True and False Wisdom

James 3:13-18

The Recording of this Sermon can be found HERE for the next few months. Public safety advisory … the recording includes a hymn after the sermon which you should only listen to if you don’t mind the booming voice of a rather croaky pastor :))

Introduction

We continue our study of the Epistle of James – that very practical letter, written by James the brother of Jesus to Jewish Christians from the church of Jerusalem, which James essentially pastored. These were Christians who had been scattered from Jerusalem by persecution and who were now living in many different parts of the region.

James is a letter from a loving, mature Christian pastor … written to teach his disciples how to live faithfully in the face of the persecution and poverty that inevitably came because they were essentially religious refugees.

Way back in chapter 1:5 James has addressed the fact that often when we face adversity as Christians, we don’t really know how to handle it. In that verse he teaches that if we find ourselves in a difficulty and we don’t know how to live in the midst of it or how to overcome it, we should ask God for wisdom, and it will be given to us. He even goes on in 1:18-27 to teach them (and us) how to listen for God’s word of wisdom.

But what is wisdom? What does that wisdom look like? How will we know it when it comes?

These are vital questions to consider because being in a painfully difficult situation can really be confusing. We can be paralysed … what some have called analysis paralysis. We are so scared to take a wrong turn that we just freeze like a deer in the headlights. So we hesitate and vacillate and feel as though we cannot recognise God’s wisdom.

So what is wisdom? The Cambridge dictionary defines wisdom as “the ability to use your knowledge and experience to make good decisions and judgments”. That’s a good one. Wisdom is the application of knowledge. It is being able to take the facts of the situation we face and figure out how best to behave and to live in the light of the facts. To be wise is to be able discern the right course of action. And Biblically-speaking, God gives us that ability when we ask for it. God longs for us to seek wisdom and to obey that wisdom. The book of Proverbs is filled with this truth. Over and over it shows us how it is always best to walk in wisdom and to pursue good, Godly decisions.

Now, as I’ve said before, James is a very practical book. It is about real life discipleship … and in it James is very much in touch with the realities of Christian living. In today’s passage we see how well he understands our struggles. He identifies that it is never as simple as just wanting to be wise … because he warns us, his readers, that there is both a HEAVENLY wisdom AND what he calls an EARTHLY wisdom. We might say that there is a TRUE wisdom and a FALSE wisdom … a GODLY wisdom and a DEVILISH wisdom.

Our passage today contrasts these two forms of wisdom, in order to empower us to know them when we see them and to inspire us to abandon the false, earthly wisdom and to pursue the true, heavenly wisdom in every way.

So let’s dig in to our verses deeply today. We will follow James’ teaching contrasting these two forms of wisdom. To do that we’ll first start at the heart of the matter and identify:

  1. The motivation for each; then
  2. The characteristics of each; and finally
  3. The results of each form.

THE MOTIVATION

Take a look at v.14, and then we will read it in comparison to v.17.

“If you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.” (v.14) “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure …”

Right there we have the heart of the contrast between TRUE and FALSE wisdom. James points out that wisdom starts in the heart of  person. And the heart of a person is the seat of our deepest motivation. This calls for us to slice open our deepest inner motivations and recognise that if our deepest heart motivation in a given situation is self-centred … if my decision-making process is all about the desire to make my own life better or easier or more successful than the next person … I will be operating in false wisdom … earthly wisdom … wisdom from below rather than from above. False wisdom harbours bitter envy and selfish ambition in the heart, says James. It is found when a person is motivated by a ME FIRST attitude … an attitude that resents the success of others and looks to push oneself forward and gain the advantage at all costs.

You see, when our heart looks like that, how can we ever make decisions in godly wisdom? Would Jesus have been able to know and do the will of God which entailed laying His life down on the cross if he had been guided by a wisdom based on selfish ambition and bitter, self-centred envy? Never! And neither will we. If that is our inner heart motivation, the bitter centre of our lives will infect all of our lives and every decision we make.

So James says, “If that is your heart, ‘do not boast about it or deny the truth.’” If we look inside our hearts today with all honesty and recognise that in truth the core of our motivation is our own interests and selfish ambitions, our response should be to admit it honestly … to not be proud of it, but rather repentant … and then we ought to ask God to create in us a new heart.

Now that new heart is at the heart of true wisdom (pardon the pun). The inner motive for true wisdom, James implies in v.17 is purity. “Wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure.” This reminds us of Jesus saying, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” (Matt. 5:8)

When we are pursuing Godly wisdom, our hearts need to be pure in the desire to please God. Remember that Proverbs says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10). That “fear of the Lord” essentially means the sole desire (he desire above all other desires) to please God. Having a pure heart means having a heart that longs to know and do the will of God above all because above all other desires is the desire to please God.

SO can you see the absolutely contrasting motivations for these two forms of wisdom? False wisdom is in essence decision-making based on a ME 1st attitude of selfish ambition and desire for our own comfort or success.

True wisdom is in essence decision-making based on a desperate desire to discern the will of God in order to please God and walk in purity before Him.

What kind of wisdom are you pursuing?

So those are the opposing motivations of false and true wisdom. But we cannot stop there. Our human sinfulness means that we often do not even know our own hearts properly. We often battle to identify, let alone admit, our truly deepest motives. And even when we do have the purest motives, and our hearts are sincere … our decision-making can still lack godly wisdom. We can be sincere … but we can be sincerely wrong … and make sincerely foolish and ungodly decisions.

So James 3 moves beyond motive and helps us to discern true and false wisdom by highlighting their characteristics too.

CHARACTERISTICS

James is quite blunt when it comes to false wisdom in v.15. He says that such “wisdom” is “earthly, unspiritual and of the devil.” One can tell when a person is living in false wisdom because the essence of their outward living will be:

  • Earthly: They will be materialistic … pursuing the satisfaction of their earthly, material desires. There actions are earthly minded with no consideration for the higher things of God.
  • Unspiritual: This word can be translated as “sensual”. They live in a way that pursues their own physical desires and impulses, and pays zero attention to the desires of God for them.
  • Of the devil: The word is directly translated as “demoniacal”. It’s the only place in the Bible where the word for a demon is used as an adjective; i.e. to describe a quality of a person. A person living in false wisdom is pursuing a rival agenda to the agenda of God. They think they are fulfilling their own desires … not recognising the devil’s power of temptation

By contrast when a person is living out a pure, true, godly wisdom from above, it is also always going to show in the way they live. Like James says in v. 13: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. Godly wisdom is not some mystical quality reserved for the guru on the mountaintop. It is a quality lived out in the cut and thrust of everyday living.

The outward life of a person living in godly wisdom is listed in verse 17:

  • Peace-loving: A wise person is seeking to live in a way that leads to peace, and their actions will bring people closer to being at peace with each other and God.
  • Considerate: A wise person really does seek the highest best of others and also makes allowance for their weaknesses and failings. They are not harsh and unmoving.
  • Submissive: Likewise, a wise person is described as submissive in the NIV. The Greek word is quite rich in meaning and means being teachable and willing to obey the will of God immediately. But at a more human-relationships level it means being willing to listen and understand others.
  • Full of mercy and good fruit: This is such a beautiful quality. A wise person is compassionate towards the despair and need of others, even when they have brought that situation on themselves.
  • Impartial: A wise person has sound judgment. The word here strictly means unwavering and undivided. They are able to make up their mind and stick to it. There are those who think that it is a virtue to never make up one’s mind about anything … to suspend judgment. But godly wisdom is based on a deep knowledge of the will of God and a deep commitment to obeying it. So when it becomes clear that a course of action is the godly one, the person of wisdom will set their face to obey.
  • Sincere: The last characteristic is sincerity. Godly wisdom does not operate in the field of hypocrisy. A person of godly wisdom is who they are and who they say they are. They are solid and trustworthy and dependable as a rock because their lives are directed by eternal truth … not just sometimes but at every opportunity.

Which kind of wisdom are you operating in?

OUTCOME / RESULTS

Finally, James also offers us a glimpse at the results of living both by false and true wisdom. He wants to inspire us to pursue godly wisdom.

In v.16 he makes it clear that when a person is living in false wisdom … when they are motivated by their own selfish, envious desires and ambitions and live that motivation out in lives that are materialistic, sensual and unspiritual there will always be disorder and every evil practice.

Disorder! Rather than bringing people together in peaceful harmony, ungodly wisdom pushes people apart and messes up their relationships. Instead of producing peace it produces fighting and strife. It destroys love, peace and human unity and fellowship.

What is more, because it is not intent on pursing God, false wisdom will lead one in to immorality and sin – “every evil practice”.

True wisdom on the other hand … wisdom that is heavenly … has an outcome that is described in v.18. “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.”

When one is given the grace to live in godly wisdom, the outcome of one’s decisions and lifestyle will be the cultivation of a climate where peace and righteousness flourish. Your life will lead to the healing of relationships both between people and between people and God. Your life will increase in attitudes, words and behaviours that are deeply pleasing to God and which therefore reflect God’s beauty more perfectly in the world around you.

One will be characterised by what James calls, in v.14, “a good life”, with “deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.”

Remember that Romans 12 says that God’s will for us is good, pleasing and perfect.

Joel Osteen wrote a book called: “Your Best Life Now”. I’m afraid it may have focussed far too much on the “best” of an earthly, sensual, materialistic “best life” of health and wealth.

Scripture is clear that the BEST life we can possibly live is a life fully pleasing to God … even when the path of that life leads down a very difficult and winding road of self-sacrifice and humility.

Friends, in a nutshell, if we follow godly wisdom, our lives will be well-pleasing to God. Our lives lived in godly wisdom will bring great delight to the heart of God.

And God WILL give us grace to do this … because it is His desire for us. But He invites us to seek this wisdom. He calls us to value this wisdom immensely. He calls us also not to ignore godly wisdom … not to give in to temptation and live simply by human wisdom or understanding … but to rely on the Spirit of Wisdom.

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Control your Communication

James 3:1-12

You can listen to this Sermon HERE 

We continue our study of the Epistle of James – that very practical letter towards the end of the New Testament, written by James the brother of Jesus, to Jewish Christians from the church of Jerusalem which James essentially pastored. These were Christians who had been scattered from Jerusalem by persecution and who were now living in many different regions beyond Jerusalem.

I really want us to remember that we are reading a letter by a pastor. As such it’s like a written sermon. It is not just a series of disconnected ideas … it holds together … one idea flows to the next and there are connections to what came before and what will come after.

The most important “past point” to remember for today’s section is James 2:12 – the very clear instruction that Christians are to speak and act as those whose lives will be measured against the “Royal Law of Love.” By God’s grace we have been brought into a right relationship with Jesus, the King of Love. The King of Love rules our lives – so our speech and actions must reflect the Kingdom of which we are a part.

  • Last week we studied the passage dealing with the action half of that command. We discovered that … although our faith is invisible … its reality will always be revealed by the way we act … the way we live our lives outwardly. Our actions reveal our faith … or lack thereof.
  • James 3:1-12 address the other half of the command – how we speak! Yes, our actions reveal our invisible faith … but so does our speech.

Now James uses the “tongue” as a metaphor for speech. In his teaching, the “tongue” represents our use of words. In James’ day it was only a tiny minority who would have been able to both read and write. That’s why there were scribes – professional writers and readers. MOST people communicated only by speaking! So the tongue was representative of communication.

Is that still true for us? In our day and age we do communicate verbally … but we do far more communication in written form, via emails, blog posts, Facebook status updates and … most dangerous of all … tweets. Things are changing so, so fast! But James’ teaching is true for all these forms of communication.

So, whereas the NIV suggests that “Taming the Tongue” is a good title for these verses … I will give the sermon a slightly different title: Controlling our Communication; and everything the Word of God will instruct us in today, will be valid for any and every form of communication we might find ourselves using!

As I read this passage I see a clear command followed by 4 reasons and an answer to HOW?

The Command: Control your Communication

Remember what I said a minute ago. James has actually already given the core command all the way back in James 2:12: Speak as those who will be judged by the Law of Love.

The greatest measure of any human communication is this: Is it loving?

Love is to be the measure and the filter of all our communication as people of God.

Scripture is full of commands involving speech, and this is not the place to look at all those references to telling the truth, speaking with respect and honour, not blaspheming, nor indulging in filthy speech, gossip, slander or coarse joking.

But there are two Bible verses we absolutely HAVE to consider before we move forward, because they give us great general principles.

Ephesians 4:29 says: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouth, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” That is a vital measure of our speech. Does it build others up? Does it speak life to them? Or does it break the down and speak death to them?

But when we say that love is the greatest filter for all our communication it would be irresponsible not to point our attention to the great definition of love in 1 Cor. 13:4-8.

When we ask “Is it loving?” with that passage in mind then we are actually testing:

  • Are my words expressed with patience?
  • Are my words kind? Considering that kindness is “doing unto others as I would have them do to me” this test is: Would I like this to be said to me in this way?
  • Do these words express envy?
  • Are these words boastful?
  • Do these words dishonour others?
  • Do these words seek to puff me up in the eyes of others?
  • Are these words unduly angry?
  • Are these words dragging up past wrongs?
  • Do these words delight in and glorify what is ugly or evil?
  • Are these words truthful?
  • Do these words protect others or harm others?
  • Do these words express belief in others?
  • Do these words build up hope? i.e. are they positive words that speak life or negative words that destroy?
  • Do these words write someone off … or do they express belief in others?

You see … it is a simple command but it has many implications:

Speak as those who will be measured by the Law of Love.

Now, let’s consider the 4 good reasons James gives us to control our communication and ensure that we are speaking as those who will be judged by the Law of Love.

Five Reasons

Reason #1: Our Speech either Represents or Misrepresents God (v.1)

James makes his statement in verse 1 in order to discourage people from pushing themselves forward into a teaching role within the Church. He says, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly and we all stumble in many ways.”

Every Christian stumbles in many ways. But when one is in a position of teaching others the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ … one has increased influence … and with that influence comes increased accountability. Like the great Spiderman was told: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

So, yes, James is making his point in the context of Christian teachers. However, in one way or another, every one of us is also teaching the Gospel to others:

  1. We are all called to speak about our faith as witnesses;
  2. We are all asked questions about our faith from time to time;
  3. (Maybe most importantly) once people know we are Christians they listen to us and form opinions about the God we say we believe in, based on what they hear us saying.

So I think it is true to say that for all of us the way we communicate either gives others a great impression of the God we serve … or a bad impression. The way we communicate either represents God well … or it misrepresents God.

So control your communication because by it you either represent or misrepresent God to others.

Reason #2: Mastering it is KEY to Spiritual Maturity (v.2-5a)

“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.” (v.2)

When James says a man is perfect, remember that he uses a word which means spiritual maturity. It’s an idea he has already expressed in James 1:4, where he said, “Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

It implies that a person has become exactly like Jesus!

Is that something any of us can attain in this life? Well, not perfectly … But it is something that all of us as believers are striving towards. We are “working out our salvation”. We are “making every effort” to grow in Christlikeness in this world.

Key to this effort … key to this spiritual growth … is the way we communicate.

James illustrates by showing how something as small and seemingly insignificant as a metal bit in the mouth can control the whole direction of a powerful horse … and how something so small and seemingly insignificant as a rudder in the water can control the whole direction of a powerful ocean-going vessel.

Similarly, James implies, the words with which we communicate have the power to set the direction of our lives … either steering us closer to the image of Jesus … or further from it.

Because our speech … our communication … is so difficult to keep under control … it becomes a core issue in our discipleship. Master your speech and you will have mastered the most difficult and rebellious of your members.

And once you have mastery over your tongue / speech / communication you will find that you are able to bring everything else in your life under control that much easier too.

Are you unsure of where to start in trying to become more like Jesus? Start with your communication.

So control your communication because mastering it is key to spiritual maturity. Flowing directly out of this reason is the next one:

Reason #3: It can Destroy Lives (v.5b-7)

Yes, the tongue is a tiny part of our bodies … but the words we use direct the course of our lives and they can direct our lives straight off the cliff!

As a tiny spark can burn a whole forest down … our words can corrupt our whole lives … and the lives of others … and burn them to the ground!

James used a frightening phrase. He said, “The tongue is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body.” It is a little world of evil in itself. That’s a very expressive phrase, and it means that all there is in the world is represented there on a small scale. It means that all kinds of evil that are in the world are exhibited “in miniature” in our communications. Our words seem to be capable of committing all the sorts of sin that exist on the earth.

With all the good which our words can do, they can also do so much evil.

  • Who can measure the evil consequences that arise from gossip, and slander, and profanity, and perjury, and falsehood, and blasphemy, and false teaching?
  • Who can ever measure the number of fights, and family feuds, and wars, and suspicions, the alienations of friends and neighbours, which words have produced?
  • Who can measure the evils produced by the “sugary sweet” words of the seducer; or by the passionate defence of wrongdoing?
  • If all people were silent, what a portion of the crimes of the world would soon cease! If all would speak only that which ought to be spoken, what a change would come over the face of human affairs!

Our words set us on a course and that course can lead to the painful and violent destruction of people, of relationships, families, reputations and futures.

So control your communication because it can destroy lives.

Reason #4: It can contradict or confirm our praise of God (v.9-10)

The words we use can confirm our praise of God … but sadly they can also contradict that praise.

“With the tongue we praise our Lord” … that’s amazing. How special it is that our words can be used to communicate how awesome and glorious and majestic and loving our God is.

Yet with the same tongue “we curse men who have been made in God’s likeness”. That is so sad.

Note that James includes himself. He is not pointing fingers at his people. He is pointing out the painful truth about something we ALL do. We all break others down with our words … sometimes to their face and sometimes behind their backs … but it is always wrong! Because they are made in the image of God! Other people are worthy of respect and dignity simply because they are made in God’s image. Whenever we speak negatively over others we are contradicting our praise of the God in whose image they are made.

Someone will listen to us praising God and take note. They will wonder whether they can believe us. Then when they hear us cursing a fellow human being …speaking of them as though they were not worthy of being human … they will immediately reject whatever positive truth we just said about our God.

You and I declare: “God is LOVE!”

When we speak in love and with love to others, the truth of our confession about God is confirmed. BUT when we speak in hate to others, the truth of our confession about our God is contradicted.

So control your communication because it can either contradict or confirm your praise of God. And then finally we come to the HOW!

HOW?

How can we possibly get this right? How can we possibly control our communication in a fully Christlike way? After all, James said that anyone who manages this perfectly has become a perfect person. Talk about an impossible ideal!

I think the answer is in v.11-12. It does not help that I stand at a salt water spring and tell it over and over again to send out fresh water. It is not going to happen … because the source of the water is too salty.

I can tell a fig tree I want it to produce olives until I am red in the face … it will never produce olives.

What should we do? Either we move to a different spring and a different tree … or we find a way to freshen the salt water by introducing a cleansing agent … and we graft a new branch onto the tree.

Move to a different well:

In regard to our words … we need to decide whether we will speak from the well of the Holy Spirit of God’s love within us or from the well of sin that has not yet been cleansed out of us. And that is a choice that each of us as believers CAN make for ourselves! With the help and the power of the Holy Spirit we can make moment-by-moment decisions to speak from the well of the Spirit and the love of God within us.

Purify the well:

Ultimately, though, the solution is the transformation of our hearts. It is allowing the Holy Spirit to purify our hearts more and more.

The key to clean speech is a clean heart. The key to loving speech is a loving heart.

The Afrikaans idiom says that what the heart is full of the mouth overflows with.

Jesus said that is what comes out of the heart that makes a person unclean.

When I grew up your temperature was measured by sticking a thermometer under your tongue. The tongue is also a great spiritual thermometer. The tongue is a “tattletale”, it reveals the secrets of your heart.

So if you want to change your speech … let Jesus change your heart. Invite the Holy Spirit to come and purify your heart and fill it with the love of Jesus. That is the only lifelong way to have our communication transformed!

Yes we need to make the effort to put a guard at our mouths and to take authority over our communication to control it … but in the long run we can never do this without the inner purifying work of the Holy Spirit!

Faith: Dead or Alive?

James 2:14-26

One of the big struggles the early Christians had in understanding the finished work of Jesus was this: How is a person made right with God through Jesus? What does that person need to do in order to be “saved” by what Jesus did for them?

As we will see today, James believes the same answer the apostle Paul so powerfully gave in Romans 3:21-22:

21 (But now) God’s way of putting people right with himself has been revealed. It has nothing to do with law… 22 God puts people right through their faith in Jesus Christ. God does this to all who believe in Christ.” (GNB)

James agrees with all of that. Salvation is by God’s grace through our faith in Jesus – as Paul said in Ephesians 2:8 – not by works so that no-one can boast.

BUT James sees a danger. He sees a possible misunderstanding … and he wants to warn his flock of that danger. In fact, he has probably picked up that false teachers are doing the rounds and bringing confusion to his people.

So he desperately wants to show that it is only what he would call a true and living faith that can save us. He does not want them to be fooled into having a faith which is anything less than this … and so in fact, in reality, having no faith at all.

I: The Warning

James 2:14 bellows out a very strident warning bell, that rings over and over throughout the whole passage. Don’t be deceived! There is a kind of “so-called” faith that can never save you. It is a dead faith! It is a useless faith! In fact it is no faith at all.

Have a look through the passage. Four times James warns about that kind of “so-called” faith saying:

  • 14 It is “no good”
  • 17 it is “dead”
  • 20 It is “useless”
  • 26 Again … it is “dead”; and, to go right back to
  • 14 It “cannot save you”

So what kind of faith cannot save you? Answer: Faith that does not lead to action!

Faith that does not lead to action is no faith at all.

Here’s how James describes this kind of faith throughout the passage:

  • 14 “A man claims to have faith but has no deeds”
  • 17 “Faith by itself … not accompanied by action”
  • 18, 20 and 27 “Faith without deeds”

His whole point is: Faith that is not accompanied by action is as dead as a body will be once the spirit has departed. It is just a corpse. It is dead, dead, dead! It can accomplish nothing.

That is what James is warning. Don’t think that kind of so-called faith is enough. That is dead faith and it does not save you.

Then to flesh it out and help us understand better James gives three illustrations.

II: The Illustrations

1st Illustration: Empty Confession

In verse 14 James says: “What good is it if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds.”

He is talking about someone who makes an empty confession of faith in Jesus.

You see, faith in Jesus is an invisible, intangible attitude of the heart. If you see a stranger standing on a street corner you can’t tell just by looking at them … does this person have faith in Jesus?

If you want to know whether there is faith in their heart … one way you could find out would be to ask them: “Do you have faith in Jesus?”

Then they could answer you: “Yes I do!” That is a claim to have faith. It is a verbal  claim about the position of their heart and life: “I trust in Jesus Christ.”

You may find a person saying to you: “I am born again. I am saved. I am a child of God. I gave my life to Jesus.” These are claims that I have faith in Jesus.

We may ask someone: “Have you given your life to Jesus? Have you prayed the sinners’ prayer?” And they may answer: “YES! I have!” That is a claim to have faith in Jesus.

Hold that thought. Did you know that the Old Testament Law says that if a case is going to be proved there must be at least two witnesses to give testimony? Deuteronomy 19:15 says: “One witness is not enough to convict someone of  a crime; at least two witnesses are necessary to prove that someone is guilty.”

Here … it is as though James is saying … well that man’s mouth is one witness that he has faith in Jesus … but the corroborating evidence will be whether his actions testify of the same thing!

Here’s another way to think about it. Faith is invisible. So is wind. Imagine you are having a video call with a man standing under a windmill.

You ask him: “Is it windy?”

“YES”, he answers. That’s the first witness.

But his hair is not moving and neither is the windmill in the background. The second witness is contradicting him.

This is what James is saying. Faith is invisible. So words are not enough. The outward actions of a person’s life are the only “2nd witness” by which we can corroborate that claim.

If your faith has no impact on your daily living … it is dead faith.

2nd Illustration: Empty Compassion

When James gets to his illustration in v.15-17 I think we are getting right up close to the reason he is writing about this in the first place. Why do I say that? Context.

Remember James has just been speaking about the royal law of love. We saw that last week in James 2:8 – “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself,’ you are doing right.” (James 2:8)

And immediately after telling his readers to love their neighbour and to show mercy to others because God is merciful to them (in v.12-13) he starts his very next sentence with “What good is it if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?”

It’s no surprise that James uses an example of love in action to illustrate his point.

His illustration is in fact a double-edged sword.

One “edge of the sword” … one point he is making … is that faith that is not followed by action is as useless as the words, “Keep warm and well-fed” are useless …  if they are not followed up with a blanket or jersey or plate of food. The words in themselves make no difference to the cold, hungry person … they do not warm a cold body or feed a hungry stomach. They remain only words.

In the same way, saying, “I have faith in Jesus”, does not make any difference … if those words are not followed up by action. So the first “edge of the sword” of James’ illustration is a lesson by comparison – a simile (or is it a metaphor).

The second “edge of the sword” – another point hidden away in this same illustration – is that one may ask, “Well what kind of action should faith in Jesus lead to?” I suspect James is already answering that question with his illustration, saying: “How about the action of practically loving those in need?”

To say that we have entrusted our entire life to Jesus Christ who is the Lord of Love … and yet not to follow that up with practical deeds of compassionate love towards those in need … makes our confession of faith hollow and meaningless. Our lack of action would be a denial of our words of faith. Our lack of action PROVES that our faith is dead and useless.

3rd Illustration: Empty Conviction

Verse 18-19 contains our most “in your face” illustration. It starts like this:

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” In other words, someone will suggest that faith is one way to God and deeds is another way to God. Whichever floats your boat is fine …

But James responds: Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.

His point is clear. True living faith in Jesus always leads to Christ-like actions. The action proves the reality of the faith. The two cannot be disconnected from each other.

And that makes sense of verse 19 where he says: “You believe that there’s one God. Good. Even the demons believe that, and tremble.”

Wow! Point made, James. Demons know for sure that God exists but they certainly don’t have faith in Him … they’ve not entrusted their lives to Him in fully-abandoned surrender – which is what Biblical faith is about.

How do we know that? By their actions … which oppose the will of God. They know the truth. They believe the truth about God. But they don’t love the truth about God; they don’t love righteousness; they don’t love purity and holiness and love; they don’t love God. They love everything evil. So they believe the right things … but they don’t have faith! Their actions prove that!

You can make whatever confession of faith you like with your mouth … you can recite the Apostles’ Creed every single day … make the sign of the Cross every time you run on the field or enter your office … say the Lord’s Prayer in the morning and Psalm 23 at night … but your life and its actions will reveal the truth about whether there is faith in your heart or not.

If the faith we say we have does not lead to a transformed life that is moving from hatred to love … moving from war to peace … moving from darkness to light … it is no better than demon faith.

These are three strong, strong illustrations from James. In fact you’d think he had already made his point. But he feels so strongly about this heretical view of Christianity – the view that faith need not usher in action – that he goes on and adds two examples from the Old Testament. Let’s hear them again.

The Examples

#1 Example – Abraham

To be honest the example from Abraham’s life is definitely the BEST example James could have chosen to make his point … but in our day and age it is also probably the most uncomfortable example he could have chosen. It is the example of Abraham hearing God telling him to sacrifice his only son Isaac … the very son through whom God had promised to make Abraham’s descendants as numerous as the sand of the seashore.

If you follow the daily readings then you would have read this story from Genesis this past week, and you will possibly already be battling with the seeming contradictions to the character of God as we know Him. You would know that Abraham heard God give this horrifying instruction … and that he obeyed the instruction right up to the point where Isaac was bound on the altar and Abraham’s hand was raised with the knife, ready to strike Isaac dead. At that moment, God stopped Abraham and said: “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

  • Time does not allow us to wrestle with why God chose to bring Abraham right to the point that God Himself followed through on when God gave HIS only Son as a sacrifice for our sins.
  • Time does not allow us to wrestle with the fact that Isaac had not been given the choice to willingly lay down his life … the way Jesus made the choice and willingly laid down His life for us.
  • Time does not allow us to speculate too much on whether God had spoken to Isaac ahead of time and that we’re just not told about it by the author of Genesis.

What time allows for now is to let Scripture interpret Scripture … which is something we should always do. When we don’t understand what is going in a verse, our first port of call should always be to check if there is another part of the Spirit-inspired Word of God that throws some light on it. And in this case there is.

There is Hebrews 11:17-19 which says:

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18 even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” 19 Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.

Aha … this is why James quotes the example of Abraham.

His point to his readers is: How do we KNOW that Abraham had faith in God that God could raise the dead? Because of what he did. Because of the extremes he was willing to go to … trusting in all that He believed about God … including that if Isaac WAS killed in sacrifice or in any other way … God could still fulfil His promise … because God can EVEN raise the dead. If Abraham had SAID he believed that God is a promise-keeping God and that He can even raise the dead in order to keep His promises … but when push came to shove had refused to put his own life on the line (or in this case Isaac’s life) then his refusal would have simply revealed that in truth he did not really believe what he said he believed.

Faith is revealed by actions!

Now James’ readers may very well have been saying what we are inclined to say: “Yes but that was Abraham … recognised broadly as the father of faith. We are just ordinary, sinful people.”

Well frankly Abraham was plenty sinful too. But James makes his point one last time with the 2nd example … someone as different to Abraham as chalk and cheese.

#2 Example: Rahab

Who was Rahab? A prostitute. A brothel-owner. A pagan. No paragon of faith and virtue.

What is her story? Two Israelite spies, sent in to Jericho to get the lay of the land before the Israelite invasion, stumbled in to her “Inn” for the night. But word leaked out that two Jews were there … and soldiers came to arrest them. Rahab hid the spies and sent the soldiers away empty-handed. Rahab then made this confession of faith to the spies:

She said: “I know that the Lord has given this land to you … The Lord your God is God in heaven above and on earth below.”

James’ point in using Rahab as an example of faith in action is this: How do you know that Rahab was telling the truth that she believed and trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel more than she believed in and trusted the pagan gods of her upbringing? Because she acted on that conviction! It was no empty confession. She had no empty compassion. She had no empty conviction. She ACTED and her action saved the spies but also led to her salvation when Jericho fell to the Israelites.

CONCLUSION

This has been a long sermon … because although James made a single point … he recognised that it needed 3 illustrations and 2 Biblical examples. He recognised that need because humanity has ALWAYS wanted to fool ourselves and others by what we SAY we believe and the God we SAY we entrust our lives to by faith.

Faith without action is dead faith … useless faith … even demon faith.

So allow your faith to be turned into action. Act on what you believe in your heart. Allow the Holy Spirit who lives in you to move you to live in harmony with what you believe in your heart and mind.

Don’t have “pretend-faith”. Don’t play “religious games”. Get real! Get active! Bring your faith to life by living it outwardly in love, compassion and righteousness … and in whichever other way God might lead you!

James 2:1-13

Favouritism

We are resuming our study of the Epistle of James – this very practical letter towards the end of the New Testament, written by James the brother of Jesus, to Jewish Christians from the church of Jerusalem which James essentially pastored. These were Christians who had been scattered from Jerusalem by persecution and who were now living in many different regions beyond Jerusalem.

If you missed either of the first two sermons in James and want to catch up, you can do so on www.cmcpulpit.wordpress.com

Having written to the scattered Christians of the earliest church (and to us) about how to live as faithful Christ-followers in the face of adversities … and having advised us how to best receive the Word of wisdom that God speaks to us … James now moves to address an issue which seems to have been plaguing this particular early church … but which is just as relevant to us today. The issue is FAVOURITISM.

Before we consider what James has to say, let’s remember that in fact the majority of the earliest church were poor people. Paul states it in relation to the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 1:26, “Think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.” This seems to have been true of every early church. In fact in Jerusalem so many of the first 3000 converts from the great awakening on the Day of Pentecost were poor that in Acts 2 the wealthy converts were already selling property to give to the poor … and the earliest controversy in Acts 6 was over the issue of welfare support to the widows in the church.

So yes there were wealthy people … like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea … like the Jewish priests who came to faith in Jesus according to Acts 6:7 … like Cornelius in Acts 10 … Sergius Paulus the high-ranking Roman proconsul who believed in Acts 13 … and Lydia the businesswoman with whom Paul worked in Acts 16.

So yes, not many were noble … some were … but the majority were poor … and especially among the Jewish Christians to whom James was writing. A wealthy refugee is a rarity. These people had fled homes and families … they were religious refugees!

Into this community James writes a powerful command for the Christ-follower. As we will see, it is not a new command … but it is one they needed to hear afresh … and so do we!

The Command

Look with me at James 2:1 “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favouritism.”

The command is clear. If you are a follower of Jesus favouritism has no place in you. Favouritism has no place in the church of Jesus Christ. James feels very strongly about this and the strength of his feelings are shown in the way he makes this statement.

Look at the more literal translation in the NKJV: “Do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ the Lord of glory…” What? Is James telling us NOT to live a life of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Not at all … but his sentence is not finished yet. Here’s the whole sentence: “Do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality.”

In other words: Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and partiality … do not belong together. You can never excuse holding faith in Jesus in one hand … and favouritism or partiality in the other hand! That’s how strongly James feel about this! He has clearly read Proverbs 24:23, “To show partiality in judging is not good” and 28:21, “To show partiality is not good.”

So what is partiality or favouritism … or as the Greek could more literally be translated “lifting up the face” or “respecting persons”.

The whole idea is to judge someone purely by outward appearances. To lift up their face to look at them and to make a judgment about who they are and the level of respect due to them … by virtue of their outward appearance … and then acting towards them in accordance with that assessment you have made on their outward appearance. That’s what is at the heart of favouritism or partiality.

Please … a quick disclaimer: James is not saying … and neither does any other part of Scripture … that we are not to distinguish sin from righteousness. It is not speaking about not judging what is sinful behaviour and what is Godly behaviour. This is about not treating people differently … not having two different sets of standards for people … based on outward appearances – particularly outward appearance of worldly value.

Then … So that we can never make the excuse that we don’t understand how this could ever happen … James immediately moves to giving an example in verse 2. And it is a scene that has probably played out a million times in churches around the world ever since … despite James’ teaching.

The Example

Let’s turn to verses 2-4: “Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old 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?”

You could not ask for a more appropriate example. Let’s be honest. Close your eyes and imagine you’re at church on a Sunday morning. It’s a regular Sunday. The regular crowd shuffles in. You’ve finally responded to God’s call and you’re doing a door duty … when a Porsche you haven’t seen in the parking lot before pulls in and out gets a handsome, well-built young man and a beautiful young woman dressed in designer outfits. Her hands sparkle with gold and diamond rings. They’re obviously wealthy and the moment you greet them you feel the charm of their personalities. You ask their names … because you’ve never seen them before (you would have remembered) … you make sure to point them to some comfortable seats in a good position … you introduce them to one or two others by name … and you send a note to the preacher to report that there are two visitors this morning and their names are … um … Vusi and Melanie.

Good job! Well done.

Except that the next two people through the door are an elderly couple you’ve never seen before. They are rather beaten up by life and at first glance you can’t really tell whether they slept indoors or outdoors last night. There is a bit of an odd smell around them. You hand them the bulletin with a warm smile and a welcome … like you did for everyone else … except … not quite everyone else.

What a great example of partiality or favouritism James has given us. He says when we do things like this we “discriminate among ourselves.” Remember that while in our example visiting a church is a fairly neutral and non-committal thing to do … it was not so for James’ church. Here to go to church meant to risk your life and wellbeing. You went to church because you were already a follower of Jesus in that area. There weren’t churches to choose from. There was one if any .. .and so here in James’ example the rich man and the poor man were both members of this church … and yet they were still being treated differently.

“No!” shouts James, “This is evil! Don’t do it.”

Well why not? James is glad you asked … because he has a good few answers to that question for us. Why not show partiality … or favouritism? Why not treat some better than others? Here are the reasons. James gives 4 reasons that I could spot.

The Reasons

#1 Because of who Jesus is

Right back in verse 1 when James says we are not to hold favouritism along with our “faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory” … or the “glorious Lord Jesus Christ” … or “Jesus Christ the glorious” depending on your translation.

Friends, you and I and the disciples in James’ day are following Jesus. We are together at church because we are co-followers of Jesus … disciples of this MAN! Our lives are to be imitations of Him … reflections of Him.

And He … says James … is the Glorious Lord. Jesus Christ is the glorious image of the glory of God. Jesus Christ, says Hebrews 1 is the invisible God made visible. You want to know what God is like look at Jesus.

So look at Jesus. Did He exercise favouritism or partiality? Remember what that means – to determine our behaviour towards someone by their external appearance. Jesus’ own enemies said of Him in Matthew 22:16, “You aren’t swayed by people, because you pay no attention to who they are.” They recognised that Jesus didn’t care whether someone was a Pharisee or a poor widow. He paid no attention to their outward appearance and relative importance. And that should not be a surprise to us when we consider that Jesus is the visible incarnation of the invisible God of whom Samuel said in 1 Samuel 16:7, “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance but the LORD looks at the heart.” Jesus is the incarnation of the God of whom Moses said in Deuteronomy 10:17, “The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes.

Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ cannot be reconciled with favouritism and partiality because Jesus Himself – the perfect image of God – has no favouritism in Him. That’s the first reason.

#2 Because it reveals evil motives

Look at what James says at the end of verse 4: “have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?”

The word “thoughts” is about our motives. That is revealing. Just think again about our example. Why would you treat Vusi and Melanie with special and different honour? Why? What’s the motive?

All our answers to that might be slightly different but at their heart they would all be selfish. They would all be about what we stand to gain from treating them that way. Their favour towards us … their appreciation of us … their tithes and offerings … the stories we culd tell later over coffee about how important and beautiful our visitors were today … or even that we might be able to invite them to join us after church for coffee and be seen with them. All those motives are selfish. And selfish … is evil.

Selfish is evil because selfish is not loving!

Here’s how one preacher I listened to summed it up: “You’re guilty of being partial. You’re guilty of favouritism. You’re guilty of evil discrimination. And the issue of such behaviour is that it’s not godlike. God isn’t like that … You’re just like a sinful world. You’re motivated to cater to the rich and the prominent … and shun and slight the poor and the common. That’s anti-Christian behaviour. This is the carnality of the flesh. This has no place in the people of God.” (John MacArthur; The evil of favouritism in the Church).

That’s the second reason.

#3 Because it is illogical

It almost feels to me that James is so passionate about this here that he figures that if they won’t do the right thing because it is the right thing … he may as well give them another reason to do the right thing based on logic.

Listen to what he says in v.5-7: “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?”

When a Christian gives no honour to a poor Christian simply because they are poor, they are being illogical. They are devaluing and dishonouring someone to whom God has given special honour. Generally … and we don’t have time to go into this in greater specifics … but generally in Scripture it is the poor who respond most readily to God. It is they who know with greatest reality the need to cling to God in faith … because they don’t have the things of this world to deceive them into trusting in human wealth. Most often, James is insinuating, the outwardly poor Christian is inwardly a hero of faith. They trust God to provide for them against the odds. And what is more, because they trust God they have a huge inheritance kept for them in heaven. So treating them with dishonour because they are materially poor is illogical. It is ridiculous.

On the other hand, when a Christian gives special honour to a wealthy person simply because they are wealthy, they are being illogical in a different way. Wealthy Christ-rejecting Jews had rejected Jesus as their Messiah, and blasphemed the name of Jesus … sentencing Him to a cross when He was God incarnate. It was the religious elite in Jerusalem … those who were wealthy because they manipulated the religious system … it was them who had Jesus put to death when they saw He was making trouble for their money-spinning temple businesses. And they were harassing Jesus’ followers even now.

James writes to his people that in their experience it was most often the wealthy who were exploiting their vulnerability as refugee Christians. It was the wealthy who took in the poor refugee and made them work for a wage that was so low they could not survive on it … or bought them as slaves.

What are you thinking, James seems to be saying. What are you thinking when you favour the rich and dishonour the poor. It’s ungodly. But it’s also totally illogical. Come on guys! That’s reason number three.

#4 Because it breaks the Law of Love

Let’s read v.8-11: “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself,’[a] you are doing right. But if you show favouritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as law-breakers. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11 For he who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’[b]also said, ‘You shall not murder.’[c] If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a law-breaker.”

We don’t have the time to get side-tracked by James’ examples. His point is that if you break the Law in one way it is irrelevant that you haven’t broken it in some other way. You’re still a lawbreaker.

But he makes that point to highlight that when they show favouritism they are lawbreakers of the Law of Love … regardless of how they are keeping that law in other ways.

Remember the Law of Love – “Love your neighbour as you love yourself” … or as Jesus put it: “By this they will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” That Law of Love is the summary of how to live like Jesus. And all James is saying here is that to show favouritism is to be unloving … because when you keep this Law od love you will love your poor neighbour as you love yourself and your rich neighbour as you love yourself and so both are loved to the same degree … .as you love yourself!

Remember the self-centred motive for favouritism that we looked at earlier? Love does not ask what can I get out of this person. Love gives itself to the other. Showing partiality to one person over another because of their outward appearance and perceived value as a human … is unloving … and hence evil! It breaks the Law of Love!

And so finally, James ends this section of his letter with a restatement of the call of God (in this regard) on the lives of all Christ-followers!

The Call of God

James ends with this: “12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

Our call is to LIVE LOVE. It is to speak and act in the full knowledge that when we stand before God … we are going to be standing before the One who has every right to judge us and condemn us to eternal punishment … but who has chosen in love to give us mercy instead! So if God has chosen to treat us with love and mercy … that’s how we are called to treat everyone else … with love and mercy … regardless of their relative human importance or “value”. Here in this life LIVE as those who long for the mercy and grace of God … by giving mercy and grace to all others … regardless of outward appearances.

Do you want God to judge you by the outward appearance of your righteous deeds and your sinful deeds? Well then you’ve got a HUGE problem because none of us measures up. We are all far more stained by our sinful deeds than we are “polished” by our good deeds.

No. What you want is for God to judge you by the state of your heart and your faith in His Son Jesus Christ who died to remove your sins from you as far as the east is from the west.

So don’t go around being the person who judges and values others by outward appearances. DO NOT hold faith in the Lord Jesus Christ WITH favouritism.

James 1:18-27

How to Receive the Word of Life and Truth

You can listen to this sermon HERE      Please note that the recording only begins at the first main point below (Receive the Word in a Spirit of Submission)

1.Introduction to the Passage

Last week we began our study of the book of James:

  • a letter towards the end of the New Testament
  • written (as we saw last week) by James the brother of Jesus
  • written to Jewish Christians from the church of Jerusalem which James essentially pastored
  • These were Christians who had been scattered from Jerusalem by persecution
  • and who were now living in many different regions beyond Jerusalem.

In last Sunday’s passage, James 1:1-18, the persecuted Christians were encouraged by James to reckon their adversities as a potential source of great joy, because when they confronted their adversities with faith, the adversities would serve to reveal the genuine beauty and value of their faith in Jesus, it would grow them in the virtue of perseverance and, most importantly, it would be used by God to grow and mature them into the image of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord. He instructed them that when they did not know how to persevere in their adversity, that they ask God for wisdom and then trust the wisdom of God, knowing that God was not against them … but for them.

That’s James 1:1-18 in a tiny nutshell. If you missed it and want the whole of last week’s message you can find it on www.cmcpulpit.wordpress.com .

We will start today’s reading in verse 18 which makes this amazing statement: “[The Father] chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all He created.

This is all true for James’ first readers. Half of it is true for you and me. Let me explain what I mean. The word of truth is the testimony of the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. By hearing and believing that message they (and we) turned away from sin, received Christ as Lord and Saviour, and were born again by the working of the Holy Spirit as God’s beloved children. So that much is true for them and for us. But they were also “a kind of firstfruits” because remember many of them were among the first 3000 people to believe on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem. They were the firstfruits of God’s “new creation” work that He is still doing today in the life of every person who receives the Gospel, the word of truth.

So verse 18 sets the tone for the rest of today’s passage. It reminds us that when we receive God’s Word of Truth it is life-giving! Not only does properly receiving God’s Word give us rebirth to begin with but, as we will later see in v.21, God’s Word when properly received also continues to “save us” … in other words it continues to be powerful to transform our lives. In the light of last week’s reading, it also gives us life by guiding us through the adversities of life with wisdom!

Last week I suggested that main point of v.1-18 was, “How to live for Christ when adversity strikes”. This week I believe the main point of v.19-27 is, “How to receive the Word of Life.” Let’s read it now: James 1:18-27

2. How to receive the Word of Life

Although verse 19 is very sound advice for human relationships in general – “be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” – here in the context of James’ letter it has a crucial meaning for our relationship to God.

Yes, the Bible confirms that this principle of listening more than speaking is essential in human relationships. Here are 4 proverbs that make the point:

  • Proverbs 10:19 – “Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues”;
  • Proverbs 13:3 – “Those who guard their lips preserve their lives, but those who speak rashly will come to ruin”;
  • Proverbs 17:28 – “Even fools are thought wise if they remain silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues”;
  • Proverbs 29:20 – “Do you see someone who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for them.”

Clearly the principle of listening far more than you speak … and of restraining anger … is an important Biblical way of life for the one who would be wise.

BUT … in the context of James’ letter he is not primarily HERE talking about listening to human words. THAT he will get to in detail in James 3:1-12. HERE his instruction is sandwiched between v.18 which highlights the importance of “the word of truth” and v.21 which speaks of “the word that can save you.”

This section of James’ letter is so vitally important because as Jesus says: “You shall not live on bread alone but on every word that is coming from the mouth of God.” (Matt. 4:4). However that Word comes to us – be it by reading the Bible, waiting on God in prayer, listening to sermons and Bible Studies, through Gospel conversations with fellow believers – however it comes to us, the Word of God imparts life to us … it leads us in the ways of the abundant life that Jesus died and rose to give us.

So James 1:19-27 deals with this vital question: How should I receive this Word of Life?

In these verses I discern four answers:

a.Receive the Word in a Spirit of Submission (v.19-20)

The first three statements James makes here are all essentially about us coming to God’s Word with a spirit of submission to God! He says: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God requires.” (v.19)

When it comes to God’s Word, our calling is to submit to it by being “quick to listen”.  In fact a literal translation could be, “be quick to the hearing”. We are called to be eager to grab hold of every opportunity we can to receive the Word of God. Pursue every opportunity to obtain the knowledge of God and His will. Those who have experienced the way the “word of truth” imparts life to us in the new birth (as James said in 1:18) and in our everyday searching for the wisdom of God (as we saw in James 1:6-8) – such a person will always be very eager to feast on the Word at every opportunity. The believer has recognised that their spiritual hunger can only be satisfied by the Word of God … and so when that “food” is being served … they are very quick to feast on it. They are eager to read the Bible with attention and openness to the Word … eager to hear solid Biblical teaching … eager to listen to the voice of the Spirit in prayer and fellowship. Be quick to listen.

James also says, “be slow to speak”. Literally, again, this is “slow to the speaking”. If quick to the hearing means be eager to listen to God’s Truth … “slow to the speaking” means to be very, very cautious about opening your mouth to say, “Thus says the Lord.” It means being exceptionally cautious before offering an opinion on what God’s Word is in a given situation or relating to a particular issue. Fantastic advice in this age when it’s so easy to speak and to reach hundreds or thousands or even millions of people with a single social media post. Today every Tom, Dick and Sally has an opinion on “truth” … on who God is … what God desires from us … what God’s moral law allows or disallows. James warns us, “be slow to the speaking” … in general yes… but particularly here when we are speaking something that might be understood to be the Word of God. James will come back to this in James 3:1, saying, “Not many of you should become teachers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”

When the great Scottish Reformer John Knox received the call to preach, his biography says, “He burst forth in most abundant tears, withdrew himself into his chamber. His countenance and behaviour from that day until the day he was compelled to present himself in the public place of preaching did sufficiently declare the trouble and grief of his soul.” Know recognised the enormous burden of speaking the Word of God … the Word of Truth. Yet in our day many rush to offer an opinion on God’s character, nature, Law, Gospel based more on their Hollywood-inspired thinking than on the revealed Word of God. Be slow to speak.

Then, James says, in the spirit of submission, “be slow to anger”. The word he uses, “orge” is anger in the form of a deep resentment. It’s not an angry outburst. It is angry resentment. Sometimes … no actually often … God’s Word of Truth and Life goes against what we WANT to hear. It may contradict our worldview and that might irritate us … but it may also confront our sin … and that is often the greatest source of anger at the Word of God … or it may confront our wrong priorities. And we don’t want our cage rattled or our lifestyle affected … so resentment builds. You see … if you’re not in submission to God’s Word you will become angry when it confronts you, or challenges you or corrects you. And James says, that kind of anger … look at it there in v.20 … “does not produce the righteousness that God requires.” That kind of anger puts up a wall and refuses to submit to God’s Word … in fact most often it leads to a life of rebellion against God.

So main point #1: Receive the Word of God in Submission.

b.Receive the Word with a hunger for Purity (v.21)

The second way in which we are to receive the Word, says James, is purity: “Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent.”

To receive God’s Word effectively it is essential to wage war against the sins we know are present in our lives … to reject them … and to make the conscious decision to get rid of them … the same way we make a conscious decision to take off a dirty item of clothing – that’s the image James uses. It is like the image of Ephesians 4:22 “Put off your old self which is being corrupted by its evil desires.” Make the conscious choice to be done with sin.

James uses such an interesting word here for what is translated “moral filth”. The word is “rhuparia” and its root is “rhupos” which means dirty wax in your ear. You know the thing about ear wax is it builds up so slowly … we don’t even notice it until one day you wake up and can’t hear properly because your ear has become totally blocked.

Immorality is a lot like that. Immorality creeps up on us. It becomes a habit slowly. You don’t decide to be immoral overnight … you don’t decide to have an affair overnight … you don’t decide to commit fraud overnight … you get sucked in slowly but surely. Gradually one’s conscience becomes dulled and what seemed unacceptable becomes acceptable … and that sin eventually blocks our ears and we don’t or maybe WON’T hear the Word of God anymore. We won’t hear when the preaching of God’s Word confronts that sin. We find all kinds of creative ways to get around the plain meaning of the Word. Why? Because we are not willing to take off our filthy clothes of sin. Our ears are blocked by wickedness.

So, says James, syringe your ears! Make the decision to come to God’s Word with a deep desire for purity and to please the Lord. Come in repentance over your sin and a hunger for holiness!

Main point #2: Receive the Word in purity.

The third way to receive God’s Word is …

c.Receive the Word in a Spirit of Meekness (v.21)

There is no surprise to hear James say it specifically because it relates so closely to the other two, but his third point is – to properly receive the Word of Life and Truth: “Humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.”

In the “main point” I used the word “meekness”. It is the beautiful old translation which is given as “humility” in the newer versions. Meekness = “prautes” = strength under control.

Being meek is not being weak … it is allowing one’s strength to be under control. In this case … under the control, in this instance, of the Word of God! It means coming to God’s Word for instructions for living … for direction and guidance … it is teachability … but not teachability for the sake of head-knowledge … teachability for the sake of practical life-directing truth and instruction.

And when you receive the Word with submission and with a spirit of purity and in a spirit of humility and teachability then, says James, that Word is “planted in you” and “is able to save you.”

Just a quick comment on that before we move to the last point. James says the Word is able to save you … but aren’t we (and James’ first readers) already saved? Well yes … BUT … Biblically we are saved AND we are being saved. In the past we were saved from the penalty of sin when we came to faith in Christ. We were forgiven and we were brought into right relationship with the Father. And yet we are also still being saved from the power of sin, as we are being transformed into the image of Christ.

When we receive the Word with submission and with a spirit of purity and in a spirit of humility and teachability then the Word is able to work in us to save us from the power of sin and transform us into the image of Christ.

James says the Word “is able to save you” … but it is only able to save us in this way if we respond to it. So that brings us to the last main point.

4.Receive the Word in Responsiveness (v.22-25)

Let’s read v.22-25.

This whole paragraph is a call essentially to be doers of the word and not just hearers. The Word of God, planted in us, will not bring about any change if we do not actively live by it.

The most literal translation of v.22 is the King James Version: “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.” The Greek word for “hearers” (akroates) was the ancient term for an auditor. An auditor remains impartial and looks in from the outside in order to offer criticism! When it comes to the Word of God, the auditor just listens but does not get involved … does not respond to the Word of God. They’re interested in theory but not in practice.

For the faithful follower of Christ, hearing the Word of God is not the aim … obeying the Word of God is the aim. Responding is the aim.

James gives us this very cool word picture which really doesn’t need explaining. He says listening to God’s Word and not doing it is as useless as looking in the mirror and making no adjustment to your untidy appearance. It’s useless – why even look in the first place.

Now please look at v.25 as I speak.

The “freedom” from sin that God’s Word can impart … the “blessing of God” as v.25 puts it … comes only to those who approach God’s Word in a certain way. It comes to those who “look intently” … who do not just glance but thoroughly study themselves and their behaviour and habits in the mirror of God’s Word … what James calls here “God’s Perfect Law that gives freedom” … and they continue to examine themselves like that … and then they do what is necessary to obey. They make the necessary changes in their lives. They listen, search their lives and obey. They will be under God’s blessing as they obey.

If we do not obey, James says in v.26b, our “religion is useless”. That word religion means ceremonial public worship; i.e. what we are doing here today. Your worship service to listen to the Word of God and Worship Him, to pray and praise and fellowship, is worthless if you do not respond!

James the gives three examples of the kinds of responses we might be called to make by the Word of God rightly received. Of course there are many more. He is just driving his point home. If you don’t obey its worthless. Those three examples?

It is worthless:

  • if you hear the Word about the way God wants you to speak but do not keep your tongue under control, you may as well not have heard the word. It is useless!
  • If you hear the constant refrain of the Old Testament Word of God about caring for the vulnerable, but you do nothing practically to help the most vulnerable in your society (in those days it was the widows and the fatherless), you may as well not have heard the Word. It is useless!
  • If you hear the Word of God’s moral holiness and yet you choose rather to conform to the pollution of the world’s immorality, you may as well not have heard the Word. It is useless!

Conclusion

The Word of the Lord to us through James today is this: Listen to God’s Word … in whichever way it comes to you. Listen:

  • in submission,
  • in purity,
  • in meekness, and
  • in responsiveness.

Listen in order to obey! Listen in order to be transformed. Listen in order to become like Jesus!

James 1:1-18 Adversity

You can listen to this sermon HERE. Please note that the Audio only starts after the “Introduction to the Book of James” and the Bible Reading.

Introduction to The Book of James

Today we begin a study of the book of James, which we will complete just before Advent begins. So this is good news if you are a lover of the Bible and of studying it properly in context.

I sincerely encourage you to bring your Bible and notebook along to services during this study. You’ll find it tremendously helpful to be able to take notes and to see the Biblical text in front of you as we go.

Also, each week we will publish some discussion questions which you can use in your small group, or as a couple or a family, or with some friends, to discuss the passage for the week and to really digest what God is saying to us.

So let’s introduce the book of James.

James is a letter – what is also called an “epistle” – found towards the end of the New Testament – just after the book of Hebrews.

The author of this letter was James who (surprisingly) was the brother of Jesus. Have you ever had a friend (maybe from high school) who you haven’t seen for a long time and when you suddenly see them again you can’t believe this is the same person. They have just changed and grown so much! Well if anyone who knew James while Jesus was alive had seen James at the time in his life when he was writing this letter they would be saying: “No ways! That can’t be James!” Why? Well, when Jesus was alive James didn’t believe that He was the Messiah and the Son of God! James, along with Jesus’ other siblings and even His mother, had come to take Jesus home because they had heard all that Jesus was doing and saying and believed the report that Jesus had lost His mind! At one point James and some other brothers had taunted Jesus (see John 7:3-5): “Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so  that your disciples there may see the works you do! No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” They did this, John says, “for even His own brothers did not believe in Him.”

So James, at that point was a sceptic and a mocker.

But if we fast forward to Acts 1:14 and we surprisingly discover that James, along with Jesus’ other brothers are now there in the upper room with His disciples, joining together constantly in prayer and waiting for the Holy Spirit to be poured out on them like Jesus had said. What had happened? Well 1 Corinthians 15:7 tells us exactly what happened. It says that Jesus had appeared to James after His resurrection! That encounter with his own brother, risen from the dead, must have brought James to faith!

Fast forward throughout the book of Acts and we discover that very quickly James, the brother of Jesus, became the most prominent leader of the Christian Church in Jerusalem. While the apostles were sent out by Jesus on mission to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth, James stayed in Jerusalem and, with great authority, pastored the Christian community there, who were predominantly made up of Jews who had received Christ by faith. The apostles had huge respect for James. In Acts 12, Peter sends a message specifically to James to report that he has been miraculously delivered from prison. In Acts 15, when Paul comes back from his mission to the Gentiles because there is a dispute about what aspects of the Law the Gentiles are bound by, it is James who chairs the Council of the early church to help reach a decision.

So James was a hugely respected leader of this early, predominantly Jewish Christian community.

The letter of James came about because a great persecution broke out against the Christians in Jerusalem – James’ Church – and many of them scattered to various parts of Asia and Europe and Africa. This letter was written to them by James to encourage them in their faith as they faced great persecution … and to give them what can only be described as very practical instructions for living the Christ-following life!

Our sermon series… our study of James … will thus be a look at a very practical book of the Bible which sets out some important aspects of the Christ-following way of life.

Let’s jump right in and read James 1:1-18.

James 1:1-18

James begins his letter, as was customary at the time, by introducing himself as the author. He does not blow his own trumpet or state his credentials from a human point of view. He simply describes himself as a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is Christ-like leadership we are seeing in James.

He then addresses his readers: “To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations.” The “twelve tribes” would normally refer to Israel … but to James and the other New Testament authors, the Church was the true Israel of God. So he has this sort of “nickname” for the members of his church – “the twelve tribes” – and they were scattered, as we have seen, because of persecution.

So, having greeted them he launches straight in to his first very practical piece of teaching on how to live the Christ-following life. He deals immediately with the issue that would be at the forefront of their minds:

How to live for Christ when adversity strikes.

Please think about your own life and try to identify: What is the most difficult adversity you are facing right now? What struggle are you having? What are you praying about the most? What is your current greatest adversity? Just think about that situation and hold it in your mind as we unpack James’ Spirit-inspired teaching.

James’ starts his letter by addressing the painful reality of his readers … accepting that they will inevitably be facing what he calls “trials of many kinds.” By this he clearly implies that his readers will face all sorts of different adversities or difficulties.

As Christians we are not exempt from difficulties, suffering and adversity. Jesus also made this clear when He said: “In this world you will have tribulation!” (John 16:33)

The reality is that we live in a fallen and broken world, so

  • sickness and death will affect us
  • work will be hard
  • there will be setbacks
  • the sins of others will cause us harm
  • our own bad decisions will cause us loss at times
  • there will be accidents and mishaps
  • there will be disease and pain and suffering … for all human beings, including us Christians.

But also, as James’ church had discovered, when you faithfully follow Jesus, that fact in itself can cause persecution and hardships to be inflicted on you. If Jesus was persecuted by the world, then those who faithfully follow Him should expect the same. Jesus also warned us of this fact in John 15:20. None of this suffering, adversity or difficulty means we are being somehow punished by God. It is a reality of our fallen world. But, WHAT MUST WE DO WHEN IT HAPPENS? James’ answer is totally counter-intuitive for us.

Verse 2: “CONSIDER IT PURE JOY whenever you face trials of many kinds.”

Whaaaaaat?????

This is totally against the human grain. It is not the normal human reaction. But this is the instruction of God’s Word to anyone wanting to live a victorious and faithful Christ-following life. So let’s try to understand what God means.

Firstly it’s very important to note that God does NOT say we are to experience suffering as pure joy! The word he uses, translated “consider” by the NIV, is the Greek word “hégiomai”. It is not an emotion. This is NOT about FEELING JOYFUL.

INSTEAD, it is a very objective word which carries an “accounting” type of meaning. It means that when we face or experience adversity in life as Christ-followers … we are to take an objective look at it and make a decision … to account it… write it up in the book of our lives … reckon it … to think about it rationally as a potential source of JOY!

In this we will be like our Lord Jesus Christ who, “for the joy set before Him, endured the Cross.” (Hebrews 12:2)

Our adversity or suffering is not in itself a source of joy. But as believers we know that God is at work in the midst of those adversities! And that’s why God commands us to count our adversities as potential sources of great joy!

Alright … so that is the instruction: “CONSIDER IT PURE JOY whenever you face trials of many kinds.”

Now let’s dig deeper.

James goes on to answer a few unspoken questions. Let’s look at those:

WHY would I consider my trial to be pure joy?

Take a look at verse 3. It is answering the unspoken question “Why?”

Because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.”

I believe there are two answers tucked away there:

1. Because the adversity is going to reveal the genuine beauty of your faith. The adversity will function as what James calls a “test”. If you are a Christ-follower, you are one because you have placed your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ … and hardships, difficulties and adversities test that faith. They give you an opportunity to reveal the true quality of your faith. That’s what a test does.

When a jeweller wants to test the genuineness of a diamond she subjects it to certain tests. Those tests reveal the truth of the nature of that diamond. One such test is a water test, which is based on the fact that a diamond sparkles even under water … but a fake diamond does not. In the “test” of immersion in water, the true quality and beauty of the diamond will shine through.

James is saying to his readers … Look brothers and sisters, I know that your faith in Jesus is genuine and strong and beautiful … so look at your adversity as a source of joy, because it is going to reveal the truth and beauty of that which is central to your lives … your faith in Jesus. And that is so true. It is easy to say that I trust Jesus … but the adversities of life and how I respond to them are a sure and certain test of whether or not what I say about my faith is true.

2. Secondly, BECAUSE the adversity you go through with faith, will grow you in the virtue of PERSEVERANCE. If we only had an easy ride through life we would never be able to grow in endurance … or “perseverance” and this is an essential Christ-like quality.

I am constantly amazed by the beauty of the faith of our elders in the faith here at CMC … older followers of Jesus who, are going through tremendous pain and weakness and difficulty, but still trust and cling on to Jesus. It is a thing of true beauty! And it is revealed because they have become champions of persevering in the face of adversity. They are enduring and clinging to the Lord Jesus because He is the best they have … and that is a beautiful thing!

But there is also a third thing to “know”.

3. Look at v4:Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.

That is actually a command, but it is based on an understanding … that when we endure and persevere and push through the midst of our difficulties with tenacious faith and trust in Jesus … perseverance in itself does a great work of transformation in our lives. We are slowly but surely made “mature and complete!” Those words, “mature and complete”,  carry the meaning of us becoming WHOLE … which from a Biblical point of view means becoming everything that God initially created us to be! And who was the only human ever to fully live that way? JESUS.

This command is so full of promise. Why make the decision to count our trials as pure joy? Because they can lead us to complete Christlike character … when we meet them head-on with persevering faith.

When adversity strikes, don’t view it as a potential defeat of your faith … view it as an opportunity to be made more like Jesus … rejoice in it as something which God the Holy Spirit can use in your life to accomplish the transformation that He is at work to complete in you.

Skip ahead to verse 12. James re-states this truth: “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” In this life we can be crowned with Christlikeness … and ultimately … after death … we can be crowned with eternal rewards from the loving hand of God.

Some of James’ readers would literally be martyred. But even for them, James holds out a reason to reckon those trials of persecution as pure joy; viz. through persevering faith in the face of that persecution, they will receive their eternal rewards.

Let’s move on now to the next unspoken question which James answers:

How will I ever be able to persevere in this adversity?

Anyone reading this passage will be asking something like this: How will I be able to do this? How will I be able to persevere? I don’t know how!

James responds. Have a look at verse 5: “If any of you lacks wisdom …” If anyone does not know what to do or how to do it in their given situation … “If any of you lacks wisdom … you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”

When adversity strikes, we will naturally be confused. What’s going on here? How do I respond to this in a Christ-honouring, persevering way? How do I hold on to my faith in the midst of this? The answer is: “Ask God for the wisdom to know what to do, how to do it, what to say and how to say it.”

And then there is the promise. God is not hiding His wisdom from us. God will answer us and show us His wisdom for our situation.

But then there is a quick word of warning from James. Look at verse 6: “But when you ask you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord.”

This is not about never having any doubts. This is about … when I am doubting and unsure of how to approach my adversity … ask God for wisdom … and then trust God’s wisdom. Don’t vacillate between following God-given wisdom and following the wisdom of this world. As Proverbs 3:5 says: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”

Job 28:12-13 says: “Where can wisdom be found? Where does understanding dwell? No mortal comprehends its worth; it cannot be found in the land of the living.” Still in Job 28, v.23 says, “God understands the way to it, and He alone knows where it dwells … And (to skip to v.28) He said to the human race, ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’”

When we’re in adversity and we pray and ask God for wisdom, the wisdom of God’s Word that comes through to us may seem counterintuitive … may seem foolish in the eyes of the world … but if it is clearly God’s wisdom … trust it!! Put God first in the adversity!

Do not doubt that God is at work! Do not doubt that God is with you! Do not doubt that God is FOR you!

Don’t be like Peter walking on the water … who took his eyes off Jesus and sank … keep your eyes on Jesus and believe that His wisdom will guide you and His Spirit will walk you through this step by step, growing you steadily and surely into the image of His Son Jesus!

James identifies very clearly what is most often our number one doubt when adversity strikes. We tend to doubt: “Is God for me or against me?”

So James gives it to us specifically in v.13-17. I’ll paraphrase here in the interests of time, but please do check it out as I’m going. Verse 13-17. When trials comes we will be tempted to believe that God is either doing this to us or allowing it in order to trip us up. We will be tempted to believe that God is against us! But do not believe that. God never wants us to fall and fail. God is for us, not against us.

Yes, in the midst of adversity we may be tempted to sin … to cheat our way out of it … or lie our way out of it … or steal our way out of it … but that is not the will and desire of God. That is, in fact, a trap. Following that road rather than the road of God’s wisdom can lead only to death.

God is with us in the adversity to give us the way out of it and lead us through the adversity to the life that He has for us on the other side!

So KNOW that God is on your side and at your sideand ASK Him for His wisdom … He WILL give it to you.

An Example

Do you want an example of seeking God’s wisdom in trials? James gives us two.

  1. James says (look at v.9): When your adversity is that you are materially poor … the world’s wisdom will say to get yourself out of that poverty by hook or by crook. But God’s wisdom says that your poverty is a place of great honour in His kingdom. Do not look down on yourself because you are poor by comparison to others. See yourself as God sees you and stay faithful to God in that trial. In due time the Lord may lift you up materially … but your poverty is no barrier to God’s work in your life. Do not lose your self-respect. See yourself as God sees you! Persevere in the midst of that trial!
  2. James also says, by way of example, at the other end of the material scale (look at v.10-11): When your adversity is that you are wealthy … (yes wealth is adversity, a trial and a test too. In fact becoming wealthy when you’ve not had wealth before is a massive test of the reality and purity of your faith) the world’s wisdom will say hang on to that wealth by every means possible … let your wealth define you and make you great in the eyes of your neighbours … use your wealth to impress people and win their favour.

But God’s wisdom says that your wealth is a place of great danger and temptation … temptation to trust in riches and not in God … so make sure that you recognise the danger of your situation and that you are in the lowest position in God’s scheme of things, knowing that you and your riches will perish. Riches have no eternal value in the Kingdom … unless we use them for God’s glory … and riches are so fleeting … and can be lost so quickly that we should NEVER trust in them.

You see, ask God for wisdom on how to faithfully overcome the challenges your poverty sets to your faith … but equally, ask God for wisdom on how to faithfully overcome the challenges of your wealth.

Conclusion

So let’s wrap this all up by going back to the opening question: What is the most difficult adversity you are facing right now?

As we close, let us spend some minutes in prayer. Let us commit that adversity to God.

Let us ask for the grace to consider that adversity to be an opportunity for great joy!

Let us ask for the wisdom to live in such a way in that adversity as to exhibit great perseverance which will lead to great growth and Christlikeness.

Let’s ask God to give us the wisdom to know how to live in the midst of the adversity … courage to do so … and strength to follow through to the end.

 

SOUL REVOLUTION

Peter Veysie 2018

Programme

Saturday 15 September 

(Cost = anything from R1 – R200. You pay what you can afford):

9am                       The Soul Revolution and our Mission Mandate (1 John)

10:30                     TEA

11am                     Incarnation of the Word (1 John 1)

12:30                     LIGHT LUNCH

1pm                       Relational Dynamics in a Real World (1 John 2-3)

2:30pm                 CLOSE

Sunday 16 September

(These two sessions are identical and teaching happens in our Sunday Services)

9am                       Spiritual functionality in the Body (1 John 4)

6:30pm                 Spiritual functionality in the Body (1 John 4) @ KMC

(Note the different time)

Monday 17 September

(Cost = any donation. The two sessions are identical)

10am                     Love in Action (1 John 5)

7pm                       Love in Action (1 John 5)

 

This promises to be a weekend of great impact in our personal discipleship and our life as a Community, so please sign up to attend – either by emailing the Church Office or on the Church Noticeboard on Sundays.