in traffic. Patience has its work in every area of our lives, and we must allow patience to work in us at all points. But why should we have patience? James answers with, “That ye may be perfect and entire.” Put another way, those who grow in patience grow in maturity. By patiently enduring, we are actually maturing. God is working sanctification in us.
James then gives a couple of examples to illustrate those who endure trials and hard times with patience and those who do not. When trials come, there are those who like the waves on the ocean oscillate with faith and doubt. Uncertain of who God is, they fluctuate from trusting Him to doubting him. In their estimation, God is good, but their definition of “good” does not include hard times. Therefore when hard times come, they doubt his goodness. Trials are unbearable, and they don’t understand the character of God through them. James’s remedy to those who struggle to understand the character and nature of a loving God while in trials is to ask God for wisdom.
If His ways truly are above our ways, then perhaps we will not see directly at the outset of our trials how this hard time could ever be a good thing. As tears cloud the sight of our eyes, sorrow tends to cloud the sight of our minds. But God offers understanding. “If any lacks wisdom, let him ask of God.” And when trials have come, and we endure the trials with patience trusting God, we will enjoy the truth that James ends with, “Blessed is the man that endures trials.” Counting it joy in the midst of trials will bring joy at the end of the trial. And the trial will conclude. Even the darkest, most dreadful storms come to an end.

Food For Thought: Why do you think that some people do not remain patient through trials in their lives?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

James 1:2-3

“How have things been going lately?” Have you ever asked one of your friends this question? Perhaps you have been asked this question by someone who genuinely cared. Probably the most common response is a simple, “Good,” which is typically just code for “I really don’t feel like having a conversation about the events of my day and the feelings I have toward them.” At times perhaps it is because things are not going well that people hide behind the “I’m good” cloak, so that they don’t have to admit that things are a bit tough.
When we come to the Epistle of James, we find that the response of “I’m good,” may be a bit off, but not in the way that we would naturally think. James explains that at times things can be a bit tough, and you will have a rough go of things, he uses the word “peirasmos” which means “testing, or temptation, or trial.” These trials will come in life. But the response that James advises believers to have towards these trials or hard times is that of joy. When things don’t go our way, or when times get tough, or when we find ourselves facing disappointment and frustration, we should instead turn to rejoicing.
But why should we be rejoicing during the trials of life? Why should we turn to joy and not sorrow in the face of hard times? There is only one reason: God. In Ephesians 1:11, Paul tells us that it is God that is working “all things after the counsel of his own will.” There is not one atom in all of the universe that is rogue to the design and the desire of an Omnibenevolent (all-good), Omnisapient (all-wise) God. Instead of seeing troubles as inhibiting to our lives, we should see them as enhancing our spiritual lives. With confidence we can be assured that God works all things together “for good to them that love God.” (Romans 8:28) This includes hard times. This includes the malicious designs of others. This is wholly comprised of every moment of every second of your life if you are a believer. God is constantly working through all things, seasons of spring and seasons of winter, to grow and mature you.
We see this attitude of rejoicing portrayed clearly in Joseph when after being sold as a slave by his brothers and betrayed by his own people, he instead turned in love and forgiveness to recognize in joy, “you thought evil against me, but God meant it unto good.” The word “meant” in this verse is “(ch)ashab” and it is literally the imagery of weaving together a beautiful tapestry. What Joseph was rejoicing about his trials for was that while they were tough, and being imprisoned and lied about by evil people was difficult, all the while God was weaving together something incredibly beautiful – the salvation of His people.
With that same thinking, James says, “count it all joy when you fall into trials.” God is seeking to work in you something great for your good. It may be tough, and it may not be naturally enjoyable, but allow the hope and realization that something far greater, far more important is happening in your life to encourage you. God is working to transform you. And then, when someone says, “How have things been going lately?”, instead of skirting the issue and giving the notorious, “Good.”, try out this one, “Things have been a bit tough, but I am excited to see how God is going to use it to transform me into the person He wants me to be.”

Food For Thought: How have things been going lately?

Monday, April 13, 2015

Introduction to James

“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Imagine if you had a famous sibling. For a moment picture what it must have been like to be the brother or sister of George Washington. When you introduced yourself to other people, would you follow up with, “and George Washington is my older brother.”? What if you were writing a book about George Washington, would you include the detail that you and he had shared a bunkbed together? Would you brag that you knew his favorite color was green? What would you do if you were the sibling of George Washington?
When we come to the book of James, we are looking at a copy of a letter written by a half-sibling of Jesus. While the gospels indicate that the siblings of Jesus failed to put their faith in him during His ministry, we find that following his resurrection, at least this one sibling, James, was finally converted to Christianity. Following his conversion, James quickly grew to prominence in the church, becoming one of the leaders of the church in Jerusalem.
As a leader in the early church, James was moved to write a letter to those who had recently come to faith in Christ explaining what was meant by the increasing persecution that they were feeling. As believers they were finding that there were very few allies to their new found faith. Those who had converted from Judaism found that their comrades in their former religion viewed them as enemies and were sending agents to hunt them down and imprison them. Furthermore, the empire that was supposed to be offering security had instead begun to torture and kill anyone who claimed the name of Christ. These were trying times for those who claimed the name of Christ, and James wanted to send a clear message of hope to encourage the believers that their faith was not in vain.
So why did James not spend a lot of time bragging about his physical relationship with Jesus? Perhaps because in these dire times the physical relationship with Jesus was not of primary concern to James. When James had put his faith in Jesus, he had joined something much more important than flesh and blood. His physical relationship may have garnered some respect amongst people who were concerned with those things, but his spiritual relationship to Jesus is what genuinely mattered before God. With that in mind, James, the brother of Jesus, begins his letter with a greeting that is equal parts humble in the earthly sense and justly proud in the spiritual sense. In humility he negates any physical relationship he had with Jesus as a brother, and in holy pride he acknowledges his joy-bringing heavenly relationship as a mere servant of Jesus.
In his epistle James begins with what matters most to him, his relationship to Jesus. Not as brother, but as servant. By doing this, James is indicating what should matter most to us. To James, it was that he was on right spiritual footing before God and Jesus, and for us it should be no different. Being the flesh and blood relative of Jesus sets no one apart from the rest. All have sinned. And all need to trust Jesus for their salvation.

Food For Thought: Does James begin his epistle by pointing to his relationship with Jesus? Explain your answer.