Faith at Work

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Are you listening to God?

Dr. Jim Denison

James 1:19-27

I grew up defining Christians as people who go to church. A Rotarian is someone who goes to Rotary Club meetings; a Buddhist is a person who worships at a Buddhist temple; a Christian is someone who attends services at a Christian church. Ours is not the first generation to make that mistake.

Six centuries before Christ, the Orphic cult taught that our souls existed in a preincarnate, spiritual state, only to be placed in physical bodies for punitive purposes. The “spiritual” is good, the “secular” bad. The point of philosophy–and life–was to return the soul to its first state. This wedge between body and soul has persisted in Western and Christian thinking for most of our history.

We define the spiritual as that which is done inside the church, and the secular as that which is outside it. And we measure spirituality by time spent in church activities. A “good Christian” is someone who goes to worship and Bible study regularly and participates in the life of the church.

James begs to differ. He knows that listening to sermons and Sunday school lessons and attending church activities is no guarantee of spiritual health. I can spend all day in a health spa, but if my lifestyle does not reflect the values of my surroundings, I’m deceiving myself. Sitting in a garage doesn’t make me a car.

What commitments do lead to spiritual health, joy, and purpose? What kind of “religion” does God value and bless? When he examines your spiritual life, is he pleased?

Verse 19: Know you, my beloved brothers. But let every man be swift for to hear, slow for to speak, slow to wrath;

Know you is a transitional phrase which ties this section to the previous narrative: we are the “firstfruits” of his new creation, and now must act out our identity. It is best understood as an imperative, something we must know and believe (Gideon 16); “take note of this” (NIV).

Every man is another example of James’ use of anthropos (man) for mankind or humanity; no exceptions are permitted. Be is part of the present infinitive construction, a command for now and for all time.

Swift to hear (infinitive with preposition) can be translated, “swift for the purpose of hearing”; or it can mean, “swift with reference to hearing” (Rienecker 379). The meaning is essentially the same: always choose to listen before you speak, being ready to hear from all people at all times. James probably refers to the word of God–be eager to learn from the spoken Scriptures (v. 21; Adamson 78). The order is clear: we are to “hear” (v. 19), “receive (v. 21), and “do” (vs. 22-25). This is an attitude of the heart–every time we hear or read the word, we are to be quick to seek its life-transforming message for our lives.

Slow to speak means that we are to put listening before speaking. Proverbs warns us repeatedly that many words lead to sin: “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise” (10:19); “He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin” (13:3); “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue” (17:28); “Do you see a man who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (29:20; Barclay 55). The Stoic philosopher Zeno observed, “We have two ears but only one mouth, that we may hear more and speak less” (quoted in Barclay 55). One of the rabbis said, “Speech for a shekel, silence for two; it is like a precious stone” (Qoheleth Rabba v. 5, quoted in Oesterley 431).

With relation to the word of God, we are to learn from the Bible before we seek to teach its truths to others. James does not mean that we are never to speak, but that our speaking should follow our learning.

Wrath is the word for the flashes of frustration we all experience, not the Greek term for murderous rage. We are to be “slow to wrath,” demonstrating that such anger is inevitable in life. But to be “slow” is to control such anger: “in your anger do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26, quoting Psalm 4:4). The rabbis warned that to lose one’s temper was to lose the Shekinah glory of God (Adamson 78). If we will listen and learn from the word of God, our attitudes towards others will be affected and our anger released. Likewise, if we will be “slow to speak” when we are angry, we will sin less and release our anger more quickly (cf. Robertson 21; Moo 84).

Verse 20: for wrath of man does not work the righteousness of God.

Does not is another present tense, admitting no exceptions–there is never a time when our anger expresses the righteous will and work of God. Work is present tense, “practice” or “bring to pass.”

Righteousness of God speaks not of his character but his expectations for us (Rienecker 379)–wrath keeps us from living out the will of God for our lives. In addition, James may mean that our anger does not bring about the justice or judgment of God, that we should leave vengeance to him: “Do not leave room for revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19; Adamson 79).

Verse 21: Wherefore putting away all filthiness and prevalence of evil in meekness receive the implanted word which is able to save your souls.

Putting away is another present tense, a requirement for this moment. The word is a metaphor for stripping off dirty clothes (Romans 13:12; Colossians 3:8; Ephesians 4:22, 25; 1 Peter 2:1; Rienecker 379; Robertson 22), and carries the sense of getting rid of that which hinders and entangles us spiritually (Hebrews 12:1). All allows no exceptions.


He Who Has Gold, Makes the Rules

He Who Has the Gold, Makes the Rules

Matthew 7:12

Dr. Jim Denison

I mentioned last week that I teach Men’s Bible Study because I have stories I can’t tell on Sunday. Some of you wondered what I meant. Here are some stories which get close to the line.

“Cash, check or charge?” the clerk asked. As the woman fumbled for her wallet, the clerk noticed a television remote control in her purse. “Do you always carry your TV remote?” “No, my husband refused to come to the store with me, so I figured this was the most evil legal thing I could do to him.” Speaking for all men everywhere, I can tell her that she’s right.

A man said to his wife, “I don’t know how you can be so dumb and so beautiful at the same time.” “It’s easy to explain,” she said. “God made me beautiful so you would be attracted to me; and he made me dumb so I would be attracted to you.”

It’s always appropriate to work on our relationships. President Bush has been in Europe this week, strengthening ties with our allies. Israel has released 500 Palestinian prisoners, and has determined to leave Gaza and four settlements in the northern West Bank. Syria will withdraw from Lebanon, in hopes of expediting peace there.

Relationships come first. As C. S. Lewis reminds us, you have never met a mortal. The next person you see will exist long after this church is gone, this city is no more, this planet is history. Relating to others biblically is a subject of eternal significance.

So, what does the greatest sermon in Christian history have to say on the subject? As we survey the Sermon on the Mount relative to the sixth Covenant value, let’s make this personal. Who is your problem person today? What relationship do you most need to improve? Where do you need to hear from the Father this morning?

Seek reconciliation (Matthew 5:21-26)

The rabbis said, “Do not murder, for anyone who murders will be subject to judgment” (v. 21).

Jesus goes much further: “anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment” (v. 22a). “Anger” here is not thumos, the inevitable human reaction to hurt or harm. Rather, his word is orge–the deliberate choice to continue holding onto your anger, the absolute unwillingness to pardon and move on.

“Raca” was an Aramaic term of contempt, a public insult.

“Fool” was the worst insult of the day, meaning a person of no value or character whatsoever.

Now, you are at the altar in the Temple, sacrifice in hand. In our context, you’re just about to put money in the offering plate. In my setting, I’m walking up to the pulpit to begin the sermon. And then I remember that someone has something like this against me. Right or wrong, he thinks I have held onto anger, or insulted or harmed him. If anybody has anything against you today, you qualify.

What do we do? Seek reconciliation. Take the initiative. Do it now, before matters get to the judge and the officer and the jail. It will never be any easier than it is today. Take the high road. Take the first step. Make the phone call. Ask for lunch. Write the note. Do it now.

A wise old saint says, “I will never allow another person to ruin my life by making me hate him.” With whom do you need to take the initiative this week? Where do you need to seek reconciliation?

Stop the cycle of vengeance (5:38-42)

Jesus continues: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth'” (v. 38). This is the oldest law in the world, known as the Lex Talionis. It appears in the Code of Hammurabi, dated to 2285 B.C. It is in the Old Testament as well: “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exodus 21:23-25).

Before this law, if I wrecked your car you could destroy my house. If I injured your child, you could kill all my children. The original purpose of the law was thus to limit vengeance. Only the one who caused the injury could be punished, not his entire family or tribe. And only to the degree that he has injured another, protecting him from a more powerful enemy. This law did not promote retribution–it limited it.

Now Jesus takes the principle further: “Do not resist an evil person” (v. 39b). Even though you have the right, don’t insist upon them. He gives us four examples of his principle at work.

Your honor: “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (v. 39c). “Strikes” in the original means to “slap.” The right hand was the only one used in public. To slap your right cheek with my right hand was an insult, not a threat to life and limb. Jesus says, Don’t slap back. Someone insults you–don’t insult them.

Your possessions: “If someone wants to use you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well” (v. 40). Your “tunic” was your undershirt with sleeves; it could be taken in a lawsuit. Your “cloak” could not, for it protected you from the elements. But give it anyway. Don’t insist on your rights.

Your time: “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (v. 41). Jesus refers to the power of a Roman soldier to make a Jew carry his military pack for one mile. Carry it two miles. Sacrifice the time, though you don’t have to. Do it anyway.

Your money: “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (v. 42). As Augustine reminds us, we are not told to give everything we are asked for, but to give to every person who asks. Even though it is your right not to.


Winning in the Fourth Quarter

Winning in the Fourth Quarter

Matthew 4:12-25

Dr. Jim Denison

Today’s Super Bowl will be the biggest sporting event of the year. Last year 144 million people saw all or part of the game, in 230 countries around the world. Television ads are going for $2.4 million each. Imagine the pressure for the players on the field.

But the pressure is nothing new to the New England Patriots. In the 2002 Super Bowl they were 14-point underdogs to the St. Louis Rams. The Patriots drove 53 yards at the game’s end, and Adam Vinatieri kicked the game winning, 48-yard field goal as time expired.

Then it happened again last year. This time there were nine seconds left on the clock when Vinatieri kicked a 41-yarder to win the biggest game of the year. The final score is all that counts. The scoreboard doesn’t care how but how many.

In football and in life, it’s not how we start that matters–it’s how we finish.

Many years ago, John Bisagno, the long-time pastor of First Baptist Church in Houston, didn’t believe his father-in-law when he told him that one in ten who start in the ministry end in it. Bisagno wrote in his Bible the names of 24 men who were his young contemporaries in the ministry. 30 years later, there were only three names remaining.

Howard Hendricks at Dallas Theological Seminary recently studied 246 men who experienced moral failure in the ministry within a two-year period. That’s nearly three a week. And all of them started strong.

We all want to finish well, but what makes you think you will? Why will you win in the fourth quarter? How should you invest your time, opportunities, money, and abilities in such a way that you finish life well? That you don’t climb the ladder to discover it’s leaning against the wrong wall?

Here’s my thesis: you can’t finish the right race tomorrow if you’re running the wrong race today. You must invest your life eternally. Let’s learn how.

Be strategic with your place

Our text tells us that Jesus “went and lived in Capernaum,” to fulfill the prophecy that the Messiah would bring God’s light to “Galilee of the Gentiles” (vs. 13, 15). Why there? Why would a Jewish rabbi go so far from the Holy City and her Temple and religious leaders? For this reason: “gentiles” is the Greek word ethnos, peoples or nations. From here Jesus could literally touch the world.

Three million people lived here in 204 cities and villages, the smallest of which had a population of 15,000 inhabitants. This was the most densely populated area Jesus could have found in all the Middle East.

Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, states that the Galileans were volatile, open to change, fond of innovation, tough and courageous. Unlike the more religious Jews to the south, they were not steeped in tradition. Gentiles lived among them in great numbers. They were extremely cosmopolitan, as some of the oldest and most significant trade routes in the world passed through their borders.

They were exactly the right people with whom to begin Jesus’ public ministry strategy.

And Capernaum was the most strategic place in all of Galilee. The town, situated on the northern edge of the Sea of Galilee, was one of the centers of Galilean political and commercial life. It was a bustling town, a fishing port used by both Jews and Gentiles–the New York City of Galilee. A place of strategic influence.

From here he could proclaim across Galilee his message, the same as John’s before: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” Because he had found his place.

Where is your life located today? Ask God if you are where he intends you to be–in the office or school or home which is his place for you. Then serve him there. Make that place your Capernaum and your Galilee. Begin thinking about ways to use your place for your Father right now. Serve God where you are, because you certainly cannot serve him where you are not.

When Janet and I were married in 1980, we moved to Arlington so I could attend Southwestern Seminary. I had been a youth minister, college preacher, and summer missionary. I knew God had great plans for me in our new church. We soon found a church in Arlington to join. They made Janet a junior high Sunday school teacher, where she did a wonderful job. Then they made me the junior high attendance taker. That was my job. A year later, Janet got a job on the staff of First Baptist Church in Arlington, so we moved our membership there. They made me the choir attendance taker.

Eventually I learned the lesson: bloom where you’re planted. Use the place where you are today. Janet and I began investing in the young people in that choir and church. God opened doors to other ministry. And our service became useful and fruitful. But I had to make my place strategic, first. So do you.

Be strategic with your purpose

From here, Jesus called his first disciples. Why these four fishermen? For the same reasons he calls us.

First, they were prepared. As fishermen, they brought skills and experiences to “fishing for men.” Fishermen in those days must be courageous, willing to work in all kinds of weather. They must persevere, going days and nights without catching fish. They must be patient and flexible, willing to use whatever nets and methods would work. And they must be humble and invisible–fish don’t want to see a fisherman. All this they would need in the work to which they were called.

God has prepared you for the purpose he intends you to fulfill. He wants you to succeed. His will never leads where his grace cannot sustain.

They were teachable. They knew that they didn’t know. They learned from Jesus and followed his leadership because they knew they had no other. “I will make you fishers of men,” he promised (v. 19)–“make” means to equip, prepare, create. I will make you into the men and ministers I mean for you to be. So long as we are teachable, he’ll do the same for us.