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Monday, July 25, 2011

"Seeing Double" - (07/24/11)

“Seeing Double”
James 1:1-8 (Message #1 in James Series)
July 24, 2011

            Today we are beginning a brand-new teaching series on the Book of James.  I am excited because this has long been one of my favorite books of the Bible and I’m hoping it will become a favorite of yours as well.  James is a very practical book, filled with “how-tos” for living the Christian life, which is one of the reasons it appeals to me.  James doesn’t beat around the bush; he gets right to the point, and tells it like it is without sugar-coating the truth.
            But before we get into the text itself we need to answer some background questions to help us get more out of our study—questions like…
  • WHO was the author?
  • WHEN and WHERE was this book written?
  • TO WHOM was it written?
  • What was the author’s PURPOSE in writing?
  • What RELEVANCE does it have to us today?

            These sorts of questions fall under the category of Bible Survey, and many of your study Bibles will have helpful information about these subjects in the introductory pages to the Book of James.  But to save us a little time, let me walk us quickly through some of these questions and answers.

#1. WHO was the AUTHOR?
            The author doesn’t leave us guessing.  He says right at the beginning that he is James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.”  But which James is he?  The N.T. mentions four different ones including James the son of Zebedee and brother of John (cf. Matt. 4:21), James the son of Alphaeus, called “James the Less” or “little/younger” (cf. Matt. 10:3), James the father of the apostle Thaddeus/Judas (cf. Luke 6:16), and James, one of the four half-brothers of Jesus.  So which of those four wrote the Book of James?  A lot of people think it was James, the son of Zebedee (brother of John) because he’s the James they’ve heard the most about.  However, that James was martyred in Acts 12 (±A.D. 44), the first of the 12 apostles to be killed.  He didn’t live long enough to write anything.
            No, the answer is James #4, the half-brother of Jesus, son of Joseph and Mary.  He was probably next to Jesus in age since his name always heads the list of Jesus’ siblings (cf. Matt. 13:55; Mark6:3 – James, Joseph, Simon, Jude, and sisters).  We also know that he along with all of Jesus’ other brothers and sisters rejected Jesus’ early ministry (John 7:2-5).  It was only after the resurrection that they came to believe fully in Him.  In fact, at one point His family tried to get Him to quit preaching and apparently even thought He was a bit insane.
            Some other facts about James… I Cor. 15:7 records that he was one of the people to whom Jesus appeared personally after the Resurrection.  On Paul’s first visit to Jerusalem after he got saved he visited James (Gal. 1:19).  In fact, Paul referred to James as one of the “pillars” of the Church (Gal. 2:9).  Because of his holiness and integrity his nickname was “James, the Just”.  In Acts 12:17 after Peter was released from jail by the angel he told the disciples to go and report to James what had happened.  At the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:13) James was presiding over the proceedings as they debated about what to do with the influx of non-Jewish converts.  James was so well known and highly respected in the Early Church that his younger brother, Jude, only needed to identify himself as “a bondservant of Jesus Christ, and the brother of James” and that was all the credentials he needed (cf. Jude 1:1).  From a comment made by Paul in I Cor. 9:5 we believe that James was married and probably had children.  Though we don’t know a lot of details, Josephus and Hegesippus, ancient Roman historians, tell us that James was executed by fanatical Jewish leaders near the time of the revolt and siege of Jerusalem (A.D. 62).

#2. WHEN and WHERE was this book written?
            The author does not mention any specific historical events that we can use to fix the exact date of the writing.  Nor does he tell us where he was when he wrote it.  However, the letter is very Jewish in nature.  The language, the references all suggest an early date for the writing, back when the church was still in its infancy, before the Jerusalem Controversy about what to do with the Gentile converts.  We also know that James rose to a place of leadership in the Early Church in A.D. 44, replacing Peter after he got out of jail, which was also the same year in which King Herod Agrippa I died (cf. Acts 12:5-23).  All things considered, a date of A.D. 46 for the writing is a very good estimation and it was almost certainly written from Jerusalem where James lived.  By the way, most conservative Bible scholars believe that this was the first NT book ever written!  Galatians probably came next, several years later.  One more tidbit: the book of James is a literary masterpiece, written in beautiful Greek by someone with a broad vocabulary and a sharp mind.  History tells us that James was such a man.

#3. To WHOM was the letter written?
            As I mentioned a moment ago, the content of this letter is distinctively Jewish in nature.  For example, a very Hebrew title for God is used in 5:4—“Lord of Sabaoth,” Lord of Hosts (kyrios sabaoth).  This was not a term used by Gentiles but almost exclusively by Jewish Christians.
            Also, the greeting of the letter starts out, “…to the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad…” (NASV).  Or as it is in the NIV, “…to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations…”  The literal phrase that James uses is, “…to the 12 tribes who are in the dispersion (Diaspora)…” This clearly refers to Jews.
            However, at the same time, the letter is also clearly Christian (cf. 2:1, 7; 5:7-8; etc.).  The best explanation for this Jewish/Christian combination is seen in the Acts chronology.  After Stephen’s martyrdom in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1-4) those Jewish believers took off in every direction, heading for Cyprus, Phoenicia, and Antioch (cf. 11:19), or anyplace else where they could find a safe haven from persecution.
            James wrote this letter to those Jewish Christians who had fled “in the Diaspora” after Stephen’s death.  This is one of the so-called, “General Epistles” because it was written to be copied and shared with lots of people in lots of places.  It was not sent to one church or one individual, but to a whole class of people, those Jewish converts to Christianity who had fled their homeland to avoid being killed for their newfound faith in Jesus, their Messiah.
            This brings us to the next question…

#4. What was the writer’s PURPOSE for writing?
            James was seeking to encourage and fortify those baby Christians who were now scattered and far away from regular instruction in the teachings of Christ.  He speaks of trials and oppression and how Christians should respond.  Knowing that these new converts would struggle with temptations of every sort he tells them how to deal with the devil and with the temptations of life.  He wrote from a pastor’s heart, instructing and encouraging by long distance.

#5. What RELEVANCE does it have for us today?
            Without stealing my own thunder for the next few months, I will just say again that this is a very practical book and deals with the issues that you and I face every day in our Christian lives.  It deals with the role of good deeds in religion.  It takes on the question of faith versus works.  It warns us about how much damage our mouths can do if we don’t control them.  It tells us how to endure trials and go through suffering without losing our faith and getting mad at God.  It also takes on the question of how to get our daily life to come into alignment with what we claim to believe.  Like I said… very practical stuff!  So without further ado, let’s get into the text itself.  Turn to James 1:1.

Verse 1: James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad: Greetings.
  • Nowadays when we write letters we sign them at the bottom.  You either have to read the whole letter or glance at the end before you start to know who’s writing to you.  In the old days, they put that information right in the salutation.  I think it was a better system.
  • I’ve heard that Eskimos have a whole bunch of different words for snow.  It makes sense because living where they do, they have become snow experts.  In Greek there are a variety of words that mean “servant” or “slave.”  That’s because slavery was such a part of normal life and there were different kinds of slaves.  An oiketês was a “household servant.”  A místhios was a “hired servant.”  A pais was a “boy servant.”  A paidíske was a “young female slave.”  A huperétes was an “under-rower” on a ship.  A diákonos was a “ministering servant.”  Here in James 1:1 James identifies himself as “the doulos of God and of Christ.”  A “doulos” was a bond-servant and the word was at the same time the most common term for a slave and also the most menial.  It was Paul’s favorite word to describe himself in relation to Christ (cf. Rom. 1:1), and James uses it here in the same way, with the idea in mind that he had been formerly a “bond-slave” of Satan, and that, having been bought by Christ, he is now a willing slave, bound to his new Master with bonds of love and gratitude.  And it’s important to remember that with a doulos there were no limitations, either in the kind or the time of service.  In the same way, the life of the believer is to be lived in continuous lifelong obedience and service to God.  That’s very important!

Verses 2-3: Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.   
  • The word “trials” here implies testings from an external source.  Later on, down in verses 13-14 James will discuss testings that come from within, temptations to commit evil.  But here in verse 2 he’s talking about circumstances that come along out of the blue and whack us up alongside the head.
  • “Consider it all joy…”  He doesn’t say that these trials are joyful events.  He doesn’t say they are fun or something we are to seek after.  No, he just says that we are to “consider them, reckon them, think of them” in positive terms because of the ultimate good that they will work in us.  Most medicine and nearly all vitamins taste nasty, but we take them because of the benefit we know they are going produce in us.
  • Trials in the life of the Christian function in the same way.  They have a nasty taste for the moment but if we will work with God rather than against Him the trials will ultimately strengthen our faith and produce godly character in us.
  • The phrase here translated as “the testing of your faith” employs a technical word that refers to the refining and purging process of producing genuine coins.  The goal of testing is not to destroy but to verify and prove the quality of the material being tested.  Through trials we grow spiritual muscles and develop our spiritual lung capacity so that when we come up against a really steep hill we have strength and endurance not only live through the experience but to come out as victors, standing at the top of the mountain shouting, “Woohoo!”
  • By the way, joy is a choice.  We can choose to be joyful in the midst of difficult circumstances or we can choose to give way to anger, depression, despair, and vindictiveness against God and everyone in the room with us.  James says, “Choose joy.”  Paul had the same thing in mind when he wrote Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, REJOICE!”  We can choose to be joyful, no matter what.

Verse 4: And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
  • This verse is a model of redundancy, but it is not accidental.  James is trying to make a point.  The word here used twice and translated as “perfect” means complete in the sense of having reached the goal, the finish line.  In common speech we use the word perfect to mean, one who is “without sin or flaw of any kind.”  That is impossible for humans so it is ridiculous to think that James is commanding us to become perfect in the sense of sinless and without flaws.
  • No, he’s talking about letting the trials and tribulations process continue to its desired end, where we have those needed spiritual muscles.

Verse 5: But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.
  • This verse is used by Christians as a carte blanche promise from God, but we should not remove it from its context and expect it to work.  Here James is talking about God-given insight while we are going through trials, wisdom into what God is doing and what He is trying to produce in us.  Sometimes Christians say, “I just can’t see any point to this.  Why is God putting us through this?  Have we sinned?  Have we ticked Him off somehow?  I just can’t see how any good could ever come from this mess, this tragedy, this trial.”  But James says that if we ask Him, God will reveal it to us.  Job is a good example.  When Job cried out to God, the Lord revealed to him what was taking place and that knowledge sustained him through his trials to the very end.

Verse 6: But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.
  • Doubting, that’s our enemy in this process.  The Greek word is used twice here: diakrinómenos.  The word is sometimes translated as debating, contending, or disputing.  Here it means doing those things with God, maybe in the hopes that He will stop the trial or the tribulation.  In context James is not talking so much about weak faith, as lack of faith in God, and therefore contending with Him.
  • But James points out that a person without faith in God is at the mercy and whim of the storm and the waves.  He has no anchor, no refuge, no rock of safety, no island where he can beach his boat and seek shelter.  God is all of those things to us when we go through trials.  Without Him, where can a person turn to for help?

Verses 7-8: For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, 8 being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
  • James here speaks of a “double-minded” person.  This does not mean thinking twice.  The Greek work literally means a person with “two-souls” – dípsuchos (dis = twice + psuche = mind or soul).  James uses this same word in 4:8, “Come near to God and He will come near to you.  Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.”  It refers to a person of divided allegiance.  In this context I believe it is about the man who has doubts and mental reservations both about prayer itself and about the requests he is making of God.
  • James says that this kind of double-mindedness causes instability in every area of his life and robs him of getting answers from God.

            So what have we learned today?  Let’s review:
  • Who was James?  Tell me all you know.
  • Who did he write this to, and why?
  • Why does God allow us to go through trials and tribulations?
  • Why is James so adamant about us not being “double-minded”?
  • What do you hope to gain personally from this study?

Monday, July 18, 2011

"When All Has Been Heard" - (07/17/11)

“When All Has Been Heard”
Ecclesiastes 12 (Message #12 in Series)
July 17, 2011

            Many young people mistakenly think of Christianity as an old person’s religion.  But of course that is not true.  The Bible is replete with the exploits of young people that God used to do amazing things.  In the OT, David, Gideon, Jeremiah, King Josiah, and Samuel come immediately to mind.  And don’t forget, many of the apostles of Jesus were very young men when they started.  The Book of Proverbs was written specifically to young people.  In the NT John Mark was probably still a teenager when he set out with Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journey into Asia Minor.  In I Timothy 4:12 Paul wrote to Timothy, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.”

The Book of Ecclesiastes is also full of advice for young people, especially here at the end of the book where Solomon hammers on the importance of a person seeking God in his youth while he still has all his years out in front of him, rather than waiting until he is old and his energy is all spent and gone.  God deserves the best we can give Him, not the leftovers of our life after we’ve driven the wheels off of it and we’re about ready for the Rest Home at Shady Pines.

            In verses 1-2 Solomon exhorts us to remember God early in life.
Verses 1-2: 1Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no delight in them”; 2before the sun and the light, the moon and the stars are darkened, and clouds return after the rain;
  • You can’t start with God too early in life.  That’s why we believe in things like Vacation Bible School, Sunday School, Child Evangelism Fellowship, and all kinds of other ministries directed at telling kids about Jesus.  If we win children early they have their whole life to dedicate to God and His service.
  • Solomon makes the case that if you evade God early in life you’ll likely have no time for Him in your old age.  That’s just how it works.
  • Verse 2 is the picture of an impending storm, old age, which, once it hits, will obscure the light and the heavenly bodies, so that there is no warmth or brightness, that is, no enjoyment of life.  Solomon speaks of old age as the “coming evil days.”  The NLT puts it this way: 1Don’t let the excitement of youth cause you to forget your Creator.  Honor Him in your youth before you grow old and say, “Life is not pleasant anymore.”  2Remember Him before the light of the sun, moon, and stars is dim to your old eyes, and rain clouds continually darken your sky.

            He says that we should remember the debilitating effects of old age.  Now when you read these verses in an older version like the KJV it may leave you with more questions than answers, simply because Solomon is speaking in metaphors.  However, if you look at these verses in a modern language version you can really get his drift.  Again let me read from the NLT.
Verses 3-4: 3Remember Him before your legs—the guards of your house—start to tremble; and before your shoulders—the strong men—stoop.  Remember Him before your teeth—your few remaining servants—stop grinding; and before your eyes—the women looking through the windows—see dimly.   4Remember Him before the door to life’s opportunities is closed and the sound of work fades.  Now you rise at the first chirping of the birds, but then all their sounds will grow faint.
  • In this allegory, the “house” is the old person’s body.  The trembling watchmen are the wobbly legs.  The mighty men are the stooping shoulders.  The grinders are the teeth, some of which have already fallen out.  Those looking through the windows are the eyes, which have age-related problems.  [NOTICE: verse 4 is better in the NASV or NIV: “…when the doors to the street are closed and the sound of grinding fades; when people rise up at the sound of birds, but all their songs grow faint.” The doors are the ears (dual word) that can’t hear very well anymore.  He doesn’t sleep well anymore so even a bird chirp will wake him up.  He can’t hear music very well either, because he is nearly deaf.

Solomon continues in this vein in verse 5.
Verse 5: 5Remember Him before you become fearful of falling and worry about danger in the streets; before your hair turns white like an almond tree in bloom, and you drag along without energy like a dying grasshopper, and the caperberry no longer inspires sexual desire.  Remember Him before you near the grave, your everlasting home, when the mourners will weep at your funeral.
  • Old people avoid high places because it makes them huff and puff and lose their breath.  They also avoid long walks on the road because they aren’t sure if their legs will hold them up or not.  The almond tree blossoms are white and this is about the old person’s white hair on top.  A skinny, crippled up old man looks from a distance like a wounded grasshopper, dragging itself along, using canes and walkers.  Even the caperberry no longer works to stimulate appetite or sexual desire.  (That was the Viagra of Solomon’s day.  It was thought to be an aphrodisiac.)
  • The last part of this verse is especially powerful: “Remember Him before you near the grave.”  Unfortunately it has been my observation that most people give very little thought to God or to the destination of their eternal soul until they get to the front door of the funeral home.

Solomon reemphasizes what he said up in verse 1.
Verses 6-7: 6Yes, remember your Creator now while you are young, before the silver cord of life snaps and the golden bowl is broken.  Don’t wait until the water jar is smashed at the spring and the pulley is broken at the well.  7For then the dust will return to the earth, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.
  • Solomon reemphasizes his point; namely, that we need to remember that the debility of age often renders one incapable of spiritual reflection or of turning to God.  With time people tend to grow hardened to the Gospel and after years of saying “NO!” to God, they get so they can no longer even hear the still, small voice anymore.  That’s why very few elderly people accept Christ.  Their hearts have been hardened and their ears deafened.

            Verses 8-14 serve as the epilogue for this book.  In 8-12 Solomon offers us a validation of his words.
Verses 8-10: 8“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher, “all is vanity!”  9In addition to being a wise man, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge; and he pondered, searched out and arranged many proverbs.  10The Preacher sought to find delightful words and to write words of truth correctly.
  • Here Solomon refers to himself in the 3rd person, trying for some objectivity.  He judged his conclusions to be “words of truth.”  I also believe that he had a definite sense as he wrote this that he was being carried along by the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit.  He knew that his wisdom was a gift from God, given to him that he might in turn, transmit it to God’s people. 

Speaking of wisdom from God…
Verses 11-12: 11The words of wise men are like goads, and masters of these collections are like well-driven nails; they are given by one Shepherd.  12But beyond this, my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body.  
  • I like the way Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message, puts this: The words of the wise prod us to live well.  They’re like nails hammered home, holding life together.  They are given by God, the one Shepherd.  12But regarding anything beyond this, dear friend, go easy.  There’s no end to the publishing of books, and constant study wears you out so you’re no good for anything else.”
  • Ain’t it the truth!  Too many books will break your back and mess up you mind.  And I should know!  Have you seen the size of my library?  Seriously, man’s opinions are too many to count, but these words here are “words of truth.”

            Here in verses 13-14 we have the conclusion of Solomon’s words.
Verses 13-14: 13The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person.  14For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.
  • Fear God means to revere Him and hold Him in awe recognizing that He alone gives meaning to life.
  • Keep His commandments means to obey Him.
  • Live life with a view to God’s judgment (14).  God will one day settle all the inequities and mysteries of life.

            Verse 13 gives us the Solomonic Formula for a happy, successful life: “Fear God and keep His commandments,” and this against the constant backdrop of the fact that God, the Righteous Judge will one day scrutinize every person and how he or she has lived.  No one will escape His holy gaze and no one will have any self-righteous excuses to offer Him.
            The Formula sounds easy enough, so why is it that we struggle so with it?  Why do so few people take this to heart and put it into practice?  Why is it that people say, “After I retire I’ll have more time to give to God’s work”?  Why do so many Christians wait until they are in their 60s-70s to go on short-term missions trips?  Why do we think our lives are our own to use and spend as we see fit, only give to God what is left over?
            In verse 1 Solomon states the principle: “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth.”  Then he restates it in verse 6: “Remember your Creator now while you are young.”  Yet most Christians do not see this as a priority.

            What insights have you gained from this study of the Book of Ecclesiastes?  Is there one particular spiritual lesson that has stood out to you?  What will you do differently as a result of the life-lessons you have gleaned from these studies?

Monday, July 11, 2011

"Soggy Bread" - (07/10/11)

“Soggy Bread”
Ecclesiastes 11 (Message 11 in Series)
July 10, 2011

            Some people criticize Christians claiming that we are “Pie in the sky by and by” people.  Someone else once said that Christians are “so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good.”  In other words, they think that we spend an inordinate amount of time and a ridiculous amount of energy worrying about the future when we should be paying more attention to the problems of the here-and-now.  In some cases they just might be correct.

            For example, in some Christian circles the doctrine of the imminent return of Christ in the event we call, “the Rapture,” has taken such root that the believers seem to think of nothing else.  We saw an example of that recently with the followers of Harold Camping who believed their leader’s warning that Jesus was going to return on May 21st.  Many of those people cashed in their 401K’s and withdrew their kids’ college funds because they really believed that the world was ending and they were going to heaven on that exact day.  When it didn’t happen many people were, of course, deeply disillusioned—people like Robert Fitzpatrick, a retired MTA employee from Staten Island who spent his entire $140,000 life savings on billboards and ads to spread the word of the Rapture, believing that it would happen at 6 PM on May 21st, but unfortunately for him it didn’t, and he lost everything.
            Why do I bring this up?  In Ecclesiastes 10 King Solomon tries to help us strike a balance between living this present life to the fullest, all the while keeping our eyes pealed toward the future.  To emphasize one over the other is to lose the dynamic tension God intends us to deal with every day.  The Bible is full of instruction about how we are to live our lives now.  But it is also full of information about what awaits the child of God up in Heaven.  It kind of reminds me of walking on railroad tracks: you have to watch where you step so that you don’t trip and fall, but you also have to watch out for coming trains to not be taken by surprise.
            Solomon tells us in these verses that we should order our lives wisely, in spite of life’s incongruities, always with a view toward eternity.  In verses 1-6 he tells us that we should seek to be charitable to all.  He also seems to be giving us some lessons about overcautiousness.  Since the future is always unpredictable we know that even some well-laid plans are going to go sideways.  It’s unavoidable.  Therefore a man must be willing to take some risks if he wants to achieve any kind of success.  The man who waits until he’s certain of success will wait forever because life doesn’t come with guarantees.
Verse 1: Cast your bread on the surface of the waters, for you will find it after many days. 
  • I can remember that when I was a kid this verse seemed very strange to me because it conjures up the mental picture of some guy tossing a loaf of bread out into the lake, hoping that it will float back to him.  But that begs the question: “What in the world is he going to do with a bunch of soggy bread?”  Yuck!
  • There is no certain explanation of this proverb.  The traditional Jewish interpretation sees it as an exhortation to liberality or generosity, which one should “cast” (lit. send forth) before others without any immediate realization of profit or payback, but which may someday return to reward its giver.  It’s like, “what goes around comes around” in the positive sense.  In spite of the uncertainty of this life, it many times happens that even an apparently unwise action may yield a reward later on.  We should never be afraid of doing good to others, although the reward may be late in arriving.
  • Solomon is obviously not really talking about throwing bread on the water.  There is some history here that you need to understand.  At harvest time a farmer would always divide his crop into three categories based on his prediction of needs in the months ahead.  One stack would be the grain for his family’s use, to make bread to eat.  The second stack would be grain to sell in the market or to trade for other needed items.  The third stack would be his seed grain to be used for planting next year’s crop.  Here Solomon is referring to the bread grain that the farmer always holds in reserve to grind and make bread for his family.  In spite of the immediate sacrifice, he is saying that the farmer should generously share his bread grain with others in the hope that it would bear a future “crop” of kindness and returned generosity.
  • Sometimes charitable giving seems like bread thrown out on the water or money thrown down the toilet.  But Solomon is saying that it should be viewed like a venture of faith, as with those merchants who set out on the sea in the hopes of trading that will result in profit for them.
  • By this he means that we should plant seed with a view to a distant harvest.  Of course, this is the faith that a farmer demonstrates every time he puts seed into the soil, not knowing what the result will be.
  • Paul in Galatians 6:7-10 lays out a principle: “…7Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap9And let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary.”  We usually think of this passage in terms of evil deeds but he sowing/reaping principle applies to good things as well as evil things.  Solomon is talking about how good deeds often come back around to bless the bestower.

Verse 2: Divide your portion to seven, or even to eight, for you do not know what misfortune may occur on the earth.   
  • This verse is admittedly a little bit cryptic.  Solomon seems to be saying that when you generously give to others in the good times, when the bad times come, they will remember your kindness and give back to you.  In fact, Solomon says that when you are doing good to others, be sure to help more than one person.  Help quite a few, because when you get into trouble yourself later on there will be many people who will be willing to help you.
  • Jesus told a parable along this line, recorded in Luke 16.  He said there was once an unjust steward, who was really a crook.  He made friends for himself by reducing the debts of his master’s debtors, so that when he lost his job he could go to them for help and call in a favor.  Jesus said that the guy made a wise move.  He wasn’t honoring the guy for betraying his master, just for thinking ahead and making plans.  If even unbelievers can see the need for that, how much more should Christians be “wise as serpents and as harmless as doves”?  Jesus said in Luke 16:9, “Here’s the lesson: Use your worldly resources to benefit others and make friends.  Then, when your earthly possessions are gone, they will welcome you to an eternal home” (NLT). 
  • We always need to keep in mind that God is rich in mercy toward us.  He gives “liberally, and upbraids not,” though we are unworthy.  We should give to others with that same kindness and generosity.
  • Many people use the argument of an uncertain future against giving to the poor, because they don’t know what hard times may be coming when they might end up being in need themselves.  Solomon turns this argument around and says that for this very reason we should be charitable while we can, so that when the evil days come, we may have the comfort of having done good while we were able.

Verse 3: If the clouds are full, they pour out rain upon the earth; and whether a tree falls toward the south or toward the north, wherever the tree falls, there it lies.
  • If rain is predicted a wise person will carry an umbrella.  When a big tree falls over, it’s too late to choose where you want it to fall.  It will stay right there where it fell.  So what’s the point?  I think Solomon is saying that it’s best to have a clear understanding of a situation at the very beginning before you launch a venture, because, after it begins it is very difficult to make any changes.  Foresight and planning are always better than hindsight and damage control.
  • Again, this speaks to the uncertainty of life.  Solomon is not fatalistic, just realistic.  When he speaks of full clouds that bring rain he’s talking about the fact that bad days will come, sooner or later.  Nature is unpredictable and man is unable to control or change it in any way.

Verse 4: He who watches the wind will not sow and he who looks at the clouds will not reap.
  • There are two ways over the years that scholars have interpreted this verse.  The first is this: That Solomon is telling us that we should act wisely based on the observable signs of what is coming.  If the farmer wants to plant seed, he had better wait for a day with no wind.  If he plans to reap a harvest, he will not begin if the skies are threatening rain.  We too should look around and base our decisions on reality.
  • The second traditional interpretation sees this as a warning not to be cowardly about the future so as to become paralyzed by fear of the “what-ifs.”  They say that the wise farmer bets on the long run, not on what he sees at the moment.  He plants seed everywhere and in all seasons.  The ideal time for action is always uncertain, but one must act sometime if anything positive is to get accomplished.  If the farmer worries about storms before he sows or reaps, no crops will be grown or gathered.  Fear of possible future disaster can paralyze a person from moving forward in life.  That’s no way to live either!
  • Honestly, I’m not sure which idea Solomon had in mind here but both ways are true.  However, I tend toward the second because of what he says in the following verse.

Verse 5: Just as you do not know the path of the wind and how bones are formed in the womb of the pregnant woman, so you do not know the activity of God who makes all things. 
  • The formation of the fetus in the womb is still a great mystery even today.  Spiritual rebirth is and even greater mystery.  We do not know how the Spirit will move.  We cannot second-guess God.  In John 3:8 Jesus said: “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is every one who is born of the Spirit.”  In fact, there is a great deal in this life that we don’t know.
  • What Solomon seems to be saying is that you should not let what you don’t know disturb what you do know.  For example, you don’t know anything about the individual workers who built your automobile.  Moreover, most of us know hardly anything about what makes the crazy thing work!  But we also don’t sit around stewing and obsessing about it.  We just get in and go!  That’s faith in action!

Verse 6: Sow your seed in the morning and do not be idle in the evening, for you do not know whether morning or evening sowing will succeed, or whether both of them alike will be good. 
  • In other words, don’t discriminate in doing good and planting seeds of kindness and godliness.  I think this applies to witnessing as well.  We should use every opportunity, in season and out of season.

Up until now Solomon has taught us by many excellent precepts how to live well.  Now he comes to teach us how to die well.  In these next two verses (7-8) he says that you should keep in mind your upcoming appointment with death and live in the light of that divinely scheduled day. 
Verses 7-8: 7The light is pleasant, and it is good for the eyes to see the sun.  8Indeed, if a man should live many years, let him rejoice in them all, and let him remember the days of darkness, for they will be many.  Everything that is to come will be futility. 
  • Here I believe Solomon is looking at life through the eyes of an elderly person, sitting on his patio and enjoying the light and warmth of the sun, remembering the good times and the sweetness of life.
  • In the same way that we remember that the joys of summer will be followed by the dark, cold days of winter, so should we remember that the winter will finally come to an end, and spring will come once again.  The brightest day will be followed by the darkness of night; but joy comes in the morning, and the sun will rise again.  Solomon seems to say, let us remember the days of darkness, for they shall be many, but they are not infinite!  As the longest day will have its night, so the longest night will have its morning.  The coming days of darkness will hold much less terror for us if we have thought of these things beforehand.  This life, while pleasant in many ways, lasts for but a short while, yet the joys of eternity will last a very long time.  Remembering death should not diminish the joy of this life or the anticipation of the life to come.

            Solomon says that we should make the most of our youthful days, while the pleasures of life can still be enjoyed, instead of waiting until old age, when our vitality is gone.  Shucks!  That’s why I bought a motorcycle.  I had been dreaming about it for years, but one day I realized that if I didn’t just do it, the dream would never become a reality because the years were passing me by.  And I have not had one single second of regret.  It was one of the best decisions I have ever made.  Yet God’s way must always be the guide to our seeking after life’s pleasures, not debauchery, selfishness, or covetousness.  In the last two verses, Solomon says that we should also live life with God’s judgment in mind, remembering future judgment while enjoying our life here on earth.
Verses 9-10: 9Rejoice, young man, during your childhood, and let your heart be pleasant during the days of young manhood.  And follow the impulses of your heart and the desires of your eyes.  [Word of warning] Yet know that God will bring you to judgment [scrutiny, evaluation] for all these things.  10So, remove grief and anger from your heart and put away pain from your body, because childhood and the prime of life are fleeting. 
  • Here in these last two verses of the chapter Solomon addresses his remarks to the young, to awaken them to think about death.
  • Joy is necessary to youth and is provided by God, but joy should be tempered with a view to God’s judgment.  True joy is best experienced with this orientation.  In other words, Solomon recommends intelligent, righteous pleasure.  He advises us to satisfy our heart’s desires, all the while remembering that God has certain requirements for living, and that He punishes excess and abuse of His will.
  • This inferred word of caution and exhortation is continued in verse 10 with the words, “Remove grief and anger from your heart and put away pain from your body.”  Solomon in essence says, “Remember young person, now is the time to make your decisions in every category of life.  It is very important that you make the right choices now.”  Indeed, we all know people who have lived wasted lives and are living them today, because they made the wrong choices way back in their youth.  Solomon is telling young people to look to themselves and manage well both their souls and their bodies; to be careful that their minds are not lifted up with pride, nor disturbed with anger, or any sinful passion and to take care that their bodies not become defiled by overindulgence, uncleanness, or any fleshly lusts.  We all know that young people are always impatient with rules and boundaries and they hate anything that limits, crosses, or contradicts them.  But Solomon advises them to keep their distance from everything that will cause them to look back at their life with sorrow.  In the Romans 6:13 Paul says, “Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to Him as an instrument of righteousness.”
  • Solomon reminds us that our youthful days are empty if they are not lived right.  Life is a precious gift that is given to us by God, given one day at a time, one second at a time, and it is to be used for the glory of God.  The Westminster Catechism questions, “What is the chief end of man?”  The answer: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” 
  • So here at the end Solomon gets to the meat of his discourse, namely, the vanity of all present things, their uncertainty and insufficiency.  First, he reminds old people of this truth in verse 8: “Everything that is to come will be futility; even though a man should live many years and rejoice in them all.”  Secondly, he reminds young people of this in verse 10: “Childhood and the prime of life are fleeting.”  All the pleasures and advantages of childhood and youth will eventually pass away; these flowers will wither, and these blossoms will one day fall. 

            In II Peter 3:11 in talking about the fact that the things of this earth will all one day pass away, the apostle Peter asks this question: “Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness?”  I think that is the very same question we need to ask ourselves today after listening to Solomon.

            Based on what we have learned here today how do you think Solomon would answer Peter’s question?  What would he tell us to do?  How would he advise us to begin putting this teaching into daily practice?

Monday, July 4, 2011

"Free To Do What?" - (07/03/11)

Independence Day Message
“If the Son shall set you free, you shall be FREE INDEED.” (John 8:36)
July 3, 2011

            The song, “Me and Bobby McGee” was written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster.  It was first released by country singer, Roger Miller, in July 1969.  However, the most famous version of it was sung 2 years later in 1971 by Janis Joplin before she drugged and drank herself to death.  You may remember these lyrics from that song: “…Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.  Nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’, but it’s free.”
            For many people those words sum up their definition of freedom—”…nothing left to lose.”  But is that what freedom is?  I don’t think so.  On this 4th of July weekend I want us to stop and think about what freedom really means to us.  We use the word “freedom” glibly because as Americans we have lived in freedom for so long that it has become something that we take for granted.  Most of us know nothing else.

            Tomorrow, July 4th, America will celebrate 235 years of freedom.  It was on that day in 1776 that our Founding Fathers published the Declaration of Independence from England, which in turn launched the Revolutionary War.  The document didn’t make them free.  They had to fight a long bloody war before their “paper freedom” became reality.  For you see, to declare oneself free does not make it so.  Freedom must be won, and that usually at a high cost.
            The Declaration of Independence begins with these words: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation…”  It goes on to state: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.  Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”  Of course, the Declaration then goes on to enumerate our grievances and the reasons we were separating ourselves from our mother country.

Today in America we enjoy freedoms that we did not earn.  They were handed down to us.  As a result, there are many in this country that place very little value on our freedom.  It cost them nothing so they do not hold it dear. 
            To be honest, I have never had to fight to defend our freedom, and I have never lived in slavery.  The closest I’ve come to it is to live for ten years under a strict military regime in Brazil.  But I learned an important lesson through that experience.  During all the years of martial law crime was held down to a minimum.  There were no pornographic magazines on the book stands.  We felt safe to take walks after dark.  After the military government was replaced with a civilian administration in the late 80’s, all that changed.  Sin rushed in like a flood.  Every manner of filth and vileness showed up almost from one day to the next.  People quickly began to use their new-found freedom to do evil rather than to do good.  How very interesting!
In our free land, nearly every teenager dreams of the day when he will turn 21 and be free to do the things he really wants to do.  What is the big attraction?  He wants to drink beer, drive fast cars, and date fast women without anybody getting on his case.  He wants to be free of the restrictions placed on him by family, school, and society.  He wants to do what he dang well pleases—to enjoy all the so-called “adult pleasures” from which he has been barred up to that time.  Yet so often, that desire for freedom ends up leading to trouble and a kind of enslavement that the person never dreamed of and never saw coming.  In fact, the real name for that kind of freedom is “license,” and it is not what our country’s Founding Father’s had in mind, nor is it what God wants us to experience.  It is a false freedom and is destructive both to the individual and to society.
This is not something new.  It has been going on for a long time.  The average person thinks of “freedom” as meaning that he/she can do whatever they please.  But is that true?  Can we do anything that we please?  Are there no boundaries or limits to freedom?  That’s what we want to examine today.  If we are free, WHAT ARE WE FREE TO DO?
The text upon which I want to focus our attention this morning is found in John 8:31-36: 31To the Jews who had believed Him, Jesus said, “If you hold to My teaching, you are really My disciples.  32Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  33They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone.  How can you say that we shall be set free?”  34Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.  35Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever.  36So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”  

WOW!  How cool is that?!  But does that mean we are really free to do everything and anything we want?  Is that what Jesus meant by “free”?
  • Am I free to be a lazy jerk and deliberately live off welfare?
  • Am I free to become a pornographer?
  • Am I free to impose my views and life-style on others?
  • Am I free to take drugs and sell them to others?
  • Am I free to hurt other people?
  • Am I free to lie, cheat, murder, and steal?
  • Am I free to say anything I want, anywhere, under any circumstances?

            Are these the kind of things Jesus had in mind when He said that He can make us “free indeed”?  Of course not!  On the one hand I think we can agree that from the standpoint of the Declaration of Independence freedom is a God-given natural right, which all humans possess and to reduce it is an attack on human dignity and on the Rights of Man.  However, the freedom that Jesus is talking about in John 8:36 is freedom to do what is right, and good, and just, and holy; not that which is evil, and rude, and destructive, and filthy.  From God’s perspective we are not free to do anything and everything that we happen to feel like doing.
Let’s break this question down into some categories.

Physically, are we free to do everything that we want to do?
            It is undeniably true that unless we are ill or paralyzed we enjoy a certain liberty, freedom of movement, to be able to move our heads, to raise fingers, to run, etc.  But this physical freedom is not unlimited.  For example, we can frantically wave our arms but we still cannot manage to fly because our freedom of movement is limited by other rules, which we are unable to transgress.  For example, we cannot live without eating and drinking, we cannot live without oxygen, and we cannot drink poison without dying, etc.  To rail and rebel against the God-established limits of our physical liberty is useless.  On the other hand, if we submit ourselves to the laws of nature, like that of gravity for example, we can succeed in flying, but only by going up in an airplane.

Spiritually, are we free to do everything we want?
       Can I save myself by my own efforts if I am just sincere enough?  Can I atone for my own sins and make myself acceptable to God?  Can I live a sinless life if I try hard enough?  Of course, the biblically correct answer to each of these questions is NO!  It is apparent that we have limitations to our freedom whether we like it or not.  While I have a degree of spiritual freedom I am still constrained by my basic nature, which is sinful.  Although I want to be good and righteous, I find myself in the same sad and regrettable situation as the apostle Paul, who said, “The bad things I don’t want to do, I end up doing anyway.  And the good things I want to do, I never seem to be able to accomplish… O wretched man that I am!”

Psychologically/Mentally, are we free to do everything we wish to do?
            Our thoughts and our will undoubtedly possess a certain degree of freedom.  Even the man who is chained down in a solitary cell in a prison keeps it.  You can beat him, torture him, but you cannot prevent him from thinking about his wife or of wanting to escape.  His jailer can apply the whip as much as he likes but he can never force the prisoner to like him.  The latter remains free to think or to like whatever he wants.  One can by force prevent him from expressing his thoughts but one cannot force him to change his opinion, because he keeps his free will, his freedom of judgment.
  But is man totally free intellectually and psychologically?  How about “phobias”?  Those are fears that a person cannot control on his own, try as he might, such as the fear of heights or the fear of tight spaces.  And how about passing the MENSA Test?  I’d love to be a genius and become part of that exclusive club but I’m not smart enough.  My freedom to join MENSA is limited by my intelligence.

Morally, are we free to do everything we want?
            Not really, though we like to think that we are!  How about bad habits?  Millions of people want to quit drinking because they know that it is destroying their lives.  They have the freedom to quit drinking.  But do they have the moral power to quit drinking on their own?  Not usually.  Most people need lots of outside help.  Millions of people want to quit smoking or quit using drugs because they have come to believe that it is harmful to their health and to their relationships.  But are they truly free to quit?  Yes and no.  On the one hand they are free, but on the other hand they are incapable.  It just proves that we are not always free to do what we want to do.
            Also, we can be easily tricked by our own erroneous thinking.  Psychologists have often pointed out that human beings always seek out that which they think is the best for them.  In other words, we make choices every day based on what we think will benefit us the most at the moment.  For example, imagine that I have the choice between two paths to arrive at an appointment.  One is long but nicer than the other.  Before making my decision, I use my intelligence to decide which is the better way for me, the less tiring, or perhaps the route with the loveliest scenery?  The solution could vary, according to circumstance but I will always seek to take the one that I think is the best route for me at that time.  My free-will permits me to choose a way to reach what I consider to be “good”, whatever I determine is best for me.
            OK, but I can be mistaken.  For instance, I can choose to follow the impulses of my distorted feelings rather than the judgment of my intelligence.  I might choose to eat a healthy balanced meal, or because I’m sad and depressed, gobble down 25 Snickers Bars and a six-pack of Mike’s Hard Lemonade.  However, even if I suffer a liver attack as a result, it is no less true that at that moment I believed that in swallowing the Snickers and chugging the booze I was doing the right and best thing for me.  My goal was to make myself feel better, but certainly not to suffer a liver attack, because I would never do that on purpose!
            All that to say that while we are theoretically free to make good choices, we are still enslaved to our stormy emotions, our lack of intelligence, our base motives, our lack of moral character, and our lack of good judgment.  In fact, freedom, at least the way it is perceived by the majority of people, is a mirage, a fiction.  It exists only in theory because in practice we find that more powerful forces always trump our so-called “freedoms”.
So what can we do?
1.       First, we must recognize that God did not grant us freedom as carte blanche to do whatever we happen to want to do, but rather, the liberty to seek out and do those things that are good, and noble, and respectable.  Freedom should never be used as license to do evil.
2.      Secondly, we must admit that we are incapable of perfectly exercising our freedom because of our inadequacies.  Though we may want to exercise our freedoms to do what is good, we cannot do so without divine assistance.  The Bible says in John 8:36 that the Son [who is the embodiment of Truth] is the One who will set us free indeed.”  Without His help and intervention we can never experience real freedom.
3.      Thirdly, we must seek His promised help.  We must turn to Him in faith, believing that He will forgive us and set us free to experience genuine freedom—freedom from sin, freedom from condemnation, freedom from the fear of death, freedom to become what God designed us to be.
4.      Fourthly, we must stop trying to exercise our freedom to run away from Him; but rather, to exercise our freedom to run toward Him, so that we might discover what it means to be truly free.
            I have to ask you this question: Today are you walking in the freedom that Christ offers?  Or are you still a slave to sin, to fear, and to ungodly habits?  I don’t have any particular bone to pick with A.A.  They try to help people and their hearts are in the right place, but frankly their theology is all screwed up.  They teach that a person is always an alcoholic, even if he/she hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol in 30 years.  That makes me mad!  My Bible says that Jesus came to set us free from the domination of sin and death in our lives.  My Bible says in Romans 8:37, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.”  And my Bible says in I Corinthians 15:57, “But thanks be to God!  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  And in my Bible the apostle Paul reminds the Christians in Corinth that they had been freed from the domination of Satan and had been washed in the blood of the Lamb.  In 6:9-11 Paul said, “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the Kingdom of God?  Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the Kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were.  But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”  
            Praise God!  You and I can be set free from the prison house of sin, and fear, and all the things that Satan has devised to keep us bound up and feeling like victims!  No more!  Christ tore the bars away and set us free!  Now we can be more than conquerors through Christ.  Through Christ we can have the victory!  We just have to decide to start living out our freedom.
Peter Marshall, before the U.S. Senate said it ever so well in a prayer many years ago. “Lord Jesus, Thou who art the Way, the Truth, and the Life; hear us as we pray for the truth that shall make all free.  Teach us that liberty is not only to be loved, but also to be lived.  Liberty is too precious a thing to be buried in books.  It costs too much to be hoarded.  Help us see that our liberty is not the right to do as we please, but the opportunity to please to do what is right.” Amen.Top of Form

About Me

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Since 1994 I have been the pastor of Sellwood Baptist Church in Portland, OR. Before that I was a missionary in South Brazil for many years. Until just recently I have also served as a police chaplain with the Portland Police Bureau. Now, however, God has a new assignment for us. My wife and I have been appointed with WorldVenture and are preparing to move to Ireland to help plant a new church in Sligo, a small city in NW Ireland. I'm married to Ramel, a crazy, beautiful redhead that I love more than life itself. We have three great kids, Jonathan, Chris, and Simoni who have given us ten wonderful grandchildren. We are truly blessed.

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