09 Shadow Maker


The other day we were flying over Lake Superior and I was looking at the clouds below us. Even the wispiest of them cast shadows on the water–dark blotches that appeared to be islands.

Clouds hover outside the window of an aircraft on a mission to find the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, off Tho Chu islandShadows move and change. The shadow of a tree when the wind is blowing brushes the ground like a broom. Shadows can drive a hunter nearly mad with frustration: Is it an ear? An antler? A branch? Where is it now? Shadows can make a photo portrait appear either dramatic or sinister.

James writes about this in James 1.17, and makes the point that the good gifts we receive come down from the Father of lights, who never shifts like the shadows do. When we know Him, we realize that He is not fickle or capricious or vindictive. His character does not change, and He does not vengefully withhold His goodness like a catty middle-schooler might. Certainly, James never saw his older half-brother, the Lord Jesus, act that way.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

In the Scriptures, the character of God is connected very often with light. At creation, His first command was, “Let there be light.” It wasn’t until Day Four that He created the heavenly bodies, so the original source of light was God Himself.

The psalmist wrote, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” (PSA 27.1a)

John the Apostle wrote in the first chapter of his gospel, “[John the Baptizer] came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.” (JOH 1.7-10)

Later, in John 8.12, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

chp-shadowIn our text, Jesus’ younger brother speaks of the Father of lights, from whom we receive every good and perfect gift. As the Father of lights, there is no variation with Him, no shadow due to change.

James makes a connection between this idea and the one that follows in verse 18, which we’ll consider next time. What we understand from this text, though, is that God is constant and reliable. There are no shadows with him.

A shadow is cast when something gets in the way of the light. God never does that–He is the light.  John also wrote, “…God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” (1 JOH 1.5) God cannot deny Himself, and, as the Father of lights, He cannot obstruct the path of His own glory.

But I can. If I get in the way of His light, I cast a shadow on my own path and on the path of anyone near me.

James knew Jesus never did that.

 

Image is from nypost.com

08 The Lion, the Birds, and the Bees


Though I never saw it, there once was a TV show in which the main character, Flip Wilson, used to routinely justify his mischief by saying, “The devil made me do it.”

Baloney.

The devil never makes anyone do anything. There is not a single act of sin we may commit which we can blame on the devil. That’s not to say he isn’t involved–the Holy Spirit tells us through the Apostle Peter that he “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 PET 5.8b)

roaring-african-lion-wallpaper-2-2560x1600

So, who is actually to blame for our high crimes and misdemeanors, then? James tells us who in James 1.13-15, and then reminds us in verse 16, “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers.” While some translations (my ESV, for one) place this verse in the next paragraph, it seems to make far more sense as a summary warning for verses 13-15, in which it is clear that some of the apostle’s readers were deceived about who is responsible for acts of sin:

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

THE THEOLOGICAL REASON

James first offers a theological rebuttal to the accusation that God tempts people to sin. The fact that sin is possible and available in the world God created does not constitute divine temptation. God was not sadistically using reverse psychology in Eden when He instructed Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. James reminds his readers of two critical theological facts about God: His separateness from sin Himself and his hatred of sin in us. These two facts serve as the backdrop for what he says next. If sin is never God’s fault, whose fault is it?

THE PHYSIOLOGICAL ILLUSTRATION

To allow James to illustrate his point, the Holy Spirit uses an illustration about human reproduction–conception, to be exact–by comparing an act of sin to the process by which life is formed in the womb. He makes it clear that this is what He is doing when he says, “…desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin,” in the first part of verse 15.

Just as two things are required for conception, an egg from the female and sperm from the male, two things are required for an act of sin to occur–desire and enticement, or opportunity. The devil cannot provide the desire–he doesn’t have to. James says that desire is our “own desire,” the cell we provide. Satan can certainly point out opportunities, though–he did that in Eden and has been doing it ever since. When desire and opportunity come together, an act of sin is often conceived. We sin when we allow our desire to dwell on and seriously consider the opportunity. This is what James means when he talks about being “lured and enticed.”

Let me illustrate. If I am an alcoholic and stumble upon (sic) an unopened bottle of whiskey on a table in an abandoned building, I have a problem. Desire and opportunity have met, and they’re climbing into bed. My best strategy is to turn around and run–or stumble–out of the building as fast as my legs can take me! If I have an aversion to alcohol, a bottle of the very best Scotch would not tempt me, even if I knew nobody would see me drink it. On the other hand, if that bottle is empty, I won’t take a drink no matter how badly I want one. I can’t drink what isn’t there.

So it all comes back to us. What are we to do, since the desire to sin is part of our makeup as fallen people, and the opportunity to sin is ubiquitous in our fallen world? Until God removes the desire, we need to run from the opportunity, just as Joseph ran from Potiphar’s wife in Genesis 39, leaving his blazer in her hands in his haste to escape.

If we know the Lord, we can be reassured that God “predestined [us] to be conformed to the image of his Son. ” (ROM 8.29) One of the things conformity to Christ involves is the removal of sinful desires from the heart of the believer. (Remember, Jesus never had any.) Sometimes this removal is immediate and dramatic. Sometimes it is more gradual, a constant struggle to evade the lion who is always on the prowl.

James  grew up with Jesus, who, ironically, was not conceived in this way. Nor did He ever have the desire to sin, though He was “in every respect tempted as we are.” (HEB 4.15) James could never convince him to participate in neighbourhood shenanigans with the other the kids in Nazareth, or to lie to their parents, or to steal matzoh from the matzoh jar. Imagine growing up with a sibling who never once had the desire to do wrong–never!

When you sin, James says–and you will–don’t deceive yourself by saying, as Adam did in the garden, that it’s God’s fault. It isn’t.

Don’t forget about that lion, and don’t forget about the birds and the bees.

07 Five Crowns


We love the word game, Quiddler, produced by Set Games. It’s a fantastic game for people who love words, and we use it with our English students to develop their vocabularies and spelling skills. The same company makes another game, which we haven’t played, called, Five Crowns

 

5 Crowns

 

That’s an interesting name in light of James 1.12:

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.

The New Testament speaks of five distinct “crowns,” or rewards, God will give His children for their faithfulness. The “crown of life” is one of them. “The Greek word translated “crown” is stephanos (the source for the name Stephen the martyr) and means “a badge of royalty, a prize in the public games or a symbol of honor generally.” Used during the ancient Greek games, it referred to a wreath or garland of leaves placed on a victor’s head as a reward for winning an athletic contest. As such, this word is used figuratively in the New Testament of the rewards of heaven God promises those who are faithful.”*

In 1 COR 9.24, Paul–evidently a sports fan–uses an allusion to the ancient Isthmian Games to illustrate how these crowns figure in the life of the believer: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.” Paul is not suggesting that only one of each kind of crown will be awarded in heaven, but that every believer should view his or her life as a race and run to win.

The crowns mentioned in the New Testament are not the wreaths of the Greek games, which were already dead when they were placed on the heads of the victors. Instead, they are “imperishable” rewards that will last for eternity. (1 COR 9.25)

The second kind of crown is the “Crown of Rejoicing,” (1 THE 2.19) or literally, a “Crown of Boasting.” Paul purposed not to boast in anything but his identity in Christ, and in this text he suggests that the Thessalonian believers will give him cause to boast in the grace of God when he gets to heaven because they will be with him there for all eternity.

Paul writes that the third crown, the “Crown of Righteousness,” will be rewarded to “all who have loved his appearing.” (2 TIM 4.8) He is writing at the end of his life, just before he is martyred by the Romans for his faith in Christ and his earth-shaking  ministry throughout the Roman world. Given the chaos and evil of our day, all believers in Jesus should “love his appearing,” the instantaneous removal of true Christians from the earth just before the horrific “Time of Jacob’s Trouble.” Sadly, some do not.

Given the chaos and evil of our day, all believers in Jesus should “love his appearing.” Sadly, some do not.

1 PET 5.4 mentions a fourth crown, the “Crown of Glory,” which will be awarded to those who faithfully, eagerly, selflessly “shepherd the flock of God.”  While the rewards on earth for this work may be few and small, the reward in heaven will be glorious beyond all imagination.

The fifth crown is the one we see here in James 1.12: the “Crown of Life.” It is mentioned in REV 2.10 in the same way: as a reward for steadfastness in the midst of suffering. First Century followers of Jesus were being put to death by the thousands in unspeakably horrible ways, and all of these writers were well acquainted with this reality. Paul was martyred by the Romans shortly after he wrote his second letter to Timothy. John died alone in exile on the island of Patmos just after writing Revelation. Historians tell us James was killed in Jerusalem  in 62 A.D. by being thrown off the roof of the temple and then stoned.

In our text, James 1.12, we should notice several important things.

STEADFASTNESS IN TROUBLE IS A BLESSING

Just as when he exhorted his readers to “count it all joy” when they encountered all kinds of trials, James reminds them that doing so–remaining “steadfast under trial”–will result in their blessing. Endurance, like joy, is not contingent upon the intensity of the trouble, but on the faithfulness of God. Further, steadfastness in the midst of affliction yields more than “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (PHI 4.7)–a blessing in itself, given the array of things which would rob of us of peace. It also ensures us this mysterious, glorious “crown of life.”

STEADFASTNESS IS ONLY POSSIBLE IN TESTING

Obviously, if there is no test, there is no reason to be steadfast. The very word implies stress, trouble, pain, sorrow, heartache, and any number of other nouns we could use to describe human experience during its darkest hours. Aspirants to the “Crown of Life,” Beware!

STEADFASTNESS DEMONSTRATES LOVE FOR GOD

Notice how James connects endurance and love: the one who remains steadfast in trial will receive the crown of life, which God will give to all who love him. Clearly, then, steadfastness is a way in which we demonstrate true love for God. As it has been throughout history, the crown of life may be inextricably joined to the sentence of death. Our friend Chet Bitterman understood this. He was killed for his faith in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1981 after 48 days in captivity. “There was found an entry in Chet’s journal written nearly 2 years before his death that read. ‘The situation in Nicaragua is getting worse. If Nicaragua falls, I guess the rest of Central America will too. Maybe this is just some kind of self-inflicted Martyr complex, but I find this recurring thought that perhaps God will call me to be martyred in His service in Colombia. I am willing.'”

Even as I write this post, we are hearing reports of the unthinkable brutality of ISIS in Iraq and elsewhere. We have precious friends from Iraq–from the Kurdish region as well as from elsewhere in the country–and our hearts go out to the suffering citizens of this blood-soaked nation. These fanatical, bloodthirsty extremists have demanded that “infidels” convert to Islam or face immediate death, and it has been reported that hundreds of what I call “CNN Christians”–those who claim allegiance to Christianity or who are thought to be Christians simply because they are not something else–have capitulated.

No crown of life for them.

I pray that God would empower those who are truly His to remain “steadfast under trial” and “faithful unto death.”

 

 

THE WIDOW’S MIGHT: Giving Everything When You’ve Got Nothing


As Brother Thaddeus lit the torch in the hall, Paul paused to glance at the fading opulence of this sprawling villa just south of Berea. The remaining furnishings cast their ornate shadows upon cracked walls poorly disguised by a few threadbare tapestries. Many tiles were missing from the mosaic floor, and the Syrian carpet was faded and torn.

The apostle had been dumbfounded when this congregation had presented him with a love gift on this, his last day with them. In addition to the gold and silver coins, there were rings, bracelets, nose rings, brooches, and several unset gems. His heart overflowed with affection for this little band of believers. A marked people in a pagan city, they were being severely tried for their faith in Jesus. Money was scarce. Some shivered in thin, tattered clothing. Others had not eaten yet today. Many bore the marks of brutal beatings. Thaddeus, who had been removed from his government post for refusing to say, “Caesar is Lord” upon entering the council chambers, had been strangely unable to sell his property, and his taxes had taken an unexpected jump. Paul hoped his last sermon would encourage them all…

james-c-christensen-the-widows-mite1

“So as Jesus sat by the temple doors with His disciples, the worshipers filed by and dropped there offerings into the massive, carved chest which is opened each Sabbath to receive the tithes of the Jews.

“Our Lord watched closely. Prominent men strode sedately to the coffer, their elegant robes sweeping the marble floor, and with practiced flourishes dropped fistfuls of silver from their brocade purses. Pharisees and members of the religious councils would bow and scrape piously, glancing about to make sure none of their generous contributions slipped into the box unappreciated.

“Occasionally, one of the Twelve would gasp as the equivalent of an entire year’s earnings passed before his eyes and clattered onto the growing heap of coins.

“Then, as several of my associates quietly speculated about the possible uses for such a fortune, a young widow entered the hall and shuffled over to the treasury in her patched sandals, carrying a whimpering infant and pulling a dirty toddler with her. No flowing robes here. No gold, no jewels, no wish to be seen by anyone but God. Clumsily she fished two tiny coins from the threadbare pouch fastened to her tunic. Whispering a silent prayer of thanksgiving, her damp eyes full of hope and adoration, she dropped her very life into that chest, its tinkling barely  audible as it, too, landed on the heap.

“Instantly, the Master was on His feet.

‘Did you see that poor widow, my friends? That one, over there. She just put two mites into the treasury, but I tell you assuredly that she has given more than all these well-heeled hypocrites put together! And do you know why? Because those two mites were all she had. They gave token amounts out of their vast wealth, doing their best to appear generous and holy. But she, in her poverty, gave everything to her Heavenly Father. He will reward her richly for this!’

Though we don’t actually know what Paul taught the Macedonian believers about giving, the apostle held them up to the Corinthians–wealthy, urbane believers in a city directly south of Macedonia–as model givers. They are an example to us, as well. If we could master the principles by which they lived, the cause of Christ would be propelled forward exponentially. People in our communities would not go hungry or unclothed. Believers would be more content and better able to serve the Lord.

Just what was it about these anonymous Christians that made their gifts so special? Four simple observations can reveal their secret of giving.

A DIFFERENT  PERSPECTIVE ON THINGS AND CIRCUMSTANCES

The Macedonian Christians had a different perspective on things and circumstances from most of us. In 2 Corinthians 8.1-2, Paul writes, We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.

What an amazing statement! In our culture, affliction and joy, poverty and liberality–these are perceived as mutually exclusive. We don’t expect afflicted people to be joyful; indeed, when they are we question their grasp of reality. We certainly don’t expect the poor to give generously to others–we expect others to give to them! So when we read of these wonderful people who were both oppressed and poverty-stricken, we marvel. Affliction did not rob them of their joy, and poverty did not rob them of their generosity.

Joyfulness and generosity must be conscious decisions we make as Christians, irrespective of circumstances. They are directly related to our priorities. Our tendency is to pursue what is not important, to wish for what is not possible (see PRO 23.1-3), and to take pride in what is not ours. (PRO 30.8,9) What a contrast to those struggling Macedonians, enduring one of the early waves of persecution which swept over the Church in the first century.

A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE ON FAITH

Their perspective on faith was different, as well. Paul writes in verses three and four, For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints… We often give according to what we can afford. This is not wrong, but it is not faith. As we learn to give, it is a good place to begin, as Paul says in verse 12: For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have. But that was not enough for the Macedonian believers. They gave beyond their ability. They gave according to faith, not figures. Not only that, but they “begged…earnestly”. There was no reluctance, no need for reminders, as in Corinth. They were “cheerful givers,” not giving  “reluctantly or under compulsion.” (1 COR 9.7)

Sometimes the poor are more generous than the rich. Perhaps this pattern was evidence in Paul’s day, as well, and prompted him to write, As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the certainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share. (1 TIM 6.17,18)

Either we trust God or we don’t. If we don’t, no amount of money will be enough to please Him. If we do, no amount will be too much. He can afford whatever we decide to give.

A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE ON MINISTRY

An incident over thirty years ago taught me a lesson I hope I will never forget.

I went with a friend to visit a rural family in Nova Scotia who lived in a two-room block cottage with no hot running water, little heat, and just enough food to keep the lions in their bellies from roaring too loudly. It was a bitterly cold winter, and they had to wear their coats inside to keep warm.

They had recently immigrated from England. The man was out of work, with no prospects. His wife was ill and they had two small children.

But they were a Christian family, and there was joy in the home despite the hardship. We had a good time of fellowship, and when my friend and I went out to the car, the man came with us. As we said good-bye, he stuffed a five dollar bill into my hand.

“I–bu–I can’t take this from you!” I stammered. “I should be giving you money.”

“Listen, Brother,” my new friend replied in his direct manner, “does your Bible say it is better to give than to receive?”

“Of course it does, but—“

“Then who are you to deprive me of the blessing of giving?”

He had me there.

The Macedonians might have asked this question had Paul refused their gift. Indeed, he says they begged…earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints. (2 COR 8.4) These impoverished disciples knew God could use them despite their need, and they considered the needs of their Judean brothers and sisters more pressing than their own. The realization that we all minister together with God and that we are equally important in His program will affect how we give out of what He has given to us.

A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE ON COMMITMENT

Paul seems surprised himself as he writes of the Macedonians, and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us. (2 COR 8.5) Just as the widow in the temple, they had given God their very lives, so it was no great thing to offer Him a gift to ease the pain of His children in Judea and give His servant a nice send-off.

To be truly cheerful givers, we must give ourselves to God. Such a gift is not beyond the call of duty. Indeed, Romans 12.1 calls it our “spiritual worship.” This sacrifice comes with the knowledge that if the Lord can’t have us, He doesn’t want our money. And if He does have us, He already has our money, too. All of it.

If that poor widow had only known how many precious gifts her spirit would inspire, her steps would have quickened, her face would have radiated with humble thanksgiving to her Lord for using her so.

She knows now.

Image from http://galleryone.com/fineart/sculpture_figurines/CHRWI1.html

 

06 The Richest Homeless Man in the World


Friends recently told us of a young man they know who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He was raised in a well-heeled family, coddled, given everything he could possibly want, and allowed to live without boundaries. He now sleeps in a homeless shelter and spends his days on the streets. His entire family, profoundly distressed about his situation, is reaping a harvest of wrong choices. And it’s a bumper crop.

I wonder how Jesus’ family felt about Him.

Jesus said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (MAT 8.20)

He wasn’t complaining. He was responding to a scribe who had come up blithely promising to follow Him wherever He went. Jesus was essentially asking this privileged and respected Jew, “Are you sure you’re ready to become a homeless man?” There is no suggestion in the text that the scribe really did follow Jesus.

IMG_9205James, Jesus’ little brother, knew how Jesus lived. He knew He was a homeless rabbi who traveled all over Galilee and Judea, teaching crowds of people and performing astounding miracles of healing. His wisdom was astonishing, His boldness newsworthy, and His power unearthly. But He–God in flesh!–and his ragged band of disciples were reliant upon the generosity of sympathetic followers for food, clothes, and a place to sleep at night.

In our day, such a man would have an agent and probably a personal security detail. He would appear on all the TV talk shows and his photo would be seen on billboards along the nation’s highways. He would earn an impressive salary and drive an expensive car–or, better yet, have his own chauffeur. He would have assistants to do this, and other assistants to do that. He would never be seen with his hair out of place. His golf clubs would be custom-made. His kids would be in a private school and his beautiful wife would wear Gucci and Chanel and smile demurely whenever she saw a camera.

Not so with Jesus.

Many years after Jesus has returned to heaven, James writes these words in James 1.9-11:

Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

IMG_9407His use of the word, “brother,” indicates that he is writing about believers in Jesus. Faith in Christ, in addition to providing the assurance of eternity in heaven, is an equalizer. (James will write more about this in the second chapter of his letter when he speaks to the issue of partiality.) The poor man is exalted in that he shares equally in the glorious eternal inheritance God has promised to those who know Him. The rich believer, by recognizing that his riches cannot buy God’s mercy, prostrates himself in the dust at the foot of the cross along with the brother dressed in rags.

Proverbs 30.8-9 contain the following prayer: “Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.”

Daniel Doriani observes, “The poor are prone to dishonor God by breaking His law, if necessary, to obtain the next meal. But the rich are prone to trust their wealth and power and so to forget God. The rich are also tempted to insult and abuse the poor (JAM 2.6-7), to live for themselves, and to exploit whomever they can (JAM 5.3-6)…The poor must remember they have an exalted position in God’s eyes. The rich must remember the dangers of materialism. They must believe their life is fleeting, impermanent, and beyond their control, as it is for everyone else.” (Daniel M. Doriani, James, P & R Publishing, 2007)

The irises in our back yard were magnificent this year. Admiring them in their dew-drenched beauty became a morning ritual for several weeks. I took lots of photos, including the ones on this page. The second one reminds me of the truth of what James is saying: riches, like flowers, fade and fall off. They are temporal and vulnerable. They are only endowed with eternal value when they are given away!

Both rich and poor can exult in God’s saving, amazing, equalizing grace. As Jesus’ own life attests, it’s far better to be homeless than hopeless.

 

05 The Wind-Driven Life


But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

Wild Ocean Surf HD Desktop Background

Few things are as calming as the rhythmic crash of the surf on the beach when one is on dry land. And few things are as terrifying as a storm at sea. Our family can remember a ferry trip across the Gulf of Maine in the early 1980’s. It was November, we were sailing home to Nova Scotia, and the weather outside was frightful. The seas were seven metres high, and an anchor chain swung loose and clanged ominously against the hull of the ship every time it rolled. The sound resonated throughout the nearly empty vessel, making the ship’s violent motion even more alarming. Doors slammed shut violently and loose items flew about. We were at the mercy of the angry sea. At one point our three-year-old son asked, “Are we going to die?”

James has told his readers about the guaranteed source of the thing they need most: when they lack wisdom, they can ask God, and He will give it to them generously because He wants them to have it and because He has it all and longs to give it away.

Now Jesus’ little brother attaches a proviso to his promise. When we ask God for wisdom–or anything else, for that matter–we must ask in faith. Without faith, asking is pointless. Why would I ask for something I know I won’t receive, or ask it of someone who does not have it to give? James says that is being double-minded, the spiritual equivalent of being two-faced.

If I pray without faith, that’s exactly what I am.

Although James does not figure in any of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ words or works, it is safe to assume that by the time he has written this letter, the apostles of the Lord have probably filled in the gaps in his experience. And it is unthinkable that Jesus did not make every attempt possible to proclaim the truth to His family members. Having grown up where he did, James is familiar with the effects of wind-driven waves even on a relatively small body of water. The apostles’ stories have surely included their times with Jesus on the Sea of Galilee, sometimes scared out of their minds. Some amazing things happened on that lake–an enormous catch of fish when there weren’t any to catch, the instantaneous calming of a tempest by Jesus’ command, and Peter’s brief stroll on the water while Jesus patiently humoured his unbelief.

So James knows what he’s talking about when he makes this comparison between unbelief and the sea.

Jesus had much to say about faith during His ministry. Once, when cursing a fruitless fig tree, He told his disciples, “…whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” (Matthew 21.22) When Jesus spoke to the Father, He did so with the assurance that the Father heard Him and would answer according to His will.

Before raising Lazarus from the dead, He prayed: “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” (John 11.41b-42)

With absolute assurance of His purpose for coming to earth and anticipating His imminent arrest and crucifixion, Jesus prays in John 12.27: “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”

In John 15.14, the Lord says to His disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.” That kind of promise should elicit strong faith from any follower of Jesus, so that asking God for anything, including the wisdom we know He wants us to have, is an act of supreme confidence.   

James will conclude his letter with another reference to praying in faith–but that’s for a later post. Suffice it to say that his admonition to us is founded in experience as well as sound theology.

Jesus never doubted, and neither should we. We must avoid the perils of the wind-driven life.

04 If Any of You Lacks Wisdom, Let Him Google It


GoogleIf you need answers, where do you go?

One of the general characteristics of millennials (the sector of our population that graduated from high school around the year 2000) is that they rely on technology for answers more than on the experience and expertise of the people close to them. Their phones are smarter than their parents, their teachers, even their doctors.

It is true that the internet offers immediate answers to many questions. A few years back I repaired the shutter on my camera using an after-market part and a YouTube video, saving myself a significant amount of money and time.

But surfing for wisdom is a bad idea. GOOGLE is not God.

In James 1.5-8, Jesus’ half-brother writes,

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

This text teaches us several things. First, wisdom is important. Wisdom is the way in which we apply knowledge to the questions, problems, challenges, and thorny issues of life. We can’t apply knowledge we don’t possess or learn from experiences we have never had, so sometimes we are at a complete loss to know what we should do. Proverbs 19.2 tells us that “…desire without knowledge is not good, and whoever makes haste with his feet misses the way.” Making decisions in ignorance is dangerous.

How important is wisdom? King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, quotes his father, David, as saying, “The beginning of wisdom is this: get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight.” (PRO 4.7) Apart from our salvation itself, wisdom is the most important thing we can possess. Solomon wrote an entire book–Ecclesiastes–about the folly of living without it.

Just as desire without knowledge is not good, so knowledge without wisdom is not good. It is counterproductive. Contrasting love with knowledge regarding a specific ethical issue in Corinth, Paul writes, “This knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Knowledge of untested ideas can make one dangerous–like a first-time surgeon who has learned his craft by reading Grey’s Anatomy. Likewise, a head full of facts–even knowledge of God’s Word–not applied to the issues of life is of no use to anyone. To the contrary–it gives one the delusion of expertise by confusing knowledge with wisdom. Life is not a game of Jeopardy.

Another thing we learn from this passage is that wisdom comes from God. Paul spends a good deal of time pressing this point with the Corinthians. They appear to be a church obsessed with credentials rather than wisdom. Paul makes this clear when he asks, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?…For the foolishness of God [if God could be foolish] is wiser than men, and the weakness of God [if God could be weak] is stronger than men.” (1 COR 1.20, 25)

Growing up with Jesus, James saw wisdom at work. Luke the physician tells us that even as a boy, Jesus “…grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him…And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” (LUK 2.40,52) As Jesus began His ministry, the public was astounded by His teachings. Matthew records that when Jesus taught in the synagogue in His hometown of Nazareth, this is what happened:

…they were astonished, and said, ‘Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not this his mother Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where did this man get all these things?’

It was clear to all that Jesus’ wisdom was unheard of. Unearthly. Supernatural. It was the wisdom of God, not the wisdom of the world. James was exposed to it early as Jesus’ little brother, and now he assures us that if we need it–and we always do–we should go to God for it. “For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding…” (PRO 2.6)

God gives wisdom generously. This is the third thing James wants his readers to understand. And why wouldn’t He? He wants us to have it, and He wants us to know that He is the source of it. GOOGLE should not be the first place to which we go for answers.

Finally, James teaches us that wisdom is a matter of faith, not of schooling. More than once my father told me, “Don’t let your schooling get in the way of your education.” The most valuable training in life does not happen in the classroom. Education, while useful and desirable, is not the panacea that will cure the ills of society. Even as I write this, it is as if someone is standing behind me and whispering in my ear, “That’s so easy to say. Now, put your money where your mouth is.”

Unwavering faith in God, earnest requests for His help, understanding of His Word, and application of its precepts to the complexities of life is what will enable the one who “lacks wisdom” to receive it from the only place where it can actually be found.

03 Joy Without Enjoyment


tearsHave you ever watched someone else suffer–especially someone you love?

I have a high pain threshold and I am not squeamish about my own blood. But I remember when the local medical staff had to remove part of our road from our youngest son’s face after a bicycle mishap he had as a child. I couldn’t watch. I remember watching my wife’s fingers close inward like claws and her skin go white as she hemorrhaged after a miscarriage and came close to death. I had to sit down and put my head between my knees.

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

These are the words of James1.1-4. I wonder how James felt as he watched Jesus endure a life that was anything but easy. The fact that he and his other siblings didn’t believe in Jesus until after He’d risen from the dead (and we don’t know if some of them ever believed) doesn’t mean he didn’t love his Brother. On at least one occasion (MAR 3.20-21), His brothers and sisters publicly questioned Jesus’ mental state. But a brother is a brother, after all, and it must have been painful to see the firstborn stigmatize the entire family on the one hand, and suffer severely on the other.

And suffer He did.

During His ministry, Jesus was poor, homeless, misunderstood, scandalized, ridiculed, treated with scorn and contempt, threatened, doubted, abandoned, betrayed, tortured, crucified, and forsaken by the One who loved Him most. Jesus “…has in every respect been tempted as we are, yet without sin…” (HEB 4.15) and on the night of His arrest He was in such spiritual and emotional agony He perspired blood. (LUK 22.44)

Did Jesus enjoy these experiences? Of course not. Who would? Jesus was not a cosmic masochist who took pleasure in suffering just because He knew He would be able to get through it. And James is not suggesting we enjoy the pain of trials–the anguish of human loss, the devastation of sudden unemployment, the pain of illness, the trauma of betrayal–any more than Jesus enjoyed Gethsemane. Jesus knew what He was about to endure on the cross, but He also knew how it would end. That night He prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (LUK 22.42) That’s steadfastness.

The writer of Hebrews gives us some insight into the words of both Jesus and James: “…Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (HEB 12.2)

It may be that the only joy we have in a trial is the joy that we know will come later–in heaven, when all the troubles of this are history. But that’s still joy, and it can be what allows us to endure and what produces steadfastness in us. It will change how we view our present trials and allow us to look beyond the pain.

“Perfect and complete.” That is what James says steadfastness will make us, and he has seen what “perfect and complete” looks like. That’s what his Brother was like–fully mature and not lacking in anything. Perfect. We won’t achieve that in this life, but God is conforming His children to the image of His Son (ROM 8.29), and has things in store for us that we can’t even begin to imagine.

Paul, who suffered greatly for the sake of Christ, wrote: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (ROM 8.18) “For this light momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen…” (2 COR 417,18)

Are you in the midst of a trial in your life and feeling like a failure because you’re not enjoying it like you think you should be? If you are truly a child of God, you can experience joy without enjoyment.

But you may have to look ahead.

02 Beyond Unbelief


James has moved a knight to open. Maybe he’s going to castle early. In any case, his opening is bold and purposeful: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ…”

imagesConsidering James is a trinitarian who believes in the deity of Christ, this looks like a strange thing to say. The language seems to suggest that Jesus is not God. But if we pry up the words and peer under them, we begin to understand what James is saying here.

As Daniel M. Doriani* observes, there was a time when James didn’t believe in Jesus, even though he grew up with Him. John tells us (JOH 7.3-5) that on one occasion, Jesus’ brothers mock Him by sarcastically urging Him to go to Judea so the world can see how great He is. Mark records an incident when, as raucous throngs of people crowd around Jesus, His siblings try to seize Him and say, “He is out of his mind.” (MAR 3.20-21) They burst in on His teaching in MAT 12.46-50, and His mother is the only member of His family present at His crucifixion. (JOH 19.25)

The watershed issue in the life of James is the question, ‘What will you do with Jesus?’

That is not to say James does not believe in God before he trusts in Jesus. To the contrary. Growing up in an orthodox Jewish family with godly parents, he has no doubt been a God-fearer from his youth. But he has had the same problem Israel as a nation has demonstrated: Jesus is nothing like the Messiah they have been awaiting! Yeshua, if He is the Christ, should at least live up to the reputation of his Old Testament namesake, Joshua, who took no prisoners. God had committed Israel’s foes to complete destruction under Joshua’s leadership. Now this Jesus is telling them to love their enemies! How can He be the Christ? He appears to have no intention of throwing off the yoke of Roman domination–He even commands His disciples to pay their taxes to Caesar! All this leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of his people, including James.

Paul tells us the resurrected Christ appears to James (1 COR 15.7), which is likely a reference to his younger brother. Can this be when James believes? We won’t know until we ask him. But we know he believes now, and proclaims himself to be a doulos–a bondslave–of both God (whom he has served since he was a child) “and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

The very name James gives Jesus is his statement of faith. To call Him Lord is a bold declaration of His deity, and is only done by the leading of the Holy Spirit. (1 COR 12.1) There is only one Lord. This is a critical issue, especially since James is writing to other Jews who have also struggled with the true identity of Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus is Messiah’s given name–probably the name James used for Him as they grew up together as carpenter’s sons in Nazareth. It is the name that portrays Jesus’ humanity.

Christ is not Jesus’ surname, but His title. It is the name that ties Lord and Jesus together. As the Christ–God’s Anointed One–Jesus is the God-Man, the Creator becoming part of His own creation. He has been sent by the Father, conceived by the Spirit in the body of a godly Jewish teenager who accepts her place in God’s eternal plan and acknowledges her own need for the Saviour she is to bear.

Paul tells Timothy (1 TIM 2.5,6a) that “…there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all…” If Jesus were not God, He could not have become man–mere men are not borne by virgins. And if He were not man, He could not be the Mediator.

The watershed issue in the life of James is the question, “What will you do with Jesus?” We must answer that question, as well. The religions of the world allow their followers to believe many things about Jesus, but what they may not believe is that He is God and that He rose bodily from the dead. Yet, these are two things one must believe about Jesus to be saved from eternal damnation. (ROM 10.9,10) Satan has cleverly camouflaged the truth about Jesus since before He was born two thousand years ago.

Mind you, everyone who has ever lived will answer this question. “…God has highly exalted him, and given him a name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (PHI 2.9-11) One day, regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof, everyone will kneel before the King of Kings and acknowledge that He is God in flesh–Creator, Redeemer, and Judge.

Sadly, for some it will already be too late. For them, the next thing the Judge will do will be to pronounce their sentence–eternity separated from Him in a hell so unimaginable that no one with even a rudimentary understanding of its horrors would  tell anyone to go there.

All because they didn’t do what James refused to do for many years–believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.

01 Opening Move


The opening moves of a chess game are extremely important. To play them well you must have the proper objectives in mind. Aimless, purposeless moves lead nowhere and moves made with faulty objectives lead to trouble.

wood_chess_game_1440x900_21019Thus spake Chess Master Irving Chernev in his little book, An Invitation to Chess (co-written with Kenneth Harkness, Simon & Schuster, 1945, p. 137)

The opening of a letter is equally important. “To Whom It May Concern” is only appropriate for some correspondence. Following a salutation with a comma or a colon–or a dash–will affect the reader’s first impression. “Dear John,” though written by the same person to the same person, sends a very different message from, “Hi, Darling!”

Here is how James opens his letter:

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.

There is little doubt among conservative scholars that the Epistle of James was written by “James the Just,” the principle adjudicator at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) and the half brother of Jesus. I don’t doubt it, either–in fact, this series of posts is written under that assumption.

James doesn’t introduce himself beyond giving his name, so it is apparent that he is well known to his readers. Jesus had two disciples named James, as well. One of them, a member of the “Inner Three,” along with Peter and his own brother John, was executed by Herod early on in the history of the Church. (ACT 12.1-5) The other, James the son of Aphaeus, goes virtually without mention both in the gospels and in history.

Matthew records an incident in which Jesus’ siblings are named by the residents of Nazareth, who are astonished at His wisdom. James, Joseph, Simon and Judas, as well as “all his sisters,” are mentioned. (MAT 13.55) We can assume from this list that James was the oldest of Jesus’ brothers, Mary’s second son (but Joseph’s first.)

So, with the first word he pens, James gives us his perspective as one who grew up in the same house with Jesus. Immanuel, that name for Him given to Isaiah many centuries before, must have held special significance for James as he looked back on his childhood: “God with us.”