If you were to do a survey among believers and ask them about their primary focus as a Christian, you would likely receive a variety of responses. Some may say we are to focus on loving God and loving others. Others may say their focus is on service or worship. Still others may point to outreach and evangelism. Each of these are good answers, but at the end of Jesus’ time on earth it is notable that Jesus chose to put the spotlight on “making disciples.” If this is the focus, how do we accomplish this task and how are we to understand the Great Commission? This Sunday we are going to look at the wisdom behind this often neglected and misunderstood priority as we study the methods Jesus employed in making His own disciples.
Wednesday, May 16, 2018
The early church fathers considered church discipline as one of the marks of the true church. If their assessment is true it should trouble us, because church discipline has become exceedingly rare these days. I think there are a number of reasons for this. For starters, it seems as if offending someone today has become the greatest of all sins, and few things offend a person more than pointing out their sin. That is compounded by our mobile society in which a new church which will either ignore or even embrace their sin is usually pretty easy to find. So rather than risking offending and losing church members, we simply say nothing. Church discipline is also hampered by the reality that none of us is perfect. The “let him who is without sin throw the first stone” thing makes many of us afraid to speak up. We know our sin and we really don’t want anyone pointing a finger back at us!
But I think the greatest drawback with church discipline is the way in which we have formalized it. We have taken it out of the realm of personal relationships and given it to church Sessions, Presbyteries and General Assemblies, with courtroom-like rules and regulations that make the process so formal, unyielding, complicated and ineffective that it ceased having any impact on the holiness of individuals.
James, as I believe the rest of Scripture does, clearly states that the responsibility for holding one another accountable for their sins belongs to each of us. If you see your brother or sister falling into sin, you do not have the luxury of looking away, or waiting on some official body to step in and do something. You are your brother’s keeper. That is how God has designed His kingdom. We tend to think of our relationship with God as deeply personal and private. It is something strictly between God and me. But in reality, salvation not only brings us into a relationship with God, but also brings us into a relationship with each other! Together we are viewed by God as the bride of Christ. Together we represent Christ to a fallen world. Therefore if a brother or sister sins and wanders from Jesus, we have a responsibility to them and to God to bring them back. That is how James concludes his book.
Sunday we will talk primarily about how we reach out to those caught in sin. I would encourage you to reread the entire book as you prepare for Sunday, and ask God to open your heart and mind to His calling on your life.
Tuesday, May 8, 2018
In 1986 Bon Jovi released their third album, “Slippery When Wet”; and on it was the song, “Livin’ On a Prayer”. A good friend of mine counts this song one of his favorites of all time.
The song was the creation of three men: Jon Bon Jovi, Richie Sambora, and Desmond Child. The song is the band’s signature song, topping fan-voted lists for decades. After the September 11, 2001 attacks – in which New Jersey was the second-hardest hit state after New York, suffering hundreds of casualties, the band performed an acoustic version of this song for both states.
When asked to speak about the song and its meaning, Jon Bon Jovi said, “It deals with the way two kids – Tommy and Gina – face life’s struggles, and how their love and ambitions get them through the hard times. It’s working class and it’s real…I wanted to tell a story about people I knew…a lifestyle I knew.”
Here are a few lyrics:
Once upon a time not so long ago
Tommy used to work on the docks, union’s been on strike
He’s down on his luck, it’s tough, so tough
Gina works the diner all day working for her man
She brings home her pay, for love, for love
She says, we’ve got to hold on to what we’ve got
It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not
We’ve got each other and that’s a lot for love
We’ll give it a shot
Woah, we’re half way there
Woah, livin’ on a prayer
Take my hand, we’ll make it I swear
Woah, livin’ on a prayer
Now James would understand that. As we’ve seen throughout our examination of this letter, life for the first century Christians is far tougher than what Tommy and Gina were facing; they had livelihoods. Many of those to whom James is writing don’t. Add to that the loss of loved ones due to intense persecution, the rampant spread of disease, and oppression, and their lot in life was meager at best.
So what does James tell them at the conclusion of his letter? What practical exhortation does he give them in verses 13-18? In a word – “PRAY”. He calls them not to live “on a prayer”, but to establish a lifestyle of prayer in which every want and need, joy and blessing is bathed in prayer. Look at what he says here. He talks about the incalculable value of prayer. In fact, in six verses he mentions prayer seven times, describing its application and its power. We are going to look carefully at all of this on Sunday, Mother’s Day, in a message entitled, “Healing Prayer”. I hope you are planning to be with us, especially since this text has been used throughout the centuries to support some serious fallacies.
In preparation for Sunday, you may wish to consider the following:
- What examples do you have of specific answered prayer in your life?
- Did God ever surprise you in answering your prayer?
- How are the words of James 5:13-18 an elaboration of what James says earlier in his letter?
- In verse 13 what’s James saying about what our focus should be in all circumstances?
- How are praying and praising two sides of the same coin?
- What can we learn from verses 14 and 15 about the extremity of the need for prayer in special cases? (note the word “over” in verse 14)
- Is James promising healing every time the elders anoint with oil and pray?
- Who does he say we should confess our sins to? What are the circumstances?
- Why does James cite Elijah as an example of effective prayer?
- How is this example an encouragement to us?
Thursday, May 3, 2018
A woman once approached the famous violinist Fritz Kreisler after one of his virtuoso performances. Her approach was actually more like a rushing teenage groupie. As soon as she was within shouting distance she exclaimed, “I’d give my life to play as beautifully as you do!” Kreisler’s reply was a classic. He smiled and said, “I did,” and walked away.
Last week a dear friend was lamenting his lack of patience with his wife. The same day I heard another man say, “I hate traffic; just hate it!”
This week I read about a man who hates to stand in line anywhere he goes. Every time he sees a line - at the grocery store, a ball game, anywhere, he always says the same thing, “I stood in line all through the Army and I don’t intend to stand in any more lines for the rest of my life!” Now when we hear the word, “Patience”, that’s what we normally think; lines, spouses, traffic. But not our friend, James. He’s talking about a patience that is much more like that of Fritz Kreisler than that ex-Army man.
Throughout our four-month investigation of James’ letter we have repeatedly seen how practical James is, and how relevant his words are to our lives. Rather than portraying the Christian life as a war or a series of big spiritual battles, it’s a series of small choices we make every day.
One of my college professors, Thomas Howard, famously said, “Heaven and hell are under every bush.” And what he meant by that is what James is talking about throughout this letter. Hell is, “Your life for mine.” In other words, “It’s all about me…The purpose of your life is to satiate my deepest desires.” Heaven is the opposite, “My life for yours. I am here to love you as I love myself.”
In Sunday’s text, James 5:7-12, we will hear James talking about the necessity of patience. It’s a patience that resembles not only the Old Testament prophets and people like Job, but God Himself. If anyone ever demonstrated biblical patience, it’s Jesus Himself.
As with most of James’ words, there’s a lot in this text. If we begin to see the Holy Spirit applying its truth to or lives, our joy and peace will explode. In preparation for Sunday’s message entitled “Patience” you may wish to consider the following:
- Why does James pepper these verses with the word, “brother”; or as some manuscripts say, “brother and sisters?”
- What six imperatives does James issue in these six verses? (Hint: One of them is repeated.)
- What do you know about the early and latter rains in Palestine?
- What does James mean in verse 8 when he says, “Establish your hearts”?
- What does James analogize to the latter rain?
- How does the coming of the Lord breed biblical patience?
- Why the admonition against grumbling in verse 9? What connecting is there between patience and a lack of grumbling?
- What is the secret to steadfastness?
- What does avoiding oath-taking and swearing by heaven or earth have to do with patience?
- Look at Luke 9:51 and what Jesus does. James uses the same word to describe what he calls all of his brothers and sisters to do.
Thursday, April 26, 2018
One hundred years ago in Germany a man named Oskar was born who would change the face of history for more than a thousand people. In his mid-twenties, after starting several businesses, he went bankrupt. But then in 1939, with the help of the Third Reich, he gained ownership of a factory in Poland and began making a profit. The first thing he did was hire a Jewish accountant named Stern and together they began to make some serious money. Within three years he was spending it as fast as he made it. You say, “On what? Homes?” No. “Perks?” No, people. He began buying people. He’d go to the commandants of the German concentration camps and offer bribes and payoffs to buy Jewish prisoners to work in his factory. Sometimes the price would be meager, other times it would be exorbitant. Either way he’d pay it. By the end of the year he had spent his entire fortune buying as many people as he could. By the end of the war he had risked both life and fortune buying 1,100 Jewish men, women, boys, and girls and sparing them from certain death.
When the last scene of Schindler’s List was aired 20 years ago on NBC, the television audience was as large as the first moon landing, some 60 million people. There, standing before his factory full of workers, Oskar Schindler announces the war is over, the Nazis are defeated, and everyone is free to go. And as he bids them farewell, he’s overcome by emotion. He cries out, “I should have done more! If only I had not wasted so much money. I could have done more!” He looks over at his automobiles and says, “I could have traded one of those for another 10 lives.” He looks down at a small gold pin on his lapel and says, “I could have given them this and saved at least one more life.” And at that moment Schindler realizes something that most of us never realize - the difference between life and death is often just a matter of money.
Years ago I remember reading of a couple who waited years to have a child, and finally the day arrived. But as soon as he was born, there were bills to pay. He cost them to get out of the hospital. He cost them food and clothing and education. He cost them at every point, “But that’s okay,” said his father, “because that’s what we’re here for.” But then at age 21 the boy died. And suddenly there were no more costs. The man said, “That’s when I learned it. I’ll never join a church that doesn’t want or need my money. Death’s cheap. It’s living that’s costly.”
And of all the people in the New Testament, there’s one who seems to get that more clearly than any other one, and that’s Mary. The Bible says she breaks open a flask of expensive perfume and pours it on Jesus’ feet. And in response to that act, Jesus uses a word that He never uses anywhere else in the Gospels. He calls it beautiful. Now the word beautiful is kalos in Greek. It’s the same root from which we get the word kaleidoscope. It speaks of an endless array of refracted brilliance. And Jesus calls what Mary does a kalos thing. Now notice it’s the giving of a gift of treasure that provokes Jesus to use that word. He says, “Truly I tell you, wherever the Gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in her memory.” Now why is that? James knows.
When you get to James Chapter 5 there’s no escaping the fact that James has been with Jesus. He understands the meaning of wealth better than anyone. Chapter 5:1-6 contains some of the most pointed words in all of the New Testament regarding what true stewardship and discipleship mean. It’s his second “Come now…” in six verses! He’s in the face of every one of us, because his greatest desire is that we thrive in peace as disciples who are much more in love with Jesus and others than ourselves.
In preparation for Sunday you may wish to consider the following:
- Who is James referring to in these 6 verses?
- What does “weep and howl” mean in verse 1?
- How do verses 1-3 relate to Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:19-21?
- What two concerns is James pointing out in verses 1-3 and verses 4-5?
- Is he speaking only to owners and supervisors in verses 4-5?
- How does verse 4 compare to Genesis 4:10?
- What’s the heart of the issue in verse 5?
- What does verse 6 mean?
- The Greek says, “You have condemned and murdered the Righteous One..” Does that help you understand verse 6?
- How is Mary the antithesis of those James is writing to?
Tuesday, April 17, 2018
Abraham Lincoln said it, “We must plan for the future, because people who stay in the present will remain in the past.” Robert Fulmer famously said, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” Indeed, one of the clear ways we reflect the image of God is when we exercise our capacity to plan. Bruce Cook, a management consultant to Christian organizations, once observed, “Success for the Christian can be defined as determining what God wants to accomplish and then getting on with it.”
Years ago LeRoy Sims wrote a book in which he told the story about how he imagined Jesus arriving in heaven after His ascension. The story goes something like this: When Jesus appears in heaven the angels quickly gather around Him anxious to question Him on His plans. “What are your plans?” they ask eagerly as they surround the Lord. Without hesitation the Lord responds, “My men, they are my plan.” Immediately the angels are alarmed, for they have watched this motley gang of men disburse under pressure during the events that led up to the Lord’s crucifixion. “And what if they fail?” asks an angel with concern. Again, with quiet confidence, the Lord responds, “I have no other plans.”
If the Lord had brought in a consultant there’s no way there would have been agreement. No human or angelic consultant would ever have recommended such a plan. Men are prideful, rebellious, and insubordinate. They have little faith and their priorities are twisted. Their selfish desires often overrule all other desires. As the former Englishman John Guest often cites, on his first trip to Philadelphia his eyes were open to this new land he would call home. When his eyes fell upon a sign printed in the early 1770s: “We Serve No Sovereign Here!” And it’s that point that James is highlighting in Sunday’s text: James 4:13-17.
Following upon his observation in Chapter 3:18, James details three things that war against the peace that the Gospel of Jesus Christ can give. In 4:1-10, it’s following the selfish passions of our heart. In 4:11-12, it’s harboring a judgmental spirit that seeks to elevate us over everyone else. And in Sunday’s text it’s our propensity to live our lives without reference to the sovereign will and the leadership of God. In short, it’s a recipe for disaster.
This Sunday’s message, “Train Wreck”, is an exposition of the last 5 verses of Chapter 4. Our companion text is Luke 12:16-21. In preparation for Sunday you may wish to consider the following:
- What was the worst Amtrack wreck in American history?
- What does such a wreck tell us about ourselves and God?
- What change did James experience in his planning after he met the resurrected Lord?
- What is James doing in verse 13?
- How is this analogous to Jesus’ statement to Nicodemus in John 3:10?
- How does the cross prove that we stink at autonomous planning?
- On what grounds does James cite our insufficiencies in verse 14?
- What does he mean in verse 15 when he says, “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills.’”?
- How does looking into the mirror of the perfect love (1:25) help?
- In verse 17 James seems more concerned with sins of omission than commission. As you reflect on the words of Jesus, would you say He is too? If so, how does obedience produce peace?
Wednesday, April 11, 2018
In Sunday’s passage, James tells us not to speak evil of or judge a brother. This seems counter-intuitive to many professed Christians today, because the law of God clearly points out evil, and it seems as if it is our duty to apply the law by passing judgment on those who do not keep it. Others point out that we no longer live under or by the law, but rather by grace. Therefore they really don’t focus on the issue of sin, but celebrate the goodness and love of God. These two views represent opposite sides of gospel understanding. James tells us that both are wrong.
James states that speaking evil of or judging a brother is not simply unkind, but is actually a violation of the law. In fact, he says it is “speaking evil of and judging the law.” Why is that? It is helpful to remind ourselves of the purpose of the law. The law was not given as a means of righteousness.That is a common misconception among Christians. Many think that Old Testament children of God were saved by obedience to the law and the New Testament child of God is saved by grace. Nothing could be further from the truth. No one could be saved by obedience to the law because no one was able to keep it. That is why the Bible says that “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.” It was not his works, but his faith that evidenced his salvation. It is also the reason that David said: “You will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
So the law was given to show us how glorious God is (He is the standard, not the law), and how far short we fall of His glory. The law was also given to show us the scope of our sin, show us our need of a Savior and bring us to repentance. That is why James says that speaking evil of or judging others is so wrong. In doing so we are not only violating the purpose of the law by setting ourselves (rather than God) up as the standard of righteousness, we are also being disobedient to the commandments in the law. When Jesus was asked what the most important commandment was, He answered; “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” But then He added, “The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” So speaking evil of and judging someone is breaking the law’s command to love.
All of this is background to Doug's sermon on Sunday. As we look at James 4:10-12, we are going to examine how we are to interact with each other in view of the commands of the law. Pray that God will give us the grace to allow the law’s reflection of God’s character to shine brightly through us.