Poor in Circumstances, Rich in Faith

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?

James 2:5-7

James is in the midst of a section dealing with favoritism, and as you might recall, he has been clearly telling his readers that they must not show favoritism to the rich. Continuing now, he is making the point that God has chosen those who are poor in the “eyes of the world” to be “rich in faith.”  This is an important point for all of us to reflect upon, for actual money probably isn’t James’ only consideration here.  The key, it seems to me is “in the eyes of the world”. What kinds of people or things really look great in “the eyes of the world”? Money, yes, but what else? Accomplishment, fame, athletic prowess, talent, connections…

Our world, maybe more than that of the first century, places a high value on fame and celebrity, and that doesn’t always mean someone is financially rich.  Would we welcome a famous person into our congregations more than anyone else? Would we show favoritism on racial or ethnic grounds?

Yep, there’s a lot to think about here.

James continues to make his point by reminding his readers that the poor will inherit the kingdom with the implication that if God shows such regard for his less well-to-do children, then they are worthy of no less honor than anybody else.  Then he contrasts this with the fact that there are plenty of wealthy people who actually oppress the poor, particularly those in the Body of believers. The wealthy can be quite evil in their ways, just like anybody can, and thus their money cannot make them any more worthy of honor than anybody else.

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.

James 2:8-11

How does favoritism demonstrate loving our neighbor as ourselves?  Obviously it doesn’t, thus there can be no special favor shown one person or group over any other, and James is making the point that the cultural “norm” simply doesn’t apply within the church.  He uses the example of the old Law to demonstrate the point. If you were to break any of the 613 laws of Moses, you were a lawbreaker; you might just as well have broken all 613.  Jesus has commanded that we love one another. If we show favoritism, then we might be showing love to one or two, but not to the rest, and we become lawbreakers.

When we just break the passage down like this, it’s hard not to see the point of James’ instruction on favoritism, yet historically, our churches haven’t done a very good job of following James on this. We may not be able to change the past, but we can make a difference now, so I must ask: How is your church community doing? And you, how are you doing on this one?

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James and the Sermon on the Mount

The connection between James and the Sermon on the Mount is striking in that there are so many that James could almost be a commentary. Maybe it’s just me, but I think that another curious feature of this connection is that while there are more direct correlations between James and Matthew than there are with Luke, James’ language is actually quite similar to Luke in its phrasing.

While it seems unlikely that he had those Gospels at his fingertips, it is highly likely that the teachings of Jesus on that occasion were treasured and protected by the early church, and James would surely have been at the forefront of such an effort. In a letter that serves the purpose as the primary New Testament document of moral instruction, what better source to draw from than the Sermon on the Mount, the highest and most exacting moral teaching of all history? The chart below shows how James and the Sermon are connected:

James’ Topic Sermon on the Mount Reference
Trial 1:2-4 MT 5:10-12,48; LK 6;23
Asking  1:5-8 MT 7:7-8; LK 11:9-10
Riches  1:9-11 MT 6:19-21
God’s Gifts  1:12-18 MT 7:11; LK 11:13
Listening  1:19-27 MT 5:22; 7:21-27; LK 6:46-49
Judging  2:1-13 MT 5:3,5,7,19-22; 7:1-5; LK 6:20
Faith and Works  2:14-26 MT 7:21-23
The Tongue  3:1-12 MT 7:16; LK 6:44-45
Wisdom  3:13-18 MT 5:5-9
Word of God  4:1-10 MT 5:4,8; 6:7-8; 24; 7:7-8; LK 6:25
Slander 4:11-12 MT 5:21-22; 7:1; LK 6:37
Tomorrow 4:13-17 MT 6:25-34
The Rich  5:1-6 MT 6:19-21; LK 6:24-25; 12:33
Patience 5:7-11 MT 5:11-12; 7:1; LK 6:22-23
Swearing  5:12 MT 5:33-37
Prayer  5:13-18 MT 6:12-15; 7:7-11

In case you didn’t look all that closely at the chart, the entire book of James is mapped out here, and what really strikes me is how clear it is when you look at this that James is making direct application of the teachings of Jesus to the daily lives of the members of the early church. Even more interesting is that he isn’t doing so in the legalistic way that so many people would do in later centuries, including our own, but in a way that preserves liberty while exhorting the people to hold high the standard of Jesus Christ in their love for one another.

To me, this makes James all the more useful and important a guide for every one of us.

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James as “Wisdom Literature”

While our book of James is written in a letter form, there are no personal messages contained in it, for it is actually another literary form popular in the ancient world, a paracnesis or moral instruction. Proverbs in the Old Testament is also a moral instruction, and although other books have sections of such instruction, these are the two best examples in Scripture of this form. James does borrow from other writers in his letter, however. He has several quotations from the “Holiness Chapter” of Leviticus 19, he takes from two Apocryphal books, and he also relates freely from the Sermon on the Mount.

In the chart below, you can see the Leviticus references:

James Leviticus Quotations
2:1 19:15
2:8 19:18
2:9 19:15
4:11 19:16
5:4 19:13
5:9 19:18
5:12 19:12
5:20 19:17

The two Apocryphal books that influenced James’ thinking are the books Ecclesiasticus, written c. 180 B.C. (sometimes called Sirach) and the Wisdom of Solomon, written c. 30 B.C. The Apocrypha is a collection of books not accepted as Canon by either Jews or Protestants, but which must have been familiar to James. In the chart below is a list of James verses that bear strong resemblance to these two works:

Topic James Ecclesiasticus Wisdom
Patience 1:2-4 1:23  
Wisdom 1:5 1:26  
Doubt 1:6-8 2:28  
Trials 1:12 2:1-5  
Temptation 1:13 15:11-12  
Hearing 1:19 5:11  
Rich and Poor 2:6 13:19 2:10
Mercy 2:13   6:6
Brevity of Life 4:13-16   5:8-14
Money 5:3 29:10  
Righteous Killed 5:6   2:12, 20
Pray for the Sick 5:14 38:9  

James’ use of these references is interesting in that he doesn’t formally quote any of them as inspired Scripture, but instead uses them more as time honored traditions of wisdom within a very loose structure. As a consequence, it is very difficult to identify any real theme or outline as we might expect to do in other New Testament writings.

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TLP Inspiration: 2/11/19

An Empowering Relationship

Good Monday Morning from the Heartland

Our relationship with Jesus Christ is an empowering relationship.  This relationship provides us with all that we need to walk with Him through this life, and no matter what may happen to us along the way, no matter how many trials we might endure, to go through this life victoriously.

Good and upright is the Lord;
    therefore he instructs sinners in his ways.
He guides the humble in what is right
    and teaches them his way.
All the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful 
    for those who keep the demands of his covenant. 

Psalm 25:8-10

Our Lord empowers us by giving us comfort in rough times. Our Lord leads us in His ways, He is merciful and quick to forgive when we ask, and all of this is incredibly empowering.  It empowers us to live as God would have us to live.  It empowers us to live free from sin and shame, and it sets us free from the traditions and ways of this world.  Finally, it changes our entire outlook on life and our priority system.

There is no greater blessing in all the universe than to live in relationship with Jesus Christ and living according to his leading will surely improve all of our human relationships.

Why would we ever wish to neglect this relationship?

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Sunday Sermon Notes: February 10, 2019

Title: Love, Hate… and a New Beginning

Text: 1 John 2:7-14

Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.

Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.

1 John 2:7-11

In these verses, John gives one more comparison and contrast: This time it is love and hate; light and darkness. If we are in Christ, then we must love our brother and sister.  If we claim to be in Christ, yet we hate our brother or sister, then we cannot be in Christ; I think this is a fair summary of John’s point.

You will recall that John previously made the point that if we are in Christ, we must live our lives like Christ. In fact, he has made this point several times in various ways, but recall in particular 2:3-6.  Where in the Gospels can we find any indication whatsoever that Jesus ever hated anyone? Far from it!  We see Him showing love in all cases, even when He let the Pharisees have it with the seven woes.  Remember, right after that, Jesus is lamenting the fact that despite all that God has done, they insisted on turning against Him; Jesus was clearly grieved by this.  (Matt. 23:37 ff.)  When you reduce the Christian faith down to its simplest form, and I am a fan of doing this, its central idea is love God− love your neighbor. There is no room for hate in that formula.

Our brother may irritate us now and then, he may also let us down.  In truth, our brother may well be every bit as imperfect as we are, but we are to love him anyway, just as he is to love us anyway, just as Jesus loves all of us anyway. Remember that love means that we put the interests of the other person ahead of our own.

To this message from John, I’d like to add my own observation:  How much damage do you suppose has been done over the years to the Gospel by people calling themselves Christians, who fail to demonstrate His love to others? How many thousands have said “no” to Christ because of some so-called believers, who show an attitude of hatred for other people? How many have left the faith because of this behavior in the church?

Those who hate rather than love can call themselves whatever they like, they may fool many people, but they cannot fool God, and I would respectfully suggest they repent, and do so quickly.

Today, we have an amazing text, one that should be a real “Wow” text for us.

This is a transitional passage between John’s introductory section and the rest of the letter.  In verses 1:1-2:11, John has been going through this comparison and contrast that shows his readers who is, and who is not in Christ. Now, he is giving the reasons he has written the letter, and after this he gets into some very deep thoughts.  We often just blow by this little transition and wade into the content that begins in verse 15, but hold on a minute; the transition is amazing!

I am writing to you, dear children,
    because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.
I am writing to you, fathers,
    because you know him who is from the beginning.
I am writing to you, young men,
    because you have overcome the evil one.

I write to you, dear children,
    because you know the Father.
I write to you, fathers,
    because you know him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young men,
    because you are strong,
    and the word of God lives in you,
    and you have overcome the evil one.

1 John 2:12-14

Do you see what this is?  It isn’t so much the “who” John is addressing, it’s the “why” that is important, contrary to so much that has been written and discussed over the years.  Let’s restructure these verses:

If you are in Christ, John is writing to you BECAUSE:

  1. YOUR sins have been forgiven on account of His name.
  2. YOU know Him who is from the beginning.
  3. YOU HAVE OVERCOME THE EVIL ONE.
  4. YOU know the Father.
  5. YOU know Him who is from the beginning.
  6. YOU are strong.
  7. The Word of God lives in YOU.
  8. YOU HAVE OVERCOME THE EVIL ONE.

Did you notice the tense used here?  Each of these “because” statements is in the present tense, indicating that they are facts at this very moment, not something to come in the future. I’m sure that I need not mention that there are no “buts” in any of these statements. Now, as for the “who,” there are three “who’s” in the passage, “dear children,” “fathers” and “young men.”

“Dear children” as we have already seen is one of the ways that John addressed the community of believers; it is an inclusive term.  “Fathers” can either be literally a father of children, or it can refer to the head of the household, and in Scripture this is often the case; certainly, it is when referring to a patriarch.  In those cases, something that is true of the father is true of the household.  It seems to me that here, because of the inclusive reference at the beginning, the inclusive meaning is also true of “fathers”, particularly since there is nothing in the text that would indicate specificity of intent.  “Young men” are the heads of households yet to be born, and I think we can take this reference to mean that not only are these things true in believing households of today, but they will also be true of future generations of believing households.  You might wonder about a household of one, but remember that in John’s day, households of one were extremely unusual if not non-existent; they are actually quite a modern development. Looking at the list of statements again, it seems that we can take them to refer to all of us who are in Christ. That is also the context of the previous and following sections…

Notice that there is some repetition.  Numbers 2 and 5 are the same, but 2 comes after a reference to the Son, while 5 comes after a reference to the Father.  If you know Jesus, then you also know the Father.  Having overcome the evil one is mentioned twice also, numbers 3 and 8. Both are directed to young men, and it seems to me interesting that it is repeated the second time in a series of three statements made to young men.  Now if we have an accurate understanding of “young men,” then let’s consider these future heads of household.  They are the future, but they are also young.  They are the ones who need encouragement and the mentoring of the Elder Apostle the most, and so they, who will bear the spiritual battle in the future, need a little more instruction than those who are experienced, the veterans we might say.  Here, John gives an extra assurance that they are strong, filled with the Word, and have overcome.  I would guess that this is as much comfort to John’s “young men” in their day, as this whole list should be to us in our day. This is particularly true when we get into the rest of this letter; John is getting his readers prepared for what is coming.

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TLP Inspiration: 2/9/19

A Merciful Relationship

Good Saturday Morning from the Heartland.

Our relationship with Jesus Christ is a merciful one, in fact it is based upon mercy.  Jesus Himself saw to that by going to the cross so that our sins might be forgiven.  He is the one who made it possible for us to draw near to God; to approach His throne.

Remember, O Lord, your great mercy and love, 
    for they are from of old.
 Remember not the sins of my youth 
    and my rebellious ways; 
according to your love remember me,
    for you are good, O Lord.

Psalm 25:6-7

In many relationships, we have difficulty approaching others because we have hurt or offended them… how will they react?  In relationship with Jesus, He has already forgiven us; we can approach in praise and thanksgiving.

We may approach Him for His guidance, His mercy and His love… we will truly be missing out if we neglect such a great relationship.

May we never neglect our relationship with Him, that relationship which is so very wonderful merciful.

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Favoritism

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

James 2:1-4

I remember a leadership meeting about 20 years ago when I nearly lost it. We were discussing a very tough issue that had come up in the congregation between two members. One of them was a well-to-do businessman and the other was a guy going through tough financial times. Both had a point in their favor, but neither was entirely right either and they had brought their dispute to the leadership.  As you might guess, the dispute was about money. Of the two, I thought that the second man was in the stronger position than the wealthier man because he had documents that backed up much of his story…. and I pointed this out to the others; they were horrified. “Rich guy gives $250. a week and Poor Guy barely $20., we can’t go against Rich Guy; we can’t afford it” was the preacher’s response. I was now horrified, and that horror turned to anger very quickly and I nearly lost my cool. I should point out here in all fairness, that this was way out of character for that preacher who was mortified at his own behavior the next morning. I guess we all have those times…

James has moved back to wealth in his discussion of the Christian life, and in this passage he points to something that must have happened often enough in the early church to be an issue: favoritism.

Look at his example here of a rich guy being shown the best seat in the place and the poor guy having no place at all to sit in the assembly. His remark that this is showing discrimination in the church is obvious, and will come up again, but his comment that they have “become judges with evil thoughts” is a disturbing one. What do you suppose the “evil thoughts” were? From the context, it would seem to have something to do with the love of money, the desire to be seen with the right crowd and the assumption that the man of lesser means must be less worthy of respect. As this passage continues, it will become clear that this is very wrong thinking indeed.

Oh, I never finished the story! Our discussion became a rather lengthy debate, the most heated debate I’ve ever seen in all of my time in church leadership, but we did arrive at a solution.  We split the bill between us and gave the money to Rich Guy; peace was restored… Then one day about four months later Rich Guy found out that we had paid his bill and he became very angry. He had gotten his money, but not his way, and that wasn’t acceptable. He and his wife found a different church. Even though those were challenging times for the church financially, we survived and flourished. The following year another Rich Guy joined us and one day he made a six figure contribution. The only condition was that we promise to let him know if there was anything he could do to help either the church or its members.  Over the following years he never asked for anything, but always gave freely of his money and time. He remained in that congregation until the day he died.

What did I learn from this?  I learned that if we remain faithful to God, if we do what is right and place our trust and faith in Him, things will work out just fine in His own good time. I suspect that James had something like this in mind as he wrote this letter.

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