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.

Filthiness relates to dirty clothes, as in Zechariah 3:4, “Take off his filthy clothes.” Here it is a metaphor for dirty souls, physical and moral defilement. Its root originally had the meaning of ear wax as well, and may retain it here–“unplug your ears to the word of God” may be the sense (cf. Barclay 57). Prevalence means overabundance or excess, “superfluity” in the KJV. Evil points to wickedness, moral depravity; not mistakes but immoral choices which reflect immoral character. The word speaks to general evil but also to intentional malice (cf. Stulac 68-9).

Meekness is strength under control (cf. Matthew 5:5), subservient to God and willing to receive all that he intends to give. Receive is an aorist imperative, a decisive action God expects of us today. The word means “to welcome,” in the sense of the Bereans’ reception of the word of God (Acts 17:11; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; Gideon 17). Note that we must put away sin to receive the word of God. As Moody wrote in the flyleaf of a Bible he gave a friend, “Either this book will separate you from your sins, or your sins will separate you from this book.”

Implanted relates to an experience which happens not at birth but later in life (Rienecker 379, vs. Motyer 67), something added to us or planted in the preexistent soil of our souls. This is a “seed” which must be nurtured by obedience, and which is hindered by the weeds and poison of sin.

The word we are to receive is the Scripture, as James will make clear repeatedly (cf. 2:8-11, 21-23, 25; 5:10, 11, 17-18; Motyer 63). Able to save your souls points to the gospel which the word conveys to us. The message of God’s grace is the means by which he brings us to repentance and salvation: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Romans 1:16).

Verse 22: And become doers of word, and not hearers only misleading yourselves.

Become implies that they are not this now. The present tense calls for habitual commitment and action. Doers of word would be understood by the Hebrews to mean “one who practices or keeps the word of God” (Rienecker 379).

Not hearers only indicates that this is their current status. The people would hear the word of God read each week in Sabbath worship. Such hearing is encouraged by James (v. 19). But they were to act on it, not merely listen to its recitation. Studies indicate that we retain only 5-10% of what we hear, 40% of what we hear and see, and 90% of what we hear, see, and do.

Misleading yourselves means to deceive through fallacious reasoning, to misjudge or miscalculate (Rienecker 380). James means that those who hear the word but do not act on it think they have done all it requires, but they are self-deceived and wrong.

Verse 23: Because if anyone is a hearer of word and not a doer, this one is like a man perceiving the face of his birth in a mirror;

If anyone can be translated, “since some are.” Perceiving means to examine carefully, becoming thoroughly familiar with the object viewed (Burdick 175).

Face of his birth means his natural appearance without modification or adjustment–the way we look first thing in the morning. Here James means our untransformed nature, the “natural man” without the work of grace. A mirror was generally made of highly polished metal, not glass.

Verse 24: for he perceived himself and has gone away, and immediately forgot what sort he was.

Perceived himself shows that the word of God reveals our true nature to us. When we read and hear it, we find revealed the God we are to imitate, the standards we are to emulate. In this sense “the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

Has gone away in the perfect tense demonstrates that he did this instantly, the moment he learned the truth about himself; “he went away quickly” would capture the sense, or “he is off!” (Adamson 83-4).

Immediately shows the effect of sin in preventing the transforming work of God’s word in our lives. Sin keeps us from understanding the meaning of Scripture for our lives. Then, as Jesus warned us: “When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart” (Matthew 13:19).

Verse 25: But the one having looked into the perfect law of freedom and remaining, not becoming a forgetful hearer but a doer of work, this one will be blessed in his doing.

Having looked could be rendered, “having stooped down and examined something to understand it” (cf. Rienecker 380; John 20:5, 11; 1 Peter 1:12). This is an intentional action, not the habitual or occasional glancing at the mirror but a deliberate act of self-examination (such as a doctor might do during a physical examination).

Perfect means to be complete, doing everything it is intended by its Author to accomplish. The word of God is all we need to follow God’s will every day. Law of freedom is a wonderful contrast: we are free to the degree that we live out the law of God. His word is intended to set us free from our sinful, fallen nature and world. It will guide us into the abundant life of Jesus (John 10:10), as the truth that sets us free (John 8:32). The world thinks that living by God’s word is shackling and restricting, when in fact it frees us from the shackles and restrictions of sin and failure.

Remaining means to stay in the word, to meditate on its truth until it permeates and changes our lives. We are to meditate in the law of the Lord, day and night (Psalm 1:2). Our Bible study is not complete until our lives are different in some practical way. Doer of work is literally, “a doer who does,” a person whose life is characterized by doing and obeying the word of God (cf. Robertson 24).

The logic of James’ argument in vs. 23-25 can be pictured (adapted from Martin 50-1):

The listener (vs. 23-24)

Sees himself

In a mirror

Immediately forgets

(Forfeits what he has learned)

The do’er (v. 25)

Looks intently

Into the perfect law that gives freedom

Continues to do this

Will be blessed in what he does

Verse 26: If anyone thinks to be religious, not bridling his tongue but deceiving his heart, of this one vain the religion.

Now James introduces the three main concerns of his letter, three ways to demonstrate that our faith is genuine: control your tongue (1:26; 3:1-12); care for the needy (1:27a; 2:1-16); and maintain personal purity (1:27b; 3:13-5:6; Motyer 11-13).

If anyone could be rendered, “Those who.” To be religious means to be scrupulous in religious exercise, devout in every way. Bridling his tongue means to hinder and direct his mouth and life, as a bridle hinders and directs a horse’s mouth and work. James will later refer to slander (4:11), a sin which the rabbis called the “third tongue” in that it injured the speaker, the one hearing, and the one spoken of (Adamson 78). We are to put the bridle in our own mouths, for no one else can.

Vain is empty, nonproductive, useless, dead (Rienecker 380), without any merit or purpose whatsoever. Religion relates to worship and service, every dimension of life before God, practical as well as devotional (cf. Romans 12:1-2, where “worship” requires the commitment of our “bodies” and lives). James points out that we can show up in church services, but attendance is no guarantee of true spirituality (cf. v. 27).

Verse 27: Religion clean and undefiled before the God and Father is this, to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, to keep himself unspotted from the world.

Clean means pure, the positive description. Undefiled means to be free from all contamination, the negative description (Gideon 18). Before the God and Father is the only definition and assessment of religion which is valid. Regardless of what we think of ourselves, or others think of us, only his verdict stands.

Visit means to look upon and provide help for the needy, to inspect and see the need and then meet it. The syntax points to a repeated and habitual practice of such ministry. Orphans and widows were the most vulnerable people in the ancient world. Having no father or husband to provide for them, they were easily victimized and forced into sinful practices to survive. God is therefore “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows” (Psalm 68:5), and requires us to care for them as he does.

Affliction means stress or pressure, translating the Greek word for the weight which was used to grind grain into flour. Keep himself means to observe, to stay on guard. It requires continual, present-tense commitment and diligence. How we were yesterday is no guarantee (or condemnation) for today.

World does not refer to the physical world which God created, but to the world’s system and values. James is no Gnostic, devaluing the physical universe. Rather, he is warning us not to live as the fallen, sinful world lives, remembering that “friendship with the world is hatred toward God” (4:4).

Spiritual applications

James urges five commitments on his readers, if we would achieve spiritual health and significance. How do we attain them today?

How do we “do” the word of God?

•Seek to hear from God every time you open his word–be “quick to listen” (v. 19); “welcome” the word into your life (v. 21). The Bible is “God preaching” (J. I. Packer), “love letters from home” (Augustine). Read and hear to learn from the Lord of the universe, in obedience to his word (Deuteronomy 17:19; Acts 17:11; Romans 15:4; Matthew 22:29).

•Find an area for improvement which the Scriptures expose (v. 23). When you examine your life as it is reflected in God’s perfect word, you will always discover a way to be more like Christ. Pay special attention to the areas described in today’s study.

•”Continue” in the word until you know how your life is to change. Make a practical plan for transformation, using a journal (and perhaps an accountability partner).

How do we control our anger?

•See anger as a serious spiritual problem which gives the devil a foothold in your life (Ephesians 4:27). It harms your witness and keeps you from experiencing the fruit of the Spirit in your life (Galatians 5:22-23). God repeatedly warns us: “Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret–it leads only to evil” (Psalm 37:8); “A quick-tempered man does foolish things, and a crafty man is hated” (Proverbs 14:17); “Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools” (Ecclesiastes 7:9).

•Know that you can control your anger–God would not ask us to be “slow to anger” unless this choice was possible.

•Refuse to speak while you are angry: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6); “Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips” (Ecclesiastes 10:12). It is impossible to un-ring a bell.

•Seek reconciliation as soon as possible: “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry” (Ephesians 4:26); “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

•Give the problem (and/or the person) to God, releasing the issue to his grace and justice. If you have been wronged, choose to pardon, refusing to punish. Instead, offer the grace God has given to you: “A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense” (Proverbs 19:11).

•If you have a consistent problem with anger, seek the help of God and his people (Philippians 4:13).

How do we control our tongues?

•Value godly speech as God does: otherwise, our religion is “vain” or “worthless” (v. 26). If you sin with your tongue, you cannot be right with God in your worship or spiritual service. Why? Because “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). Our words reveal our true character.

•Choose godly speech for your sake: “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:6); “He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin” (Proverbs 13:3); “He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity” (Proverbs 21:23).

•Know that ungodly words will be judged by the Lord: “Whoever slanders his neighbor in secret, him will I put to silence” (Psalm 101:5); “men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken” (Matthew 12:36). Before you speak, remember that God hears you, records your words, and will bring them into judgment one day.

•Choose to “bridle” or control your words (v. 26): “keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies” (Psalm 34:13). This is a choice God will help us make.

•Confess sinful words immediately: “rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind” (1 Peter 2:1). Make restitution with those you have harmed, unless doing so would harm them even further (Matthew 5:23-24).

How do we help those who are hurting?

•Look for the “orphans and widows in their distress” in your life (v. 27). Peter and John saw the crippled man beside the Gate Beautiful, the beginning of their ministry to him (Acts 3:4).

•Find a way to meet their need personally. Peter touched the crippled man (Acts 3:7), risking his own spiritual status to help this hurting soul.

•Develop a plan for continued ministry to this person, enlisting others to help as appropriate.

•Remember that your service to hurting people is the most revealing way you demonstrate your love for Jesus and service to his Kingdom: “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40); “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (v. 45).

How do we keep ourselves “unspotted from the world”?

•Expect to be tempted by the “evil that is so prevalent” (v. 21). Early in human history, “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5). Now “there is no one who does not sin” (1 Kings 8:46), for “Everyone has turned away, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Psalm 53:3); “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). You are a fallen person, living in a fallen world. Assume you will be tempted by sin today.

•Adopt a zero tolerance policy: get rid of “all” moral filth (v. 21). Allow no exceptions. See sin as God does: the cause of death (Deuteronomy 24:16; Romans 6:23); “displeasing” to the Lord (2 Samuel 11:27); that which the Lord “hates” (Proverbs 6:16-19; Zechariah 8:17); “detestable in God’s sight” (Luke 16:15). There is no such thing as a “minor” sin, any more than there is a “minor” malignancy.

•Repent immediately: “get rid of” all moral filth (v. 21). Strip off the filthy clothes of sin now. Sin metastasizes; it will never be easier to confess your sin to God than it is today (1 John 1:8-10). Repentance is the necessary precursor to forgiveness and healing: “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).

•Claim the forgiveness God promises: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Count on God’s grace: “Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon” (Isaiah 55:7); “if a wicked man turns away from all the sins he has committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, he will surely live; he will not die” (Ezekiel 18:21).

•Refuse to become further “polluted” by the values of the fallen world (v. 27). Such a commitment requires daily discipline, and is the result of a life surrendered each day to the word and will of God (application #1).

Concluding applications

•Commit daily to the Lordship of Christ over your anger, words, ministry, and life purity.

•Grow spiritually by meeting God daily in his word, seeking that truth which will transform your life for that day.

•Relate biblically by refusing anger and choosing pardon.

•Serve effectively by using your gifts and opportunities to meet the needs of hurting people you know.

Assess your spiritual health in light of these five diagnostic questions:

•When last did God’s word change your life?

•Would those who know you best say that anger is a problem for you?

•When last did you speak words which displeased God?

•Which “orphan and widow” did you last serve?

•If you knew you would stand before God today in judgment, would you make any changes in your moral tolerance and lifestyle?

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.

Refuse retribution. Stop the cycle of vengeance. Don’t repeat the gossip or slander. Refuse to return insult for insult, pain for pain. It has been noted that an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is a rapid way to a sightless, toothless world. Two brothers were fighting; when their mother stopped them, the oldest complained, “But he hit me back!” Don’t hit back. Stop the cycle of vengeance.

Pray for your enemies (5:43-48)

Instead, pray for the person who has hurt you: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (v. 44). This statement has no parallel in the Jewish tradition or literature. No religious teacher in world history ever suggested such an ethic.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred while practicing these words, said about them, “The Christian must treat his enemy as a brother, and requite his hostility with love. His behavior must be determined not by the way others treat him, but by the treatment he himself receives from Jesus” (The Cost of Discipleship 164).

How has Jesus treated us? On the cross he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). How are we to treat others? As Stephen was being stoned to death, he spoke his last words: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).

We love our enemies because Jesus loves us and he loves our enemies. Sam James was a career Southern Baptist missionary to Vietnam. I will never forget a story I heard him tell in that regard. After a particularly long, hot, difficult day, he returned to his apartment to find that thieves had stolen everything but his couch. That was the last straw. He collapsed on the couch in frustration, and began to tell the Lord that he had lost his love for the Vietnamese. “You’ve got to send me somewhere else, Lord–I just don’t love the Vietnamese any more.” And the Lord replied to his soul, “You’re not here because you love the Vietnamese–you’re here because I love the Vietnamese.”

Love your enemies by praying for them. Do it because God loves them. And you’ll learn to love them as well.

Refuse to criticize (7:1-5)

One last, very practical subject: refuse criticism. Do not judge others, or you will be judged by God. Do not worry about the speck in your brother’s eye, when there is a “plank” in your own. Jesus’ word is dokos, the log upon which planks rested in a pier-and-beam kind of construction. This was the largest and strongest “plank” they knew.

Jesus tells us not to worry about the speck of dust in your brother’s eye, when there is a telephone pole in our own. Take care of your own problem, and then you can see to help me with mine. Judge yourself before you judge anyone else, and you’ll refuse criticism.

God’s word is serious about this problem:

“Whoever slanders his neighbor in secret, him will I put to silence; whoever has haughty eyes and a proud heart, him will I not endure” (Psalm 101:5).

“There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs” (Luke 12:2-3).

“If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight reign on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless” (James 1:26).

Have you noticed that we judge others by their actions, but ourselves by our intentions? To stop slandering and judging others, begin by examining yourself. A wise Bible teacher once taught me: there is no sin I cannot commit. Your sins may not be mine, but mine may not be yours. And I cannot see or judge your heart. There is always something I don’t know about you, or you about me. Always.

Satan loves to attack from within, at unity. He is always looking for a Judas, for an Ananias and Sapphira. He knows that if we are busy attacking each other, we’re no threat to him. We cannot assault the gates of hell if we are assaulting one another. That’s why he loves slander and gossip so much. They cost Jesus his life. They cost us dearly today.

So refuse to criticize, and you’ll relate biblically. This is the word and will of God.


Jesus summarizes all we’ve heard today: “in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). This is the so-called Golden Rule. Some wit observed, “he who has the gold makes the rules.” That’s true: all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:18). He has the gold, and he makes the rule.

Now, where does it apply to your life and relationships? Who is your problem person this week? If you want that relationship to get better, here’s what you do: seek reconciliation, taking the initiative. Stop the cycle of revenge and vengeance. Instead, pray for God to bless them. Refuse to criticize them. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love those who hate you, and you will have no enemy. Relate biblically.

Now I must tell you how God has used this study in my life this week. I have had to write two letters, neither of which I would have written if I had not spent the week with these passages. You would not know them or their situation, so I’ll not describe them. But I want you to know that God’s word works. There is a wonderful sense of release, burden lifted, joy given when we forgive, and when we seek forgiveness. When we relate biblically, loving our neighbor as ourselves.

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.

And they were obedient. They left their “nets,” their jobs, to follow him. James and John left their boat and nets, the hired men (Mark 1:20), and their father. Peter had a home, a wife and mother-in-law in Capernaum. They all had families. And they left it all to follow him. If we will obey his word and will, we will always know them.

God has prepared you, and will use you if you are teachable and obedient. So, what is his purpose for the place where he has put you? These fishermen would “fish for men” in all they did. What is your life purpose?

William Barclay warns us: “A man will never become outstandingly good at anything unless that thing is his ruling passion. There must be something of which he can say, ‘For me to live is this.'” What is your “ruling passion”?

How can you define it? Know your spiritual gifts, using our church’s inventory to help you discover them. Determine what kinds of service God seems to bless, and that which brings your heart joy. If you could do anything to serve Jesus, what would it be?

Paul was apostle to the Gentiles, Peter to the Jews. James’ life purpose was to pastor the first church in Christian history. God has a purpose for you, a way for you to “fish for men.” Seek your purpose for your place, and you will know it for each day as each day comes.

Be strategic with your plan

Jesus has a place and a purpose. Here is his plan, and ours. First, go to the people. Jesus traveled “throughout Galilee” (v. 23a), going to the people wherever they were to be found. This was his essential ministry strategy–go to the people where they are, as they are, and bring them to God. Who will be your next Galilean?

Share the good news: “teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom” (v. 23b). Synagogues didn’t have professional preachers. Any rabbi in town could be invited to speak. It would be like having a “guest preacher” each Sunday here. The synagogues were strategic platforms for Jesus’ ministry throughout the area. What is your synagogue?

Meet their needs, “healing every disease and sickness among the people” (v. 23c). “Disease” is the Greek word for debilitating, incurable illness. “Sickness” is the word for less serious problems. Jesus healed them all, “every disease and sickness among the people.” Find a need and meet it. Adults are open to faith during a crisis if they are open at no other time.

And trust that God will use you. People from northern Syria, 300 miles away, came to him (v. 24). Crowds from across Israel came as well. And his public ministry was launched.

For whom will you pray this week? How will you use your office or school as your “synagogue” and mission field? Find a need and meet it–someone whose hurt you can help, whose heart you can touch. Earn the right to be heard by going to the people where they are with the good news of God’s love in yours. Assume that your vocation or role in life is your means of ministry, because it is.

And pay the price of success. These men gave their jobs and livelihoods to God’s call. Not just the Sabbath, but every day of the week. Not just “church” but life. Surrender to him the tithe, the tenth his word expects you to give to his work. Put him in charge of the rest. Invest your life in his eternal purpose for you. To quote Barclay again, “A man progresses in life in proportion to the fare he is prepared to pay.” It’s been said that those who want to lead the orchestra must turn their backs on the crowd.


God has a strategy and plan for your life: “I know the plans I have for you–plans to prosper and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11). Choose to invest in that purpose, to be strategic with your life. Decide that you want your life to count. Even a dead fish can float downstream.

Begin where you are. Ask God if you are in his place for you, then use it as your Galilee. Assume that the people you know and influence are your field of ministry. Ask the Lord to guide you to his purpose for this day, as you “fish for men.” Go to them with the good news of God’s love, meeting their needs with God’s love in yours. Pay the price of success with the courageous and sacrificial giving of your time, money, and abilities.

And know that as you invest in the eternal, your life will develop a sense of joy and significance which will make each day worth living.

Steve Farrar’s book, Finishing Strong, closes with this restatement of our theme: “If you could go back in a time machine, two thousand years ago, to the times of the New Testament, it might give you some perspective. If you were to plant yourself in a busy market near the temple in Jerusalem, you could gather some real insight. Stop and think what it would be like to randomly interview the citizens of Jerusalem as they went about their daily business in the times of the early church.

“You would only need to ask them a couple of questions. ‘Who do you think that people two thousand years from now will remember from your generation?’ My guess is, many of those citizens of the Roman Empire would answer, ‘Caesar.’ Others would respond, ‘Nero.’ ‘But what about this group of people known as Christians. Don’t you think that anyone will remember them or their leaders?’

“‘Are you kidding? That group of nobodies? They don’t have any influence. They aren’t important.’ ‘You mean you haven’t heard of Paul or Peter? Don’t you think they’ll be remembered? Or what about Mary and Martha? Wasn’t their brother involved in some miracle?’

“‘I’m telling you, these people are insignificant. They only thing I ever hear of their leaders is that they’re always winding up in jail. Trust me, in two thousand years, nobody will give them a thought.’ So here we are, two thousand years later. And isn’t it interesting that we name our children Peter and Paul, Mary and Martha? And we name our dogs Caesar and Nero.”

Invest eternally. Start today.