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Thursday, April 18, 2013

He Gives More Grace

This is the second part of a series on James. Read part 1.

Before we really dig into James, I want to put the big picture together for you.

James is a book of the Bible for Christians who are fed up with Christians.If you are tired of people who talk a big game but have no spiritual life to back it up, of people who say they love Jesus but show they do not love the poor or the downtrodden and of people whose Facebook page looks like God is their whole life, but who never darken to door of a bereaved family's home, James is the book for you. The brother of Jesus is going to ream this people and show them what 'pure religion' actually looks like. Do not let yourself get too  self-righteous yet - you will see soon enough that you are one of those people. James is in many ways  a continuation of his Brother's 'Sermon on the Mount,' from Matthew 5-7, where Jesus taught on what life looks like in the Kingdom of God. 
Source: Wikipedia

The book is chiasmic in structure, which means it is like a Russian doll.A common form of Hebrew poetry, this means that the first problem introduced in the book is resolved last. Inside of the first problem is a second problem, which is resolved second to last.Inside the second problem is a third problem, and so on. At the very heart of the book (although not always literally the center, but fairly close) is a very small point which turns out to resolve each of the arguments above it. This is the knot at the heart of everything which, once unraveled, reveals the solution to every other problem one at a time. To use, this is a strange way to write, but to the Hebrews, it was actually pretty common. It aids in memorization and ideally demonstrates the logical quality of the argument as a whole by showing what nugget on which everything else is built.
Remember, in the first century, writing was not something you did lightly. Sending a letter was an expensive, time consuming process, so they necessarily paid much more attention to these stylistic matters than we ordinarily do. 

 Because of this structure, what seems to be the problem in the book initially is only the outer shell. The secret to really grasping James lies in painstakingly finding out the turning point and then using it to understand the rest of the book. Once you see it, everything makes much more sense. In James, the key is James 4:6: 
But He gives a greater grace. Therefore it says, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 
 If you accept that as truth (which James' audience would, since it was backed up by a quote from Proverbs 3:34), the rest of the book falls into place. If you reject the turning key, James has no interest in trying to change your mind.

The main structure of the book is then:

To Endure in Temptation
We Must Ask God
So We Will Persevere under trials
Because Temptation comes from self
So We Must Let the Good Seed Sink In
Being Doers of the Word
With Pure Religion
Struggling with Right Judgment
But Knowing Judgment Is Resolved by God's Grace

It then unfolds in reverse order, finishing with endurance. Do you see how incredible this structure is? If you still are not sold (or just want to play with it), there is a much more detailed outline that Chris Meek and I made at http://db.tt/92AlCsOA. When you download that XML file and open it again in your internet browser, you will be able to open and close sections of the book and really get a feel for how it all fits together. Ideally you should be able to close any section and read it as if it is not there and still get a fairly sensible flow of thought. It is currently in the NASB, but for copyright purposes I intend to redo it in the ASV soon.

James is all about grace and how grace actually plays out when it is sincerely lived. It is the book where the rubber meets the road, where the Christian faith becomes real, visible and relevant. I hope seeing the big picture of this book in this way has gotten you excited about cracking it wide open. We know now that the heart of the book is going to  Join with me in the coming days as together we see what it is like Living James.


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Servant of God

This is the first part in a series on the book of James.

How do you define yourself?
If you were writing or speaking to a group of people who did not know who you were or anything about you, and you had only a few seconds to sum yourself up, what would you say?

I was faced with this question yesterday when I finally broke down and decided to try Twitter (@JustinMGatlin) and needed to write a biography. It occurs to me now, however, that most of the letters in the New Testament begin with just this kind of a blurb (this is not a uniquely biblical phenomenon, but is the way that most ancient letters were written).

I invite you to read the first part of James 1:1. In the KJV, this is:

 "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ."

A little background may be necessary. The James who wrote this was the younger half-brother (through Mary) of Jesus, and did not believe in Jesus until after the Resurrection. Yet, when this James saw Jesus risen in power, it totally transformed him. If you want proof of the Resurrection, this ought to be good enough: what would it take to make your brother worship you? But when Jesus split death wide open, James came to faith.

When the time came to write this letter, he knew what summed him up. He did not write 'James, the faithful Jew and brother of Jesus,' 'the master preacher and writer extraordinaire' or even 'the worthless sinner.' He did not identify primarily with any of these terms. No, James saw his identity in terms of being a servant - a bond-slave - of God and of Jesus. His whole identity was summed up in the one idea: follow.

My pastor growing up (and hero), the later Darrell Streeter, used to have us sing the song "I'll live for Him," with the words changed to the present tense. 

My life, my love, I give to Thee,
Thou Lamb of God who died for me;
Oh, may I ever faithful be,
 My Savior and my God!
 
 
I'm Living for Him, who died for me!
How happy now my life shall be!
I'm Living for Him who died for me,
My Savior and my God!

If we are to study James (and we will, if the Lord is willing), let us begin with this attitude. James is the book where the rubber hits the road and God commands us to do. How more powerfully can we see this than in the brother who became Lord?

What about it: how fully do you serve God now? Could you define yourself as "____, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ?" 

May God grant that we will!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

When Trouble Comes

 
As we look with awe on the bombing of the Boston Marathon yesterday, we are faced with a powerful question: Why? In the minds of people around the world, that very question burns hot and focused around tragedies such as this and provides a real barrier to a walk with God.

The problem goes like this. If God is all powerful and God is all loving, why do bad things happen? If God can prevent bad things and does not, the argument goes, He is not all loving. If God wants to prevent bad things but cannot, He is not all powerful. It is a salient argument which we insiders are often too quick to brush aside; tragedies on a national scale bring it to mind in a powerful way, which gives us an occasion to respond. I will not try and resolve this problem today, or even really answer it. My intention is not to provide a neat intellectual answer to this problem, but to speak to this need.

First, we need to realize that the person or people responsible for this are sick. You already knew that, which is why it is a good place to begin. Consider Jeremiah 17:9:

"The heart is more deceitful than all else
And is desperately sick
Who can understand it?"

All else aside, mankind has a disease. We all lust for things which we should not have, that lust forms an embryo in our souls, until we give birth to some sin. Then, what that sin is fully grown, it becomes death[1].  We are always preys of that death, killed by our own monster. But the reality is that we are not its only victims. Sin never works like that. The man who thinks he is not hurting anyone but himself with his drinking destroys his family, the woman who becomes consumed by resentment soon finds it leaking out and corroding relationships. On April 15, some sin spilled over very directly and deliberately destroyed the lives of other people, but the story is the same; sometimes you see it, sometimes you do not. As far as God is concerned, whenever you have spilled out with hate, you have already murdered[2]. Whenever we finally know who the monster is that did this, realize that the monster is you, and the monster is me. In this case, the sin may have manifested differently, but it is the same rot. You have the potential to do the same or worse, and so do I. My sin has hurt other people before, and so has yours, sometimes just as deliberately premeditated.  God promises that such sin will not go unpunished, in us or them. Jeremiah continues:
“The heart is more deceitful than all else
And desperately sick
Who can understand it?
I, the Lord, search the heart,
I test the mind,
Even to give to each man according to his ways
According to the results of his deeds.”

So we have this terrible problem of death. It begins in each of us, but splashes over into the lives of other people in a seemingly blind rampage. Death gives birth to death and death gives birth to death. Over and over again the process repeats. Like water, hatred, envy and prejudice flow beneath the surface, destructive but unseen, until they eventually break through in a geyser such as this and are visible for a moment, before returning to their silent ministry of eroding the ground beneath our feet. It is just as deadly there, but easier to ignore.

What is the answer to this epidemic? What is the answer to Jeremiah’s question? Jeremiah 17:13-14 tells us:

“O Lord, the hope of Israel,
All who forsake You will be put to shame.
Those who turn away on earth will be written down,
Because they have forsaken the fountain of living water, even the Lord.
14 Heal me, O Lord, and I will be healed;
Save me and I will be saved,
For You are my praise.”

The apostle Paul explains it like this in Romans 7:24-8:3:

“Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.
Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh,”

 

God’s answer to evil, His master plan from the beginning of the universe, was to send Jesus to die, the just for the unjust. As a response to suffering, God himself suffered, and conquered suffering. Death has lost its power, 1 Corinthians 15 tells us, so that those who die in Christ are guaranteed to live again.

Jesus died for the people responsible for the murders in Boston. Jesus died for the one responsible for the murder in your own heart. This is not an intellectual response to the problem of evil, although I have toyed with those and good ones exist. This is a meditative one. As far as God is concerned, the answer to evil is Jesus. His death was good enough to forgive anyone who has ever sinned, no matter how wretched, if they will only turn away from their sin and trust in Him.

If you are not a Christian, you can be. I explain the whole process here. If you are a Christian, remember to show the love that God showed. Even as you pray for the families of those who have lost loved ones (and know that young children who die are taken straight to the arms of God), pray for the perpetrators, that they may find forgiveness. If you do not desire for them to be forgiven, then you need to see whether or not you are really a Christian[3] and not just someone wearing a label. When God lives inside of you, He changes things.

Prayer:

Heavenly Father,

Maker of the Universe and Master of the World, we thank you for all that you have done for us and in the small mercies which we take for granted. We thank you for the common grace which drove some toward the bombs, even as others ran away and ask that you would give us that kind of courage. We ask that you would strengthen the families who have lost those dear to them, but even so, to soften our hearts to show compassion to the perpetrators. Even as you bring them to justice for this crime, bring them to yourself, that they might be forgiven by the death of your son, in whose name we pray,

Amen



[1] James 1:15.
[2] If you don’t believe me, hear it from Jesus: Matthew 5:21-22. If we could ever learn to really believe that, it would transform the entire world.
[3] 1 John from above says that if you do not have love, you are not saved. Or read the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:43-48.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Sovereign, Eve of Easter part 2

Read: Matthew 26-28

Imagine, as you read today's text, the power of God working in all that takes place. When Judas is caught up in sin, it is about the victory of Jesus. When the priests and the governors are wicked (if they have any backbone at all), God has still placed them in power. When Peter denies Jesus, it is because God has allowed it. Marvel for a moment at the incredible sovereignty of the Living God.

Jesus was no victim of circumstance, caught up and taken to His death against His will by His enemies. He was, and is, the King. Everything that He went through was planned from the beginning, as He voluntarily laid His life down for you and for me. Easter is not the story of  God clenching victory from the jaws of defeat. Easter is the illustration that God always has a plan and that it will always come together.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Kiss the Son


Read: Psalm 2

As we draw toward Easter, it is precious to reflect on what the Bible has to say about the sacrifice and triumph of Jesus. In Psalm 2, we have a prophetic glimpse into that which is worth our attention.

I will not go into depth on this psalm at this time, I simply want to repose the question from verse 1.
Why are the people of the world trying such a futile thing, trying to remove the rulership of the Son? Why do 'Christian' churches trade the supremacy of Jesus for the supremacy traditions and personal authority?

Easter is a time for us to realize that all such rebellion is a waste of time. Jesus was opposed by Death itself, yet he conquered. When we try to resist Him by harboring secret sin or by following after our own desires, He will conquer yet! We, who are His people, should not resist His authority. He does not rule cruelly or arbitrarily, but rules with love - giving His own life for us. If we are not willing to follow an authority like this, it is because we will not follow any authority but our own. Our homage (or 'kiss', literally) to Jesus becomes a Judas kiss, as we only serve ourselves. In contrast:

"How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!" - Psalm 2:12a

Come back each day of this week for a reflection on a different passage, as we lead up to the celebration of victory.