And yet I will show you the most excellent way.
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.
Jacob’s circumstances were ordinarily difficult and at times even dire thanks in large part to himself, but not without the help of a broken, “dysfunctional” family. He was given to taking matters into his own hands as if all depended on him. His mother Rebecca wasn’t any help here, since she set up the deceptive plot to steal father Isaac’s blessing intended for his favorite, Esau for her favorite, Jacob. She didn’t trust what God had told her before the boys were born, that the older would serve the younger.
Now Jacob was returning home after two decades away to meet Esau for the first time after Esau had been intent on killing his brother. Jacob was in trouble, or at least there was nothing he could do himself to assure a good outcome, unlike numerous other times in his life. Not that he didn’t go to great lengths to do so, and not in an altogether admirable way when you think about it.
But the night prior to that Jacob wrestled with the angel of God, considered a theophany, “a visible representation of God.” He had it out with God, and God with him in the form of a man who wrestled with him until daybreak, touching his hip socket, and putting it out of joint, which really had to be painful. And interestingly, Jacob walked around with a limp the rest of his life. I’m sure he had to keep learning over and over the lesson and truth given to him that night.
Hosea gives us an explanation of what happened:
In the womb he grasped his brother’s heel;
as a man he struggled with God.
He struggled with the angel and overcame him;
he wept and begged for his favor.
He found him at Bethel
and talked with him there—
the Lord God Almighty,
the Lord is his name!
And I think this scripture implies that the very tendency in Jacob which kept him from faith became the means of at least a renewed faith, probably in his experience a new faith altogether.
What about us today? We seem to like easy answers. Just know this or that, or have some experience and everything will be okay. But scripture doesn’t seem to line up well with that idea. In the end of course all will be light and clear, and complete peace, joy, and love. But here and now, where we see through a glass darkly and know in part, we must continue on, which means we need to struggle on in faith. Yes, having it out with God so to speak, indeed a wrestling with God. That is where our faith can be rekindled, or perhaps even given spark for the first time. And where the needs that we are facing for our loved ones, and for ourselves can begun to be met. In and through Jesus.
There is no question that simply being in the Bible and citing scripture is not foolproof against the deceptive wiles of the devil. Numerous sects and heresies which is a term meaning deviations from the truth have been spun out of just that sort of practice. So the answer can’t simply be to just get back to the Bible, unless that’s qualified as to specifically what is meant.
Scripture itself points to the church as the pillar and foundation of the truth, so that any biblical interpretation apart from consideration of what the Spirit has been saying to the churches and the church at large is automatically suspect. Individuals have divided over mistakenly supposing the Spirit had given them insight which either contradicted others, or gave a needed insight. The richness of scripture and Christian orthodoxy, the Christian tradition is apparent when one begins to look and dig deeper into scripture itself, and the patristic (church fathers) sources.
We can’t rightly or even possibly consider the Bible apart from tradition. Our translations of scripture are dependent on interpretation to some extent, an interpretation that does do justice to the Book at large, but does provide answers where interpretations might vary. The church in the early centuries is an example of this: reacting to various heresies, like the idea that Jesus had a beginning and is a created being, not God. The church instead came up with the truth from scripture that Jesus is both completely God and completely human, two natures separate, not intermixed, yet indissoluble (permanent) in the one person. And the teaching of the Trinity, that God is one God, so that we can speak of God that way as one person, yet three equal Persons in that one God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. When the Protestant Reformation occurred, these past formulations were not under consideration for revision. Martin Luther didn’t want to leave the church, but reform it. But when what is called the Radical Reformation occurred, it was essentially a restorationist movement, with the goal of becoming strictly a church in accordance with scripture, specifically the New Testament. The Anabaptists were one such group, and Menno Simons early on was misunderstood to be a heretic when it came to those early formulations, and soon realized that one can’t leave tradition behind. He made it clear that the Anabaptists accepted the teaching of the Trinity, and of Christ’s two natures as formulated by the church in those early councils.
It does seem to me like we live in a day in which people need to get back to scripture. Certainly not to read it as a flat book, as if it is all equally applicable today. To see it as the unfolding story it is, fulfilled in Christ, and to be completed when he returns. But scripture itself seems to have fallen on either deaf or complacent ears to a significant degree among believers. The diminishing of biblical knowledge among church goers seems to have been occurring incrementally for decades now. And today, either people don’t know, or little care, or they easily misread scripture in defense of an agenda which is actually based on something other than God’s word and will. Not to say that any of us are immune to any of this; we most certainly are not.
Maybe we lack interest in scripture in part because our expectations are elsewhere. We love this or that, and feed on such, with just a bit of time left to maybe get to a reading from the Bible. We fail to dig and ponder, read and wonder, study and think, and pray. We connect elsewhere, finding scripture irrelevant.
Instead in this day maybe like in none other, we need to regularly plug in and find our way through God’s word, which is called a lamp for our feet, and a light for our path. We need to look at current thinking in light of scripture and the gospel. Including of course our own thinking and practice, which so easily is and can be misguided.
And we need to find our way to a church which believes and practices the word, with of course the realization that the gospel, the good news of God in Jesus is the point of it all. And all the richness and vitality that comes out of that.
May God help us to live out what we are as God’s people together by the Spirit through the word in and through Jesus.
With your help I can advance against a troop;
with my God I can scale a wall.
As one who is either a pacifist Christian, or almost completely so (see Miroslav Volf for his change, and why), warfare passages in scripture, specifically in the Old Testament can seen counter Jesus, and in a sense might well be considered so (though read the book of Revelation, but also see Michael Gorman’s book on it which I haven’t read). Tremper Longman in this lecture defends well the teaching of holy war in the Old Testament, countering Greg Boyd’s recent work.
Judgment is both present and future, and I let some of the hard questions go. What I’m settled in is that for the people of God today, holy warfare amounts to spiritual warfare. The apostle Paul’s words seem to address this for me:
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
Nevertheless all scripture was written for us, even if not to us. I find Psalm 18 completely encouraging and inspiring for the real life I have to face. We are not called to a passive existence where we do nothing, unlike what some advocate, as if anything else is opposed to God’s grace. No. In Christ we are given strength from God to do what we must. And any holy war today would never be physical:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.
We are in a battle no less. And like Longman points out for the actual physical warfare that went on in the Old Testament (and I would highly recommend listening to this lecture), we engage in spiritual warfare in the context of worship and submission to God as prescribed in God’s word.
Find your way to Psalm 18 in your own Bible. Read slowly, meditate, and pray. That is what I’m doing. So that I can find my strength, what I need in God, and what God gives us, in and through Jesus.
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.
Who is wise and understanding among you? We ought to stop there and meditate on that. What is our own take on just what that means? Does it line up with what’s said here and elsewhere in God’s word? Probably many of us know the truth well enough so that it’s good to stop dead in our tracks and consider our own lives in light of that. We likely through Jesus will see some movement in our hearts and lives toward that ideal, but will also most certainly understand that we fall short of experiencing any of it at times, and need to grow both in depth, and in consistency in practicing such.
Remember that this word of James is in the context of what he was saying about the danger of the tongue (entire context: chapter 3 in our Bibles). We are good at talking, but not so good at walking. And our talk easily gets off track and out of hand. So James counsels slowness to speech and eagerness to listen, not to mention slowness to anger as well.
It’s our lives that will speak volumes, and either validate or invalidate what we profess, or say. Our words can certainly drown out our profession. “I hear what you say, but I see how you live.” On the other hand, our lives can make people want to know just what makes us tick. We show we’re receiving this grace from God through how we live in mostly small and larger ways each and every day.
Gentleness or humility is what should characterize us, demonstrated with good deeds. This is wisdom; this is understanding. It’s not a long or even short discourse that enlightens others. It’s our lives that speak, out of hearts receiving wisdom from God in God’s grace to us in Jesus. And it’s not something we can hardly put our finger on. We certainly can’t take credit ourselves. Perhaps we could say it’s shutting our mouths, and getting out of the way, so that we can finally be in God’s way in Jesus. Growing and living in that way.
A false wisdom, surely looked at as great, but phony is out there. Wrong ideas of greatness, and how to get there. Worldly wisdom which is linked even to the demonic. We can’t separate what scripture calls the world (system), the flesh, and the devil.
Then there’s the real wisdom, that which is from above, from God. Full of love and active for others in accord with what’s given to us, and needed by them. Marked by making peace in a way that promotes or at least doesn’t get in the way of righteousness. And we receive from others that good ourselves. Something always needed, which we need to grow into and begin to live out more and more and never let go of, in and through Jesus.
Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.
When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
Proverbs makes it clear that words can both heal and harm. James counsels restraint in what we say, the need to metaphorically bridle, or keep a tight rein on the tongue (James 1:26). We little understand the damage our words can do. The devil is not only in the details, but the results which can be devastating. And it seems that the human tongue is much more prone to bad, even evil than it is to good. And like James and the rest of scripture points out, this is indeed deceptive. After all we’re speaking our hearts, and that’s the problem, just as Jesus pointed out:
…the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.
On a more hopeful note, Jesus also said:
A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.
And James does get to that (3:13-18). But first we must settle in well on the fact and reality that our heart, and the thoughts which come from it are often helpful to no one. Heart in the New Testament, by the way, and in scripture includes thoughts and disposition. We certainly need to fill our hearts with good things. And God is at work to change our hearts to become more and more Christian, like Christ, and to be increasingly attuned to what’s good, and sensitive to what’s not. But again, we have to hone in on the truth that there’s a certain proneness in ourselves toward what ends up being destructive, along with a certain deception inherent in that, and with awful, hellish consequences. James minces no words on this, and considering the rest of the letter, does lend more words to the subject than what one might expect, with supporting words dotted here and there elsewhere.
When we have even a yellow flag up in our minds about a certain subject, we should at least stop, and consider. Red lights, no, even if someone ought to say something. Maybe it’s not we ourselves. Perhaps someone will be gifted by God to help as needed in a situation, but we may not have the call and gift that goes with that to do so. It is best on those occasions to simply pray, not only for what troubles us, but for ourselves, and our response to that. James would say that we should at least be slow to speak, quick to listen, slow to anger (James 1). That we should speak words that are helpful to the hearer. And if there’s a needed word on a hard subject, we must look for wisdom from God and God’s word for ourselves first. Maybe after we’ve taken it in well for ourselves, God might be able to use us to help others. But it will mainly be through our lives. The point James gets to next.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.
In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
Activism is alive and well, and pushing agendas at many fronts. And though there’s a place for it for Christians in advocating for the poor and broken, for those who have no voice of their own, the works spoken of here and in scripture are largely those that come from God’s now messianic community. Those which are present in Christ. Our faith is empty, if it doesn’t show itself in good works for others, particularly for those who need help.
What James cites here are works of a very practical down to earth manner, which are near to the heart of God (see James 1:26-27). And obedience even when one can’t understand, but just knows that this is something God wants. But the latter are simply cited as examples from scripture (which is our Old Testament now) to back what James was saying to the readers. James’ application is taken up with the former: simply doing good works for those in need.
James was the pastor of the church in Jerusalem, which was well known for taking care of its own. Before the persecution which scattered the believers from there, people used to sell property and lay the money at the apostles’ feet to distribute where need be, so that everyone was taken care of among them (Acts 4:32-37). That doesn’t mean that people could simply live off others, or that handouts were (or are) the answer. The believers in Judea and Jerusalem for whatever reasons were known to be poor in comparison to many believers elsewhere, though not being wealthy was no stranger to many of the believers at that time. But Christians were well known for taking care of each other, as well as helping elsewhere. It was not a faith that made a big issue of the belief differences, even though such differences both on a basic paradigmatic, as well as ethical level were radical. They showed the difference which the Lordship of Jesus, and the community in Jesus made in stark contrast to the world of Caesar and Rome.
Today, what are we Christians known for? True, the world won’t give us any benefit of the doubt, unless somehow we’re compromising in giving into the world’s agenda and even that’s a bit complicated and can be misunderstood. It’s not like there’s no overlap. But the difference Christ makes should be readily apparent both on a collective, as well as individual level. Not only did the church in Jerusalem and elsewhere do well at times, but individuals such as Dorcas and Cornelius as we see in Acts, did a world of good themselves. What are we known for and why? That is an important question for our witness to the gospel. Does our heart beat where God’s heart beats (James 1:27a)? Or are we off in what could just as much be the world’s agenda as our own? There is more than one line we could fill in there. But there’s also many things we can do which express a genuine faith in Jesus, truly Christian through and through. In and through him.