The Test of the Tongue, Part 2

“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.”
(James 3:7-12 NIV)

James continues on with the test of our speech as evidence of our faith.  James starts out by saying it’s easier to tame wild animals than to tame the tongue.  James says we can control everything else in God’s animal kingdom, but we can’t control ourselves, and what we say.

King David captured the powerful potential to hurt others with our words:
“Hide me from the conspiracy of the wicked,
    from the plots of evildoers.
They sharpen their tongues like swords
   and aim cruel words like deadly arrows.
They shoot from ambush at the innocent;
    they shoot suddenly, without fear.”
(Psalm 64:2-4 NIV)

Notice David’s analogy of arrows.  This is not hand-to-hand combat in an open field; this is guerrilla warfare, ambushing the innocent.

Jeremiah used this same bow-and-arrow analogy when describing Israel’s condition.  He said the people used their tongue as a bow, to shoot arrows of lies at one another.  This was a learned behavior; Jeremiah said they taught their tongues to lie.  They were cordial in public, but laid traps for one another in their hearts  (Jeremiah 9:3-9).

God understood that trust was a foundational element in society, for people to live together in peace.  And to have trust, you must have honesty and integrity.  This is one of the many reasons God included this in His Ten Commandments:

“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.”
(Exodus 20:16 NIV)

The Pharisees came to pick a fight with Jesus because His disciples did not do the ceremonial handwashing before they ate.  This was not about personal hygiene; this was about following the Pharisee’s man-made “rules” to be sure they did not defile or pollute their body.  Jesus pointed out that it wasn’t what went into a person’s mouth that defiled them.  Rather, it was what came out of their hearts, and through their mouths, making them less than pure (Matthew 15:1-20).

James lays out the problem of our tongue.  We use it to praise God, and to cut down others.  James’ conclusion?
“My brothers and sisters, this should not be.”  (verse 10b)

James says this is wrong.  Now James goes on to use illustrations from nature that show the impossibility of such an occurrence. The same spring cannot produce both salt water and fresh water.  And so our tongue reveals what is in our hearts.

We have looked at the negative, the test of what is in our hearts by what comes out of our mouths.  What should our pattern of speech be?

The Apostle Paul laid out what we should “put off” and what we should “put on” in his letter to the church at Colossae (Colossians 3:1-17).  May we guard our hearts and be that spring of fresh water to the Lord and to those around us going forward.

Blessings,
~kevin

The Test of the Tongue, Part 1

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.”
(James 3:1-6 NIV)

James has finished the question and test of our deeds as evidence of our faith, He now moves on to the test of our speech as evidence of our faith.  James covers this subject in chapter 3, verses 1-12; we will cover the passage here in two posts.

We know this is important, as James uses one of his terms of endearment (“my fellow believers”) to begin this section.  James opens with a warning to not desire to be a “teacher”.  The word James uses for “teacher” means “master”.  A “master” or “teacher” was normally associated with a formal office, what we would today call a “pastor” or “preacher”.

Was James going against what Jesus taught, to spread the Gospel message across the world?  Not at all.  James was saying, however, that as teachers (and he lumped himself in with that group), that they incur a greater scrutiny, and a greater responsibility and judgment for what they say. I understand this warning includes me as a writer, as my words “speak” through the written page.

So what was James’ point?  Again, James puts himself in the same group as everyone else: “We all stumble in many ways.” (verse 2).  James goes on to say that if we are perfect in what we say, we can keep the rest of our body in check.  James implies, by preceding this observation with “we all stumble in many ways”, that it’s impossible to be perfect in what we say.

Staying consistent with Hebrew literary form, James personifies the mouth and tongue as the offending party.  In reality, the heart is the issue, but the mouth and tongue are called out as the culprits, as the source of the problem.

Jesus brought relationship between what is in our hearts and what we say to light during one of His many encounters with the Pharisees.  Jesus said, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.  A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.”  (Matthew 12:34-35 NIV, emphasis mine)

James uses three analogies to speak of the relationship of the tongue or mouth to the rest of the body:

  • the bit in the mouth of a horse
  • the rudder on a ship
  • a spark in relationship to a forest fire

All are small compared to the size of the object, but still have a controlling effect.  And so is the tongue in relationship to our body.  It’s so small, but yet, it can control our direction and destiny.  This is why James says our tongue can set our entire course of life on fire, burning up everything in its path if we let it.

This is some pretty heavy stuff to consider.  James points out a lot of negative in this section.  What is the positive?  What should be our goal?

The Apostle Paul laid out what we should “put off” and what we should “put on” in his letter to the church at Colossae (Colossians 3:1-17).  May that be our pattern of speech going forward.

Blessings,
~kevin

Rahab’s Example of Faith

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 2:25-26 NIV)

James continues the argument he began in chapter 2 verse 14 for true faith in Christ. In verse 18, James sets up a debate between two people, one person arguing for faith alone (without any evidence), the other person arguing for faith demonstrated by the way a person lives.  In verse 20, James continues his argument for evidence of faith, for that faith to be real.

James uses Abraham as his first evidence; now, James presents his second person as evidence:  Rahab.

We first meet Rahab in Joshua chapter 2, where she takes in the two spies from Israel, gives them shelter, and protects them.  Rahab lives in Jericho, and God has promised to give Jericho to the nation of Israel as part of the promised land.

So we need to stop for a moment and ask ourselves, why did James include Rahab as an example of faith?  What is the significance of James using her as evidence of someone having faith plus works (deeds)?

I believe there are several reasons.  Rahab is the antithesis, the complete opposite of Abraham.  She is not Jewish, she lives the opposite of a self-proclaimed “righteous” life (she is a prostitute), and she is a woman.

  • Rahab is not Jewish.  The Jews of James’ day believed that they were God’s chosen people (which is true).  They also believed their righteousness came from being Jewish (it does not), and non-Jewish people could not be righteous before God (again, not true).
  • Rahab does not live by the “rules” of a “righteous” life.  Abraham was a devout and good man, respected in his community, while Rahab was an evil woman, living in a corrupt society, and at the bottom of the social status.
  • Rahab is a woman.  In that male-dominated culture, women were considered more like property than persons.  For James to use a woman as an example of someone living out her faith through her actions was of great significance.

As we look back to Joshua chapter 2, we see Rahab’s confession of faith in God (verse 11), as well as her actions that demonstrate her faith (verses 4-6, 15-16, 21 in particular).  Was everything Rahab did honoring to God, like her occupation (prostitution), or her words (lying to the king’s authorities, and sending the soldiers on a wild goose chase)?  No, not at all.  But God honored the tiny bit of faith Rahab showed, and counted to it Rahab as righteousness.

While Rahab’s faith was tiny, the consequences were huge.  If Rahab were to be found to be lying, and harboring fugitives, she would have been killed without thinking twice.  She risked her livelihood, and even her very life, to take action and prove out her faith.

Was James alone in pointing out Rahab’s faith, demonstrated by her actions?  No.  Two significant mentions of Rahab in scripture come to mind:

  • The author of Hebrews specifically calls her out as a great example of faith (Hebrews 11:31)
  • Matthew, in his genealogy of Jesus, notes that Rahab was part of our Savior’s family and bloodline (Matthew 1:5)

James wraps up his arguments on the need to have evidence of our faith by our works with one final analogy:  “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”

James compares our faith without evidence of good deeds to a body without life.  Both are dead.

James has presented his arguments, shown his evidence, and pointed us to God’s Word to make us stop and consider our lives, and if our faith is dead or living.

As each of us looks in the mirror, we must ask ourselves some hard questions to be sure our faith is living, and there is evidence of life in our faith via our heart seeking after God and doing good deeds, or if our faith is in words only, with no signs of life.  God knows whether our faith is real and alive, or counterfeit and dead.  The question is, do we know the real state of our heart and faith, or are we deceiving ourselves, living in a delusion?

To help our thinking, I share a series of questions John MacArthur asks:

“So, James is really saying look at yourself. What about you? Do you have a belief without behavior? Do you believe but not obey? Do you say you believe? Are you orthodox but you don’t long to serve God? You don’t love Him to the point where whatever it may cost you you’re willing to pay that price because He is supremely dear to you? Do you say you love Him? Do you say you care about Him? Do you say you believe in Him? But do you love sin? Do you court unrighteousness? Or do you loathe evil? Loathe pride? Seek humility? Is your faith useless or is it saving faith?”
(John MacArthur, sermon, “Living Faith”, James 2:21-26, November 30, 1986)

Blessings,
~kevin

Abraham’s Example of Faith

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.”
(James 2:20-24 NIV)

James continues the argument he began in chapter 2 verse 14 for true faith in Christ.  And what is this argument for true faith, saving faith?  True faith must be evidenced in a person’s life by their actions.

In verse 18, James sets up a debate between two people, one person arguing for faith alone (without any evidence), the other person arguing for faith demonstrated by the way a person lives.  In verse 20, James continues his argument for evidence of faith for that faith to be real.

In verse 14, James uses the term of endearment, “brothers and sisters”, to get their attention, because he has something important to say.  In verse 20, he speaks to the person that believes faith does not need any evidence to be real.  James addresses this person with a rather sharp rebuke, calling them “foolish”.  The term “foolish” used here means to be vain, to be completely empty of any shred of God’s truth.  And what has this person used to displace, to replace God’s truth?  Their own opinion.

James presents his evidence for true faith, saving faith via the life of Abraham, specifically in Abraham’s act of near-sacrifice of his only son, his beloved son, Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19).  And how was Abraham’s action of taking the journey with his son, building an alter, tying up his son, and picking up the knife with full intent to sacrifice him a show of faith, and not just some random act of an insane, deranged person?

The writer of Hebrews gives us insight into Abraham’s mindset:  Abraham believed that God could raise Isaac from the dead (Hebrews 11:17-19).  That’s a lot of faith, my friends.

James points out that Abraham’s faith in God was his starting point, and his actions were a result of his faith.  Notice James’ careful ordering of words here “…his faith was made complete by what he did.”.  Notice that James did not say that Abraham took action on his own, and then by faith, hoped that God would take care of the situation.  Rather, James points out that Abraham listened to God’s command, had faith in God’s goodness and ability to resurrect Isaac from the dead, and took action to obey God.  James tells us that Abraham’s faith was made complete, was proven true, by his actions.

Is that the end of the story?  No.

James reminds his readers that “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness…” (Genesis 15:1-6).  Notice the depth of Abraham’s faith in God.  Abraham’s faith came first (Genesis 15), and his actions came later (Genesis 22).  Abraham’s actions to sacrifice his son were after Abraham believed God’s promise to make him a mighty nation through his only son Isaac.

James concludes his argument with the evidence of Abraham’s life as his first example of faith with accompanying evidence of works:  “You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.” (v. 24).

The world is watching us, dear friends.  If we call ourselves followers of Christ, our actions need to reflect our beliefs.  If our actions do not reflect our beliefs, we are like a little child with an imaginary friend that exists only in our minds.  And God has no part in that delusion.  But when our actions reflect our faith, God shows up, proving He is real to both us and to those watching us.

Blessings,
~ kevin

Hollow, Empty Faith

“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.”
(James 2:18-19 NIV)

James continues his arguments about living vs. dead faith, and how to tell the difference.

In verses 14 through 17, James talked about hollow confessions of faith, and counterfeit compassion toward others.  James now goes on to describe superficial faith.

In these verses, James sets up an argument, then offers a counter-argument to show the erroneous thinking.

Person one says, “I have faith”.
Person two says, “I have deeds”.

Person one is saying, “I believe; that is enough”.
Person two is saying, “I believe, and I have evidence that I believe, based on my actions”.

James says, “Show me your faith without deeds…”.  James uses the word “show”; in the Greek language, this word is a verb, indicating action.  It means “to give evidence or proof of a thing”.  This term is not a legal term, but holds a similar concept.  James says, “bring out your ‘Exhibit A’ – let me see evidence of your faith.”

The bottom line?  You can’t prove your faith without some sort of actions that demonstrate your beliefs.  James says faith without works (deeds) is an impossible argument, just empty words with no meaning unless accompanied by actions.  Again, James is saying that salvation is by faith alone, in Christ alone, and that works are not a means to earn our way into heaven, but rather, evidence that our salvation is a genuine change of heart, changing how we live.

Going back to the beginning of verse 18, James starts out with “But someone will say…”.  Who was this “someone”?  Most likely it was James himself.

Remember how James opens this letter (chapter 1, verse 1):  “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ…”.  James was a humble man, even though he had every right to brag as Jesus’ half-brother, leader of the Jerusalem church, etc.  James chose to phrase this as a common argument that you might hear on the street, rather than put the argument in first person.  He goes on to refute the argument in first person without apology, which demonstrates the truth of God’s Word and James’ steadfastness in God’s Word.

James goes on to articulate the Jewish mantra, the Shemah, meaning “to hear, to listen intently”, named after the first Hebrew word in God’s command to the Israelites:  “ Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”  (Deuteronomy 6:4)

James says, “You believe that there is one God. Good!”.  Compared to the Romans and other Gentile cultures all around them that believed in many gods, James says belief in one god, Israel’s God, was a good thing.

But James says that belief in God by itself is not enough.  James says even the demons believe in God.  They know He is real, and understand God’s power and authority.  If that is the sole extent of our faith, saying that we believe in God, that He exists, then we are no better off than the demons.

James even point out the demons’ reaction to their belief – they shudder, they are horrified, and struck with extreme fear.

So what’s the point of today’s teaching?

James tells us to examine our lives – to practice what we believe, to show evidence of God’s work in our lives.  Faith without accompanying actions is like steering a parked car – we turn the wheels, but we’re not going anywhere.

Time to put it in gear and enter the traffic…

Blessings,
~ kevin

Faith and Works

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.”
(James 2:14-17 NIV)

James, as is his pattern of writing, begins an important topic with the term of endearment, “my brothers and sisters”.

His subject? Faith without works vs. faith with works.  James states his premise as a question:  Is faith without accompanying works really faith?  James preceded this question with a warning in chapter 1, verse 22, when he said, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”

James’ purpose was (and is) to question those who call themselves followers of Jesus Christ, but have no evidence in their lives that proves their claim.  There were individuals in the Jewish community who were twisting Paul’s words and using their (alleged) faith as a subtle excuse to avoid obedience to God’s word and living out what they believe.

James was not judging these individuals to make himself look better; rather, he was concerned for their very souls.  These folks were walking around claiming that they had their “get into heaven free” card, and therefore, could do anything they wanted, completely disregarding the rest of God’s Word.  James was warning them that their supposed “get into heaven free” card may be a fake, and if their lives depended on it after they died, it would be too late to correct the problem…. Their eternal destiny is at stake.

For the record, James is not saying that our works (our good deeds) has any part in our salvation.  In fact, quite the opposite.  James agrees wholeheartedly with Paul, that salvation is by faith alone, through Christ alone; our righteousness (the forgiveness of sins and right standing before God) comes from Christ, and not from ourselves.

In today’s passage, James lays out his premise (v. 14), provides an illustration (vv. 15-16), then draws his conclusion (v. 17).

The premise:  Is faith without works really faith?

James provides an illustration to make his point.  If you see someone completely destitute, with no clothing or food, and you offer them kind words, but do nothing to relieve their poverty or meet their immediate need, have you really helped them?

To make the point, let’s flip the illustration.  Let’s suppose that it’s you or me in the situation.  We find ourselves with no money, no shelter, no food, wearing shorts and a t-shirt, and it’s 40 degrees and raining.  Someone stops and says, “hey, hope you find a place to stay, some warm clothes, and get something to eat.”  They immediately drive away.  Would that help you or your situation?  Obviously, not at all.

James uses this illustration to conclude that there must be some sort of activity to prove our faith is alive.  Just as a body with no heartbeat or breathing or brain activity is dead, our faith without accompanying signs of life is dead.

Jesus used a similar illustration when describing the judgment day (Matthew 25:31-46).  In a court of law, would there be enough evidence to convict us of being a Christ-follower?

The apostle John uses Jesus’ life as an example of faith lived out:
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”  (1 John 3:16-18 NIV)

Am I loving others with actions and truth?  May our faith be evidenced by our actions.

Blessings,
~kevin

Mercy Triumphs over Judgment

“Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
(James 2:12-13 NIV)

James wraps up his discourse on impartiality with an appeal to live and act with mercy toward others.

James reminds us that God will judge us according to how we treat others.

So what measure does God use to judge us?  His Law – as recorded in Scriptures.

And what does God’s Law give?  James says it gives freedom.  Remember that God is no respecter of persons – He treats everyone fairly and justly.

Even the Pharisees recognized Jesus’ impartiality (Matthew 22:15-17).  They said of Jesus, “You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are.” (v. 16).

God’s Law breaks down barriers and provides freedom in Christ.  Jesus treats the late night “Wal-Mart people” everyone ridicules on social media with the same love and respect as the so-called “beautiful people” that shop in Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive.

This shows God’s character of impartiality, His ability to both love and judge equally, regardless of status, economics, power, education, or any other divisive means we use to make ourselves look better than our neighbors.

James exhorts us, he strongly urges us to show mercy to others, for our willingness to show mercy indicates the status of our hearts.  James is reminding us to show mercy to others, just as God, through Christ, has shown mercy to us.  James says that is how we pass the test of impartiality.  If we say we are followers of Christ, then our actions need to reflect Christ’s character in how we treat others.

Matthew understood this principle of showing mercy to others, because he had lived on the wrong side of mercy for a long time.  Before coming to Christ and learning His ways, Matthew was a Jewish person who sold out as a tax collector for the Roman government, collecting taxes from his fellow Jews.  Listen to Matthew’s record of Jesus’ teaching:

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”  (Matthew 5:7)

 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” ”  (Matthew 9:13)

“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.”  (Matthew 12:7)

Jesus is quoting from Micah 6:6-8.  Listen to Micah’s summary:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.”
(Micah 6:8 NIV)

James also ends with a wonderful statement:  “Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

I know I have said the same thing many different ways today.  That is not to beat myself up, or to condemn others.  It is simply to remember how important impartiality is to God, and how I need to live my life with a tender and humble heart before God.

It’s easy to develop a jaded attitude toward others when others hurts us (either knowingly or unknowingly).  It’s also easy to focus all our attention on ourselves, to live selfishly and make life all about us – our wants, our needs, our hurts, everything about our life, and complete ignorance about the lives of others around us.

Unfortunately, our ignorance of and apathy toward others’ needs and hurts creates the same environment of judgment, because we are basically saying, “my needs are more important than whatever issue you may be having.”.

Father, replace our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh.  Help us to be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ, You forgave us.  Help us to love others with the same impartiality that You love us.  We come humbly to the foot of the cross, where the ground is level, where we are all equal before You, sinners saved by Your grace and kept by Your mercy.  Amen.

Blessings,
~kevin