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Monday, August 8, 2011

"Tiger Taming & Real Religion" - (08/07/11)

“Tiger Taming & Real Religion”
James 1:19-27 (Message #3 in Series)
August 7, 2011

            The Book of James is the earliest of all the New Testament books, having been written probably in the year AD 46, just a few years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  The author is James, sometimes called James the Just, who was the oldest of Jesus’ half-brothers and sisters.  He, along with the rest of his siblings did not come to believe fully in Jesus as the Promised Messiah until after the Resurrection.  Among other appearances, the Risen Christ appeared to James and that brief encounter sent his life in a whole different direction.
            After his conversion he became one of the most beloved and respected of the First-Century Christian leaders.  From his home in Jerusalem he served as a pastor-to-pastors and as an overseer and mentor for the growing church.  His godliness and wisdom were well known.  He was one of the first people to put his stamp of approval on the newly converted, Saul of Tarsus.  It was largely through his influence that the Jerusalem Council came to their wise and balanced position with regard to the huge influx of Gentile converts into the Church.
            Here in this little 5-chapter book we have the distilled wisdom of James concerning various important subjects of the Christian life.  He writes from the standpoint of a Christian pragmatist rather than strictly a theologian.  Again he takes us to the bottom line about how Christians ought to live and act.  The book is very practical, and still relevant to the lives of 21st Century Christians.

            In the section leading up to today’s text, James takes up the question of how we should view the trials of life.  First he looks at the trials that come from without, from sources over which we have no control.  He concludes that in those cases we need to keep our eyes on the Lord and continue to trust Him, recognizing that God allows trials to come to us that our faith might be strengthened, that we would learn endurance and that through the experience we might grow in Christian maturity and Christlikeness.
            Then in verse 13 he switches gears to talk about a different kind of trial—trials that come from within—which he rightly calls “temptations.”  These are trials over which we have a great deal of control.  As people in whom the Spirit of God dwells, we are not helpless victims in the face of temptation.  We have all the tools necessary to withstand and overcome temptations without falling prey to them.  James urges us to learn to spot the traps before we fall into them, to not be lured into the snares by our own lusts, and to recognize the fingerprints of the devil on situations before we move forward.  He also says that if we fall into temptation we can never blame God for it because He never tempts us to do evil.  If we fall into the hole it’s because our own blindness, stupidity, sinfulness, and lack of asking for God’s help before the fact.

Verses 19-20: This you know, my beloved brethren.  But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.
  • Again, James addresses his remarks to “everyone,” by that meaning all believers, implying that this is a universal principle of Christian living.  However, I believe that this admonition is also connected to what James says in the preceding verses about how a Christian is to act while going through trials, tribulations, and times of testing.  When we are going through hard times we are often tempted to look for someone to blame.  If we can’t find a good candidate we sometimes blame ourselves, or even more commonly, God.  We get mad at God and conclude that He has forgotten us or has neglected His duties toward us.
  • James mentions three things: hearing, speaking, and becoming angry.  He says we should be “quick” to do the first, but “slow” to do the other two.  By saying “quick to hear” he gives the sense that our will is involved.  We are always quick to do things that we like and believe in.  We use the expression, “he leaped at the chance.”  That’s the idea here.  On the other hand, when we are “slow” to do something it usually means that we are reluctant or fearful.  For example, we are slow to make out our wills.  We are slow to go to the doctor.  We are slow to pay our taxes.  We have to think about it.  We don’t rush in.  That’s how we should be about shooting off our mouths without careful forethought, or letting angry words flow out of us like molten lava, destroying whatever they hit.
  • “For the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.”  The expression, “You can’t get there from here” comes to my mind.  Human anger never leads toward righteousness, or peace, or harmony, or anything else that is positive.  Our anger only leads to more anger, hateful words, broken relationships, and bitterness.

Verse 21: Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the Word implanted, which is able to save your souls. 
  • James sounds here very much like Paul in Colossians 3 when he talks about “putting off” or “putting aside” the works of the flesh and the old sinful practices that used to characterize us before we came to know Christ.
  • Just a word here for you who are using the KJV.  Verse 21 says, “Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness…”  I love that phrase!  But a person might wrongly conclude that James is demanding that only excess of evil is to be put away—only the really big, nasty sins.  The word here translated as “superfluity” in the KJV means “remainder, that which is left over.”
  • James says to “put aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness.”  For some of us even after we got saved that’s quite a lot, and for others not so much.  A new believer usually still carries more “old baggage” but a more mature Christian is hopefully carrying less.  That doesn’t mean we are perfect, but it does mean that the process of sanctification has done its work over time.
  • “…in humility receive the implanted Word… which is able to save your souls.”  How does salvation come about?  The Bible says that the Holy Spirit convicts the sinner of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment.  How does He do that?  He uses the Word of God as the Sword of the Lord to instruct us in the paths of God.  “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.”  God draws the sinner to Himself by cords of love and irrefutable truth.  The sinner is ultimately brought right up to the One who called Himself “the Door,” toe to toe with Jesus.  As he gazes at the Savior, he is struck with his own sinfulness.  He cries out to the Lord for forgiveness.  He exercises genuine repentance.  Through the exercise of God-given faith in the person and work of Christ, the sinner believes on the Lord Jesus Christ and steps through “the Door” into Eternal Life, through Jesus, “Whom to know is life eternal.”

Verse 22: But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.  
  • This is a very familiar verse to many of us.  But notice again how it starts: “But prove yourselves doers of the word.”  James’ point is that talk is cheap.  He says, “Let’s see some proof.  Let’s see some action instead of just words.”
  • Or to put it another way… you claim to be a Christian.  You say that you love God and that He is the #1 priority of your life.  Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will KEEP My commandments.”  So how much of God’s Word are you actually obeying?  All of it, or just those parts that you like and find convenient to obey?  James here is calling us to action, to unqualified obedience to the will and word of God.
  • He contrasts the 100% obeyers to those who merely “hear” the truth but choose to ignore it and go on about their business.  Frankly, I think that describes the majority of American “Christians.”  The percentage of professing Christians in America who actually takes this stuff seriously is pretty small.
  • The Barna Research Company is a Christian company that does all kinds of surveys and fact-finding.  I want to share some statistics from a survey they did two years ago.  This will illustrate my point about how many professing Christians are biblically ignorant and largely non-compliant.  [Read parts of the survey.]

Verses 23-24: For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; 24 for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was.  
  • In verse 22 James already said that the hearer/non-doer is self-deluded.  Now he goes on to say that this individual is also blind, forgetful, and stupid.  Why?  Because he steps up to the mirror, sees the filth on his face, turns his head and looks at it from several angles, then says, “You handsome devil, you!  You’ve still got it after all these years.”  He doesn’t use the mirror the way it was intended—to reveal the problems, dirt, imperfections, etc. so that they in turn can be corrected.  Rather, he sees only what he wants to see, and ignores the obvious problems.
  • That’s how a lot of people are when they read the Scriptures.  They find ways to apply the truth to everyone but themselves.

Verse 25: But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.  
  • In the previous verse James speaks about how a mirror reveals the imperfections of the outer man.  Now he contrasts that with God’s “perfect law,” which reflects the inner man.  To “look intently at” means to peer into the matter, to scrutinize it carefully.  But to scrutinize what?  God’s perfect law.  James is talking about the same thing that David talked about in Psalm 19: 7The law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.  8The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes.  9The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; the judgments of the LORD are true; they are righteous altogether.  10They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb.  11Moreover, by them Your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward.” 
  • God’s Word, His perfect law, has another characteristic that James points out—it gives liberty to the captives.  Sin enslaves, God gives freedom through the instrumentality of His Word when we come to believe it.  But notice that the blessing of God in verse 25 is conditional.  God’s blessing is clearly reserved for those who abide in His Word and obey it (“not forgetful hearers but effectual doers”). 

Verse 26: If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless.  
  • Lots of people in this world describe themselves as “religious,” although many of them don’t know what it really means.  The words “religious” and “religion” come directly from the compound Latin verb, religáre (re = again + ligare = to tie up).  Here’s the concept… imagine that you and your sweetheart have been leisurely drifting down the river in your little rowboat, just enjoying the scenery.  But then you decide to stop for a picnic so you paddle your way over to the shore and tie your boat up to a tree branch.  However, you’ve never been very good with knots and the current is strong.  As you are sitting there on the blanket eating your egg-salad sandwich you happen to spot a little boat drifting by that looks a whole lot like your boat.  By golly, it is your boat!  You jump up and run over to the river trying to figure out what to do.  With all your hollering and jumping up and down you soon draw a crowd of helpful onlookers, with each one having a theory about the best way to snag your boat and retie it to the shore.  One guy says, “What you need is a big long pole of some kind to reach out there with.”  Another fellow says, “Why don’t you just swim for it?”  Some old lady says, “Get a rope and tie it around a rock and throw that into the boat.  Then you’ll be able to drag it back to shore.”  One by one you try out these suggestions, all the while running along the river bank trying not to lose sight of your boat.
  • What you have here is an example of how every religion has its own idea of how to get man reconnected to God.  Everyone recognizes that man has become untied from his moorings.  Man’s fall into sin broke the rope that tied us to God.  Now the challenge is to find some trick or system or secret knowledge by which man can be retied to His Maker.  Thus, every religion offers a way to do that, to reconnect sinful humans with God.  In the essentials all religions prescribe the same things: be sincere, be kind to other people, do good works, follow the rules of the religion, don’t commit overt acts of sin, and think happy thoughts.  The Average Joe out there will tell you that “all religions are basically the same,” and he’s right in that they are all man-made attempts to solve the problem of man’s disconnectedness from God.  Each one has its own   unique formula for fixing the problem but they all boil down to some form of good works.
  • The rub is that Jesus condemned every religion except His own, and by that I’m talking about biblical Christianity.  He blew all the other religions out of the water when He declared: “I am THE WAY, THE TRUTH, and THE LIFE.  No one comes to the Father except through ME!” 
  • So here James points out that for those people who claim to be “religious” there is an acid test for the validity of their religion.  If they can’t even bridle their tongue, then their religion is proven to be a fake, a counterfeit.  He can say that with confidence because he knows beyond any doubt that only God can transform a person from the inside out and give them a new heart, which results in a different flow coming out of their mouth.  “Religion” per se cannot tame the tongue.
  • Tigers are powerful creatures with a mind of their own.  They aren’t afraid of much, and they are at the top of the food chain.  The number of tiger trainers in the whole world can be represented on the fingers of your two hands.  And even they have limited success, because tigers are a nearly untamable beast.  Likewise, the tongue is nearly untamable.  In fact, only God can do it.

Verse 27: Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.  
  • James believed that there is such a thing as “THE TRUE RELIGION.”  And that inevitably implies that all other religions are FALSE RELIGIONS.  Jesus believed that too.  He said, “I AM THE WAY.”  That categorically condemns all other religions—the Buddhist way, the Islamic way, the Zoroastrian way, the Confucianist way, the Hindu way, the New Age way, the Baha’i way, the Mormon way, etc.—all these are false “ways” because they can’t get your boat tied back up to the dock, ever!  They are all shooting blanks.  They make smoke and fire but they can’t do the job of getting man hooked back up to his Maker.
  • In these last few verses of James chapter 1, James lays down four acid tests of genuine Christian faith.  The first is absolute obedience to God (being “doers of the word”).  The second acid test is the ability to control our tongue.  Only a person controlled and led by God can do that.  Here in verse 27 James offers two more acid tests.  Number 3 is our willingness to help people in need even when it is difficult and inconvenient.  He refers to the OT command for God’s people to take good care of the orphans and widows, people who were typical examples of those who needed help.  The fourth acid test of genuine Christian faith is personal purity.  We are in the world but Jesus said that we are not to be “of” the world.  A “real Christian” will work to remain spiritually pure even though he is surrounded by all manner of sin and filthiness.  James offers us these four evidences of “real religion.”

            When I find myself in philosophical/theological discussions with people about religion and they come off with, “I believe that all religions are about the same, and that they all offer good things, don’t you think, Reverend Wilson?” I always come back with “Yes, I agree, but…”
            For you see, the question isn’t “Is it a good religion on paper and do its adherents do some noble things?” but, “Does it actually succeed in getting people reconnected to God?  Can it tie up the boat to the dock?”  The answer to that is, of course, “NO!” because none of the world’s religious systems can guarantee a person of salvation.  None, that is, except the true religion that Jesus gave us.  The Gospel declares, “These things are written that ye may know that ye have eternal life.  The witness is this; that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.  He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.  These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may know that you have eternal life.”
            My friend, no other religion on that planet would dare to make such a claim because none of them has any way of guaranteeing that a person will ever make it to Heaven.  All that any of them can offer is a lot of pretty words, a life-long treadmill of good works, and a gunnysack full of “hope-so’s.”  But with Christ we don’t have to merely hope we make it.  We can know!

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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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