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James Abbreviated: Chapter 3

Continuing our series, James Abbreviated, let’s tackle chapter 3!

You should read the first post in the series because it sets up every chapter to come. The intent is to show God’s desire for his people to grow to a mature faith, birthed in the kiln of our trials, and shown by the right way we treat one another; all seen in the Christ-like balance between immersion in the world to love our neighbor, and the setting apart for holiness unto God—something only the wisdom of God can help us navigate.

James chapter 2 and 3 are a thoughtful unfolding of James 1:27: “Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” We saw in the last blog post that chapter two is an exposition of the command to look after orphans, widows, and more broadly, those who are in distress. Interestingly, as the chapter progresses, it emphasized this call to show mercy, specifically on those in the family of God. A good summary of chapter two is, “If you are a Christ follower, you will love all of Christ’s people”

Now, in chapter 3, James gives an explanation for the first half of v 27, namely, “to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

There are many great points made in James chapter 3, but I suggest one that emerges as the most definitive of the chapter (in bold). As usual, I will offer what I think are the supporting verses, with key verses in italics.

Holiness is manifest in your speech

James 1:1-12 “Not many should become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive a stricter judgment, 2 for we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a mature man who is also able to control his whole body. 3 Now when we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we also guide the whole animal. 4 And consider ships: Though very large and driven by fierce winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things. Consider how large a forest a small fire ignites. 6 And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among the parts of our bodies. It pollutes the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is set on fire by hell. 7 Every sea creature, reptile, bird, or animal is tamed and has been tamed by man, 8 but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 We praise our Lord and Father with it, and we curse men who are made in God’s likeness with it. 10 Praising and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers, these things should not be this way. 11 Does a spring pour out sweet and bitter water from the same opening? 12 Can a fig tree produce olives, my brothers, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a saltwater spring yield fresh water” (HCSB).

While this section of Scripture is easy enough to understand on it’s own terms, I always wondered how it fit in to the rest of James.

For example, how does “experiencing trials” (1:2) relate to the tongue? Or “keeping oneself unstained by the world” (27b)? Or the sin of favoritism (2:1)? Fortunately, chapter 3 is easy enough to understand that most people can apply it to their life niche. Pastors and school teachers may think of their vocation when reading the stern warning of “stricter judgment” found in vv. 1-2. Some are reminded of the fiery hell that is our tongue in vv. 3-6 when we gossip or lash out verbally. Maybe others just think of the zoo when they read of horses (v 3), sea creatures, reptiles, and birds (v 7) :-) But verse 11 sharply refocuses our attention by providing us with a summary of chapter 3:

“Does a spring pour out sweet and bitter water from the same opening?” (v 11)

I’m bringing our attention to verse 11 as the key verse because it unifies the first 12 verses of James’s warning over the destructive nature of the tongue, words, and speech. James defines the tongue as lit by hell itself—it’s not on fire, it is a fire (v 6); he implicates anyone that teaches verbally (v 1); he describes the tongue’s ability to destroy other people (v 8); and after launching into more analogous indictments against human speech, his deep theme emerges: “Does a spring pour out sweet and bitter water from the same opening?” (v 11). James is prosecuting the human heart as the real culprit behind our sinful speech, for if we were holy, only sweet water would pour out of our springs; likewise, bitter waters flow from dead faith (2:26). These first seemed like a bunch of unrelated proverbs, but from a bird’s-eye view of the text, James’s point is overt: holiness of heart is manifest in holiness of speechOur words do not save us, but they do identify us.

This, of course, flows seamlessly from chapters one (God matures our faith with trials, in and through right relationships with Christ’s people) and chapter two (Christ followers love all of Christ’s people).

Now, this brings us to the sudden shift at the end of chapter 3:

Who is wise and has understanding among you? He should show his works by good conduct with wisdom’s gentleness. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart, don’t brag and deny the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come from above but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where envy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every kind of evil. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peace-loving, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without favoritism and hypocrisy. 18 And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who cultivate peace.

James is setting up an ultimatum.

This may seem disconnected from the rest of the chapter, but remember, we are looking at everything from a view of 30,000 feet so we can leave with a broad and unifying theme that holds these chapters (and book) together. With that in mind, read that paragraph again (vv. 13-18) and see if you can spot some repeating words, phrases, thoughts, or themes.  Read the rest of this entry

James Abbreviated: Chapter 2

This is the second post in our series, James Abbreviated!

This one shouldn’t be as lengthy as the first one, but you will need to read the first post in the series because it sets us up for every chapter to come. The summary of chapter one went something like this: God desires for his people to grow to a mature faith, birthed in the kiln of our trials, and shown by the right way we treat one another; all of which is the Christ-like balance between immersion in the world to love our neighbor, and the setting apart for holiness unto God—something we need the wisdom of God to help us navigate.

Before we move on, I want you to take special notice of the underlined sections of that summary towards the end. I got these two ideas from James 1:27,

“Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

The first half of James’s sentence (“to look after orphans and widows”) suggests the immersion in the world to love our neighbor, while the second half (“keep oneself unstained by the world”) is where I got the setting apart for holiness unto God. I’m bringing this up, because I think James chapter 2 and chapter 3 are a thoughtful unfolding of these two concepts. James chapter 2 unpacks the imperative to look after orphans, widows, and more broadly, those who are in distress. What is interesting is that as the chapter progresses, it focuses our call to show mercy specifically on the family of God.

Here are the two main points that stand out in James chapter two (in bold), followed by what I think is the supporting passage, with key verses in italics.

Christians must look after their own poor

vv.1-8 “My brothers, do not show favoritism as you hold on to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. 2 For example, a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and a poor man dressed in dirty clothes also comes in. 3 If you look with favor on the man wearing the fine clothes and say, “Sit here in a good place,” and yet you say to the poor man, “Stand over there,” or, “Sit here on the floor by my footstool,” 4 haven’t you discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my dear brothers: Didn’t God choose the poor in this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that He has promised to those who love Him? 6 Yet you dishonored that poor man. Don’t the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? 7 Don’t they blaspheme the noble name that was pronounced over you at your baptism? 8 Indeed, if you keep the royal law prescribed in the Scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself , you are doing well. “

This lengthy paragraph suggests three things:

  1. James addresses a church of believers (not just anyone). He uses Mediterranean strong-family terminology: “My brothers” (v 1, 14); “my dear brothers” (v 5); “a brother or sister” (v 15).
  2. James brings up a specific discrimination in the church. He points out that certain believers were giving preference to other believers based on their affluence; and points out the irony of the act, accusing the discriminate believer of “dishonoring that poor man” (v 6).
  3. James condemns discrimination in the church. We see this in his quotation of the Great Commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (v 8), and roundly exposes favoritism as the antithesis of the Law (v 9).
  • These three points show us that favoritism in the church, especially in relation to those who are poor, lowly, or discriminated against, is a shameful transgression of God’s heart.

But watch how James connects this ongoing thought to the rest of the chapter…

Read the rest of this entry

James Abbreviated: Chapter 1

This is the first in our series, James Abbreviated, blogging through every chapter in James to determine the overarching themes of this wonderful book.

Since every book of the Bible has a point, we should start by identifying a basic flow, argument, or exhortation as we read along. Don’t worry about finding the meaning behind every verse yet, but do use key verses to help you put together that flow. A key verse is an emphatic point or crux buried in the chapter, supported by a lot of the surrounding paragraph. To use another example, news articles and blogs often emphasized their main points in bold lettering above the rest of the text.

Here are the two main points that stand out in James chapter one (in bold), followed by what I think is the supporting passage, with the key verse in italics.

Christians trust God in difficulties

vv.2-6 “Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing. 5 Now if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without criticizing, and it will be given to him. 6 But let him ask in faith without doubting. For the doubter is like the surging sea, driven and tossed by the wind. 7 That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 8 An indecisive man is unstable in all his ways.”

Do you see how I developed a short, five-word point (Christians trust God in difficulties) from an otherwise sweeping paragraph? I’ll show you my train of thought…

  1. The Christian’s trials can result in an endurance that makes us “complete” (v 2-4)
  2. For this completion to happen, one must ask God for wisdom (v.5)
  3. Faith–which in biblical terms often refers to trust–defines the wisdom we receive.
  • These three points show us that we must ask God for wisdom in difficult situations, while responding to that wisdom with faith in God! This is what separates those who know God, as shown in verses 5-8: the person who trusts in God (“asking in faith”) is saved, and the person who does not (“an indecisive man”), will “not receive anything from the Lord.” (v. 7)

Woo! Let’s move on to the next emphatic point that James makes (I will be gliding over many supporting verses)… Read the rest of this entry

Going outside the gate

In my last post, I shared how Christians have their own tribal language which can become a barrier when speaking to people outside the church.

A simple way to avert this might be by getting out of the church building.

Christians are called beyond the “gate” of their church subculture, and into the lives of outsiders on a regular basis, anyway. In fact, our mission involves interacting with people outside the church (John 17:15-16), and we see this reflected in the lives of the early followers of Jesus, as well as Jesus himself.

  • Paul “went outside the gate to a riverside” before happening by a group of spiritually hungry people (Acts 16:12).
  • Jesus had an urge to “pass through Samaria” where he met a spiritually broken woman (John 4:4).

Now, God’s mission can’t always be systematized. But sometimes it helps to break it down in our minds so that we aren’t overwhelmed by the grandeur of it all. If you read the context given in the two examples above, you’ll find a bit of a pattern that I think works really well in practice…

  1. Be intentional (Don’t go anywhere, aimlessly. Seek the Spirit for where He would have you be)
  2. Take initiative (Don’t expect opportunities to come to your doorstep. Engage! Seek others!)
  3. Expend yourself (Commit to that place/area/community/scene once you discover it)

(adapted from “Operation Lydia: Mission” by Chris Lazo)

Christian one-liners and tribal language

Christians have their own way of speaking to each other.

I was recently communicating the gospel worldview in a Christian church service, and used an illustration to describe the implications of following Jesus. I thought it was a great illustration–I tend to use metaphors and stories that are dramatic–and several Christians pointed out that the illustration was very convicting and effective for them. Christians respond well to certain phrases and one-liners. We use slogans that reflect where we are at in our faith, and they make sense to us.

I don’t think we realize how foreign we sound to people outside the church. I certainly did not.

Shortly after the gathering, a millennial, who was not a Christian or a church-member, approached me with a different response than what I was expecting. She shared with me that my illustration, and the things I said, were confusing and traumatic for her. It made her feel shamed, not convicted. Some of my phrases were foreign to her, kind of the way inside-jokes feel to an outsider who hasn’t been around long enough, and my passion only added to this, coming across condescendingly. She felt that I was looking down on her. Now, this girl was very humble, and gracious in her approach. She never accused me, and spoke in a way that was disarming and conversational. I never felt like she was complaining or attacking me in any way. But it was still a great surprise to me! I had no idea that I was coming across as judgmental. I apologized to her very quickly.

I have posted several blogs on the problem of Christianese (see reader comments!), why we should care what other’s think, that we must make our beliefs comprehensible, and how to speak in everyone’s language, because those outside of our church culture don’t understand the way Christians speak. This experience brought it even closer to home, and humbled me. What made it even more alarming was that the part of my teaching most Christians commented positively on, and that I was most proud of, produced the opposite experience for someone who does not regularly hang out with Christians. I failed to explain a simple truth in a way that she could understand, in fact, I communicated in a way that gave her the wrong impression of the gospel.

Our lingo can get lost in translation with other “tribes”

I was unaware of this happening because I am so deeply immersed in a church culture that I don’t know how foreign my words are to many people outside of the church. And apparently, lots of my friends talk the same way too, because afterwards, we give each other high-fives over something profound that was said, while others may have no clue what I meant. We can be great at explaining the gospel to each other, but not to those who have never heard it before. I’m really glad that girl spoke up, and was so nice about it. Not only did I get the opportunity to clarify myself, but I also got to understand her worldview, and dialog with her about Jesus and the church.

But now I wonder…how often do I speak in Christianese without even realizing it?

Going somewhere else

Why do we put six months of diligent preparation into overseas mission…

…yet approach our own cities with such casual impromptu?

The Gospel should be comprehensible

Many people who have spent enough time in a church have no problem regurgitating the latest systematic explanations of theology in magnificent detail.

I confess, the more I understand, the more I love hearing myself speak. But we have been given the knowledge of God to reach the un-knowledgable with the good news of Jesus Christ. The problem we face among a generation of unchurched Millennials, then, is coming across as pretentious, rather than genuinely concerned with them. By speaking our now infamous Christianese language, we alienate them with our complicated explanations, and indirectly communicate to the outsider that faith in God has no relevant connection to the life they live. Let’s be honest, the depressed teenage girl who got drunk, pregnant, and infected by some creep in one badly intentioned weekend at a dorm needs more from you than to show off your brilliant understanding of the metaphysical models of the incarnation function (or any other crazy topic). She needs to know how the Gospel intersects with the crap in her life now, and she needs it clearly expressed. After all, she probably won’t be taking notes.

Tim Keller pointed out,

If you don’t contextualize enough, no one’s life will be transformed because they won’t understand you. But if you contextualize too much, no one’s life will be transformed because you won’t be challenging their deepest assumptions and calling them to change. (HT: Tullian T, italics mine)

I was talking to a friend who was describing a series of conversations with a new believer. The friend was very knowledgable about theology, but we found a shared struggle in communicating the gospel to a new believer, due to complex explanations!

There’s something beautiful (and constructive) about conversing with someone who has never been churched.

Someone who has never known the baggage of nasty apologetics, silly theological debates, or spiritual abuse. The simplicity of their questions reminds you that the answer is, in fact, very simple. But we’re not always ready for those conversations, right?

We are ready for the convos we will have with atheists, agnostics, Calvinists, Arminians, Mormons, etc. For those, we prepare in en masse! But that why it’s a blessing to speak with non-believers who have never been around the Christian “scene.”

Even if you are the most seasoned veteran of theology, you may find yourself struggling to explain the purpose of the Old Testament, the meaning of animal sacrifice, the “why” behind the cross, and yet, while doing so in a way that an unbeliever, or a novice to the Christian faith will understand, without a prior knowledge of all the jargon you are familiar with. You may have to reach deeply to explain why the atonement matters for the college drop-out, the self-indulgent frat boy, and the promiscuous cheerleader.

You want to learn how to apply the gospel to fit the times you are in? You can start by talking to people outside your church.

Humble conversations with non-believers will strip you of your pride, keep the Gospel from our messy extras, and allow its power alone to transform!

We must begin thinking about how to communicate the gospel clearly and succinctly.

Recent studies have shown that our generation (Millennials) number about 80 million people. In our post-Christian culture, only 15% of these Millennials are Christians. That means there are 70 million Millennials in our country that do not know Jesus Christ, do not know what we’re talking about, and did not necessarily care. That makes our generation the largest mission field in the world, roughly equivalent to the entire population of Thailand.

And they are all on their way to hell.

Shall we start taking ourselves a little less seriously now?

Contextualization: communicating the gospel in contemporary language

Imagine bumping into someone you met recently while perusing through electronics at Costco. Instead of sparing any small talk, she dumps weeks worth of unfortunate events upon you. Her dad just suffered a heart attack, and is now in the hospital fighting for his life, but her car won’t start, so instead of being there for her dad, she’s stuck in Costco talking to you while her family suffers. Watching a stranger break down in front of you in the middle of aisle five, you realize you have no Bible, and the only passage of Scripture you can recall in the pandemonium is the one you read during your chronological devotions that morning: “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:14).

So what do you do??

You interrupt her sobbing, grab the emergency fire hose to your left, and begin spraying her feet. Because that’s what Jesus did.

No, that would be silly. Yet, the Bible says to wash feet as an act of service, and you want to serve this woman. After all, doesn’t every word of the Bible speak truth into our life? Yes. Paul said that “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).

The problem is not in the universal truth of Scripture, but in the practical application of it…you did not contextualize it!

What does it mean to contextualize?

True contextualization happens when there is a community which lives faithfully by the gospel and in that same costly identification with people in their real situations as we see in the earthly ministry of Jesus. – Lesslie Newbigin (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. 153-154)

To contextualize the gospel means that you communicate it in contemporary language, and live it out in such a way that is suitable to the society you are in. For example, we are told to make disciples of all the nations. But disciples in a first century Middle Eastern country will look a lot different than disciples in twenty first century Europe (though both may be grounded in the same timeless truth of the gospel). Churches looked different during the medieval period than they did in Rome during the fourth century. Worship may involve liturgy and solemn reflection in a traditional church on the East Coast of America, but it may involve dancing and chanting in a Tanzanian congregation, even though both worship Jesus Christ. Why? Because the same gospel is being expressed through different cultures. Now just as we should be careful to keep the beauty of foreign culture intact while we’re evangelizing, instead of assimilating them into ours, so we must also consider practice with our local neighborhoods and cities. Think about it…does your neighbor need to dress just like you to go to your church? No! Jesus never called people to change before coming to him, he simply called, and often went to them in the process.

Everything needs balance

Meeting people where they are at can sometimes be taken too far—as when the occasional college student ends up losing their integrity in order to be considered missional by the outside world—a common pitfall otherwise known as “over-contextualization.” Darrin Patrick writes,

Over-contextualization is when you view missional opportunities primarily through a cultural lens instead of a gospel lens. In this instance, I was more concerned with providing a cool, “unchurchy” environment than I was with making sure the environment didn’t reflect poorly on the gospel. (HT: Resurgence)

Let’s be clear. Parts of culture are good, and other parts are bad. It can be sticky business to stick ourselves into it. It’s even possible to stain ourselves in the process (Jam. 1:27). This tension begs another question…

Why contextualize anyway?

Because we cannot escape culture, nor does God call us to do so. By definition, people create culture wherever there exists a social group. We must remember that as Christians, we are citizens of another world (Phi.3:20), but ambassadors in this one, and must live redemptively in culture without conforming to or separating from it. We are counter-cultural, living on mission in the midst of its brokenness, sent by God to interact with its beauty for the redemption of them both. This means we’ve got to speak the gospel in a way that those you are trying to reach will comprehend.

Human beings only exist as members of communities which share a common language, customs, ways of ordering economic and social life, ways of understanding and coping with their world. If the gospel is to be understood, if it is to be received as something which communicates truth about the real human situation, if it is, as we say, to “make sense,” it has to be communicated in the language of those to whom it is addressed and has to be clothed in symbols which are meaningful to them. – Newbigin (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. 141)

In other words, Christians live in culture, therefore “every interpretation of the gospel is embodied in some cultural form” (Ibid, 144). You have no choice. Even if you hide behind a rock in stubborn defiance, preaching against the ills of culture or anything that does not look exactly like you, you do so naively. Think about it… you go back to a culture of people that look like you, dress like you, act like you, and sound like you in a Christian subculture that no one can understand but you. And as long as you stay tucked away in it, you may fail to communicate the gospel to many people who are thirsty.

Going back to our story of the gal at Costco… Jesus washed people’s feet as a cultural practice which spoke volumes to all the people he wished to reach. Only slaves washed feet! So when Jesus (a rabbi) washed the feet of his followers, he was communicating servanthood to them. But if you wash people’s feet today, it can be pretty weird! Servanthood, not the ritual of washing, is the timeless principle that must be carried over cultural boundaries, languages, and practices. If you contextualized servanthood in the aisle five situation, you would probably just give the poor girl a ride to the hospital, or jump start her car.

When you contextualize the gospel, you do not change the timeless content of the gospel, you mold its communication and application so that the truth will reach their hearts unobstructed.

Has the gospel ever made sense to you on a practical level?

Rockabilly Church

THIS is contextualization!

My dream has come true 5 years too late.

(Link via dankimball.com)

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