Monday, December 26, 2011

Look Who's Building a City

Reading: Genesis 4  
When Adam and Eve rejected God's rule over their lives (the kingdom of God), they were immediately separated from God (Genesis 3:8-10, 23-24). The relationship between Adam and Eve was altered from peace to conflict (Genesis 3:16). Now we see that the division between people extends to brothers as well (Genesis 4:1-8). The fall brought brokenness in our relationship with God and, as a result, our relationships with one another. We see this clearly in the story of Cain.
8Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let's go out to the field.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. 9Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don't know,” he replied. “Am I my brother's keeper?” (Genesis 4:8-9)
Ironically, in Genesis 4:17, we discover that Cain—the one who was not interested in being his brother's keeper—is suddenly building a city. Evidently, this was a city of people who have no desire to be responsible for one another; a city of those not willing to be their brother's keeper. This is a culture rife with vengeance (Genesis 4:24).
Throughout Genesis, we find a contrast in what people build. Cain, the murderer, is building a city; Nimrod, the mighty warrior, built several cities—none noted for their godliness (Genesis 10:8-12). In Genesis 11:1-8 we read of Babel, and the city people were building there. Each of these cities were built in opposition to the rule of God. However, Noah built an altar to God, as did Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Genesis 8:20; 12:7-8; 13:18; 22:9; 26:25; 35:6). One group built a society in opposition to God; the other built lives around worship of God.   Abraham and those who lived by faith were building their lives around worship and looking for a city they could not build; a city who's builder and maker is God (Hebrews 11:10).
When Christ came he announced the Kingdom of God. In Him, the rule of God has returned and it is clearly a kingdom in which those who live there are their brother's keeper. They are called to a new command, “Love one another, even as I loved you.” The King of the Kingdom has done the most to be “His brother's keeper,” in laying down His life for us. And rather than being a kingdom rife with vengeance (Genesis 4:24), it is a kingdom rife with forgiveness (Matthew 18:21-22).
Christ is building a city that is quite different than Cain's city. Christ is building His church (Matthew 16:18), a city which is also a bride (Revelation 21:2, 9-10), and Christ is building all who believe in Him into that city (Ephesians 2:19-22). To be a Christian is to build our lives around worship of God through Christ; and it is to allow our lives to be built into the city where we are our brother's keeper! Love one another rules the day.
In a day when even evangelical Christians are becoming more and more independent, living lives isolated from people they prefer not to be around, the Gospel intends to transform us into a city where we live under the King's rule—not running from difficult relationships, but reconciling and living in a kingdom where forgiveness and forbearance prevail. Look Who's building a city now—Jesus Christ, the King of the Kingdom. Are you being built into the city?
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

Monday, December 5, 2011

My Daughter's Wedding Sermon

Reading: Genesis 2; Ephesians 5; Revelation 21   
[This past Saturday, December 3, 2011, was my daughter Lindsay's marriage to David. For Donna and I, it was a joy to be blessed by the Lord in seeing now our second daughter married to a young man in whom, by the Lord's grace, we have confidence will lead our daughters well. Stephanie and Micah were married nearly 3 years ago, and now David and Lindsay. The following is the wedding sermon I wrote for David and Lindsay's wedding. I put it here as it grew out of my devotions and may serve yours as well. I have made slight additions since there are not so many limitations on the blog.]
The Bible begins and ends with a wedding: Adam to Eve; Christ, the Lamb and His bride. In each of these weddings, God is the Father of the groom; and God is the one who makes or prepares the bride for the marriage.
We read of the first wedding,
Genesis 2:18-25 18The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him."…21So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man's ribs [lit. from the man's side] and closed up the place with flesh. 22Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. 23The man said, "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called 'woman, 'for she was taken out of man." 24For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.
God was Adam's Father–He made Him. Adam subsequently became the father of the human race. Because of Adam's rebellion against God Paul's wrote the Corinthians, “in Adam all die” (1 Corinthians 15:22). Adam became the father of all, and all are born spiritual dead. Dead while they live.
When we get to the end of the Bible we have the second least the second cosmic wedding. God is the Father once again of the groom, for the bride is the wife of the Lamb... Jesus the Lamb Slain. This is the One called “the second Adam” by Paul in Corinthians. That is to say, He will be the beginning of a recreated, reconciled human race. So the verse we read a moment ago continues, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” In this second wedding, again the Father gives the bride after He has prepared the bride for the groom.
Revelation 21 2I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband....[observe how this bride, the city of God, the people of God was prepared for their wedding] 11It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. 12It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates.… 18The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass. 19The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone.… 21The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of pure gold, like transparent glass.
This bride is prepared as a beautiful, glorious bride. And in both cases the bride is beautifully prepared.
Since God places a wedding at the beginning and end of Scripture, and since He uses a marriage to describe His relationship to His people, how should we live in our marriages? David and Lindsay, how should you live in yours?
I believe we have some help in answering that question from the pen of Paul, the apostle. In this text, which Chuck1 read earlier, Paul actually references both of these weddings we've spoken about... the first and the “second” weddings. Lindsay, you are told,
Ephesians 5:22-33 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
This runs contrary to everything our culture tells us. Why, many ask, should a wife submit herself to her husband? What if the wife is smarter—she often is? What if the wife is right and the husband wrong? Paul is by no means commenting on who is smarter or who is right. Paul roots this directive in something much more significant: For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.
In the first marriage, Eve did not submit to Adam but to a serpent. Adam was right there... she did not turn and ask him, but rather handed him to eat. (And Adam passively abdicated his leadership rather than serving his wife with truth.) However, in the second marriage, the church comes to Christ, as His bride saying, “Christ is Lord.” This marriage is about our trusting in Him, and not ourselves. Paul says our earthly marriages as believers in Christ should mirror that relationship so as to model it to the world.
David you are instructed,
25Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave him-self up for her 26to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
In the first marriage, Adam did not wash his bride with the water of God's Word. Adam did not say in the face of temptation, “Eve, remember what God said... that in the day we eat, we die. Remember that though the serpent tells us that we will actually be better of if we disobey God, that God told us to have do-minion over the serpent... Do you realize that God has provided us with every-thing; we lack nothing. God has been good to us. Why would we now suspect God of withholding, and trust this serpent who has done nothing for us?” Adam sat idly by watching his wife wander into the trap of temptation, and then we read, “...she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.”
However, in the second marriage, Christ loved His bride and gave Himself up for her. In the second marriage, Christ took authority over the serpent through His own death, and Christ leads His wife as a Servant–suffering Servant on behalf of His wife. This is not a domineering or “I'm the boss” kind of leadership, but humble, laying down of ones rights kind of leadership.
Over the last several years, one of the concerns Donna and I have had for Lindsay, because of her compliant tendency, has been that she have a husband who is both a strong leader and a humble, gentle man who draws her out rather than silences her voice. This is not an everyday quality. From all I can observe, David surpasses anything we could have imagined. A humble, loving, gentle, strong, firm, willing to be entreated kind of leader. Around him, Lindsay's joy is evident, and her countenance brightens. Around him, rather than being silenced, she actually seems more free to express herself.
In Ephesians, Paul quotes a passage from the first wedding of Adam and Eve, and tells us that it was really pointing us to the second wedding:
31"For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." 32This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.
David and Lindsay, your marriage is to be a reflection of this marriage—a model of the Gospel.
Finally, there is one more detail not to be overlooked when comparing the two weddings:
In the first, Adam slept, and while he slept, God took from his side and made the bride which He presented to Adam. In the second, while the Son of God slept in death, on the cross, we read in John's Gospel:
John 19:34 Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus' side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.
You see, from His side, we too have been created and prepared for Him.2 It is in His sleep of death and resurrection that we are created in Him, when we believe. It is through the blood that flowed from His side that we are cleansed and prepared for our groom.
David & Lindsay not only are you cleansed by the blood from Christ's side; not only are you now part of the bride, the wife of the Lamb, having been taken from His side; you are charged to model Christ's relationship to the church by your relationship with each other.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,
1I had the privilege of officiating jointly with the groom's father, Chuck.
2When you consider the numerous allusions to Genesis in John's Gospel, which begins with, “In the beginning...”, and that the first miracle mentioned of Jesus' in this Gospel is the transformation of water to wine at a wedding feast, I don't believe this connection is a stretch. The word for "side" in the Greek Old Testament (LXX) of Genesis 2:21, 22, is used only 25 more times in the whole Greek Bible; 4 at the end of John's Gospel referencing Jesus side. (Many of the others referencing side rooms of the temple.)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Is My Existential College Professor Right?

Reading: Ecclesiastes 1–3  
Ecclesiastes appears to be from a father to his son (Ecclesiastes 12:12). Apparently to a son who, having grown up under his father's tutelage, was beginning to explore life a bit and was finding a conflict between the way things ought to be and the way things seem to be. Dad wants to help his son sort through the frustration of life, the seeming contradiction between what ought to be and what seems to be.
Maybe his son has spent a year at the university and is home for the summer; he has begun seeing the other side of life. Maybe his best friend, the kid who always got all the answers right in Saturday school, just died when hit by a drunk driver. Maybe his mom, the most godly woman he ever knew, just died of cancer in her late 40’s. Maybe he was the top of the his own class in the Torah, voted most likely to succeed, and the girl of his dreams just married the mean kid who never went to synagogue. Let's face it, good kids shouldn't get cancer; only the bullies!
Ecclesiastes speaks to those frustrated by the brokenness of this fallen world. To those who don’t see everything quite as neatly packaged as the super-religious who are confident they have all the answers. Some of its sayings may shock you. And some of it’s answers may leave you hanging. But its purpose isn’t to shock, but to help. It’s purpose isn’t to mock or to ridicule, but rather to acknowledge, to sort through, and to give counsel. It is as if Dad is saying, “Let’s look at all those ideas that are running through your head, and let’s explore those philosophies and see what they can offer!”
The speaker calls himself Qohelet–leader of the assembly–variously translated “Preacher, Teacher, Pundit, Professor!” It’s as if Dad takes on the role of the professor and says, “Okay, I’m going to espouse these ideas, and take them to their logical conclusion.” As dads, we could take a queue from him. Don’t blast; explore together, guiding.
There are two key expressions which are vital to unlocking the treasures of this book. The first one is found in the second verse—five times!
Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2 NASB)
The NIV translates this word for vanity as meaningless. Another translation renders it futility... utter fultility (JPS Tanakh). Each of these is driving toward the same point—one which at times is hard to capture in one English word. However, the Bible offers us some help here. The Hebrew word is hebel, sometimes written hevel, used in both singular and plural to communicate the utter vanity or futility of the matter—like “holy of holies” which brings us to “utter holiness”. Literally, it means vapor or breath! That is to say, “Everything is fleeting, transitory; like vapor or breath, it vanishes before your eyes.” Whether it be time or youth, or value, or the things you hold as meaningful, they too will vanish. Therefore they are vain (empty), and ultimately, meaningless!
Two other Old Testament uses of this word shed some light on its meaning.
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting (Hebel); but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.” Proverbs 31:30
Beauty is hebel—here today, gone tomorrow. If you find your meaning in beauty, you will spend your life looking for a new one; or obsessed with just one more surgery! Go to your 20 year high school reunion, then thirty, and so forth. Contrast pictures from gold and silver anniversaries with those of the wedding day.
The other use of this word that sheds real light on its meaning is the first time it used:
Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, “With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.”  2Later she gave birth to his brother Abel (Hebel). Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. (Genesis 4:1-2)
The name of Eve's second son here is the same word in Hebrew as in Ecclesiastes—Hebel. You know the story. Abel pleased God; Cain did not. Abel was the good son; Cain the evil son. But Abel's life was snuffed out early while Cain lived on and founded a city. Abel’s fleeting life, ending in unjust absurdity, captures the meaning of the word: it was like a vapor, or a morning mist that vanishes before you know it.
Thirty years ago Donna and I got married. At the time, we could not imagine life with children. We wanted to wait. We were a new thing; we were central; we were adventurous. Then we had kids and they were new, they were so central; they were an adventure in themselves. Within seconds, I could not imagine life without them. Now, I realize that soon they will be moving out one at a time. Vapor… transitory… and if this is all there is: meaningless!
Trying to catch meaning from the transient joys of this life is like trying to catch the wind in your hands (Ecclesiastes 1:14). Meaning is to be found elsewhere! This is caught in Ecclesiastes 1:4, “Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.” The earth seems unimpressed with our fleeting and vaporous lives!
The Greek word used in the LXX (Greek Old Testament) is also translated “frustration”. Needless to say, the transitory nature of things leads to frustration! You could sum up the message of Ecclesiastes with this: Apart from faith, life is meaningless, because everything is fleeting.
The second key expression that helps unlock the treasures of this book is the phrase, “under the sun”. The father-professor of Ecclesiastes examines life “under the sun,” excluding from his observations the perspective of faith—the understanding that what we see came from what is unseen and eternal. It is like a bunch of bacteria trying to define the universe, but limiting it’s input to what exists inside the Petri dish.
Unless one can see “above the sun” he is bound to only see vanity. Much like Ariel in Little Mermaid, who was dissatisfied with life under the sea, we are dissatisfied with life under the sun. We know we were made for something beyond that. In Christian language, “if Christ is not raised, then our faith is in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:14, 17) If there is no resurrection, then it is all vapor!
When all is said and done the father doesn’t answer all the sons questions–or ours–but he does seem to warn his son against spending too much time pondering the frustrating elements of life and to always come back to this eternal truth (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). If you find yourself oppressed by the complexities of life, you need to refocus on eternity, on God’s day!
But it isn’t as if the existential professor is all wrong. He loves life—the life God made. He loves the things God gave us to enjoy. True, when he isn’t viewing them with eyes of faith, he vests them with too much meaning, but if he didn’t want a life worth living, happiness, or joy in life, then the resurrection would have no attraction anyway.
Starting with the New Testament: We have a serious advantage over the writer’s son: we have more of God’s revelation about Himself! Christ has given us hope! Christ is the only one who offers something outside the Petri dish, above the sun! (1 Peter 1:3-9) If all we see is what is under the sun, in the Petri dish, then we can’t see that God is redeeming us, and we are subject to frustration. (Romans 8:18-21) The way things seem to be aren't as they ought to be, but one day God will set everything straight and in Christ that “setting straight” begins in our own lives. One day the work will be completed.
Ecclesiastes speaks of the importance of faith—those eyes God gives us to see what we cannot see, for without it, the vaporous nature of life is frustrating and constantly points to the futility of our efforts. Only faith in Christ imparts real meaning to life.
C.S. Lewis expressed this uniquely when he said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Do James and Paul Have Conflicting Views of the Law, Faith and Works? (Part 3)

Reading: James 2

Does James 2:24 really teach justification by works and not faith alone?  
In part one of this series of devotionals in James, we saw how both James and Paul are calling us to an obedience that comes through faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. Then, in part two, looking closely at James 2:14 in context, I suggested that James is not asking how a man is saved—whether by faith, or whether by faith plus works—but rather, how a needy person is helped (made whole or well, restored) by those who have faith if they do not have works? `“What good does your faith do the man in need if it doesn't demonstrate itself through works?” might be a good way of summarizing the point of James 2:14-17. But we haven't gotten out of the woods yet. Does James 2:24 really teach justification by works and not faith alone?
You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. (James 2:24)
The obvious answer is, “yes”. But should raise another important question (often overlooked). “What is meant by justified?” Does justified in James mean the same thing we mean by justified after centuries of systematic theology having categorized for us the doctrine of justification? In other words, is James talking about a man being saved by works and faith as opposed to faith alone? I would answer, “Absolutely not!” Is James contradicting Paul? Emphatically, “No!”
The word translated justified, has a small range of meanings, but in this context, or even in Paul's context in Romans 4, it seems to be its more basic meaning. According to Thayer's lexicon, it can mean, to declare, pronounce, one to be just, righteous, or such as he ought to be,” or, to show, exhibit, evince, one to be righteous.
While Paul in Romans 4:2-8 speaks of a man being justified not by works, but by faith—wherein righteousness is credited to a man as a gift when he believes God—he is using saying that when we believe (just like Abraham, in Genesis 15, before he was circumcised, before he had done anything) God declares or pronounces us righteous, as a gift. This is speaking about justification “before God” (Galatians 3:11). In James, the larger context is speaking of justification before others, while there is still a sense in which the example James uses about Abraham, is speaking of justification before God in a different way than Paul.
In James 2:24, the broader context of justification indicates that James is speaking about whether we would be shown or exhibited before others as righteous (e.g. James 2:18). Would the neighbor declare us right? How would he see anything “right” by our faith? He can't see our faith. He can only see the way we live out our faith by passing on the mercy we have received to others. Even the devil believes in One God; so what, he isn't right before God. So, those who God declares to be right, can only reveal the Gospel by outwardly demonstrating the same love we've received.
However, the first example James uses to illustrate his point, is from Abraham and would seem to be speaking of justification before God, not others (James 2:20-23). As R. T. Kendall points out in his book, Justification by Works, Paul, in Romans 4, is speaking of Abraham being justified at the beginning of his walk before God (from Genesis 15), while James refers to an event a quarter of a century later, when he was called to offer Isaac on the altar. It is at this later time, after a long walk by faith—complete with times of success and times of failure—that Abraham's faith (which had justified him back in Genesis 15), was made complete or had matured. The righteousness he received freely by God's grace had now produced a righteousness that both God and others could attest to in his life.
Abraham was the father of faith because while he was considered righteous by his faith before God at the beginning of his walk (Gen. 15); by the end of his walk, when the massive test of offering Isaac came, he passed with flying colors and was shown righteous before God and many others (all who read of it) at the end. His faith became sight, we might say.
What becomes clear as we look at this text more closely is that James is not speaking of how we are saved, but how we demonstrate the Gospel before a watching world, and how our faith which saves us ultimately matures as it makes us the people God created us to be! (ref. Ephesians 2:8-10) “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.” (Romans 4:7-8). Paul speaks of how that blessing comes (through trusting God), while James speaks of how we demonstrate that blessing in our life.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Do James and Paul Have Conflicting Views of the Law, Faith and Works? (Part 2)

Reading: James 2  
This chapter gets right to the heart of where many have viewed Paul and James as having conflicting views of faith and works. James was likely writing years before Paul's epistles, so James didn't have Paul in mind in his letter, but did he have a different view of faith and works than Paul? Did James believe we were saved by faith and works while Paul believed we were saved by faith alone? Absolutely not. In this devotional I will present one way of understanding James' comments that might reveal we've been reading too much Paul into them.
James 1:27 speaks of caring for orphans and widows (those at the bottom rung of the economic ladder), and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. Now James turns his attention to a specific situation amongst the believers; it may be a specific way they are being polluted by the world: they are showing favoritism. Favoritism is rooted in viewing others through eyes of self-love, not other-love. Favoritism is living according to what others can do for us, rather than asking how we can manifest Christ to them. James 2:4 references this when it says, “have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts [NASB: motives]?”
Then James goes on to speak about how, though God had honored the poor, they were insulting the poor (James 2:5-6). They clearly did not have a tight reign on their tongue (James 1:26). By insulting the poor, they were blaspheming the good name of the Lord. This may reference that fact that they were living in complete contradiction to Christ who humbled himself, became poor, in order to save us. James tells them to rather fulfill the royal law by loving their neighbor as themselves. This would be consistent with the Gospel they believed and by which they were saved. This would be living toward others as Jesus lived toward them. However, if you show favoritism (by not loving your neighbor as yourselves), you are convicted by the law as a lawbreaker.
James 2:10-13 might be seen as parenthetical. That isn't to say it is unimportant, but that James is digressing to explain something about his last comment. I might paraphrase this way, “If you are living in such contradiction to the Gospel that you treat others as if you yourself had not received mercy, then the law convicts you as a lawbreaker. How so? Because if you break one law, you're just as much a lawbreaker as if you break another. Therefore, stop living under that law because you can't win. Live as those who will be judged by the law that gives freedom—the Gospel. If we live as those unaffected by Gospel mercy because we don't show mercy, then we will be judged under the law. But those who live (speak and act according to) the Gospel are not judged by the law! Gospel mercy will triumph over the judgment of the Law. (For an explanation of why 'the law that gives freedom' is the Gospel, see Part 1.)
We are called to speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom! (James 2:12) We have just been told, in James 2:10, that those who are judged by Moses law will be found guilty of breaking all of it. We however are not to live under that condemnation. We are to live as those who have come under the law that gives freedom—the Gospel. How is the Gospel a law that gives freedom? The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ calls us to follow Christ, it calls us to holy living (see Matthew 5 – 7), it calls us to obedience (Romans 1:5; Matthew 7:24), but it begins by cleansing us of our sin, by freeing us from the fear of death, by judging us righteous in Christ. It begins with mercy. Therefore, keeping God's commands—love your neighbor as yourself—grows out of mercy received (Compare to Paul's view in Romans 12:1ff).
If that paragraph (10-13) is parenthetical, then vs. 14 picks up where we left off—having been encouraged to love our neighbor as ourselves (vs. 8). It might help to read it like this:
8If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, "Love your neighbor as yourself," you are doing right.... 14What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:8-9, 14-17) [Emphasis added]
If read this way, R. T. Kendall pointed out, one needs to ask to whom the “him” at the end of vs. 14 refers. In other words, what is the antecedent to “him” in that sentence? Most assume the question might be read, “Can such faith save him—the person who has that faith?” Kendall suggests that it may well be read, “Can such faith save him—the neighbor whom you have been refusing to love as yourself.” Especially if you understand the word “save” in some of its broader meaning: rescue from danger and to restore to a former state of safety and well being - save, rescue, deliver; keep safe, preserve; cure, make well.
The question might then be paraphrased this way: What benefit is there to a faith that has no works? Does such a faith meet the need of the man who needs clothing or food? Ought not a man who has faith, being so transformed by the mercy of Christ, now show mercy on others? Would that not bring restoration to those around him in a greater way that just believing? If this is what James meant, then the question about how a man is saved (by faith alone or by faith plus works) disappears for James is not addressing personal salvation but is speaking about how our faith will impact the world around us.
All is not solved. For even if this is the way to read it (and I am becoming convinced that it is), there are a few difficult passages to work through at the end of the chapter. Those must wait until the next posting, lest you become weary in reading. Aside from the admitted difficulties to be discussed, this take seems to be more in fitting with the larger context of the letter.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

Monday, September 19, 2011

Do James and Paul Have Conflicting Views of the Law, Faith and Works? (Part 1)

Reading: James 1  
Martin Luther thought the epistle of James should be left out of the canon. This was due to the perception that James and Paul had conflicting views of faith and works. Regardless of how we understand James, I don't think we need to conclude that his writings were at odds with Paul, even if at first glance they may appear to be. I do wonder, however, if we have been reading James a little too much like Paul, or as if he were answering the same questions as Paul, and therefore may be stuck in how we read the answers. In this devotional I want to look at how James and Paul may well be perfectly agreed in their view of law, faith and works.
In the first verse, James informs us who he is writing to (James 1:1): to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations. At the time of this writing, James could not have been writing to Israelite believers from the twelve tribes that had been scattered among the nations because ten, if not eleven, of the tribes had long since disappeared (since the Assyrians took them into captivity). The Jews of Jesus' time and following were called Jews because they were from Judah, which consisted of two tribes.
We do know that James was writing believers (James 2:1), so in what sense was he writing to the twelve tribes? The term, twelve tribes, was an expression that would come to represent Israel. James, like John the apostle and Paul, used the expression the twelve tribes to refer to the church. In fact, this goes back to Jesus, who said the twelve apostles would rule over the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28). Of course, they were apostles over the church.
John communicates the same concept in Revelation 7 where he hears the description of the twelve tribes of Israel – a perfectly complete nation of twelves tribes with twelve thousand members of each tribe. This would be impossible at the time John wrote Revelation since the tribes had long since vanished. So John looks to see this nation and what he sees reveals just how the tribes would be regathered: I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. (Revelation 7:9) He heard about the twelve tribe nation of Israel that needed to be gathered, and he saw them gathered...from every nation, tribe, people and language. He saw the church!
Isaiah spoke of the regathering of the nation of Israel as a regathering that would include gentiles (for one of many examples see Isaiah 19:24). James is writing to the Israel of God, that is, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. (For Paul's understanding of who the descendants of Abraham are, the inheritors of the covenant, see Galatians 3:28-29; 6:16.)
James view of who this nation is, has been transformed and so has his view of the law. In James 1:25, he refers to the perfect law that gives freedom. What is this perfect law? Is it the law of Moses? After all in James 2:10-11, he refers to the law and then quotes from the ten commandments. So are the ten commandments the perfect law that gives freedom? Or, is the Mosaic law the perfect law that gives freedom? I don't believe so. In fact, the text tells us what this perfect law that gives freedom is.
18He chose to give us birth through the word (logos) of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created....21Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word (logos) planted in you, which can save you. 22Do not merely listen to the word (logos), and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23Anyone who listens to the word (logos) but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror 24and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does. (James 1:18-25)
What is “the word (logos) of truth” by which God “gave us birth”? The Gospel! (See also Ephesians 1:13, Colossians 1:5.) This is the Gospel that was planted in us by the sower and can save us. And it is the Gospel which we are to, “do what it says.” (See also Matthew 7:24.) (For more on a common misconception about law and Gospel read What is the Difference Between Law and Gospel). The Gospel is the perfect law that gives freedom. The perfect law that gives freedom is used as a synonym for the word (logos) planted in us, which can save us and which we must do what it says. The Mosaic law cannot save us; only the Gospel can!
Like Paul, James understood that we are not under law, but under Christ and the Gospel (Romans 6:14; 7:4). Both are calling us to an obedience that comes through faith (Romans 1:5) in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Does the Promise of 2 Chronicles 7:14 Apply to the Christian?

Reading: 2 Chronicles 7   
2 Chronicles 7:14 is often used, speaking to Christians in our country and applied to America and our desperate need for “healing” from God. Undoubtedly, our country is in desperate need of healing today, and God hears and answers prayer—a promise that is found all over the New Testament. So pray, pray, pray! However, when read in context, it is fair to ask, “Does this really apply to America?” And, “Does this really apply to the Christian?” Or, “Does it apply today?” Let's read it in context:
13"When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, 14if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land. 15Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place. 16I have chosen and consecrated this temple so that my Name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there. (2 Chronicles 7:13-16)
This promise was given at the dedication of the temple in response to Solomon's prayer (2 Chronicles 7:12), and the this place of these verses is the temple which Solomon built, and the my people was Israel (this is prior to the divided kingdoms), and their land, was the land of Israel. Is it fair, then, to turn my people into the church, and their land into America, and this place into wherever we happen to be?
It may be helpful to look further back in the story line to 2 Chronicles 7:1. There, after Solomon's prayer for dedicating the temple, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the house. (NIV's temple is specifying which house (literal)—the house of the Lord.) One translation translates the word for glory (kabod) as splendor (NET). Both are good. The glory, the splendor, of the Lord filled the house.
There are three (3) well known references in the Old Testament where fire comes down from heaven. First, at Mt. Sinai when God came down in fire and wrote the law on stone tablets (Exodus 19:18; Deuteronomy 9:10). Second, here at the dedication of the temple. Third, after 3 years of drought, when Elijah goes to Ahab and promises rain by days end. They gather all the priests of Baal who make their sacrifice to their god and pray all morning and well past noon for their god to send fire on the sacrifice to no avail. Then Elijah has his sacrifice drenched in water, and then with a simple prayer, fire comes down and consumes the sacrifice (1 Kings 18:36-38).
There is also a New Testament reference to fire coming down, and it is relevant to our text. In Acts 2:1-4, as the disciples are gathered together daily in prayer (Acts 1:14), and have done so again on the day of Pentecost, fire came down from heaven and divided into “tongues” (projecting points in this case, about the size of a tongue), and came to rest on each one. This is the fulfillment of the promise of the Father, the promised Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4-5).
Pentecost was a day in which the people “renewed the Sinai covenant”. A day they recommitted themselves to obey it. But something different was going to happen on this Pentecost. Just as God came down in fire at Sinai and wrote the law on stone tablets, now, the Spirit is coming down to rest on each believer as the Father has promised to write the law in their hearts and on their minds (Jeremiah 31:33). This is the New Covenant that replaces the Mosaic Covenant (Hebrews 8:13). Those who walk in the Spirit will fulfill the righteous requirements of the law (love of God and neighbor) (Romans 8:4).
Secondly, after the return to the land from Babylonian captivity, the temple was rebuilt, but the glory, the splendor of the Lord never returned like we saw in Solomon's day. But now, the sacrifice having been made (Galatians 3:13-14), the promised Holy Spirit can come and fill the house. As the disciples were gathered together in a room of the temple that day (Luke 24:53)1, the temple was indeed filled with the glory of the Lord, the splendor of the Lord, as the Holy Spirit filled the temple—the church of the Living God (Ephesians 2:21-22).
Thirdly, even as fire came down from heaven after Elijah's prayer, so we have been promised answered prayer when we too pray fervently; we too are promised the Spirit's power in answer to prayer (James 5:16-18; Luke 11:9-13). Those who come to Christ are baptized by Him with the Holy Spirit and fire. We have the Spirit writing the law of God in our hearts, conforming us to the image of Christ. We have been filled with the glory, the splendor of God—Christ in you, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27). And we have been promised answers to prayer.
2 Chronicles 7:14 does apply to the Christian—indeed in an ultimate sense it was written for the Christian. It does apply today, as we are promised that God will hear and answer our prayers. There even seems to be an emphasis in scripture on the power of gathered prayer—prayer offered in this place which is now the temple, the assembled people of God. But, does it apply to America? Well, not in the same sense that it applied to Israel. However, we are called to pray for all people that God would for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. So we should pray accordingly for America and Zimbabwe, indeed for all men with this in mind.
Seek God's face for His eyes and heart are on His church who is gathered before Him in prayer in the name of His Son Jesus! God will hear from heaven and answer our prayer!
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,
1There is some debate as to whether the disciples were in the upper room (the house) or the temple (the house) on the day of Pentecost. I believe we can firmly say they were in a room of the temple because, 1) the scripture tells us where they went to pray every day... the temple; 2) house was commonly used to refer to the temple; 3) 120 wouldn't fit in the upper room, and 4) had they been in the upper room they would have been across town from where all the people were gathered on Pentecost, hence no one would have gathered around after hearing them speak in tongues. Never mind all the implications of how this fulfills Old Testament prophecies since it was at the temple. I suspect the only upper room experience the disciples had was eating and sleeping. See also Acts 5:12.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Source of Solomon's Wisdom

Reading: 2 Chronicles 1   
Solomon is renown for his wisdom. One can study the book of Proverbs in order to discover the key to his wisdom, or one might merely study 2 Chronicles in order to learn it. In fact, the key to Solomon's wisdom is found right here in the 1st chapter, as confirmed throughout the book of Proverbs. In response to the offer from the Lord, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you” (2 Chronicles 1:7), Solomon prays,
9Now, LORD God, let your promise to my father David be confirmed, for you have made me king over a people who are as numerous as the dust of the earth. 10Give me wisdom and knowledge, that I may lead this people, for who is able to govern this great people of yours?  11God said to Solomon, “Since this is your heart's desire and you have not asked for wealth, riches or honor, nor for the death of your enemies, and since you have not asked for a long life but for wisdom and knowledge to govern my people over whom I have made you king, 12therefore wisdom and knowledge will be given you. And I will also give you wealth, riches and honor, such as no king who was before you ever had and none after you will have.” (2 Chronicles 1:9-12)
I can remember this story from my childhood (today I turn 49, so that was a long time ago). It has always stood out as one of the great heart tests of a man in scripture. It is certainly intended for us as both an example and a statement of value. The obvious contrast here is one that sets God's wisdom and knowledge over against wealth, riches, honor, and long life. This morning I noted another, less obvious, but equally as important aspect of Solomon's request: humility. Solomon's wisdom is rooted in humility.
Why do I say that? Because at its root, this request reveals that Solomon did not assume he had the wisdom and knowledge resident in himself to lead the people effectively. He didn't think of himself as a great king. He understood what he lacked. Solomon demonstrates for us right here in 1 Chronicles 1:10 what the book of proverbs keeps front and central throughout: Real wisdom comes in living our lives in utter dependence on God. Real wisdom is available to those who recognize their foolishness, while those who are wise in their own eyes, are fools.
If Solomon had been wise in his own eyes, he would have asked for riches, honor, or one of the other things on the list in vs. 11. However, Solomon saw his lack of wisdom, and that insight was essential to connecting him to the source of his wisdom. As he writes in Proverbs 11:2,“with humility comes wisdom.”
We might say that Solomon's humility was the beginning of his wisdom. Of course, we know that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” yet in Proverbs, humility is nearly equal to the fear of the Lord. If “the fear of the Lord” was a coin, the other side of the coin, would be labeled, “Humility.” (See Proverbs 15:33 where the parallelism places them in equal positions. Also Proverbs 22:4.) So that to say, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” and to say, “with humility comes wisdom” are to say the same thing from different angles. Tremper Longman wrote,
Humility comes from a healthy fear of Yahweh. Those who fear Yahweh know that they are not the center of the universe. They are not 'wise in their own eyes.'”
Solomon displays this posture of the heart in his prayer for wisdom. What is the posture of your heart? Is it a posture of desperate dependence on God? Do you find yourself asking for wisdom? James 1:5 invites us with the same promise that Solomon had to ask and receive this wisdom. If we are not asking it is likely that we don't perceive our own need as Solomon did his. Solomon saw his foolishness, the fool always sees his own wisdom (Proverbs 12:15; 26:12, 16). What about you? If you lack wisdom, ask! God freely distributes it to fools who know they need it!
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

Monday, August 22, 2011

God on Trial?

Reading: 1 Chronicles 21   
God is on trial. The world is often quick to accuse God of injustice. Often the Bible is used as evidence against God, because the God of the Old Testament, it is often put forward, is not loving, according to the world's prosecution rhetoric. This trial of God is not new, indeed it is as old as history itself. It began in the Garden of Eden with the accusation of the age old serpent against God that God was lying in order to keep us from having “the good life.” (Genesis 3:4-5) 1 Chronicles 21 might help us see the serpent's lie and the truth about God and what He is like.
It begins with the age old serpent inciting David in an activity that will ultimately bring death (1 Chronicles 21:1). David tells Joab, his general, to go count the warriors in Israel. That doesn't seem to be a big problem, right? But Joab's response helps us see the problem.
But Joab replied, “May the LORD multiply his troops a hundred times over. My lord the king, are they not all my lord's subjects? Why does my lord want to do this? Why should he bring guilt on Israel?” (1 Chronicles 21:3)
David's decision to count the troops is an evidence that his trust is shifting. He had always been one to trust in the Lord, not the arm of the flesh (Psalm 56:1-4). But now he has his eyes on how big his army is. Joab recognizes this and appeals to David. However, as king, David prevails and the counting begins. We discover that Joab was disgusted with this activity, and God was too (1 Chronicles 21:6-7).
What is the problem with this shift of trust? Though written later, Jeremiah 17:5 summarizes a truth that was equally true in David's time, in fact, gets to the root of sin itself. To trust in the Lord brings life, to trust in the flesh brings death. This isn't an arbitrary decision from the Lord; rather it is the upholding of truth. If trusting in the flesh would actually end in life, then the flesh would have to be the source of life. Or, rather, God would be upholding the lie which we are insisting on believing. God cannot lie, and God cannot prop up a lie.
God's wrath is poured on Israel and David sees his sin and repents. God offers him a choice between three forms of judgment. (1 Chronicles 21:8-10) David's response is telling:
David said to Gad, “I am in deep distress. Let me fall into the hands of the LORD, for his mercy is very great; but do not let me fall into the hands of men.” (1 Chronicles 21:13)
David believed that God's mercy was greater than mans. There are a lot of people who think that they have a better idea of what love is than God does. A lot of people who presume to be more merciful than God. A lot in our day who would accuse God for killing these 70,000, but would defend to the death the right to take the life of innocent children in the womb to the tune of 55 million in our own nation. How can they possibly be so blind to the radical double standard. (Never mind that they have never given life to anyone, and God is the author of life. He is the only one with the right to give an take.)
David understood that he had rejected God, the author of life, in order to trust in man. He recognized the wretchedness of this action and understands just how deserving he was of death itself. But he knew that God's character is not limited to only justice, but is primarily holy love. His mercy is very great. David would much rather have fallen into the hands of the God of the Old Testament than to fall into the hands of men. (I dare say so would the Jews who were in Germany or Russia in the middle of the last century, and so would many babies today!)
As the account continues we discover that David understands that God extends mercy through a means of atonement, of dealing with man's guilt by a means of substitution. Sacrifices were given to demonstrate that God would deal with their sin by punishing their guilt on another. Of course, God never intended that animal sacrifices would be sufficient (Isaiah 1:11; Psalm 51:16). Those sacrifices were pointing to the reality that God would provide a means of atonement in which our guilt would be dealt with by a substitute, and were always pointing forward to the Lamb of God that would bear away the sins of the world.
God's love is a holy love. It isn't merely God saying, “it doesn't really matter, I was just kidding anyway when I said not to eat from the tree. I was just kidding when I said not to.... You won't really die.” Rather it is God saying, “I wasn't kidding. Death is necessary, but I will provide the answer, I will save you from death itself and give you life eternal.” It is God saying, “I will bear your death for you.” 1 Chronicles 21 looks to the ultimate sacrifice described in Isaiah 53:1-12. The world may think they have God on trial, but in reality, it is the world that is on trial, and needs a serious attorney (1 John 2:1-2).
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,