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I am excited to begin studying the book of James, as I find it to be one of the most easily relatable and practical books in the Bible.  And almost immediately, we begin to see evidence of this practical nature – why to have joy in trials?

The letter begins like most in the New Testament do, however, with James identifying himself and sending greetings to his audience: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings (v.1).” 

James is writing to the “twelve tribes scattered among the nations,” the dispersion, which are Jewish Christians who have been scattered.  That is the audience James is writing to, but the author himself provides a remarkable study.  James identifies himself as “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.”  This is fascinating because James had every right to boast about his status: he was the half-brother of Jesus and was a leader of the church in Jerusalem.  James could have bragged about his proximity to Jesus, but instead he identifies himself simply as a servant of God and Jesus.  Remember, Jesus’ family had initially tried to stop his teaching because they thought “He is out of His mind” (Mark 3:21), and while we don’t know for sure if James was one of them, it can be assumed that he probably was not too fond of his half-brother claiming to be God… yet then Jesus rose from the dead, and everything changed: James became one of the leaders in the church at Jerusalem, and two of Jesus’ half-brothers wrote books of the Bible (James and Jude) – and both of them refer to themselves as servants of Jesus!  To submit to, serve, and worship their brother after initially not believing him is a testament to the reality of Christ’s resurrection.

After that first verse, James wastes no time getting into sharing his thoughts, and he begins by addressing trials: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.  Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (vv.2-4).”

I don’t know about you, but my first response whenever I encounter a trial is not joy.  I don’t begin jumping up and down with happiness whenever a trial pops up, and I don’t think that’s what James is advocating for either.  He’s not saying that when the cancer diagnosis comes you should be filled with happiness; rather, there is a proper time for mourning and for weeping, but his point is that we need to lift our eyes upward even when trials or sadness might arise.  Why?  Because we trust that God is working – as Paul says in Romans, “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (8:28) – and when we trust God, we understand that below this sadness there is a deeper joy that comes from knowing, trusting, and following God.  There is a joy that arises when we understand that God is using even the worst of things and the hardest of circumstances in our lives to grow us more and more into the image of Christ.

It is, in fact, often through trials that this happens the most.  As C.S. Lewis wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world” (The Problem of Pain, 91).  When we are at our weakest, we understand that we are not as self-sufficient as we thought we were, and therefore look to God and learn from Him and understand Him more through trials and pain than we otherwise would have.  Through this, trials provides opportunities for “the testing of your faith,” which leads to “perseverance.”  The idea of perseverance is a crucial theme throughout the Bible, as the true believer is one who perseveres to the end (by the power of God, of course).  And as we persevere even in the midst of hardships, the end result is that “you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”  We won’t ever get to this point in this lifetime, but as we persevere we continue to be made more and more into the image of Jesus and one day will be glorified in our eternal state forever.  Oh, how we long for the day where we will be free of the pain and hardships and will look upon Jesus in fullness!  That should keep us going even when hardships or trials arise, as we trust our Sovereign Lord who is at work in us!

As I write this, I think of the story of Joni Eareckson Tada.  On July 30, 1967, when she was just a teenager, she had a diving accident and became a quadriplegic.  This year marks the 50th anniversary of that moment, and in those 50 years she has become a well-known author, speaker, and advocate for the disabled.  Recently, she wrote a reflection piece for The Gospel Coalition on the 50th anniversary, and she said, “It sounds incredible, but I really would rather be in this wheelchair knowing Jesus as I do than be on my feet without him.”  It hasn’t always been happy or easy for her, but looking back she can see God at work in her life through the incredible hardships.  That’s why we can “consider it pure joy” even when facing trials: because we know and trust a faithful God, and we know that He will be at work in our lives to make us more and more like Christ as we persevere in following Him.

JW

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The Book of Romans is basically Paul’s explanation of “righteousness based on faith.”  Only the righteous will stand in judgment.  However, no one is righteous.  If our righteousness is based in keeping the law, we are all doomed.  However, because of God’s grace and the sacrifice of Jesus for us, there is now a righteousness that comes through faith.  This righteousness is rooted in Christ’s own righteousness and in the sufficiency of his completed work of atonement for us.  This righteousness is not a feeling (although it may produce feelings of gratitude, relief, and joy); it is a truth grounded in belief in historical facts (the deity,  incarnation, sinless life, substitutionary death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus) and faith in Jesus as Lord.  This righteousness that comes through faith will produce righteousness in our lives; however, our hope and confidence is always firmly founded in Christ, not ourselves.  Here’s how one Puritan prayed about it…

Father,

Continue to teach me that Christ’s righteousness

satisfies your justice

and evidences your love;

Help me to make use of Christ’s righteousness by faith

as the ground or basis of my peace

and of your favor and acceptance

so that I may live always near the cross.

It is not feeling the Spirit that proves my saved state

but the truth of what Christ did perfectly for me;

All holiness in him is by faith made mine, as if I had done it;

Therefore I see the use of his righteousness,

for satisfaction to divine justice

and making me righteous,

It is not inner sensation that makes Christ’s death mine

for that may be delusion, being without the Word,

but His death apprehended by my faith,

and so testified by Word and Spirit.

I bless you for the righteousness that is mine in Jesus.

Please, help me to resign my will to you.

Amen

 

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Christus Victor

We have often heard the wonderful truth: Jesus died for my sins.  When we think about the cross, we tend to think about Christ’s sacrificial substitution.  He took the penalty we deserved.  This is certainly central to atonement.  Another aspect of atonement is Christ’s victory over Satan.  The following excerpt from a Puritan prayer highlights Christ’s triumph, confirmed by the resurrection.

“Jesus strides forth as the victor,

conqueror of death, hell and all opposing might;

He bursts the bands of death,

tramples the powers of darkness down,

and lives forever.

He, my gracious surety,

apprehended for payment of my debt,

comes forth from the prison house of the grave

free, triumphant over sin, Satan, and death.

Show me herein the proof that his vicarious offering is accepted

that the claims of justice are satisfied,

that the devil’s scepter is shivered, his wrongful throne leveled.

Give me the assurance that in Christ I died,

in him I rose,

in his life I live,

in his victory I triumph,

in his ascension I shall be glorified.

Adorable Redeemer,

what more could be done than thou has done?

Thy death is my life,

thy resurrection my peace,

thy ascension my hope,

thy intercession my comfort.”

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A Puritan Prayer

In a couple of weeks we start a new sermon series in the Book of James called “Faith that Works.”  A new Bible Reading Guide will accompany this series, along with daily blog entries.  Until then, I am going to share with you, among other things, some snippets from “The Valley of Vision,” a small volume of Puritan prayers.  I’ll give you a little advanced warning that the language can sometimes be a bit archaic; however, the truths are just as powerful and fresh and real today as they were when these prayers were first penned.

“…Christ was all anguish that I might be all joy, cast off that I might be brought in, trodden down as an enemy that I might be welcomed as a friend, surrendered to hell’s worst that I might attain heaven’s best, stripped that I might be clothed, wounded that I might be healed, athirst that I might drink, tormented that I might be comforted, made a shame that I might inherit glory, entered darkness that I might have eternal light, my Savior wept that all tears might be wiped from my eyes, groaned that I might have endless song, endured all pain that I might have unfading health, bore a thorny crown that I might have a glory-diadem, bowed his head that I might uplift mine, experienced reproach that I might receive welcome, closed his eyes in death that I might gaze on unclouded brightness, expired and resurrected that I might for ever live…Help me to adore thee by lips and life.”

Amen

 

 

 

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Friday, August 4, 2017

Socrates . . . Abraham Lincoln . . . JFK . . . MLK . . . Apostle Paul.

Hemlock . . . assassins’ bullets . . . Roman sword.

As Paul wrote his second letter to Timothy—which was the last letter of his life—he knew his time had come. Languishing in a Roman prison, he was on death row, “chained like a criminal” (2:8).“I am already being poured out like a drink offering” (4:6) was Paul’s way of suggesting how seriously he was suffering. In today’s terms, it was time to call for Hospice.

Prisons in the ancient world were notorious. Normally no bed, no bathroom, no sanitation. Anything from sweltering heat to bitter cold. Little if anything to eat or drink. Prisoners condemned to death were given the very least: after all, they were going to die anyway. Paul was in the worst possible position in the worst possible place.

Add to that, at his sentencing, none of the people he had given his life for were present to speak on his behalf (4:16). And add to that, one person in particular incriminated him (4:14-15). Others had deserted him along the way (1:15; 4:10).

Have you ever noticed that Paul’s life ended in a remarkably similar way to Jesus’ life?

Paul had endured untold trials and persecution so hundreds of people could become disciples—and so communities of believers would be Christ-like in their conduct and relationships—yet we hear in his letters to Timothy about how disappointed he was about problems in the churches: “false doctrines; teachers who don’t know what they’re talking about; shipwrecked faith; godless myths; teachings like gangrene; foolish and stupid arguments; swayed by all kinds of evil desires; depraved minds; evil men and imposters; itching ears” (1 Tim 1:3, 7, 19; 4:7; 2 Tim 2:17, 23; 3:6, 8, 13; 4:3).

Add to that, deep division remained between Jews and Gentiles. Most of Paul’s fellow Jews would not accept a gospel that was gracious enough to include Gentiles, especially when the Gentiles wouldn’t conform to specific requirements of the Old Testament law.

Even with the meeting of the minds in Jerusalem (see Acts 15)—when Paul and Peter and others attempted to settle the issue between Jew and Gentile once-and-for-all—the majority of the Jews in Jerusalem and elsewhere were not convinced (see Acts 21). Judaizers followed Paul on his missionary journeys and instead of preaching about grace, they proclaimed a message of legalism. When Paul returned to Jerusalem after his missionary journeys, hoping to unify the church, he was faced with a mob intent on lynching him.

There is certainly a somber tone to Paul’s final letter. Death was at the door, and disappointments lingered in his mind.

And that’s the reality for all of us.  Life does not end on a high note. A prophet may be without honor and die in disgrace. Cancer or some other illness may take us down a path of pain and suffering all the way to the grave. An automobile accident may wreck our bodies from which we cannot recover.

Yet, for Paul, as for Jesus—and as is true for all true believers—there is, thankfully, more to life than this life! As Paul said, “The Lord will . . .  bring me safe into his heavenly kingdom” (4:18). That good news more than makes up for any bad news in this life.

These are complex issues. The most important question is, Do we have the faith and hope necessary to see us to the bitter end and into a glorious eternity?

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Thursday, August 3, 2017

I have to confess that more than once I was writing a paper/sermon/lesson and I had it in my head that some text made some specific point. So I would start trying to find other commentaries or other articles that bolstered my point. Invariably I’d also come across other things that contradicted my initial point. “Well! Let’s just ignore those and keep looking for things that do reinforce my preconceived idea,” I’d say. Guilty as charged. I think more and more with Google and other library tools you can find tons of things to reinforce any crazy idea (think conspiracy theorists) and can just as easily ignore the tons of things that don’t agree with you.

Paul writes to Timothy, “Be ready [in] teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.” As in our day, so it was also in Paul’s day, there was no shortage of teachers, but how do you know which are the good teachers? James says, “Let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.” Teaching is a spiritual gift, but so is discernment (1 Cor 12:10, Phil 1:9). When you as a student hear something and “red flags” go up, you just know it is false but not sure how you know, that may be the gift of discernment. Teaching also happens to be a natural gift (many unbelievers may have it too), which makes it harder to tell if some sincere statement is false. Which brings us back to the problem: how do you know which are the good teachers? A couple of suggestions:

  • At the very minimum, they should not contradict scripture. That is not to say that their teaching needs to be IN Scripture, for instance lots of science is not mentioned in the Bible (e.g. chemistry), but Creation is.
  • “But according to their own desires…” A conflict of interest may betray a bad teacher. Someone caught in a lifestyle of X may find isolated scripture to justify their lifestyle of X.
  • (Personal pet peeve) Beware of any ministry named after their founder. If the John Smith Ministries brings you the John Smith Crusade and the John Smith Teaching Hour from John Smith University, I’d be suspect of who gets the glory.
  • Student and teacher both need to be humble and willing to be corrected. Apollos demonstrates this very graciously (Acts 18:24-26).

 

Ultimately it boils down to the Holy Spirit promising to teach us (Luke 12:12, John 14:26). The Holy Spirit enables the sower to sow and enables the soil to receive. Be like the Bereans and “search the scriptures daily to see if these things are so,” praying as you learn.

–SFF

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Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Do you know really good, generous, kind, and wise people who aren’t Christians? We recently viewed the movie The Zookeeper’s Wife that tells the true story of a couple who rescued and hid over 300 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. I’ve known people who don’t join in on political arguments or complaints, who show patience with inept drivers, who extend kindness to the unlovely, and who give generously and not just for a tax benefit. Imagine how much more chaotic the world would be without these people who have high moral character.

What motivates us as Christ followers to act in goodness beyond what brings personal satisfaction? How does believing God’s Word to be Absolute Truth equip us to do good works our unbelieving friends will not do? God’s plans for our good works are broader and deeper than lists of religious activities or lists of bad things to avoid. Believers in Jesus have been bought at a great, great price and in response want to grow in faith and love for the Lord. Expressions of loving God cannot be found in any exhaustive form on a Christian website, but studying and applying what we learn in the Bible is one of the best ways to respond to God’s amazing gift of salvation. When we see that our worth comes from being image bearers of the one who saved us from eternal damnation we will want to do everything in the authority of the name of Jesus, by the strength he provides. We won’t be tempted to divide our daily lives into what I do for God and what I do for myself.

Today’s scripture teaches that all scripture is useful for our spiritual growth. I’ve been reading the book of Isaiah and am struck repeatedly with how just and holy God is. His nature didn’t change between the Old Testament and the Church Age. So when I read in Isaiah 20 about the shaming of the Cushites, how does that equip me to do good works on August 2, 2017? It reminds me that no one should have a casual view of God or of sin. Proverbs 1:7 says “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” and Romans 15:4 tells us the Scriptures are given to us so we might have encouragement and hope. Many woes were pronounced in Isaiah but, wow, some of the most beautiful and hope-filled passages of the Bible are found in this profound Old Testament book.

Garrison Keillor of The Prairie Home Companion radio show used to tell us to “do good work.” Just about anyone can do that. Evie, the 1970s songwriter used to sing, “Live for Jesus – that’s what matters,” and only the redeemed can do that. Have you already been working for the Lord today?

 

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