Posts Tagged 'New Testament'

Letters From An Old Man, Part One

The Word of God is an amazing organism.

For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)

There is no other book in the world that can do that in a human being—only the Word of God. You and I, whose lives have been consecrated to God, know the reality of Hebrews 4:12. But that same Word of God must be taken to a world in which there are many competing and opposing ways of life. Even among Christians, these opposing ways of life and thoughts shred the Gospel of its power and throw believers into confusion. Into such a world God places certain individuals to help believers identify these “worldly” ways of life and so distinguish them from God’s truth and God’s will. John was one of those unique people, chosen by God, to help Christians in their day-to-day walk with the Lord. And John will help you, also, in living your best life.

1. Who?

The letter we call 1 John is unlike other letters in the New Testament. In fact, to the casual reader 1 John reads more like an essay or even a sermon instead of a letter, and nowhere in the letter does the author identify himself! We suspect the author of this letter was so well-known to its recipients he felt no need to put his name to it; perhaps he had written to them before or even preached in their churches so frequently that his style and verbiage was uniquely his. In 2 and 3 John the author uses an enigmatic title “the elder,” which could refer to anybody. However, the Gospel of John is also anonymous, except at the very end where we read:

Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) (John 21:20)

“John” was the apostle much loved by his Lord and Savior, and his authorship of the Gospel that bears his name has been attested to by both church tradition and conservative scholarship, and there are glaring similarities between the Gospel of John and the letters of John. All four bodies of work are replete with parallel passages that could only have been written by the same man. The author of the three letters was John, the disciple whom Jesus loved.

2. When?

Barker, in his excellent commentary on 1 John, writes that setting a date for all of John’s letters is at the very least “problematic.” We know for sure that the Gospel of John was written sometime near 80 AD when it became evident that eyewitness accounts of who Jesus Christ was and what He did were necessary. Almost a generation had passed since the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, thanks to intense missionary activity, the Gospel had spread all over the known world like a wildfire, and these new converts needed to be taught the truth about their new faith and it’s Progenitor. At the same time, the apostles and Paul were aging, and dying and the truth had to be written down and preserved before it was lost as they passed. John in his gospel gives the exact reason for its composition:

But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:31)

During the next ten years, false teachings about Jesus and the Christian life spread faster than the truth, separating Christian from Christian and splitting the churches John loved so much. So 1 John was penned, probably near 90 AD in response to this crisis of faith:

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:13)

The false teachers had so confused John’s friends about the nature of their salvation that they actually wondered if they had eternal life or not!

Have you ever wondered about that? Are you really a Christian? How do you know? Are you conscious of fellowship with God the Father and Jesus the Son? Are you 100% sure you have been born again? Do you know how to live the life God wants you to live? These questions are as old as the letters before us, and these are the exact questions John answers.

3. The Word of Life, 1:1—4

This introductory paragraph is simply one of the most astonishing and profound paragraphs in the entire Bible. It is also one of the most complex and its meaning is far deeper than it appears.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.

It’s hard not to notice the similarity between this passage and the opening paragraph of Hebrews. Though similar, Hebrews was written with the flare of classical Greek while the passage before us was written Semitic Greek, a style of writing characterized by very short sentences and the over use of the conjunction “and.” John’s Gospel was written in the same style.

Four key clauses

  • “From the beginning” What’s interesting about how John begins his comments about Jesus Christ is the very first word: That. Obviously the subject of this paragraph is the Person of Christ, so why not begin with His Name? By starting with the very broad term, that, John makes it abundantly clear that Jesus Christ the Person cannot be separated from the Word of God, His message of hope and of Good News. John points to the coming of Jesus not just in the flesh, but as God’s divine revelation to lost humanity; Jesus reveals Who and What God is,
  • “Which we have heard” The “we” is editorial, as it refers to all the disciples, but also specifically to John. This beloved disciple had heard with his own ears the things Jesus taught. He saw all the things Jesus did. John knew that false teachers were slick talkers and could speak with convincing words and arguments, but not one had ever been with Jesus.
  • “Which we have seen with our eyes and touched with our hands” From the teachings he heard, the Word, John now turns his attention to the Person, also known as the Word. John stresses in the extreme the fact that he saw with his own eyes and touched with his own hands a real Person. Jesus Christ was not some ethereal, other-worldly creature! Here was a Man who was also God at the same time! He was not just an idea in John’s head. He was John’s friend.
  • “This we proclaim” This phrase in the Greek is the main subject and verb of the paragraph, and in the Greek it doesn’t appear until the third verse, but the translators of the NIV have moved it up to make what John wrote more easily understood by English readers. As we read it, this phrase is emphatic, as though John wrote it in a moment of ecstasy; realizing who this Jesus was and is, recalling what He did and said, who could do anything but proclaim Him?

One key thought

Verse two is a restatement of the crux of what John was trying to get across, however, it is parenthetical, and the stress is upon the life and the fact that this life could be known because it was manifested. Darby’s translation serves the original well on this verse:

(and the life has been manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and report to you the eternal life, which was with the Father, and has been manifested to us:)

Nobody by searching can find the life, it can be seen and can be known only because it was revealed. The power behind this verse is staggering in its implication, and reminds us of what Jesus said in John 6:65—

“This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.”

We are so wretched and lost in our sins, that God must draw us to Himself; we cannot muster the strength or intestinal fortitude to do it ourselves. It is a measure of the love that God has for us that He not only reveals Himself to us so we can find Him, but that He also pulls us to Himself.

How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! (1 John 3:1)

John was one whom God drew, and that’s why he writes that he has seen it, bears witness to it and proclaims it. Westcott has noted that three verbs—heorakamen, martyroumen, apangellomen—give the sequence of what happens when a person comes face-to-face with Jesus Christ and experiences Him personally: they see Him, they affirm Him, and they proclaim Him to others.

Key purpose

With the third verse, John spells out the purpose of his letter:

so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.

What is this “fellowship” John writes about? The Greek word is koinonia, and it occurs over 60 times in the New Testament. Like many Greek words, it can mean a variety of things: fellowship, communion, partnership, share a common life. The root idea is “common” or “shared” as opposed to “ones own” (Barker). Every time it is used in the New Testament, it refers to the sharing of the supernatural life Christ imparts to those who trust Him. The new life that comes from Christ is both personal and corporate. It is experienced individually when a person calls on Jesus for salvation, and it is shared corporately in the Church. A person cannot have fellowship in the body of Christ unless they possess this new life.

Notice what John writes:

We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us.

John does not indicate that this new life comes from joining the Church or doing certain things in a certain way or even believing a set number of rules. New life comes to a lost sinner when we who know Jesus proclaim what we have seen, believed, and heard. It is the Word of God that we share with others that takes His life within us and gives it to those who hear, if they accept it.

The key to joy

Finally we come verse four, which says this:

We write this to make our joy complete.

Unbroken fellowship with God and unbroken fellowship with members of the Body of Christ constitute the ground of the believer’s highest joy. We cannot underestimate the importance the Church plays in the working out of one’s faith. It is within the sphere of the Church that our faith is fed, nurtured, and sometimes tested. John tells his readers that he “longs” to see them so that his faith may be encouraged and his joy made complete.

Do we approach Christian fellowship as John did? Is our joy made complete on Sunday mornings? Or do we view fellowship with our brothers and sisters in the Lord as a burden? The apostle Paul expressed a similar sentiment to John’s in his letter to the believers in Rome:

I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong— that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. (Romans 1:11—12)

There is no better fellowship than fellowship with God and with His people.

(c)  2009 WitzEnd

Practically Speaking, Conclusion

Prayer, Faith, Responsibility:  James 5:13-20

The connection of this last section of James to the letter as a whole is not instantly clear.  Because of this, these verses are interpreted in different ways.  This is unfortunate because depending on how you view these verses, you will either find them very encouraging or a great disappointment.  Some scholars see them as a bunch of unrelated closing thoughts, others see them as a logical progression of thought.

My own thought is that this closing section on prayer is somewhat connected to the preceding passage, specifically verse 12:

Above all, my brothers, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your “Yes” be yes, and your “No,” no, or you will be condemned.

Prayer, not careless words, should be the believer’s response to suffering of any kind.

1.  The power of prayer and praise, verse 13

Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise.

The theme of verses 7-12 is proper Christian behavior in the midst of suffering.  The Greek word used in verse 10 and translated “suffering” is essentially the same word used in verse 13 and translated “trouble,” kakopathei.  You may have noticed that Christians have problems just like everybody else, but James tells us that Christians have a privilege and a duty that unbelievers do not.  In those time times of “trouble,” Christians may commune with God.   It is an ignorant believer who has not learned that:

[I]n all things God works for the good of those who love him.  (Romans 8:28)

If we can remember that, we won’t complain and grumble or make foolish promises when trouble comes.  Indeed, the Christian, who needs patience, will be find it in abundance if he prays.   As Burdick observed so succinctly:

Patience comes from God, and prayer is a good way to obtain it.

Human nature being what it is, James adds:

Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise.

Christians are very forgetful in good times.  We forget about God.  James gives us the proper perspective:  we are to be connected to God all the time, in good times and bad.  That is our privilege, and that is our duty.  He is a mighty resource in times of trouble and prayer is a way to tap into those divine resources.  He can give us, not only patience, but grace and the knowledge that we are not alone.  But not only that, when we behave properly and pray the moment problems come, others will see how what we are doing, whether we want them to or not.  And that will  bring glory to Him.

The same is true when we are praising Him.  God can make the good times in our lives even better and more meaningful and others, perhaps who are having problems, will be encouraged when they see and hear us praising the Lord.

2.  The power of faith, verses 14-16

These verses are terribly misunderstood, yet they are so simple when broken down to their basic components.

  • Is any one of you sick? Sickness is one form of “trouble,” and it’s one that all believers will face at some time.  This is why James is mentioning it here.  There are other forms of trouble not common to all believers.  Some of us will never lose all our possessions.  Some of us will never be involved in a car accident.  But all of us will eventually be sick.
  • Call the elders of the church.  The sick person, or someone at their request, must call the elders of the church.  The office of “elder,” presbyter, was one of the very first offices instituted in the church after it was founded.  An elder in the New Testament was one who represented the congregation (Acts 11:30; 21:18), and were men of impeccable character who exercised pastoral oversight of their congregation (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-4).  They were appointed by the pastor (a senior elder), not elected, in the New Testament (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5).
  • Pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.  This is part of the verse that people misunderstand.  Two points need to be considered first:
  1. First, the emphasis is not on the oil, but on prayer.  Anointing the person with oil is to be considered a secondary act.  We know this because “pray” is the verb of emphasis, while “anoint” is a participle.  Also, the very next verse deals with prayer in more depth but we never read of anointing the person with oil again.
  2. Second, the application of oil probably has more to do with medicinal reasons than ceremonial.  The word James uses for “anoint” is aleipsantes, and is not the customary word used in the New Testament for the sacramental or ritualistic anointing of a person (Burdick).  In various places in Scripture we see that the Jews viewed olive oil as having special medicinal properties (Luke 10:34; Mark 6:13).  In James’ time, olive oil was to his people like an aspirin is to us today.

Some have viewed anointing the sick with oil as a symbolic act when combined with prayer.  This may be the case, however, it should also be noted that throughout the  book of Acts the apostles healed many people without anointing them with oil (Acts 3:6; 5:15-16; 9:34; 14:8-10; 16:18; 28:8-9).  This suggests to me that the admonition of James is not to be taken as a pattern for all time to be followed when praying for the sick.  In our modern vernacular, we might say, “If you are sick, call for the elders of the church to come and pray for you, and take your medicine.”

  • The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well.  Again, this is one of those statements that, if taken the wrong way, leads to a world of disappointment.  James is not giving his readers a promise or a guarantee that the one who is prayed over will recover.  While the Bible does indeed teach the doctrine of divine healing, and while many of us believe that from time to time God does intervene in the affairs of man to perform miracles of healing and restoration, what James is saying here is simply this:  If the sick person recovers some time after being prayed over, it was the Lord who caused this to happen. All healing, whether instantaneous or gradual, whether with the use of medicine or without, is the result of God working in the human body.  No person can heal another person any more than a farmer can make the seed he planted in the ground grow.  All the farmer can do is create the conditions whereby the seed will likely grow.  This is what Christians are called to do:  both the sick person and the elders are to create the conditions whereby the Lord can, if it be His will, heal the person.
  • If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.  It was a common habit among the Jews to view all sickness as a result of sin.  Of course, we know this is not necessarily the case.  Although, in a general sense, all sickness is the result of living in a sinful and sin-cursed world.  The fact is, James seems to indicate that there are times when an illness may be the result of some sinful behavior.  The promise is clear; if this is the case, after the sin is confessed, healing will come.

Verse 16 is another verse often misunderstood.

Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.  This sentence should not be taken as a universal practice, but should be understood in its context:  the confession being made by the sick person of the previous verse and the prayer by the elders.

Having established the strict context, there is a broader application to be made.   Unconfessed sin hinders our prayer life and has the power to block God’s blessings.  Unconfessed sin is also an obstacle in our relationships within the body of Christ.   Common sense would indicate that in order to have a healthy relationship with both God and man, there should be nothing coming in between either of them.

While the text says “confess your sins to each other,” this should be exercised with discretion.  If we have sinned against an individual in the church, it is to him, then, we confess.  Curtis Vaughn writes:

Whereas the Roman Catholics have interpreted confession too narrowly, many of us may be tempted to interpret it too  broadly.  Confession of all our sins to all the brethren is not necessarily enjoined by James’ statement.  Confession is “the vomit of the soul” and can, if too generally and too indiscriminately made, do more harm than good.

  • The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.  Who is the righteous man?  Some see him as the sick one who has confessed his sin and been forgiven.  His prayer is now able to heard by God, unhindered.   Others see a broader meaning here; the “righteous man” is the one who is in a right relationship with God and member of the body of Christ.  There is another, more ominous reading of this sentence; ominous for those who do not know God.  The only prayer of the unrighteous heard by God is the prayer for salvation.  Therefore, be default, any prayer prayed by a child of God will be powerful and effective, not because of our righteousness or merit, but because of Christ.

Before moving on to the next verse, it would be wise to interject at this point the obvious.  All our prayers must be prayed with the understanding the God’s will must be respected.  Suppose the sick person does not recover.  Is it because of a lack of faith?  Is there unconfessed sin?  Perhaps, but not always.  Recall an incident in Paul’s life, who definitely had the gift of healing.  He seems to have been unable to heal his friend Epaphroditus from a long illness that almost killed him (Phil. 2:27).  There is also a statement in 2 Timothy 4:20 to be noted:

Erastus stayed in Corinth, and I left Trophimus sick in Miletus.

It’s hard to imagine Paul leaving anybody sick without praying for them first!

3.  An example, verses 17-18

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.

Again, human nature being what it is, tends to view people within the church who seem to be righteous and seem to have their prayers answered all the time as “spiritual giants” or as extraordinary people.  James gives us an example of an average man, Elijah, who had no super human powers, yet his prayers yielded amazing results.   The prophet’s prayers were answered, so says James simply because:  (1)  he prayed “earnestly” and (2) he was a righteous man.  James’ point:  all believers are capable of such a prayer life.

4.  Our responsibility, verses 19-20

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.

James begins his closing exhortation the same way be began his first:  Brothers.  Although last two verses seem to be independent of the rest of this chapter, they are, in fact, tied together.

The theme of sin and confession is continued; this could relate  back to the sick person who has asked for and received forgiveness;
The ministry of restoring one to the faith is carried out with the same fervent prayer he referred to earlier (Harper)

This section gives us a clue to what is on James’ heart.  Correcting a believer in danger–setting them right–is the responsibility of all believers.   The words “one” and “he” indicate that this loving ministry of “personal evangelism” is something all members of the body of Christ should be engaged it.

The final words of this letter are taken from Proverbs 10:12,

Hatred stirs up dissension,
but love covers over all wrongs.

These words are also quoted by Peter in his letter, 1 Peter 4:8.  What exactly is James, and Peter, saying exactly?  In Proverbs, this verse indicates the sins covered up are the social consequences of sin.  Hatred, as the Proverb says, causes all manner of problems.  Love has the opposite effect, it covers,and  prevents, those problems from happening.  Peter wrote that love covers or prevents anger and retaliation in the other person.  In both Proverbs and Peter’s letter, the action of the righteous man in response to the the sins of the other person is seen having the effect of nullifying the results of the sin of the erring one.  Instead of bullying a fellow believer who has wandered from the truth, if we work to restore that person, we might be able to head off any dissension or other problems.

James’ closing sentence is a fitting way to end this most practical of all Biblical writings.

Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

Tasker wrote this:

No duty laid upon Christians is more in keeping with the mind of their Lord, or more expressive of Christian love, than the duty of reclaiming the backslider.

Many Christians  are “long on theory but short on practice.”  Those of us like that would do well to study James’ writing and put into practice the what we have learned.

(c)  2008 WitzEnd




The Prison Epistles, Part 10

The Key to Survival

A Study of Philippians 1:27-2:4

The first part of Philippians is a discussion of Paul’s personal situation and that of the Gospel in Rome.  Beginning with 1:27, Paul takes the spotlight off himself and shines it on his readers.  He is about to give a series of strong exhortations centering around the theme of Christian obedience, both Christ’s obedience (2:8) and that of the Church (2:12).

As we study Paul’s writings, it becomes obvious that in Paul’s mind, one of the greatest virtues a believer may possess is obedience, whether that believer is a servant or a leader.  Obedience to the Gospel is what Paul shares with his readers and it is a common fellowship all believers share.  Whether we stand behind the pulpit or sit in front of it, all of us are to be obedient to the Word of God.

1.  Steadfastness, unity, and fearlessness, 1:27-30

Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God.  For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.

Another way to read the first phrase is:

Only continue to exercise your citizenship in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.

The verb Paul uses is politeuesthe, and likely what Paul has in mind is this:  the Philippians (not just the church, but the citizens of that city in general) tended to be proud of their status as Roman citizens.

They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”  (Acts 16:20-21)

But for members of the Church, even though they geographically lived in a Roman city, their true citizenship was in heaven, and their true allegiance should have been to the laws of heaven.  But the word  politeuesthe has a greater meaning.  Originally it meant “to be guided by certain regulations and laws.”  (Nielson)  Philippi was, in reality, an outpost of Rome, literally, it was bit of Rome on foreign soil.  The correlation to the Church’s position on earth cannot be missed here.  Just like Philippi was a piece of Rome in the Mediterranean, so the Church is a piece of heaven on earth.  And members of the Church are obligated to keep both the laws of Heaven and the laws of Rome, but the laws of Heaven take precedence.  That this is the case is borne out in Paul uses of the word mononon, “Whatever happens” (NIV), “Only” (KJV).  It is emphatic, meaning Paul is declaring:  “Let attention to your heavenly citizenship be supreme, no matter what.”

His readers are to “stand firm.”  The Greek is stekete, and is a military term suggesting a soldier was to remain resolute and obedient and that retreat was impossible in spite of enemy onslaughts.  The Philippians were to do this “in one spirit.”  The “spirit”, pneumati, is seen by some as referring to the Holy Spirit, although it is more likely, given the context, Paul is simply referring to a “common spirit” of unity.   MacLaren makes it clear, however, that in the Body of Christ, this “common spirit” is not really possible without the Holy Spirit.  So, we might say that the “common spirit” involves believers getting along with other believers, enabled by the Holy Spirit to do so.

The unity is described by Paul as:

  • contending as one man, NIV
  • striving together with one accord, TNIV

The latter might be more accurate, for the Greek is mia psyche, or “with one soul.”  That is about as unified as human beings can be!  As Hendriksen notes, the unity “envisioned is one of striving or struggling side by side, like gladiators.”  What should be noted, and rarely is, is that this struggle is not against a foe but for the Gospel.   In this part of Scripture, at least, Paul is concerned not primarily with fending off attacks, but mainly in spreading the Gospel of Christ, which is the story of God’s wondrous redemptive truth, centered on the work of Christ, on the Cross, for believer.  This is a powerfully motivating truth which is so often over looked by so many.  The Gospel is to be actively spread, both in word and deed; the Kingdom of God is to advance.

Is this wonderful mission easy?  Paul seems to anticipate this with verse 28:

without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you.

In the Greek, “frightened” (pturomenoi) was a term originally used to describe a frightened animal, like a startled or shy horse.   There is no excuse for believers to be scared or frightened as they share their faith with others because the power of God, through the Holy Spirit, ought to compel them to do so.  Similarly, being shy or afraid to speak up for your Christian faith is disobedient to the will of God, and disobedience is a sin, for it disrupts the unity Paul is writing about.  J.B. Philips paraphrases this phrase as only a Brit can:

and not caring two straws for your enemies.

The enemies, in this case, were probably a mixture of hostile Jews and the pagans of Philippi.  The only way the Church can stand against any foe, from within or without, is to be courageous and unified and fight for the Gospel.

A Church that is strong in it’s faith and unified in it’s membership in the face of it’s enemies, is proof that those who oppose that Church are, in fact, on the wrong side, are enemies of God and will ultimately fail because the Church is a force that cannot be stopped.   When a believer stands tall, secure in his faith in the face of any opposition, that is proof that God is working both in that individual and in the Church.

Verse 29 is a shocking verse to some:

For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.

Salvation is a privilege granted only to believers, and that is the privilege we love to talk about and sing about.  However, there are not too many hymns about the other privilege believers have been granted:  to suffer for Christ.

The concept of suffering as a good thing shouldn’t surprise us in light of what the author of Hebrews wrote:

In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.  (Hebrews 2:10)

If our Savior was made perfect through suffering, it makes perfect sense that we, too, are perfected through suffering for Him.  Job caught a glimpse of this long before the coming of Christ into the world:

But he knows the way that I take;
when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.  (Job 23:10)

This is such an important concept, and one that is often so misunderstood.  Suffering is not a mark of God’s anger.

To the Philippians, suffering was the marriage gift when they were espoused to Christ:  the bounty when the enlisted in his service.  Becoming one with him, they entered into the fellowship of his suffering.  (M.R. Vincent)

Paul concludes the paragraph with an encouraging equation of his own suffering (he was in prison) for the Gospel with the Philippians and their struggles.  Acts 16 details the kind of suffering the Philippians had seen Paul experience in their city, and through Epaphroditus they now heard about his present sufferings.  This  must have been a great encouragement for these people; to hear that they and the great apostle himself are suffering the same way for the same cause.  That is unity.

2.  The essence of obedience, 2:1-4

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

The idea of unity is carried on in chapter 2 and hearkens back 1:27,

Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel.

Paul lists four reasons for unity, each introduced by the word “if.”  They are:

  • If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ.   Paul uses the Greek paraklesis to describe this benefit of being united with Christ.  We translate that word “consolation” or “exhortation” or “encouragement,” as in the NIV.
  • If any comfort from his love.  This literally means “incentive.”  Christ’s love for us should motivate us to be “one in purpose.”
  • If any fellowship with the Spirit.  This phrase has evoked a difference of opinion among scholars because pneumatos an be taken either subjectively or objectively.  The NIV has taken it objectively, that is, we have a common fellowship with the Holy Spirit.  Subjectively it is the Holy Spirit that produces the fellowship we should be enjoying as believers.
  • If any tenderness and compassion.  “Tender affections and compassions” is a better way to read this phrase.  These emotions ought to exist between members of the Church.

Paul makes it clear that if his friends in Philippi have all those things in their favor, then they should be able to live and function in a divine unity.  Obviously, with verses like this one, the congregation at Philippi was very close to Paul:

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!  (4:1)

The essence of obedience, implied by Paul, is that since we have been the recipients of so  much from Christ, we should act like Him toward our brothers and sisters.  Paul goes on to list four things believers can do to accomplish this:

  • Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  This clause is incomplete in the Greek, and the word phronountes could be taken to mean, “be of one mind.”  The idea Paul is putting out is everything should be done in humility and without any pride.
  • In humility consider others better than yourselves. Paul may have in mind the problem of Euodia and Syntyche:

I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. (4:2)

  • There was a problem of disunity to be sure in this church.  But of note, is that this should be done in humility.  There are believers who run around doing all manner of good things for their brothers and sisters, but they make sure everybody in church knows about it!  Paul says NO to that.
  • Look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.   This verse is in the imperative, meaning the good of others should be as important a goal in the believers life as what is good for their own life.  Believers should actively seek to find ways to better other people.

It becomes evident that Christians are to almost fade into the background as they obey and emulate their Lord.  Paul’s admonitions here echo the teachings of Jesus that the road to greatness among Christians is service to others.  Frank Thielman offers some practical ways to live like this as he paraphrases Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Christians should:

  • Hold their tongues and refuse to speak an ill word against a Christian brother;
  • Cultivate the humility that comes from the knowledge that we are all sinners and live in His sight by His grace;
  • Take notice of what others need;
  • Refuse to consider their time and calling so valuable that they cannot be interrupted to help with unexpected needs, no matter how small or menial;
  • Bear the burden of their brothers and sisters in the Lord, both by preserving their freedom and by forgiving their sinful abuse of that freedom;
  • Declare God’s Word to their fellow believers when they need to hear it;
  • Understand that Christian authority is characterized by service and does not call attention to the person who performs the service.
(c)  2008  WitzEnd

Practically Speaking: James 9

Some observations on how we treat each other

James 4:11-17

As we begin reading this group of verses, two things come to mind.  First, the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 7:1-2,

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

And second, something James said earlier in this letter:

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?  (2:2-4)

What makes this section curious is not necessarily the subject matter, although it seems that believers judging other believers for no apparent reason was all-too common in the early church, and that is something very curious to me.  What is extremely curious is how James address his readers.  Not a handful of verses previously, he called them “double minded” and “adulterous” people.  Now he comes back to refer to them as “brothers” or “brothers and sisters.”   I don’t want to read too much into this, but to me, it is a very comforting thought to know that even when believers behave badly, even to the point of slandering one another, they are still members of God’s family.

Even though it seems like James is launching into a series of unrelated series of topics, it should be noted that verses 11 and 12 are, in fact, very closely related to the preceding passage.  In Psalm 101:5, David actually links slander to a lack of humility:

Whoever slanders his neighbor in secret, him will I put to silence; whoever has haughty eyes and a proud heart, him will I not endure.

The connection is really very simple.  Slander comes from a person who thinks they are superior to others.  When a Christian begins to drift away from God, they begin to draw away from other believers and begin to be unduly critical of them.  Such was the case of James’ friends.

1.  The evil of evil speaking, verses 11, 12

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.  (Verse 11)

This prohibition might better be translated like this:

Do not speak against one another.

The Greek word, katalaleite does mean “to slander,” but it is a more encompassing word.  To slander some one generally means to lie about them or make false or misleading statements about them to others.  But katalaleite properly refers to any form of “ugly speech” against somebody else.  In fact, it refers to more than just the unkind words but also to the way they are spoken.

The grammatical construction of this sentence indicates an ongoing activity.  James is not only prohibiting a nasty habit, but he is telling to stop doing it.  And the reason James gives for stopping this despicable practice is that the one who speaks against his brother will soon find himself in trouble with God.  “The law” to which James refers is “the royal law,” mentioned earlier in the letter.  A/F. Harper’s comments on this verse are extremely helpful at this juncture:

When I violate God’s law of love, I set myself up a judge and say in effect, God’s law is not a good law.  Thus the real evil of speaking evil speaking rests in a sinful pride that refuses to accept and obey the law of God.

The one who slanders a brother literally puts asides the Word and wishes of God and places himself on the same level as God.   Debelius:

Slander is not a transgression of merely one commandment, but a transgression against the authority of the law in general, and therefore against God.

When viewed like this, we can see the seriousness of this sin.  It is not merely against a brother or sister, but against the God of the universe.  Of course, James is not condemning legitimate human judgment, for elsewhere in Scripture believers are encouraged to exercise godly judgment of one another.

But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment.  (1 Corinthians 11:31)

Ultimately, as verse 12 says, God is the only Lawgiver who has the ability to administer His law righteously; God shares that position with no human being.  James goes so far as to describe God as:

one who is able to save and destroy

That’s a powerful statement of the sovereignty of God, that finds two parallels:

There is no god besides me.  I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal.  (Deuteronomy 32:39)

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.  (Matthew 10:28)

As believers and members of one great Body, we are all guilty of our sins, though we stand forgiven by our heavenly Father.  Still, we are the accused, and therefore rather than standing in judgment of each other, setting ourselves up as their judge, we should encourage, comfort, and love our family in the Lord.  Simply put, you and I are in no position lord it over another in the position of their judge because we ourselves are in need of the grace and mercy of Jesus.  It would do us well focus our attention of Jesus, and direct others to do the same.

2.  Recognize the presence of God, verses 13-17

In this section, James returns to the “arrogant rich,” first to condemn their arrogance and to show their evil end.  However, it is not a new discussion; it relates to the previous verses in that it illustrates the danger of an unchristian attitude toward material gain (verse 2) and to what James has been saying  in regards to pride and humility (verse 6-7, 10).

(A)  Setting the scene

The Jews of the Diaspora, the Dispersion, eventually came to settle in various Roman cities, and once there, they began to settle in and become very successful merchants and traders.  Some of these prosperous Jews converted to Christianity, like Lydia, for example.  Perhaps it was people like her that James had in mind:  Christians who had become comfortable and successful and had either forgotten or failed to see what the true meaning of the Gospel was in relation to life and business.   James advises:  Realize the reality of God in every area of life.

(B)  Ignoring God, verses 13-15

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.”

“Now listen” is serious call to pay attention to what follows and the word “say,” legontes, is in the present tense, which indicated the situation James describes is an ongoing one.  Traveling for business in the first century was very common, and Jews especially were known to have traveled extensively.  Here is a prime example of people who do their planning and engage in their day-to-day work without thinking about God.  By ignoring God, they show as much arrogance as the person who slanders his brother.  It has been said that failing to come to God regularly in prayer is one of the most common offenses in the Church.

James is not condemning the practice of doing business, but he condemning the attitude of people who live as though God does not exist.  To such people–people who carry on their business without regard for God–money is more important than serving the Lord.  People like this are just like the “rich young fool” Jesus taught about in Luke 12:16-21, who failed to realize that he could not add even a minute to his life.  The lesson:  we are all dependent on God.  Calvin notes:

But James roused the stupidity of those who disregard God’s providence, and claimed for themselves a whole year, though they had not a single moment in their own power.

Verse 14 is a  not-so-subtle wake-up call, which Moffatt translates:

You who know nothing about tomorrow…

Even though the Bible is not a medical textbook, it does offer some profound medical truths!  A tiny clot of blood in the brain may cause an instant and unexpected death.  No wonder the Psalmist wrote:

My days are like the evening shadow;
I wither away like grass.  (Psalm 102:11)

In the KJV, that verse is even more graphic:

My days are like a shadow that declineth…

People who make no room for God in their day-to-day lives leave themselves wide open to be knocked about by unforeseen circumstances.  James shows the foolishness of living like this:  they plan way in advance to do something as though they themselves are in control of the future.  Proving his point, James points to the transitory nature of life, comparing it to mist that vanishes in the morning warmth.  There is nothing wrong with making plans, as long as God is in the plan.  That’s the main point of the next verse:

Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

Today, the notion of “the Lord’s will” has become almost hackneyed.  Christians use that phrase as a kind of formula in their prayers in hopes of having them answered.  In it’s overuse. “in the Lord’s will” seems to have lost its significance.  Yet it is the most important thing a believer can defer to.

Interestingly enough, this phrase does not appear at all in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament era, Paul used it constantly as if to teach people about its proper use.

  • When he left Ephesus, Paul said to the Jews, “I will come back if it is the Lord’s will” (Acts 18:21)
  • He told the Corinthians, “I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing” (1 Corinthians 4:19)
  • He promised the believers in Corinth to spend some time with them “if the Lord permist” (1 Corinthians 16:7)

But in many other instances, neither Paul nor the other apostles used it.  But they lived according to it.  In other words, believers do not need to use the words “God willing” as a Christians talisman, in a mechanical fashion.  Instead, our entire lives should be lived in the knowledge that we are God’s children and that we are safe and secure in Him and that He holds sway over them, to our benefit.  Mayor’s comments are valuable:

The boaster forgets that life depends on the will of God.  The right feeling is, both my life and my actions are determined by Him.

(C)  From neglect to opposition, verse 16

So, how far can one go in neglecting God before they cross the  line into outright opposition?   The merchants to whom James is addressing, apparently had taken business risks and made a profit.  Success breeds success, and sometimes along with prosperity comes pride and an unhealthy sense of self-sufficiency.  J.B. Phillips’ translation provides a helpful insight:

As it is, you get a certain pride in yourself in planning your future with such confidence.  That sort of pride is all wrong.

The Greek is powerful and literally means:

You are boasting in your arrogant pretensions.

One word in that long Greek phrase is alazoneiais, and refers to one taking pride in their knowledge or cleverness, but implies that those qualities are not really possessed by the person.  Sinful boasting, then, is rooted in unreality.

There is a good boasting.  Paul teaches that one can boast only in the weakness, for Paul had come to realize that in his weakness the power of Christ becomes evident (see 2 Corinthians 11:30; 12:5, 9).   Hahn rightly observed:

A Christian may boast of himself only in so far as his life is lived in dependence on God and in responsibility to Him.

(D)  Sins of omission, verse 17

James ends this part of his letter with a proverbial saying that may have been popular in James’ day. It’s a very stern warning the sin of neglect.

Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.

Once again, James’ words seem to echo the words of his brother:

That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows.  (Luke 12:47)

Verse 17 is a verse that may be applied to many situations, especially to most of his letter!  Ropes suggests that James is saying something along the lines of:  “You have all been warned!”  Burdick writes:

It is like saying, “Now that I have pointed the matter out to you, you have no excuse.”  Knowing what should be done obligates a person to do it.

Verse 17 really is what Erdman calls a principle of wide scope and great importance.  It is not only wrong to commit an action that we know to be contrary to the will of God, or about which we are uncertain, it is equally wrong to fail to do what we know to be God’s will.

James does not write this to make life hard for his readers or for us.  Doing God’s will fills the believer with joy and satisfaction.  Who else besides a Christian who is living according to the statutes of the Word may say regards of the circumstances:

“If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

(c) 2008 WitzEnd

Practically Speaking: James 8

Resisting and Fleeing, James 4:1-10

How can war be ended forever?  In a world filled with anger and despair, how eagerly mankind looks for the answer to that question.  We elect politicians who promise to end war and injustice.  But who would have guessed that the most important and yet overlooked book ever written provided the answer 2 millennia ago.  In the King James Version we read this:

From whence come wars and fightings among you?  (James 4:1)

The opening of chapter 4 is in contrast to the end of chapter 3:

Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.  (3:18)

Moffatt in his translation uses this striking transition:

But how speak of peace among you? (4:1)

In verses 1-10, James examines in some detail this worldly attitude that causes so much trouble.  He first identifies the source of conflicts (4:1-3); then he reproves spiritual unfaithfulness (4:4-6); and lastly, he pleads for submission to God (4:7-10)  (Donald Burdick).

1.  The source of conflicts, verses 1-3

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?  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.

Here is a profound truth:  “Wars without come from wars within.”  This is the truth James wants to drive home to his readers, and to us.  It seems as though James is addressing a problem that existed in the circle of believers to whom he is writing.  Even though he calls them “my brothers” repeatedly throughout his letter, his readers were not living in a climate of peace necessary for the growth of righteousness (3:18).  The progression of James’ argument is obvious and masterful:

If bitter envy and selfish ambition have taken root in a believer (3:14, 16);
If their world view is dominated and shaped by worldly and unspiritual wisdom (3:15);
If they have so alienated themselves from God;
Then they promote “disorder and every evil practice” (3:16).

When all that happens, fights and quarrels become the norm.  The two words, “fights” and “quarrels” are from the Greek polemoi and machai, and are words usually reserved for warfare.

What a stark contrast we have in James’ letter to our perception of the early Church, which is shaped by Acts 4:32–

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.

That picture of harmony was all but gone within a decade, to be replaced by a church full of fights, quarrels, and bickering.  James uses two very strong words as a figurative sense because he asks a deeply penetrating question, phrased in such a way that his readers could hardly disagree.  In other words, to their shame, James’ readers knew they were in the wrong.

Their conflicts were caused by their “desires,” from the Greek hednon, from which we get “hedonism.”  This gives us a glimpse into their psyche.  Believers, scattered to the four corners of the earth were still concerned with their “sensual comforts.”  So concerned, in fact, that his readers were stepping all over each other to get them.  They were certainly not showing Christian charity!

Verse 2 is another powerful verse in which James speaks metaphorically of believers who would go so far to “kill” to get what they want.  Of course, it is unlikely James has in mind his readers physically murdering each other to get what the other has.  The phrase “you want something” is a weak translation of the Greek which is much more forceful.  The sense is that of strong, never ending lusting or coveting, which led to hatred.  In Matthew 5:21-22 and 1 John 3:15 hatred is equated to murder:

Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.  (1 John 3:15)

These Christians, and remember they really are Christians, suffered inner tensions and outward conflicts (Harper) because they refused to pray.  In their quest for get the things they wanted, they had wandered so far from God that they did not even take time to talk to Him.   It’s no wonder that they God appeared to not answer their prayers, how could God answer when He hadn’t been asked?  As Kistmaker astutely remarked:

Failure to ask God in prayer results in failure to receive.

John Wesley comments,

And no marvel; for a man full of evil desire, of envy or hatred, cannot pray.

But even when these people actually went through the pretense of prayer, James says in verse 3 it was all for nothing for they were praying with the wrong motives.  Self centered prayers that ignore the will of God go unanswered.  Prayers that lack faith are actually sinful, according to Romans 14:23,

But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.

Hebrews 11:6 is even more pointed:

And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

How can God possibly answer a prayer prayed selfishly and without faith?  He cannot.  God does not listen to people who are pursuing selfish pleasure.  Greed is idolatry and that is an abomination in God’s sight.  God does not listen to prayers that come from hearts full of selfish motives.  Covetousness and selfishness are insults to God.

2.  Spiritual unfaithfulness, verses 4-6

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?   But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:

“God opposes the proud
but gives grace to the humble.”

Straddling the fence can be a dangerous thing to do.  Driving down the middle of the road is also dangerous, as every driver knows, for we have been taught to say on their own side of the road.  A Christian was not made for straddling, either.  A Christian cannot be a friend of God and a friend of the world at the same time.  A Christian cannot pursue their own selfish ambitions and remain loyal to God.  To look at and desire the things of this world is to one’s back on God.

How bad is it to behave like that?  The NIV has inserted the pronoun “you” at the beginning of verse 4, but in the original the verse begins with one single word:  Adulteresses.  In the Greek it is in the feminine.   The reason is not readily apparent, so a word of explanation is in order.

In the Old Testament, God’s people were considered to be His bride, Jeremiah 31:32.  In the New Testament they are the bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:23-32).  Therefore, anytime God’s people wander away from Him, it like “spiritual unfaithfulness.”  So, James used a blunt word to describe the nature of his readers:  adulteresses.

The phrase “don’t you know” indicates that his readers knew very well the truth but were ignoring it.  James refers to “friendship with the world.”  The word “world” here (kosmos) is referring to all that humans think and do that ignores God and is contrary to His will.   For James, there can be no compromise.  What does it mean to be a “friend” of the world?  Burdick’s comments are enlightening:

It is to adopt the world’s set of values and want what the world wants instead of choosing according to divine standards.  The person who deliberately chooses to be a friend of the world by that choice becomes an enemy of God.

The apostle John sternly warned his readers:

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.  (1 John 2:15)

John Knox once said, A man with God on his side is always in the majority.  But the person who meets God as His enemy stands alone, for the world cannot help him.

It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.  (Hebrews 10:31)

Verse 5 is a curiosity and its interpretation has always been difficult due to a number of factors.

Translation.  There are numerous ways to translate this verse and its meaning can actually change from translation to translation.  For example, take something as simple as a punctuation mark.  We take them for granted, but in the Greek manuscripts, there are none!   So is James making a statement or asking a question?   The other translation issue surrounds the word “spirit.”  Does it refer to the spirit of man, or to the Holy Spirit?

Unknown quotation.  James makes reference to a Scripture that no scholar has been able to find.

Consider how the translators of the NIV and the TNIV have wrestled with the verse:

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

TNIV: Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us?

So the NIV connects verse 5 with the preceding discussion on selfish ambition.  But the TNIV assumes that James is now finished with his reproof of his readers worldly conduct and  has begun a kind of appeal for repentance.  This thought is found in the footnotes of the NIV, yet it is in the main body in the TNIV.  Given the context, it is likely that the TNIV is the correct way to understand what James is trying to say.  By favoring the world over God, believers may backslide and lose God.  But this is something that does not happen easily or quickly.  God is a jealous God who will tolerate no rivals.  When we became born again, we were given a new spirit and God yearns over this new life in us.  He uses every effort to convict us of wrongs when we sin and grow careless in our walk.

The first sentence in verse 6 really belongs to verse 5 and further buttresses the TNIV rendering.  God yearns over our often divided hearts and is hurt by our friendship with the world.  He desperately longs for His Holy Spirit to be given total control over our lives, which is something only we can do.  To help us to do that, God gives us special help:  He gives more grace to those who would humbly receive it.  In the Greek it is “a greater grace,” and Knowling comments on this:

The best meaning appears to be that the Spirit of God bestows upon those who submit to the Divine will, and surrender themselves to it entirely, richer supplies of grace to effect that complete surrender to the yearnings of the Divine love, and to count all things as loss in response to it.

But, as long as in our human pride we think we can use our own earthly wisdom, we will never be the beneficiaries of God’s “greater grace.”  The words of Julia Johnston’s hymn are precious:

Marvelous grace of our loving Lord,
grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt!
Yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured,
there where the blood of the Lamb was spilt.
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
grace, grace, God’s grace,
grace that is greater than all our sin!

3.  Submission to God, verses 7-10

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.   Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.   Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.   Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

There is nothing more welcome to the traveler than helpful signs along the road that give direction.  These highway signs are short, descriptive and pointed.  James is about to give his readers some “signs” that will help them–and us–as we travel life’s highway to the destination appoint us.

Submission.  God is eager to help us, but He will not force His help on anybody.  The word is really “obey” and is the same word by Luke when he wrote about 12 year old Jesus who was “obedient to” His parents in Luke 2:51.   While obedience is implied, it is not a blind-kind of obedience, but rather the willing surrender of one’s will, which in turn leads to obedience.
Resist the devil.  Many Christians struggle with this.  They know they should not sin so they try to resist the devil but fail and time and again fall into the devil’s traps.  This happens because they fail to practice submission!  You cannot fight the devil unless you are submitting to God simultaneously.  And you cannot submit to God without resisting the devil.  The promise is clear:  if we resist the devil, he will flee.
Come near to God.   Ross comments:  Draw nigh unto God, as those who long to come into the closest possible relation to Him, in contrast to those who are His enemies and who keep at a distance from Him.  God will then draw night  unto you, to visit you with His salvation.   The call to wash hands is a command to  make ones conduct pure, and to purify the heart implies purity of the inner man.   Hands and hearts stained by sin need cleansing; hearts tainted with love for the world need to be purified, and God has grace to do all that.
Grieve, mourn, wail.  These constitute a call to repentance.  The Greek for “grieve” is talaiporseate and is a strong word meaning “to be miserable.”  James advises his readers to repent in misery.  “Mourn” is pentheo and depicts a grief so intense it cannot be hidden or covered up.  Lastly, “wail,” klausate, is similar to “mourn” in that it is an outward show of emotion, but it is in stark contrast the giddy laughter these people were looking for in their pursuit of worldly pleasures.  Some Christians have taken this verse a little too literally and teach that Christians are in general supposed to be miserable, sad people.  Of course this is not what James is teaching.  James is advising people who have been guilty of frivolity and telling them to get serious and repent.
Humble yourselves.  As if to give emphasis to what James said in verse 6, he admonishes his readers to be humble.  God helps those who are so.

So often do we as believers stray from the Lord and go our own way, we can take comfort from James’ teaching.  There is hope; we may sin and we may behave badly, but it we wash our hands and purify our hearts, God will take us back.

Practically Speaking: James 7

Previously, James discussed the absolute folly of thinking one could be religious while the tongue is uncontrolled:

My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.  (1:19)

In this section of his letter, he picks us this theme and enlarges upon it.  This is a natural progression, for in the last chapter,  James exposed the absurdity of a “faith” that expresses itself only in words and not in deeds.  Those most tempted to behave like that; practice a dead and lifeless faith, are teachers.   Lenski in his comments on this passage helps us to put it into proper perspective:

We should think of the early churches in which any member might speak out in the meetings.  1 Corinthians 14:26-34 is instructive:  any brother might contribute some word; yet Paul lays down restrictions:  it must be for the purpose of edifying only, must occur in due order, two or three only are to s peak, and the women must keep silent.  James has the same ideas.

1.  Responsibility of teachers, 3:1,2a

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.

Moffatt in his translation of verse one gives us a clear sense of what James’ point is:

My brothers, do not crowd in to be teachers; remember, we teachers will be judged with special strictness.

At first glance, it seems as though James is introducing a new topic that has little to do with with verse 2.  However, when we stop and consider what James is saying in these two verses, we realize that teachers teach verbally, and their failures relate to what the words they speak.  Therefore, teaching and the use of the tongue go hand in  hand.

Since he has mentioned the the tongue twice already (1:19, 26), this is obviously a subject of importance and concern to James, the pastor.  More than any other writer in the New Testament, James warns against the dangers of an unruly tongue.  In this chapter, verse 1-12, James discusses taming the tongue and in the following chapter, 4:11-12, James warns his readers not to slander one another, and finally, in one last reference, in chapter 5:12, James tells his readers to speak the truth.   This idea of proper speech was a favorite topic of James’ famous brother, Jesus, who once said this:

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)

It should be pointed out that in no way does James mean to suggest that believes should never do what they can do to help another in their Christian walk.  James’ admonitions are intended to remind us of our responsibilities rather than deter us from our duties (Harper).  In point of fact, the New Testament encourages believers to become teachers of the Good News.  Consider again the words of Jesus in this regard:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  (Matthew 28:19-20)

And the writer to the Hebrews actually rebukes his readers for not being good teachers:

In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!  (Hebrews 5:12)

The warning is not so much against teaching but against those who want to teach for the prestige of it.  There are some Christians who are attracted to the idea of standing behind the pulpit, leading others, and counseling others, without realizing the terrible responsibility that comes with that position.  The one who teaches is assumed by those listening to have greater knowledge, and such added light demands added living.  If a teacher fails, their judgment will be much more strict because they have less excuse for failure.

James, in the first part of verse 2, reminds his readers that everybody, even the smartest and most diligent of teachers makes mistakes.  Again, Moffat’s insightful translation is  helpful:

Let no more of you take this upon you that God thrusts out; seeing it is so hard not to offend in speaking much.

3.  Some examples, 3:3-8

Words are important, and the words a person uses can tell us a lot about that person. Charles Wesley’s triumphant hymn tells of the power the tongue:

O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer’s praise,
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of His grace!

And Martin Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” mentions the prince of darkness whose:

Rage we can endure,
For lo! his doom is sure,
One little word can fell him.

The amazing power of one word.  It can change course of history.  One of the greatest examples of this is what Jesus said on the Cross.  The very last thing He uttered was “It is finished.”  But in the Greek, it is only one word.

James is going to illustrate the powerful influence of the tongue in using to graphic and practical examples.

A bit, verse 3.  The connection between this verse and the preceding one is obvious.  The so-called perfect man is one who never speaks an ill word and  is able to keep his whole body in check.  The bit in the mouth of a horse does just that.  That is how powerful the tiny tongue can be.  If a man, by using a small bit can control a large animal, then he should certainly be able to control his own tongue.
A rudder, verse 4.  This second example is even more powerful when we remember with what awe the Jews of James’ day regarded the sea.  They had a real love-hate relationship with the sea.  They feared it because it was so dangerous; yet many Jews made their living on the sea.  Even though Israel borders Mediterranean Sea, the Jews were never a sea faring people.  These large ships, says James, are steered against the powerful force of the waves by a tiny piece of wood called a rudder.  It is not the waves or the strong winds that determine the course of the ship, it’s the pilot, and he controls the ship with the rudder.   So if a man can direct the course of large ship against the force of the wind and the waves, then he should be able to control his tongue!

Before giving some more examples, James pauses to apply the two examples he just gave.  Just as bits and rudders are small things, the tongue is a small thing.  Yet, just like the tongue, the bit and the rudder have a powerful influence.  The tongue, says James, “makes great boasts.”  J.B. Philips’ translation is interesting:

The human tongue is physically small, but what tremendous effects it can boast of!

New Testament scholar Curtis Vaughn encapsulates verse five:

It can sway men to violence, or it can move them to the noblest actions.  It can instruct the ignorant, encourage the dejected, comfort the sorrowing, and soothe the dying.  Or, it can crush the human spirit, destroy reputations, spread distrust and hate, and bring nations to the brink of war.

With verse six, James resumes his list of examples:

A fire, verse 6. The inflammatory tongue (Burdick) is responsible a multitude of sins.  Eason comments:

That world of unrighteousness , the tongue, is set among our members.

James compares the tongue to an out of control wildfire that destroys everything in comes near.  But James also has in mind the idea of a spark:  something so small yet can cause a great forest fire.  Bengal makes a fascinating observation:

As the little world of man is an image of the universe, so the tongue is an image of the little world of man.

All the sins that destroy man are to be found in the tongue.  Again, Burdick observes:

There are few sins people commit in which the tongue is not involved.

Because the tongue is so powerfully influential, and so inclined to evil, the tongue corrupts one’s whole being.  Not only that, it can corrupt others, as Lenski has noted:

You and I do not exist merely as separate entities.  Each of us is not a house that is set off by itself…James thinks of us as houses that are set together in a great city.  A fire that is kindled in any one house will spread and become a a great conflagration.

And finally, the Living Bible paraphrases this verse in striking fashion:

And the tongue is a flame of fire.  It is full of wickedness and poisons every part of the body.  And the tongue is set of fire by hell itself, and turn our whole lives into a blazing flame of destruction and disaster.

The phrase “the whole body” has a dual meaning  here in verses 2 and 6.  It refers to the Church, the whole body of believers, and it also refers to the individual person.  The consequences of careless and hurtful words are such that they can hurt the one speaking and can reach out and affect the lives of others.

Man, the ruler of God’s creation, verses 7 and 8.  James concludes his discussion on taming the tongue with one last illustration.  Man is the ruler of all God’s creation and has been given power over all that flies, swims, and crawls.

Man has been able to subdue all kinds of animals for his pleasure.   Yet despite this, man has been unable to get control over his tongue.  He cannot control his own tongue nor can he control others.  This is not to say that God cannot control the speech of a  man, for we know God can.  In the Bible the priest Zachariah was silenced by God, for example.  The Holy Spirit in the lives of believers is able to change the way they speak, if He is allowed to.  But no man on his own can tame his own tongue because its motivation to evil comes from powerful impulses not of his own choosing; the tongue is set on fire by Hell.

In regards to the destructive nature of the tongue, James makes no exceptions:  No man can tame the tongue.   This brief and emphatic conclusion hearkens back to what James said at the beginning of chapter 3:

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.  (verse 2)

More than any other Biblical writer, James paints a starkly bleak picture of man’s tongue.  It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison, like a snake that is never still and whose fangs are full of deadly venom.  Our tongues are unstable, elusive, and restless.   James paints an ugly of what sin has done to man.

Washington Irving, a 19th century American writer wrote:

A sharp tongue is the only edged too that grows keener with constant use.

Every culture has recognized the dangerous power of words:

There’s many a slip twixt cup and lip. (German proverb)
A lengthy tongue and early death.  (Persian saying)
Lose lips sink ships.  (American saying)

Finally, some advice from the smartest man who ever lived:

When words are many, sin is not absent,  but he who holds his tongue is wise.  (Proverbs 10:9)

He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin.  (13:3)

(c)  2008 witzEnd

Grace as old as Adam

A study of Romans 4:14-16

For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless, because law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.

Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.

One of the questions a pastor gets asked routinely has to do with the salvation, or the possible salvation, of those who may not believe exactly what the Bible says about being “born again.”  What about those who are just very good and moral people, they ask.  What about those who are engaged in exemplary works that benefit all kinds of people but who do not necessarily believe in we refer to as “salvation by grace?”  And of course, the favorite hypothetical case of all:  what about the pygmy on some desert island who has never heard the gospel?

As one who has been asked those things from time to time, let me say how grateful I am that God is the final arbiter is the salvation of all people, and that decisions of that magnitude do not rest any person or group.

However, there are certain principles in the Word of God that are inescapable; that show what one must do to be saved.  And these principles cannot be ignored, nor do they change from generation to generation. If we understand these principles, perhaps we won’t be so surprised when we stand before the Lord and look around at who didn’t make it.  Recall this stinging verse:

Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’  (Matthew 7:23)

Jesus was speaking, not to reprobates or scoundrels, but to the religious leaders of His day!  There will likely be folks in heaven who might have been considered pariahs or outcasts while they were alive.  Rahab the prostitute, for example, will be there, as will the thief that hung on the cross next to Jesus.  They were hardly the types of people you would bring home for Sunday dinner.

It goes without saying that those who defame the name of God and “trample the Son of God under foot” will most certainly not inherit the Kingdom of God (Hebrews 10:28-29).  Yet there is another group of people who will not share in heaven.  These are the ones who know all about God and Jesus.  Maybe they learned sound orthodox theology in Sunday School.  Perhaps they can sing the books of the Bible in order.  But they don’t have a living and vital relationship with Jesus.  They do good things and maybe were even baptized, but they believe their acceptance by God depends on what they do and how they behave.  To those, the Holy Spirit through Paul warns:

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.  (Galatians 5:2-4)

1.  A big net

The Church of Jesus Christ is, today, filled with many people who have a mental knowledge of God and who have adopted orthodox views of Jesus Christ, and have confessed Him.  However, their lives didn’t go beyond their “confession,” in other words, there may be “confession” of Christ, but no “consecration” to Him.

That is the essence of our Lord’s parable of the net in Matthew 13:47-48,

“Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. 4When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away.”

That “gospel net” pulls in all kinds of fish, but not all are wanted.  Within the walls of the Church, there are all kinds of people, but not all true followers of Christ.

2.  Works vs. the Promise, verse 14

There exists in the mind of man two ideas of what salvation is.  The human idea is salvation by works; God’s idea is salvation by promise.  These two ideas are diametrically opposed to each other:  works or promise, the law or grace.  They cannot exist together in one person.  The law can be broken, but the promise cannot be.  To whom was the promise made?

When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself, saying, “I will surely bless you and give you many descendants.”  (Hebrews 6:13-14)

The promise was made by God to God, but it was for man.  God, being all perfect and all powerful, cannot break His promise.  But because there is no perfect human being, there has never been a complete fulfillment of the law by any human being.  In God’s mind, keeping the law is an all or nothing proposition.  One cannot keep some of it without keeping all of it.   If a good person make it into heaven by partially keeping the law, then, as Barnhouse observed:

[T]hat would mean a slip-shod God and dirty Heaven.

That is the implication of verse 14:

For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless.

The Greek for “no value” and “promise” are in the perfect tense, suggesting a powerful meaning.  If it were at all possible for someone to enter heaven on the basis of being good and observing the law, then “faith” and “promise” mean nothing.  J.B. Philips translates this verse like this:

The ancient promise given to Abraham and his descendants, that they should eventually possess the world, was given not because of any achievements made through obedience to the Law, but because of the righteousness which had its roots in faith.  For if, after all, they who pin their faith to keeping the Law were to inherit God’s world, it would make nonsense of faith in God Himself, and destroy the whole point of the Promise.

3.  No Law=No Transgression, verse 15

[B]ecause law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.

Verses 14 and 15 work together to show why Abraham and those who came after him could not inherit God’s promise through the Law or a law.  Those who base their hope of receiving a blessing on what they do “eviscerates the very meaning of ‘faith’ and ‘promise.” (Moo)  The first part of verse 15 supports what Paul was saying in the previous verse.  He simply shows what the law does, not what it cannot do.

Paul says “the law brings wrath.”  Indeed, blind works never brings peace to anybody.  This thought is proven by the second phrase, “where there is no law there is no transgression.”  Barnhouse offers a simple, yet profound illustration of this.  Seventy five years ago there was no law against driving at any speed along the roads and highways of America.  If one had a car that could travel at speeds of 100 miles per  hour or more, that person could  do, if they could find a stretch of road that allowed it.  Of course, horses and pedestrians would have had to flee for their lives!  But no law was broken for no law existed.  The driver might have been guilty of stupidity, but nothing more.  As the years progressed, populations grew, more and more cars appeared on the road, law makers began to write laws against excessive speed.  With that law, it became a transgression to speed, and if caught, the speeder could be fined to the fullest extent of the law.

This is the very simple concept Paul is putting forth here.  There was a time before Moses and the Mosaic Law where God had never revealed His principles of holiness and righteousness.  For example:

  • Cain killed Abel, it was murder plain and simple.  However, the commandment had not been given, therefore there was no transgression.
  • Ham dishonored his father, but this was long  before the commandment “Honor your father and mother” was given.  Again, there was no transgression.

Sin was alive and well before Moses and the Law, but there was no transgression because there was no law.  Key to understanding this is the word “transgression,” from the Greek parabasis. The only time Paul uses this word is in reference to a person’s willful disobedience to a law or command that they have been made responsible for.  It should be noted, however, that this does not mean that Cain or Ham were saved.  Negatively, the coming of the Law made people conscious of their guilt in a definite way, and in a positive way, the coming of the Law made it possible for the Holy Spirit to convict people of their wrong doing, and plant within them the desire to be saved from their sins and transgressions.

Note these verses:

What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was put into effect through angels by a mediator.  (Gal. 3:19)

And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.  (1 Tim. 2:14)

No doubt, transgression is a sin, but not every sin is a transgression.  Every time a human being falls short of what God expects of them, they sin.  But only when they purposefully disobey a commandment God has given them do they commit a transgression.  Therefore, a transgression is more serious than a sin and will result in greater judgment.

The fact that, as Paul has indicated, the Law produces wrath, and the corresponding fact that as believers we are not objects of the wrath but instead objects of God’s promise, has led some to conclude that believers are not under or subject to the Law.  In a general sense that is true, however to be free from the Law does not mean that we are free to be lawless.  God deals with His creation in different ways and different times.  In Romans, Paul is teaching that after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the human raced passed into yet another aspect of God’s dealing with them.  From that event until the next age, God deals with man through grace, not law.

What good was the Law?

Every human being is an incurable addict.  We are addicted to sin.  And like any addict, we will do anything to feed our addiction, even going so far as to justify it and make it seem right.  Simply put, that is the answer to the question, “What good was the Law?”

While the Law was never given to save anybody, it was invaluable in showing sinful people the true state of their lives in relation to God’s ideal for them.  It was necessary to convict them of wrong and show them the right.  With the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Law’s work was over.  What the Law did, the Holy Spirit now does.

But even as far back as Adam, grace was still in operation.  If God determined to save Adam, then Adam would be saved.  If God determined to save Abel and condemn Cain, it was on the grounds of His sovereignty and love alone, for neither brother was righteous in God’s sight.  God has always been a God of grace, but He gave the Law to show sinful human beings the folly of their addiction and to point to them to the only cure:  a power outside of themselves.  In the OT, that “power” was the Promise of God.  In the NT, that “power” is a relationship with Jesus Christ.

4.  An inheritance by faith, verse 16

Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.

Lastly, this group of verses tells us that these two competing ideas of salvation are mutually exclusive.  If you are working for your salvation, then you won’t fully commit to the grace expressed in Christ.

Nobody wants nothing.  Even the most hardened of sinners wants good things, even eternal life.  A person would have to be insane to choose Hell over Heaven.  But Satan is the master of men’s minds and has successfully confused many people into thinking they may gain Heaven by working for it, rather than merely on the basis in faith in God’s grace.

Paul makes it crystal clear that the promise comes only by faith to all who exercise it, whether they are “of the law” or “of the faith of Abraham.”  In other words, faith in Jesus Christ is one true equalizer of all people, whether Jew, or Gentile.  At the moment of faith is birthed in one’s heart, that one becomes a “child of Abraham” because they are exercising the same kind of faith as Abraham did.

Eternal, life-changing concepts

(1)    Faith is distinct from the Law.  In other words, the Law is something you do, faith is more of an attitude of heart and mind.  Calvin compares faith to “open hands.”  Believing means that we stretch out our arms and open our hands to receive all that God wants to give us.  In our achievement-oriented society, it is difficult to practice this; we, in our misguided efforts to be obedient believers want to “earn” the blessings of God by our deeds and actions, thus placing God in our debt.  But that is not how God operates.  He gives.  He does not barter.

(2)    Faith’s power rests, not in itself, but in the One in whom we place our faith.  One of the most famous questions in sports history was posed by ABC commentator Al Michaels at the end of the 1980 Olympic hockey series between the United States and the USSR in response to the American’s astonishing victory.  “Do you believe in miracles?” he asked rhetorically.  As is evidenced by books, magazines, TV shows, and so on, Americans do indeed believe in miracles, angels, and the supernatural in general.  However, the Bible never, ever discusses belief in those things, it speaks of a belief in God, the One responsible for the miracles.

This was the kind of faith Abraham had.  This was the kind of faith that was credited to Him as righteousness.  Abraham believed in the One who could bring life a barren womb.  Abraham believed in the God in back of the promise.  But Abraham’s belief didn’t stop there.  Abraham had such strong belief in and faith in God, the he spoke of God’s promises as though they  had already been given.  The fact is, Abraham would not live to the majority of God’s promises come to fruition.

(3)    Faith is based on God’s Word, not on the evidence of what we see.  God’s Word was all Abraham had.  The key to living a Christian life that is full of hope and expectation is having faith in God that is consistent and never wavering.  The ultimate reality for the believer is not what they see and can experience in the physical realm, but rather what what they cannot see:  the spiritual realm.  That is why the Word of God must be ever before us.  As we remember the great promises in and as we meditate on it, it won’t be long before its spiritual realities become more real to us that the world around  us.

(c)  2008 WitzEnd

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