the serpent or the dove?

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.

James 3:13-18

Sometimes I wonder if it’s the serpent or the dove that’s influencing my thoughts, which can then impact my actions. Actually it’s not that hard to tell. Beginning with just the effect it’s having on me, whether thoughts filled with what’s good, or dark despondent despairing, or something else not good.

It doesn’t matter at all what we say if our lives don’t back up our words. In fact our lives need to be in order first, really, before whatever we might say means anything. This passage in James follows Jame’s stern, relatively drawn out words on the danger of the tongue.

It is the person we’re becoming by God’s grace and the Spirit through Christ that is important. Little else matters besides. That will make the difference needed in our lives, and through our lives into the lives of others. In and through Jesus.

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being the light we are in Jesus in the darkness

You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

Matthew 5:13-16

I think we’re in a dark spot in world history myself. But the darkness is actually palpable or at least present in any era. In fact, when it seems the most light is when it can actually be the most dark.

If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

Matthew 6:23b

Paul tells us essentially the same thing, of course in a different context and with a different pastoral concern:

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord.

Ephesians 5:8-10

All of that to say, no matter what era we live, we have to realize that only in the Lord are we light. And the rest is darkness. The darkness may seem light, perhaps as in reminiscing on “the good old days.” But that can especially be dangerous in that the reality is more subtle. When the Antichrist finally comes, won’t it be in the guise of light, like Satan, who masquerades as an angel of light, and his servants, who masquerade as servants of righteousness (2 Corinthians 11:14-15)? We must beware of embracing darkness in any form.

Our light is in Christ, what we’re to let shine before the world. Not that no good can come out of the world in God’s working. But only in Christ are we light, and we’re to let that light shine before others with our good works, just as Jesus told us (first quote above).

In this way we fight against the darkness so prevalent. We speak the truth in love, and above all, seek to live it out in love, the truth of God in Jesus.

This may seem counter what we think or have practiced. We must beware lest we get caught up into the darkness ourselves. Instead, we must simply live out what we already are, in and through Jesus.

scripture’s centrality for life

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16-17

Evangelical Christians emphasize both the centrality of Christ, and the centrality of scripture. Scripture is given an authoritative status to which the church is to submit. I grew up a part of that tradition, remained in it after conversion, and have been in it ever since, even if I have had a closeness to the Great Tradition (specifically the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox their cousin, when we were part of an evangelical Anglican church) at one point. Even when we were a part of a charismatic (Vineyard) church, though I did lighten up on the word at that point, while I was trying to get more attuned to the Spirit, I think I was considered a word person by others in that church, even at that point. But this post, and I hope blog is not about me. I only try to share my own testimony, and experience both to help myself, and hopefully someone who might read this.

My consistent testimony has been that it’s the word we need to be in day and night, that it’s there where we can find the real presence of Christ, and God’s help day to day. Not to minimalize the sacraments, especially in churches where a more traditional view is taught from scripture. I have much respect for that. Special place should be given to water baptism and the Lord’s Table, no doubt. We don’t do well by scripture to treat them as merely helpful add-ons.

But my point in this post is that we need to be those who are in the word, in scripture, meaning the Bible, in every way possible. We shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the prospect. but should take it both in large and small pieces. Listen to scripture being read, and go through the entire Bible again and again. Read portions or paragraphs along the way, and let the words sink in.

For me all of this is helpful, because more often than not, I feel quite uninspired in and of myself. Life has been challenging, and there is no let up for the most part. So I feel the great need to be in the word on a regular basis, and at best most all the time. And with that, in response– prayers.

Notice in the scripture passage above, what the person of God, transliterated anthrōpos, which in the context of this letter is aptly translated “servant of God” by the NIV, but literally is either “person” or “man” of God, but notice what scripture is meant to do for them, and by extension, through their lives and ministry for others, and by secondary application, to all who follow their example. It is meant to teach, rebuke, correct, and train in righteousness, so that the person might be ready to do good in serving others. It is not for mere head knowledge, but all about life, and all of life (Psalm 119:105). In and through Jesus.

 

a good plan and what is not, according to James

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.

James 4:13-17

Planning is good, and especially planning with good in mind, as in having others in mind. James’s words here are not at all undermining the value of planning. But as in the wisdom tradition we find in Proverbs, James is simply stating that in the end it is God who will determine not only the outcome, but whether or not it takes place at all. All must be subject to God’s will.

It is often a matter of wanting to be in control, in fact that is the default attitude of so many of us much of the time. I think of entrepreneurs. And of course it’s not wrong to be one. A good one will plan and yet be able to adjust with the flow of things, and figure out what it takes to be successful. And yet behind that can be either an unwillingness, or more likely, not even taking into account any possibility that God might want something entirely different.

James chalks that up to boasting in one’s arrogant schemes. And we can be sure that such plans are not in line with God’s will. There is the lack of humility in acknowledging God and God’s will. And there’s the lack of appreciation for just how uncertain life is, both in terms of what might actually happen, and whether or not one will actually live to see it. It is as if someone is taking the place of God in their own attitude. Certainly not the mind of Christ whose delight it was to do God’s will, and submitted to it even when it was against his will as he did in Gethsemane.

James is warning believers, but he’s also encouraging them to submit their plans to God. That those plans might have value in God’s eyes, so that God may see them through.

who is wise and understanding among you?

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.

James 3:13-18

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.

the difference faith in Christ should make

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.

James 2:14-26

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.

learning to rest in a restless world

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.

Hebrews 4:9-11

I have wondered, and still do, over all the passages in the Old Testament which mandate Sabbath keeping for God’s people Israel, and really come across as harsh, at least to me, and probably to most of us. There were no ands, ifs, or buts about it. You did keep the Sabbath, period. Or you were at least regarded as an outcast. Of course then it meant resting one day in seven, confining work to the other six days.

In the New Testament in Jesus, Sabbath keeping seems to have taken on a different meaning. It’s really not about a day, but more about one’s attitude in life coming from one’s faith in Jesus. That’s not to say that it’s not good to rest one day in seven. And in Christian circles, various churches and denominations, there used to be pretty strict standards and rules for Sunday, what you could and could not do. That seems now at least mostly a bygone era.

Sabbath rest in the New Testament, and we do well to say, in the new covenant, is about something else entirely, rather mystical in its source, but down to earth in its outworking. It’s about learning to rest in Jesus in what amounts to a restless world. And it’s not a matter of just a nice thing to do. Sabbath keeping in that way ends up being a matter of life and death. Note the passage above, as well as what we noted about Sabbath keeping in the Bible. It is not a recommendation, or suggestion. It is a command, and it really ends up being part and parcel of the faith.

Yes, I know, it can simply mean I put my trust alone in Jesus for my salvation. That I’m not trusting in my works or in myself to get that done. And that is at the heart of this. But it includes our attitude toward all of life, including our work. The work by which we’re not saved is the kind of work we’re to avoid altogether. It is not work which is accepted by God. Only God’s works are accepted by him. So that we need to enter into that work, so that our works are actually a part of his. You read glimmers of this even in the Old Testament. It was a reality back then. How much more so now in Christ?

We could misread the above passage to suggest that regularly we need to rest from our works, like one day in seven. But that’s not what it’s saying. It seems more like suggesting that we leave our own works behind entirely. That they’re not part of the equation. So that it’s not the old Ted who is present with all the good things he used to do of the old creation. But instead it’s the new Ted, with the good works God gives which are part of the new creation in Jesus.

The world won’t accept this, and it won’t be easy for most any of us to accept. We’re to be restless, working hard, trying to outdo others, or at least keep up a certain pace needed, and indeed often required to achieve worldly success. And one might get comfortable in that mode and even seem to be at rest. That attitude can carry over right into the church, and into Christian service and work.

Instead we need the new way in Jesus. Which is of Jesus, certainly like him. So that we become more and more the person we’re meant to be in him. That people might sense him in us, even as they come to know the new self that is emerging. Through the sabbath rest given to us by God in and through Jesus.