Crowds Change Nothing- Disciples Change the World

Crowds Change Nothing–Disciples Change the World

Matthew 21:1-11

Dr. Jim Denison

Eugene Colvin was one of our church’s most popular members. Eugene struggled with cerebral palsy his entire life. He was in a wheelchair by the time I met him. But that chair could not contain his spirit or his joy. All of us remember his smile, his laugh, and his love for Jesus.

Eugene’s memorial service was this past Wednesday. Chris Elkins, one of Eugene’s dearest friends, delivered the message. He quoted Aaron Colvin, Eugene’s father, who once described what it was like to be the father of a son with physical challenges. Aaron said, “It’s like taking a trip to Italy and ending up in Holland. You didn’t plan to be in Holland. But you learn that there are good things about Holland, and you learn to appreciate them.”

Chris used that metaphor throughout Eugene’s service, with this point: we’re all in Holland. None of us intended the hard parts of our lives. We didn’t plan to have cancer, or financial struggles, or a divorce. We’re all in Holland, and need to make the best of it while we’re here. But one day we can live in Italy, if we have a ticket to go there.

So, how do you make the best of Holland? And how do you get to Italy? Not in the way you may think. Hold that thought, and take a trip to Holland with me.

The question of the cross

The date is Sunday, April 12, in the year AD 29. A trip which looked like it would arrive in Italy ended in Holland. Jesus could have entered Jerusalem unnoticed, mingling with the more than two million who jammed the city streets for the Passover. Better yet, he could have stayed in Galilee where the authorities would neither notice him nor care.

But he didn’t. His Triumphal Entry was the very best way to ensure that he enraged the religious leaders with the “blasphemy” of the adoring crowds; that he frightened the Roman authorities into thinking he would start an insurrection, and made himself a marked man. Palm Sunday forced Good Friday. In fact, it guaranteed it. So, why did Jesus do it?

Why did the Son of God exchange heaven for earth, a throne for thorns, a crown for a cross? Why did he ride a donkey to his death? You know the conventional answer: to pay for our sins. But why? Why did he have to pay for our sins?

Last week, a reader of my daily e-mail essays replied with this question: “Why the blood? Why didn’t our loving Father in heaven just forgive us? Why did he require a sacrifice? Why can’t we just pray to God and ask for forgiveness, and as our loving Creator, he grants it.

The requirement for blood sacrifice is his. I just don’t understand why an all-powerful God can’t directly forgive us. This is a question I have had for twenty-five years.” It’s an excellent question, indeed.

If I back into your car leaving church today, you can forgive me without requiring that someone die. If my children disobey me, I can forgive them without requiring a blood sacrifice. Why cannot the God who is love (1 John 4:8) do the same? Why did Jesus choose to ride into Jerusalem in a way which ensured that the authorities would arrest and execute him? Why did he have to die? Let’s work on this very important question for a moment.

Understand God’s dilemma

Since God is love, he wants a loving and personal relationship with us. But love is a choice, a decision. So God had to give us freedom of choice, so we could choose to love and worship him. Of course, we inevitably misuse this freedom, and sin results. Why is this such a problem?

Because God is also holy. In fact, the Bible calls him “holy, holy, holy” (Isaiah 6:3; Revelation 4:8). And a holy God simply cannot allow my sin into his perfect paradise.

One germ contaminates a sterile hospital room and threatens the patient. One speck of dirt is enough to infect a surgical wound; one malignant cell is enough to produce terminal cancer.

Sin separates us from a holy God, leading to spiritual death now, physical death eventually, and eternal death separated from God in hell. That’s why the Bible teaches that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Death, separation from God, is the inevitable consequence of sin, since God is holy.

So the sin which results from my misused free will must be removed before I can enter God’s perfect presence in paradise. But why cannot God simply do this for me, as a mother pulls muddy shoes off her toddler’s feet before letting him into the house?

Because God faces a dilemma you and I do not share. Since God is holy, he must also be just.

You and I can forgive those who injure us without requiring that the law be kept, its consequences fulfilled. I can back into your car, and you can choose not to call the police, fill out an accident report, and see to it that I receive a ticket and have to pay a fine. Such is the demand of justice, but you can choose to waive the law and simply forgive me.

God does not have that luxury. He cannot be completely holy without being also completely just. And justice requires that the law be kept, that its consequences be enforced. For him to be holy and just, the consequence of sin must be fulfilled. And that consequence, that result, is death–spiritual, physical, and eternal death. Complete separation from a holy God who lives in a perfect paradise.

There is seemingly no way out of this dilemma. God could remove our freedom, so we cannot sin; but then we could not worship and love him, defeating our purpose and reason for being. God could choose to allow us into paradise with our sins, but then he could not be holy. God could choose not to enforce the consequences of our sin, but then he could not be just.

That’s the problem God solved on Palm Sunday.

Accept God’s answer

There was only one possible, logical way out of this dilemma.

If God is holy, he must find a way to remove our sin before we can enter his paradise.

If he is love, he must find a way to remove our sin which does not cost our death.

If he is just, he must find someone to remove our sin who has not sinned himself. If the person who pays the penalty for our sin is himself a sinner, he can pay only for himself. Only a person who has been given complete freedom, and yet has never sinned, can pay the consequences of sin for the rest of us.

As you know, there has been only one person in all of human history who met the necessary qualifications.

Jesus was “tempted in every way, just as we are” (Hebrews 4:15a). He faced Satan himself, and endured the worst temptations known to humanity.

Yet he was “without sin” (Hebrews 4:15b). He never failed his Father, not even once.

As a result, he could die in our place: “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Now God’s justice is satisfied, for the consequence of sin has been paid. His holiness is satisfied, for our sins can be removed from us. And his love is satisfied, for we can be forgiven.

And that is why Jesus chose to ride a Messianic donkey into Jerusalem, stirring the crowds, offending the religious authorities, and frightening the Roman officials. That is why he chose to parade publicly into the one city where his enemies were waiting to arrest and execute him. That is why he rode a donkey to a cross. Because there was no other way. Because that is what it took for us to be in heaven with his Father and ours.


How do we respond to such love?

Louis Slotin was working on a uranium experiment at Los Alamos, New Mexico when the uranium came together, filling the room with a dazzling blue light. He tore it apart with his bare hands, saving the lives of seven other people in the room. He died in agony nine days later.

When the Chernobyl nuclear plant melted down, one helicopter pilot made dozens of flights to dump sand and concrete over the reactor. He helped saved the lives of millions, but died of radiation sickness.

The Nazis were murdering Jews in their gas chambers. One distraught mother refused to part with her baby. A simple woman known as Mother Maria pushed the mother aside and took her place.

Father Maximillian Kolbe was a Polish priest imprisoned at Auschwitz. When a prisoner was sentenced to the starvation bunker, the priest died in his place.

You and I are those scientists, those Chernobyl residents, that imprisoned woman and that condemned man. Jesus’ death has given us life. How do we respond to such love?

We accept it. That’s how you get from Holland to Italy, from death to life, from earth to heaven. Join the crowds who celebrated the coming of the King. Welcome him into your city and your heart. Salvation cost God his Son, and that Son his life. Would you accept such a gift as this? Do you have your ticket to Italy?

Accept his love, and then share his love. That’s how you make the best of Holland while you’re here. Step from the worshiping crowd to the serving disciples. Tell the story you have heard this day. Invite someone to the Easter celebration next week, and the week after. Tell the story of such amazing grace. Show a hurting person that grace in yours. Share his love. Make the best of Holland, every day that you’re here.

But be warned: stepping from the crowd to the disciples, responding to such sacrificial love may cost you. In fact, it should. Giving a donkey, a robe, a palm branch is enough, if it is your best. Give him your time, your tithe, your talents. Give more than you can spare. Return his sacrifice with your own. Not so he will love you, but because he does. Not so you can be forgiven, but because you are. Not so you will matter to God, but because you do.

And the more you give, the more you receive. The greater the risk, the greater the reward. The greater the joy, the peace, the purpose of your life. The more it costs you to serve Jesus in Holland, the more your life counts while you’re here. Crowds change nothing; disciples change the world. Which will you be this week?

On Monday I was privileged to eat lunch with Ron Scates and Skip Ryan, my dear pastor friends from Highland Park Presbyterian and Park Cities Presbyterian. We were discussing the persecuted Church around the world, and the joy which believers experience when they suffer for Jesus. And Ron made a profound point which I must share with you today: “When Christianity is easy, it is hard. When Christianity is hard, it is easy.” Hear it again: crowds change nothing; disciples change the world.

What will Palm Sunday cost you tomorrow?

Faith at Work

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Is your tongue tamed?

Dr. Jim Denison

James 3:1-12

What is the most hateful or hurtful thing anyone has said to you? How long ago did they say it? Why do the words still hurt? Has anyone hurt you more than with their words?

I was in elementary school, probably the second or third grade. For some reason I cannot remember, I was angry with my parents. It was raining outside, a common occurrence in Houston. Friends of my parents were at our house for some reason. I wanted to punish my parents, so I went outside and stood in the rain. I have no idea why this seemed a good idea, but it did. My father went outside to find me. For the first and only time in my life, he spoke a hateful word to me: “Son, are you stupid? Don’t you have enough sense to come in out of the rain?” I knew then and know now that he didn’t mean his words. I know that he was simply embarrassed before his friends. He never said such a thing to me again. But though his words were spoken more than 35 year sago, I can still remember how deeply they hurt.

Now think about words you wish you could take back. A statement made in anger, or pain, or deception. Have you made greater, more hurtful mistakes than with your words?

Our secular materialism measures success and failure in quantifiable ways. Words are a means to our ends. “White lies” are acceptable and common. Say whatever you must to get ahead. I worked as a graphic artist while completing my masters degree at the seminary. One day, one of my customers showed me his “lie book,” a little green spiral-bound book he kept in his shirt pocket. He explained proudly that whenever he lied to one of his clients, he wrote it down so he could remember it for the next time he saw the person. I wondered how many of his words to me were in that book.

You may not be keeping a book recording your lies, but the people you know are. And the Judge of the universe is. Despite the conventional wisdom of our materialistic culture, you do not control your life until you control your tongue. Your words matter, more than you can measure. You cannot unring a bell, or a soul. So let’s learn how and why to make our words holy this week.

We’ll look at what James says, then find ways to apply his words to our own.

Verse 1. Become not many teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive greater judgment.

Become shows that we grow into the ministry of teaching the word of God; this is not just a position, but a ministry. Become not could be rendered, “stop becoming many teachers,” a clear complaint that many were attempting to teach what they did not yet understand (Robertson 39). Not is placed at the beginning of the verse for emphasis (Martin 107). Probably some not qualified by natural ability or spiritual gift coveted this office and ministry (Burdick 186).

Teachers means those who teach the word of God. In the Jewish context it pointed to rabbis, those who had studied the law and its application to life and now taught others (Rienecker 385). The “teacher” in Christian context also transmitted to the faith community the growing Christian tradition: “the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim 2:2; Moo 149).

This was a significant position of spiritual leadership (Ephesians 4:11), counting in its number Paul and Barnabas (Ac 13:1). In the early church, the office carried high status and responsibility: “Whosoever then comes and teaches you all these things aforesaid, receive him. But if the teacher himself be perverted and teach another doctrine to destroy these things, do not listen to him, but if his teaching be for the increase of righteousness and knowledge of the Lord, receive him as the Lord” (Didache 11:1-2).

Knowing is a common Pauline word used to denote a piece of agreed traditional teaching, suggesting that the heavy responsibility associated with teaching was known already to James’ readers (Martin 108). We is in the first person because James is himself a teacher of God’s word, and thus includes himself in those who are accountable for their calling.

Greater judgment in that teachers know the word and will of God and so are accountable for their knowledge. The phrase means that teachers will receive the “greater sentence” (Robertson 39) or that they are exposed to the greater danger of judgment (Moo 149-50). Adamson (139-40) speculates that this may be because God expects more of those who teach his word, or because the damage done to others by our sins is greater. The OT denounces evil speech against God (Numbers 21:5) and man (Psalm 49:20) more often than any other offense (Adamson 176). And Jesus was plain; “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48).

The problem of unfit teachers was acute in the early church, as the following references make clear (Martin 108):

•”There were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them–bringing swift destruction on themselves” (2 Peter 2:1).

•”If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words (1 Timothy 6:3-4).

•”The time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

Verse 2. For in many ways we all stumble. If anyone does not stumble in word, this is a mature man, able to bridle also the whole body.

For explains the previous statement. Many may indicate that teachers particularly stumble (Adamson 140), but the phrase more likely refers to all people.

We all includes us all (1 John 1:8, 10), even James the Just. Here James probably transitions from concern only about teachers to a larger discussion involving us all (Moo (148). Stumble in the present tense indicates continued action and even lifestyle. The word points to mistakes, sins, defeats, failures; in this context it may point to inadvertent sin (Moo 150-1).

If anyone does not stumble uses syntax which indicates that this proposition could be true in fact (Martin 109). In word or “in tongue” connects verse 2 with verse 1, since the principal tools of teachers are their tongues. Mature is teleios, complete and entire, a person who fulfills his God-given purpose. Only when we do not “stumble in word” is this true.

Able to bridle the whole body shows that our “bodies” or “lives” are led and determined by our words. Whole body used repeatedly in the text shows that James has in mind not only our personal lives but also the “body of Christ,” the larger congregation meeting in public assembly (Martin 104), for “an unrestrained teacher can adversely affect the entire community of faith” (Martin 110). Our moral actions are in view, not just our physical attributes (cf. Johnson 257).

Verse 3. Behold, we put the bits in the mouths of the horses, for them to obey us, and their whole body we turn about.

Bits in the mouths of horses echoes Sophocles (fifth century BC): “I know that spirited horses are broken by the use of a small bit” (Antigone 477, in Moo 152).

Their whole body we turn about connects the horse to us (v. 2)–the mouth leads the body and the life. Thus James has in mind both our physical movement and moral actions (Johnson 256-7). Horses and ships (v. 4) are “the sum total of what men steered in those days” (Davids, in Martin 104).

Verse 4. Behold also the ships being so great, and by hard winds being driven, directed by a very little rudder, where the impulse of the one steering purposes.

Ships being so great were not uncommon in James’s day; the ship on which Paul went to Malta carried 276 persons (Acts 27:37; Robertson 40-1).

Hard winds being driven points to harsh and strong, gale force or even hurricanes. James makes the contrast clear between the force of the huge storm and the power of the tiny rudder. Ships in the ancient world had no recourse in storms except the guidance of the captain–no storm warning systems or mechanical means of turning and saving the ship. They were “driven” or “buffeted” in such winds (Johnson 257). In a harsh storm, the rudder was the only hope for the passengers.

The rudder was an oar with a broad blade, placed at the side of the stern; larger ships had two, both controlled by the same steersman (Rienecker 386). It is an even clearer metaphor for the mouth of a church leader, as the rudder steers a large ship on which many are present. Martin (105) cites Lucian’s amazement at the size of the Isis, a vessel capable of holding 1,000 passengers plus cargo. Aristotle commented on the contrast between the small size of a rudder, turned by one man, and the “huge mass” of the ship it controls (Quaestiones Mechanica 5, in Moo 154). Impulse is either the “touch” or the “decision” of the steersman (Rienecker 386-7).

The analogy is clear: guiding desire (the steersman), means of control (rudder), and that which is controlled (the ship; Johnson 258). All relate to the tongue, as ancient moralists often noted. Philo referenced a charioteer and helmsman in this regard, and Plutarch used the imagery of a runaway ship and a fire to illustrate the destructive and uncontrollable nature of the tongue (Moo 154). The descriptions are so graphic that they indicate James’ personal observation of that which he now discusses (Oesterley 451).

Verse 5. So also the tongue is a little member, and boasts great things. Behold, how little a fire kindles how great a forest.

The tongue is here taken by James to stand for the use to which it is put by sinful humans. It was typical for Hebrew thought to associate a body part with the sin committed by it, so that Isaiah could lament about the “unclean lips” which he and his people tragically possessed (Isaiah 6:5).

Little is micron, “micro.” Boasts is part of a phrase which indicates not an empty boast, but a justified, though haughty, sense of importance (Rienecker 387).

How little a fire points to the fact that forest fires then, as now, are often caused by tiny sparks (Robertson 42). In that very dry climate, brush fires are even more common a danger than in our setting (Martin 106). Jewish tradition consistently likens the tongue to a flame or fire (Psalm 10:7; 39:1-3; 83:14; 120:2-4; Proverbs 16:27; 26:21; Is 30:27; Martin 113; Moo 156). Forest relates to the brush which covered Palestinian hills and which, in their dry climate, could easily burst into flame (Moo 155).

Verse 6. And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity; so the tongue is set among our members, spotting all the body, and inflaming the course of nature, and being inflamed by Gehenna.

The tongue is a fire, a common biblical analogy: “A scoundrel plots evil, and his speech is like a scorching fire” (Proverbs 16:27); “Like a madman shooting firebrands or deadly arrows is a man who deceives his neighbor and says, ‘I was only joking!’ Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down. As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife” (Proverbs 26:18-21).

Course of nature could point to the cycle of life, or all that time brings to birth (Rienecker 387). J. B. Phillips translates, “all that is included in nature”; at the end of an extended excursus, Adamson renders the phrase awkwardly, “the successions of our generations which run like wheels” (164).

Gehenna was the trash heap outside Jerusalem, used often as a picture for the place of punishment to which the wicked are destined. Jesus spoke of the “fire of hell” (Matthew 5:22). Gehenna was regarded as the location of cosmic evil attributed to Satan, so that James indicates that the devil lies behind the poison emitted by an ungodly tongue (Martin 116). Only Jesus (11 times) and James use the word in the NT (Moo 160).

Verse 7. For every nature both of beasts and of birds, of both reptiles and of sea animals, is tamed and has been tamed by the human species;

Beasts is used in the NT only of undomesticated animals (Adamson 145) which must be tamed by the human species. Such work is part of our Genesis commission to “rule” over God’s creation (Genesis 1:26).

Verse 8. but the tongue no one of mankind is able to tame; an unrestrainable evil, full of poison, death-dealing.

No one of mankind, with no exceptions. This is one sin we all commit. Unrestrainable could also be rendered “restless” (NIV); it is the same word translated “unstable” in 1:8 (Moo 162). Unrestrainable evil could be rendered a “monster of evil” (Adamson 144).

Full of poison points to the deadly asp or a venomous snake; James may recall the serpent in Eden. Psalm 140:3 warns, “They [evil men] make their tongues as sharp as a serpent’s; the poison of vipers is on their lips.”

Verse 9. By this we bless God and Father, and by this we curse men having been made in the image of God.

We bless God and Father points to the typical Jewish prayers of blessing. The Eighteen Benedictions contained liturgical formulas to be recited daily. Each concludes each of its parts with the blessing of God: “Blessed art Thou, O God.” The rabbis often used the phrase, “the Holy One, blessed is he” (Martin 118). The phrase indicates that James may intend a worship setting as his context. The syntax indicates present tense, continuing action occurring at that time.

We curse men is also in the present tense, indicating an ongoing problem for his readers and their churches (Martin 118). Curses are typical in the OT (Genesis 9:25; 49:7; Judges 5:23; 9:20; Proverbs 11:26; 24:24; 26:2; Ecclesiastes 7:21; Martin 119). James’ point is not to prohibit all such curses, for some indict ungodly behavior; rather, he contrasts them with blessings made in the same worship service. His readers are blessing God and cursing his creation at the same time.

Verse 10. Out of the same mouth comes forth blessing and cursing. It is not fitting, my brothers, these things to be.

It is not fitting is the strongest possible Greek, with the indignant sense of “It’s not right!” (Adamson 146-7), “this should not be” (NIV), or “these things ought not to be this way” (NASB).

Verse 11. Does a fountain out of the same hole send forth the sweet and the bitter?

The syntax expects the negative. Fountains in dry Palestine are vital to the survival of the people.

The same hole send forth the sweet and the bitter points to a rare but natural phenomenon. Different streams could mix together in a confluence to form a pool of water which is unfit for human use (Martin 120). When this happens, the spring is useless. Fresh water does not transform salty; salt water corrupts fresh. Send forth points to an Artesian well, water under pressure. It is typically the best water, as opposed to the flush pump wells which bring brackish, still water to the surface.

Verse 12. My brothers, is a fig tree able to produce olives, or a vine figs? So neither can a fountain produce salt water and sweet.

Fountain produce points to that which comes naturally forth from a fountain, that which “gushes forth” (Rienecker 388). Vine is the grape vine. Olives, figs, and grapes are especially prevalent in Palestine, and would be known to James and his scattered readers (Rienecker 388).


Why must James emphasize the destructiveness of the tongue (v. 5)?

A New York Times article reported that 91% of Americans say they regularly don’t tell the truth (are the other 9% lying on the survey?). 20% admit they can’t get through a day without conscious, premeditated “white lies.”

Raise your hand if you’ve never lied. Be careful–don’t lie. The psalmist lamented, “Help, Lord, for the godly are no more; the faithful have vanished from among men. Everyone lies to his neighbor; their flattering lips speak with deception” (Psalm 12:1-2).

The Bible says, “Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies” (Psalm 58:3). Why are spoken sins so common?

Spiritual vs. secular: words outside the church don’t matter, only those spoken in a “spiritual” context. Re: Sunday vs. Monday speech.

Words have their own life. When Jacob stole Esau’s first-born blessing from Isaac, there was nothing the father could do to take his words back: “I have made him lord over you and have made all his relatives his servants, and I have sustained him with grain and new wine” (Genesis 27:37).

Satan uses words to attack the unity of God’s people and movement. The first sin in human history was a lie told by the serpent in the Garden. Paul warned Titus, “There are many rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they are ruining whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach–and that for the sake of dishonest gain” (Titus 1:10-11).

We live in a post-modern culture, where there are no absolutes and all ethics are relative and subjective. But words destroy us just as much today as in the Garden of Eden.

What words does God condemn?

•Lies: “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16).

•False appearances: “They take delight in lies. With their mouths they bless, but in their hearts they curse” (Psalm 62:4).

•Withholding the truth: “If a person sins because he does not speak up when he hears a public charge to testify regarding something he has seen or learned about, he will be held responsible” (Leviticus 5:1). The sin of silence is as real as the sin of speech.

•Slander (Webster: “the utterance in the presence of another person of a false statement or statements, damaging to a third person’s character or reputation”) and gossip: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (Ephesians 4:31); “Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men” (Titus. 3:1-2); “rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind” (1 Peter 2:1).

In a Peanuts cartoon, Charlie Brown says to Linus, “We’re supposed to write home to our parents and tell them what a great time we’re having here at camp.” Linus answers, “Even if we’re not? Isn’t that a lie?” Charlie Brown explains, “Well, it’s sort of a white lie.” To which Linus asks, “Lies come in colors?” No, they do not.

Why are spoken sins so wrong?

God says they are wrong. Listen to Psalm 101.7: “No one who practices deceit will dwell in my house; no one who speaks falsely will stand in my presence.” And listen to Ephesians 5.25: “Each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor.”

Spoken sins offend the character of God. Jesus is truth (John 14.6). The Bible calls our Lord “a faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he” (Deuteronomy 32.4). Thus lying runs counter to his very nature.

Listen to Proverbs 6.16-19: “There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.” See how God feels about deceit?

Spoken sins sacrifice trust. Do you remember the last time someone lied to you—perhaps a national politician or leader, or a personal relationship? Have you been able to trust them since?

Spoken sins destroy people. Once a lie has been told about someone, it can never be taken back.

The rabbis used to tell about a man who repeated gossip and slander about his rabbi. Finally he came to him and apologized, and asked what he could do to make things right. The rabbi gave him a bag filled with feathers, and told him to empty it into the wind at the top of a nearby hill. He did, and brought back the empty bag. Then the rabbi told him to go back and pick up all the feathers, which by now had blown across the town and the countryside. Of course he could not. The man then understood the damage he had caused. Do we?

In short, spoken sins destroy. Never underestimate their power or the damage they can do.

Who do you think said these words: “The broad mass of a nation will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one. . . . If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it to be the truth”? It was Adolf Hitler. And six million Jews died from his lies.

Why do we sin with our words? They compensate for our own failures. We have some sense of the way things should be, of life as God intended it. But we know that we are not living this way, that we have sinned, fallen, failed. So we compensate. We create a false self, an “idealized self,” the person we wish we were. And we spend the rest of our lives trying to live up to this person. But no one can do it for very long. So, when we fall short of the perfectionism which drives us, we deceive ourselves and others. We lie.

Cain lied to cover up his murder. David lied about Bathsheba to cover up his sin. Any sin they committed, or you commit, I can commit. There is no sin we cannot commit. If they lied to compensate for their own failures, so can I. So can you.

We want to hurt those who hurt us. If someone lies to us, we lie to them. To hurt those who hurt us. We lie to get revenge. We repeat half-truths and rumors, we gossip and slander, to hurt people we think we have a right to hurt. After all, they did it to us, right? Saul was convinced David was a threat to him, so he became a threat to David. He lied about him to his son, his family, his nation. If he lied to hurt his enemy, so can I. So can you.

We want to get ahead. We lie to get the account, to close the deal. To impress the girl or the boy. To please our parents. To further our own agenda. Ananias and Sapphira lied about the money they brought to the church, so they could keep some of it for themselves. If they lied to get ahead, so can I. So can you.

We are tempted by Satan himself. Jesus called him “the father of lies” (John 8.44). He helps us along, encouraging us to be less than honest with God, others, and ourselves.

What will God do to punish our sinful words?

Silence them: “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).

Expose them: “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).

Hold us accountable for them: “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10).

How do we get control of our tongues?

Expect to be tempted. Satan’s strategies still work, because human nature doesn’t change.

Speak to people, not about them: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you” (Matthew 18:15).

Say only that which is to God’s glory and our good: “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).

Live with consistent integrity. Be the same person when you talk to someone as when you talk about them. Be the same in private as in public. Be one person, always. Will Rogers once advised, “So live that you would not be ashamed to sell the family parrot to the town gossip.” That’s good advice.

When you sin with speech, confront the issue as soon as possible. Don’t let the malignancy grow. Confess your sin to God. Admit it to those you’ve hurt. This will hurt you, and make it far harder to sin in the same way again.

Don’t listen to the sins of others. Know that if someone will lie about me to you, they’ll probably lie about you to me. Be the one who stops the cycle of lies and rumors and gossip.

Last, stay close to God. Jesus always told the truth. In fact, he was the Truth. Ask his Spirit to fill and control you, to stay right with him as the source of your life. Then all which comes from your heart and lips will be right.


“The ageless question ‘What is Man?’ permits many answers, some frivolous (as Dr. Samuel Johnson discovered when he quoted an ancient philosopher’s definition as a ‘two-legged animal without feathers’ and his rival had a cock plucked bare), some facetious (like Johnson’s own attempt: an animal that cooks its food), some serious. Among the most thoughtful is the description of Man as a speaking animal (homo loquens). Among the species, Man stands alone in commanding the power to use words to communicate ideas, to express personality, and to enter into dialogue. The power of the tongue is a distinctive feature of our race and carries with it all manner of effects, good and ill alike” (Martin 122).

The writer of Proverbs was wise enough to pray, “Keep falsehood and lies far from me” (Proverbs 30:8). Are we that wise today?

Our church in Midland helped a number of villages in the north of Mexico. Their greatest need was always for clean water. The people would typically dig their water well at the lowest spot in the village, because it was easier. But when it rained, refuse from the stables and the houses flowed into the well, contaminating the water.

We learned to drill wells at the highest spot in the village, above every place else, if we wanted the water from those wells to be pure.

Faith at Work

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Are your ambitions pure?

Dr. Jim Denison

James 3:13-18

Verse 13. Who is wise and knowing among you? Let him show by the good behavior his works in meekness of wisdom.

Who returns us to the teachers of 3:1, as speech and wisdom are both liable to abuse (Robertson 45). While “who” may point specifically to teachers, church members at large are included. The problem is that some people who believe they were endowed with superior wisdom and understanding have divided the church because of their teaching; such is a sin of the tongue (Martin 128).

Wise in the Jewish context does not point to a speculative philosopher but a person who possesses practical, moral wisdom (Rienecker 388). Knowing is to possess expert or professional knowledge (Rienecker 388). Good behavior points to the entire manner of life (Johnson 270). Good in this context connotes not only excellence and beauty, but moral purity.

Meekness is submission to God, the opposite of arrogance. Paul warned that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). Wisdom produces works, and is characterized by meekness (Martin 129). Jesus called himself “meek” (Matthew 11:29), and exhorts his followers to display the same character (Matthew 5:5). Wisdom is a desirable quality in the community (Romans 16:19; 1 Corinthians 3:10; 6:5; Ephesians 5:15; Johnson 270), and so requires the model of leaders.

Verse 14. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not exult over and lie against the truth.

Jealousy is “zeal, ” a fierce desire to promote our opinion or agenda to the exclusion or detriment of others (cf. Rienecker 388-9). It can be good: “His disciples remembered that it is written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me'” (John 2:17); or bad: “the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the part of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy” (Acts 5:17). Aristotle defines the word as the sorrow one experiences because someone else is in possession of what one is not. The word denotes the desire to acquire by taking something from another (Johnson 271).

Selfish ambition is the vice of a leader who creates a party for his own pride (Rienecker 389). This was the very problem in Corinth: “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ'” (1 Corinthians 1:10-12).

The term is found only in Aristotle before its appearance in the NT; to him it means “a self-seeking pursuit of political office by unfair means” (Martin 130).

Do not exult could be translated, “stop exulting.” To exult over is to put ourselves over others, to claim that we are superior. James’ opponents could not exalt themselves unless they lie against the truth, for the truth would condemn their “wisdom” and attitudes. Jeremiah gives the lie to all such attitudes: “This is what the Lord says: ‘Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me'” (9:23-24).

Verse 15. This is not the wisdom from above coming down, but earthly, beastly, devilish.

What follows is a negative progression (Johnson 272), proceeding from the natural to the demonic.

Earthly contrasts with heavenly, that which is spiritual; “sensual” (NEB) may be the best translation (Adamson 152). James is not rejecting the flesh, but dealing with the “unspiritual” (RSV). Paul contrasts the “spiritual” and “unspiritual” (1 Corinthians 2:14-15); Jesus makes the same contrast: “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” (John 3:12)

Beastly could be translated “natural,” that which is unspiritual since it is of our lower nature. Devilish calls to mind Paul’s warning: “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (1 Timothy 4:1). It is instigated by the demons themselves (Martin 132).

Verse 16. For where jealousy and contention, there is confusion and every foul deed.

Confusion is disorder, disturbance, trouble. The word often carries political connotations such as “anarchy”; here it relates to the dissention created by those who demand their own rights and exercise a party spirit (Rienecker 389).

Foul deed could be translated “mean practice,’ and could have a lawsuit in mind (cf. James 2:6; Johnson 273). However, James seems to leave the phrase deliberately ambiguous, so that all sins are included: “The wrong kind of wisdom brings about just about every kind of evil practice that one could name” (Moo 174).

Verse 17. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, forbearing, yielding, full of mercy and good fruits, not partial and not pretended.

James is writing well before Paul, and before a theology of the Holy Spirit had been worked out by the church. Nonetheless, the similarity between his list and Paul’s “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23) is noteworthy.

First points to “pure” as “first in rank and time” (Robertson 47) or most important. Without it, nothing else James lists can follow.

Pure implies integrity of character, that which is sincere, moral, and spiritual (Rienecker 389). Peaceable or “peace-giving” is admirable only when it is conditioned by purity; peace at any price is not worthwhile. The word means not just freedom from strife, but wholeness and health, “shalom.” It describes God’s gentle and kind disposition as King (Burdick 191), and suggests the ability to get along with others (Johnson 274).

Forbearing translates epiekes, considered by Barclay (95-6) to be the “most untranslatable” word in the Greek NT. He describes this person as “the man who knows when it is actually wrong to apply the strict letter of the law. He knows how to forgive when strict justice gives him a perfect right to condemn. When knows how to make allowances, when not to stand upon his rights, how to temper justice with mercy, always remembers that there are greater things in the world than rules and regulations.” This person manifests “humble patience, steadfastness which is able to submit to injustice, disgrace, and maltreatment without hatred and malice, trusting in God in spite of all of it” (Rienecker 389); Adamson renders the word “humane” (155).

Yielding means to be compliant, the opposite of disobedience. The term was often used for submission to military or legal leadership or standards (Rienecker 389). Full of mercy reminds us of James’ definition of “mercy” as love for neighbor showing itself in action (2:8-13); thus the connection with “good fruit” here (Moo 176).

Not partial means “not divided,” to be single rather than double in purpose. Not pretended is to be without hypocrisy; it could be rendered “undivided in mind” (Adamson 156

Verse 18. And the fruit of righteousness in peace is sown for those making peace.

Fruit of righteousness could be the fruit which righteousness produces, or which is equivalent to righteousness. Adamson (156) quotes Hort: “St. James cannot too often reiterate his warning, founded on our Lord’s, against anything that bears no fruit, an unfruitful religion, and unfruitful faith, and now an unfruitful wisdom.”

Sown for those or “sown by those.” Making peace shows that only those who sow peace are entitled to reap it (cf. Robertson 48). The phrases together could be translated, “the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace” (Adamson 157).

Theological applications

How can we develop “the humility that comes from wisdom” (v. 13)?

Understand what humility is. The Greek word is tapeinos, meaning “base, cast down, humble, of low degree, lowly.” As a verb, it means to place oneself under or behind others, to put them ahead of ourselves.

Andrew Murray: humility is “simply the sense of entire nothingness, which comes when we see how truly God is all, and in which we make way for God to be all” (Humility 12).

Humility is the opposite of pride and power, the root sins of human nature (cf. Genesis 3:5, “you will be like God”). It is putting God and others before ourselves.

Understand why humility is so important. . C. S. Lewis: “If you want to find out how proud you are the easiest way is to ask yourself, ‘How much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take any notice of me, or shove their oar in, or patronize me, or show off?’ The point is that each person’s pride is in competition with every one else’s pride. It is because I wanted to be the big noise at the party that I am so annoyed at someone else being the big noise. . . . Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If every one else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone” (Mere Christianity 109-110).

Humility removes this element of competition, defeating pride.

Admit your need for humility, the fact that we “harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in our hearts” (vs. 14, 16).

Pride keeps us from God.: “A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you” (Mere Christianity).

Pride infects our spiritual lives: “Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good–above all, that we are better than someone else–I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil. The real test of being in the presence of God is that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether” (Mere Christianity).

Pride hurts our relationships with others: “Pride is spiritual cancer; it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense” (Mere Christianity).

Humility frees us for joy: God “wants you to know him: wants to give you himself. And he and you are two things of such a kind that if you really get into any kind of touch with him you will, in fact, be humble–delightfully humble, feeling the infinite relief of having for once got rid of all the silly nonsense about your own dignity which has made you restless and unhappy all your life. He is trying to make you humble in order to make this moment possible: trying to take off a lot of silly, ugly, fancy-dress in which we have all got ourselves up and are strutting about like the little idiots we are. I wish I had got a bit further with humility myself: if I had, I could probably tell you more about the relief, the comfort, of taking the fancy-dress off–getting rid of the false self, with all its ‘Look at me’ and ‘Aren’t I a good boy?’ and all its posing and posturing. To even get near it, even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to a man in a desert” (Mere Christianity).

Humility helps us be the men we want to be: “Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.

“If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed” (Mere Christianity).

Affirm humility as God does:

•”Better to be lowly in spirit and among the oppressed than to share plunder with the proud” (Proverbs 16:19).

•”A man’s pride brings him low, but a man of lowly spirit gains honor” (Proverbs 29:23).

•”This is what the high and holy One says–he who loves forever, whose name is holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite'” (Isaiah 57:15).

•”Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4).

Admit that you can do nothing of spiritual or eternal significance without God. Note Jesus’ example (Murray, Humility 22):

•”The Son can do nothing of himself” (John 5:19).

•”I can of my own self do nothing” (John 5:30).

•”I came down from heaven, not to do my own will” (John 6:38).

•”My doctrine is not mine” (John 7:16).

•”I have not come of myself” (John 7:28).

•”I do nothing of myself” (John 8:28).

•”Neither came I of myself, but he sent me” (John 8:42).

•”I seek not my own glory’ (John 8:50).

•”The words that I speak unto you, I speak not from myself” (John 14:10).

•”The word which you hear is not mine” (John 14:24).

Choose to humble yourself before God each day:

•”Humility and the fear of the Lord bring wealth and honor and life” (Proverbs 22:4).

•”What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

•”Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (James 4:10).

•”Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29).

Is the next hour of your life yielded to the Holy Spirit of God? Ask of every decision in this day, How can this glorify God?

Choose to humble yourself before others:

•”When you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests” (Luke 14:10).

•”The greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves” (Luke 22:26).

•”By the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you” (Romans 12:3).

•”All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble'” (1 Peter 5:5).

•”A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).

Remember that God will judge you, not by your title but your towel. Whose feet will you wash today?


When was the last time you humbled yourself before the Lord? The last time you put him in charge of your day, your decisions, your ambitions? The last time you obeyed his will and word, even though your pride and standing were injured?

When last did you humble yourself before another person? Put their needs, success, or standing before your own? Pay a price to see them succeed?

Pride keeps God from using us. Humility positions us to be used by God. And so humility is the key to spiritual significance.

The three greatest preachers of the last three generations are probably Charles Spurgeon, Dwight Moody, and Billy Graham. What do they have in common?

Here is what Spurgeon said of himself, recorded in the preface to his collected sermons: “Recollect who I am, and what I am—a child, having little education, little learning, ability, or talent . . . Without the Spirit of God I feel I am utterly unable to speak to you. I have not those gifts and talents which qualify me to speak; I need an afflatus from on high; otherwise, I stand like other men, and have naught to say. May that be given me, for without it I am dumb!” And God used him to preach to 10 million across his ministry.

D. L. Moody was the son of an alcoholic who died when Moody was four years old. He completed seven grades of school. He said of himself: “I know that other men can preach better than I can. All I can say is that when I preach, God uses me.” And he did—more than a million came to Christ through him.

Here is what Billy Graham says of himself: “I have often said that the first thing I am going to do when I get to Heaven is to ask, ‘Why me, Lord? Why did You choose a farmboy from North Carolina to preach to so many people, to have such a wonderful team of associates, and to have a part in what You were doing in the latter half of the twentieth century?’ I have thought about that question a great deal, but I know also that only God knows the answer.” And he has preached to more people than anyone in Christian history.

Why did God use them so? Because they gave their best in humility. They let God be God through them. Who will be next?

Faith at Work

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Are your plans surrendered to God?

Dr. Jim Denison

James 4:13-17

In 1870 the Methodists in Indiana were holding their Annual Conference. At one point in the proceedings, the president of the college where they were meeting said, “I think we are living in a very exciting age.” The presiding bishop asked him, “What do you see for the future?”

The college president responded, “I believe we are coming into a time of great inventions. I believe, for example, that men will fly through the air like birds.” The bishop said, “That’s heresy! The Bible says that flight is reserved for the angels. We’ll have no more such talk here.”

When the Annual Conference was over, Bishop Wright went home to his two small sons. Here they are: Wilbur and Orville.

God’s plan for our lives is always greater than any we can imagine for ourselves. I’d like us to think together about that subject: how can we know that will?

Knowing and doing the will of God is the key to living the abundant Christian life, the life Jesus died for us to experience. All of Christianity reduces to this: what is God’s will? Am I in God’s will?

Where do you need to know God’s will? If you could ask God one question, seek his guidance with one problem, what would it be?

Verse 13. Come now those saying, Today or tomorrow we will go into this city, and we will spend there one year, and we will trade and will make a profit;

Come now is a brusque address to get their attention, something like “listen to me!” Those saying are merchants: mariners, sea and caravan traders, and those who combined domestic and foreign trade (Adamson 178). Business travel was common; cf. Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:2, 18; Romans 16:3) and Lydia (Acts 16:14; Burdick 197). As Jews left Palestine to settle in cities throughout the Mediterranean world, growing commercial activity and commerce would be familiar to James’ readers (Moo 202). What follows is apparently a quotation, something James has heard them say.

Today or tomorrow is the correct reading, not “today and tomorrow” (as in some versions; Robertson 54). The phrase beginning, we will go into this city suggests “deliberate and calculated arrogance. They would go where they liked, and for as long as they liked. Their resolve, together with the refusal to reckon with death, has a modern ring” (Adamson 179). All four verbs in the verse are in the future tense, indicating assurance about what is to come. This city is specific, as though they are pointing at a map or a city on the horizon.

Verse 14. who do not know of the morrow, what for your life? For it is a mist, which for a little appears, and then disappears.

Who do not know of the morrow applies to us all, whether we are wealthy merchants or not. It is foolish to assume that life will transpire as we plan, and wise to assume that whatever happens is under the control of God (Martin 166). Proverbs 27:1 warns us, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.”

Mist is the word for steam rising from a kettle or smoke rising into the wind (Rienecker 392); both are carried away instantly and are no more. James may have in mind the Mediterranean mountain mists familiar to seafaring merchants (Adamson 180). The word expresses the simple idea that life is short. Disappears was used by Aristotle for the migration of birds (Rienecker 392).

Verse 15. Instead of you saying, If the Lord wills, even we will live and we will do this or that;

Now James returns to his dialogue with those in verse 13.

Verse 16. but you boast in your presumptions; all such boasting is evil.

Boast refers to empty boasting which is intended to impress men, extravagant claims which cannot be fulfilled (Rienecker 393).

Verse 17. Then to one knowing good to do, and not doing it, it is sin to him.

This is likely an independent maxim incorporated into the text (note the switch from second to third person; Martin 168). James is fond of closing his argument with proverbs (2:13; 3:18).

Knowing to do good implies that we all know good we are not now doing. James may have in mind the good which the merchants in this section could do with their material gain (Moo 208). We consider such “sins of omission” to be less significant than those of commission. James does not: it is sin to him.

Theological applications

What is your view of history?



Shakespeare’s Macbeth(Act 5, Scene 5):

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing


Does God have a plan for us? (Jeremiah 29:11)

•Some evolutionists say that life began as a chance coincidence, with no particular plan or purpose at all. Existentialists say that this life is all there is, and life is chaos. Martin Heidegger, for instance, wrote that we are actors on a stage, with no script, director, or audience, and courage is to face life as it is. Postmodernists say that truth is relative, and there is no overriding purpose to life. So, does God have a plan for us, or is life a random coincidence? In the words of Shakespeare, are we “sound and fury, signifying nothing”?

•In Jeremiah’s letter God claims, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (v. 11).

oHe has a plan for where and how they should live: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce” (v. 5).

oHe has a plan for the families they should have: “Marry and have sons and daughters” (v. 6).

oHe even has a plan for the country which has enslaved them: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (v. 7).

A plan for where and how we live, the families we raise, and the country we inhabit—what is left out? God has a plan for every part of our lives, according to our text.

•God has a plan for Adam and Eve—where and what to live. A plan for Noah—how to build his ark, right down to the exact specifications and building materials he should use. A plan for Abraham, including where he should live, how old he would be when he had his son, and even that son’s name. A plan for Joseph, using his slavery and imprisonment to save the entire nation. A plan for Moses, encompassing the very words he should say to Pharoah. A plan for Joshua, showing him where and how to take the land. A plan for David and Solomon, for their kingdom and the temple they would build for him. A plan for Daniel, even in the lion’s den.

Jesus had plans for his first disciples—plans they could not have begun to understand. He had a plan for Saul of Tarsus as he left to persecute the Christians in Damascus. He had a plan for John on Patmos. Does he have a plan for you?

Why do we presume on the future?

•”Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth” (Proverbs 27:1).

•”So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?” (Ecclesiastes 3:22).

•”No man knows when his hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them” (Ecclesiastes 9:12).

•”If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into” (Matthew 24:43).

•”And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there” (Acts 20:22).

How does God speak to us?




How can we know his will for our lives? (Romans 12:1-2)

•Transfer ownership of your life to God (v. 1)–total, daily, sacrificial

•Withdraw from the world’s account (v. 2a)

oPossessions over people

oPopularity over principle

oPresent over eternal

•Invest in your daily relationship with your Father (v. 2b)

Is there a sin of omission in your life? Consider these commands from Jesus:

•”All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

•”He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42).

•”Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).

•”A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).

Ignatius of Loyola founded the Jesuits, and made this prayer theirs:

Teach us, Lord, to serve you as you deserve,

To give and not to count the cost,

To fight and not to heed the wounds,

To toil and not to seek for rest,

To labor and not to ask any reward,

Save that of knowing that we do your will. Amen.

And amen.


Are you in his will today?

A great violinist was due in a particular city. The newspaper reports written in advance of his concert, however, devoted most of their attention to the original Strativarius violin he would play. The morning of the concert, the local paper even carried a picture of the great instrument. That night the concert hall filled with people, and the musician played at his best. When he concluded, applause thundered.

Then the violinist raised his instrument over his head, and smashed it across his chair. It splintered into a thousand pieces. The audience gasped in shock. The violinist explained: “I read in this morning’s paper how great my violin was. So I walked down the street and found a pawn shop. For ten dollars I bought this violin. I put some new strings on it, and used it this evening. I wanted to demonstrate to you that it’s not the violin that counts most. It’s the hands that hold the violin.”

No matter how smashed your violin may be, the hands that hold it count most. Hold onto those hands, for they are holding onto you.

Great Risk, Great Reward

Great Risk, Great Reward

Matthew 5:10-16

Dr. Jim Denison

Today’s Bible study has but one point: Jesus rewards most fully those who pay a price to follow him. The greater the cost, the risk, the sacrifice, the greater the life, the joy, the peace, the reward. We progress in proportion to the fare we are prepared to pay (William Barclay). The more it costs us to follow Jesus, the more he rewards us, now and in eternity.

Let’s explore that thesis, and see if it applies to our lives today.

Take a risk for Jesus (vs. 10-12)

Verse 10 is literally translated, “Blessed are the ones who have been and are now being persecuted for the sake of righteousness.” He knew his disciples would pay a price to follow him. And they did.

They were “insulted” (v. 11), subjected to slander, gossip, and ridicule. Their enemies would “falsely say all kinds of evil” against them.

Jesus warned them, “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another” (Matthew 10:23).

They were thrown to the lions, burned at the stake, wrapped in pitch and set alight, sewn in the skins of wild animals and thrown to hunting dogs, tortured on the rack, burned with molten lead and hot tongs. Part of their bodies were cut off and burned before their eyes, hands and feet scorched, children and families executed while they watched. That’s what it cost many of them to follow Jesus.

Those who are serious about their faith still pay a price to follow Jesus.

70 million believers have been executed across Christian history for no reason except that they would not renounce their faith in Christ.

More believers were martyred in the 20th century than in the previous 19 combined.

It is predicted that 500,000 Christians will die for Christ this year around the world.

But here’s the upside: There is great joy in suffering for Jesus. We are “blessed”–the word promises joy transcending all circumstances. We are to “rejoice and be glad” in Christ.

There is great reward in suffering for Jesus: “great is your reward in heaven.” Paul agreed: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). He promised Timothy, “If we endure, we will also reign with him” (2 Timothy 2:12).

There is a great community for those who suffer for Jesus: “in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” You stand with 20 centuries of God’s greatest servants when you suffer for your Lord.

You can ask Carlos Alamino if it is worth it to serve Jesus in Cuba. You can ask Oscar Dellet, our other Cuban pastor and partner, the same question. You can ask the thousands who pack their churches, knowing the government is watching. You can ask those whose children are given the poorest schools, the hardest military assignments, the worst medical care because their parents follow Jesus. But they won’t even understand the question.

Baptism is an especially courageous thing to do in Cuba. It is the time when a believer goes public with his or her faith. Family may reject them; the community may shun them. It is a hard thing for many.

When I participated in a mass baptism during one of my trips to Cuba, I was standing in the middle of the lake when the first person was brought to me. Her husband carried her across the water. I assumed that she was afraid of water, or unable to swim. He handed his wife to me, I baptized her, and handed her back to him. When he picked her up, then I saw that she had only one leg.

Was this public statement of her faith, at all costs, at any price, worth it to her? The joy on her face told me all I needed to know.

How to take a risk for Jesus (vs. 13-16)

How do we take the risk which leads to rewards from God? How do we get this “blessing,” this joy, this great reward from our Father? Jesus will tell us, with two metaphors.

First, “You are the salt of the earth.” Not “you will be” or “you could be” but “you are,” right now. “You” is inclusive, all of them. He says the same to us today. But what does he mean? What does salt do? It changes things. Nothing contacts salt and remains the same. How does it change things?

It purifies, as anyone who has gotten salt in a wound and felt its sting knows. Do you purify your world? Are you the holy presence of God? Are people more holy because of you?

It preserves food. In the ancient world, without refrigeration and preservatives, it was the only means of keeping food for the winter. Are you preserving the souls you meet? Is anyone more ready for eternity because of you?

It seasons food. It was the only seasoning most people could afford. Do you bring the joy of Jesus to your world? Are people happier because of you?

It makes people thirsty. Do you? Do people want the Jesus they see in you? Who was the last person who sought the Lord because of you?

It disappears. When it does its work, it is gone. No food or substance is too good for its transforming power. Are you selfless, willing to do anything to serve God and people, not caring who gets the credit?

If salt doesn’t do these things, it is “no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.” They got their salt from the shores and marshes of the Dead Sea. It was impure, and decomposed. All that was left was white powder, good for nothing. What can you do with salt that doesn’t taste like salt? What good is it?

Jesus’ second metaphor: “You are the light of the world.” Again, Jesus doesn’t say that we might be or could be, but that we are. All of us, right now. “The” light, the only light in this dark world. What does light do?

It guides. It’s been said that a shin is an object for finding furniture in the dark. A flashlight in a dark room is a precious thing. Are you guiding people in the dark to the Lord?

It comforts. Just a little light in a dark room makes all the difference. I read recently about a bank manager who accidentally locked himself in his vault for the weekend. He found the emergency air hole, and knew he would not suffocate. Then he found a tiny door which opened to the light. He said that light got him through those long days and nights. We all need light in the dark. Who is comforted in their dark vault by you?

It attracts. Insects go to light, but so do people. We are drawn instinctively to it. Who is drawn to God because of you?

People don’t “light a lamp and put it under a bowl” but “on its stand, and it gives light to everyone on the house” (v. 15). Oil lamps were hard to light in Jesus’ day. Once you got yours lit, you might put it under a wicker basket at night to shield it so you could sleep. But no one lit a lamp for that purpose. They put it on the “stand,” a shelf built into the wall, so it could give light to the house.

What good is a light you can’t see?


Now you have a choice to make. You can keep your salt in the saltshaker, your light under the basket. No one will criticize or reject your salt for its flavor if you do. No one will criticize or reject your light for its appearance if you do. That is definitely the safest thing to do today. Make sure Jesus is your Savior, that you’ll be in heaven. Worship and serve him in the church, among fellow Christians. Do your religious duty, but nothing more. If you’re looking for safety and security, do just that.

But know this: no risk, no reward. Not in heaven, or on earth. Not in your faith, or your life. Your life won’t matter, now or when it’s done. You’ll miss the joy of Christianity, the abundant life Jesus came to give us. We love God by loving our neighbor. We serve Jesus by serving others. When we breathe out, we can breathe in. When we give, we can receive. When we share our faith, we grow in our faith. Serving others serves Jesus. And it serves us as well.

The next time you have a chance to serve effectively, to evangelize joyfully, to pay a price for your faith, to suffer for your Savior, remember this: no risk, no reward.

If you want your life to matter, you have to take a chance. The only people who can change the outcome of a basketball game are the players on the court. Not those on the sideline. Not the spectators in the stands. Only those willing to take the risk, to face the possibility of failing, to withstand the criticism of those who only watch–they are the only ones who make a difference. No one else.

That’s why Dirk Nowitzki is my favorite Dallas Mavericks player. I realize that I’m not the only fan who feels that way. But my admiration for Dirk may be a bit different from some.

You may not know his story. Dirk was playing in Germany when Don and Donnie Nelson found him. He signed a contract to play in the NBA, in Dallas. He was 19 years old, spoke almost no English, and had never seen Dallas. Many of us have sons or daughters the same age. Can you imagine sending yours to Germany to do what Dirk did here?

He was too skinny for the NBA, the critics said. He’d never make it. But from the beginning, he wanted the ball. He wanted to take the shot when the game was on the line. He still does. The other night he took the ball with four seconds left, his team down by a point. He drove to the basket and was fouled (at least in the opinion of all of us who watched impartially). The foul wasn’t called, and his team lost. But he’ll want the ball the next game, and the next. Because he knows a simple fact: if you don’t shoot, you can’t score.

Because he’ll take a risk, he’s our best player. And the NBA’s player of the month, for the second time this year. And a candidate for Most Valuable Player in the league. And’s person of the week. Not because he makes every shot, but because he’ll take every shot. No risk, no reward. Great risk, great reward. It’s just that simple.

Hear again Teddy Roosevelt’s famous quote:

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; who does actually try to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.

No risk, no reward. Great risk, great reward. The next time you have a chance to pay a price for following Jesus, remember that fact. And choose well.

Putting Your Eggs in One Basket

Putting Your Eggs in One Basket

Matthew 28:1-10

Dr. Jim Denison

He was a new clerk at the supermarket, his first day on the job. A lady told him she wanted to buy half a head of lettuce. He said, “I’ll have to go back and talk to the manager.” He went to the rear of the store, not noticing that the woman was walking right behind him. He found the manager and said, “There’s some stupid old lady out there that wants to buy half a head of lettuce. What should I tell her?”

Seeing the horrified look on the manager’s face, he turned around and, seeing the woman, added, “And this nice lady wants to buy the other half. Will that be all right?” The relieved manager agreed.

Later that day, the manager congratulated the boy on his quick thinking and asked where he was from. The boy said, “I’m from Toronto, Canada, the home of beautiful hockey players and ugly women.” The manager said, “My wife is from Toronto.” The boy said, “Oh, what team did she play for?”

I’m going to assume today that you’re as smart as that young man. That you know that reindeer don’t fly, and the Easter bunny isn’t real, and bodies don’t rise from the dead. If a friend of yours dies this week and you go to the “viewing” at the funeral home, you’ll expect to find his body in the casket. If it’s not there, you’ll consider these possibilities: (a) you’ve gone to the wrong viewing room at the funeral home; (b) the morticians have moved the body; (c) a family member or friend has taken it; (d) the person didn’t really die, and it’s all a mistake; or (e) you’re hallucinating, grieving so that you’ve lost touch with reality. These are your only logical options. Or maybe there’s one more.

I’d like to tell you two very personal stories regarding the resurrection. Next to my decision in 1973 to trust Christ as my Savior, these two stories are the most important events that have happened to my soul. I hope they’ll happen to yours as well this morning.

Then this will be Resurrection Sunday, not just a holiday but a holy day, for you today.

Is Easter real?

It was February of my senior year in college. My father had just died two months earlier. Janet and I were engaged to be married. In three months I would graduate and move to seminary to begin a life in vocational ministry. And the roof fell in.

I was taking part in a college retreat in East Texas. That Saturday morning, I woke up with the greatest fears and doubts I have ever experienced in my life. What was I doing? Where was I heading? Was I sure this was what I wanted to do with my life? I had become a Christian six years earlier, but my faith had been easy to this point. Church, worship, friends.

Now I was about to put my future on the line, to spend the rest of my life preaching and teaching the word of God. Was I sure it was really true? Did I really want to do this? In Easter terms, did I want to put all my eggs in this basket?

I left the retreat on that Saturday morning and went for a very long walk. I can still remember the blue sky overhead, the crunch of the winter leaves beneath my feet as I hiked through the woods. In my mind I returned to the first Easter. Go there with me now.

As the story begins, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb” (v. 1). Why here? Because they had seen Jesus buried (Matthew 27:61) and knew this to be the place. Even if they were wrong, Joseph (the owner of the tomb) would have corrected the mistake. If he did not, the Roman soldiers and authorities would have and quickly produced the body. So we haven’t come to the wrong viewing room.

When the angel rolled back the stone, the guards “shook” and fainted. So the soldiers didn’t take the body. Even if other Roman or religious authorities did, and Christians began erroneously proclaiming the resurrection, they would have produced the corpse and proved them liars. The morticians didn’t move the body.

“The angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified” (v. 5).”

Jesus “was crucified”–the Greek is completed action, something already done. The Roman medical examiner pronounced him dead; the spear thrust into his side had pierced the pericardial sac around his heart, ensuring his death.

The burial cloths wrapped around his corpse made an airtight seal which would have suffocated him, even if he survived the cross. John’s gospel tell us that when Peter and John saw these burial cloths, they were collapsed on themselves, not stripped off; the body inside simply vanished (John 20:5-7).

He didn’t swoon, or fake his death. Ancient historians Tacitus, Seutonius, Mara bar Serapion and Josephus all confirm that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate. It’s not a mistake–he really did die.

The angel continues: “He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him'” (vs. 6-7).

So we know that the disciples and women didn’t steal the body. They were as confused as anybody. They would not later lie about the resurrection, then die for a lie. And we know that they were not hallucinating; Peter and John would soon see the empty tomb, and the risen Christ would appear to more than 500 people (1 Corinthians 15:6).

That Saturday morning, on that long walk, I mulled over the evidence. And came to this logical conclusion: Jesus Christ really did rise from the dead. If he is raised, he must be God and Lord. He must be worth my life and service. His resurrection is the rope from which we swing. We put all our eggs in this basket. Easter is real. I hope you’ve come to the same conclusion, or that you will today.

Is it relevant?

But does it matter? Easter is a nice story, a lovely tradition, a time with your family in church and around the table, then we’re done. We move on. We’ve made a holy day into a holiday. What’s wrong with that? Why does the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead matter to our lives now, 20 centuries later?

Take another trip with me. It is the Monday of Holy Week in 1997. I’m with our ministry staff from my church in Atlanta, at a retreat center. We are given an essay by the well-known Christian writer, Mike Yaconelli. I’ve read and used it so many times since that it’s become part of me. Mike’s essay begins this way:

I lost my soul. I mean, I didn’t know I had one. What I really mean is, I knew I had one, but I had never come in contact with it.

I came from a tradition where souls were a theological reality, not a faith reality. Souls were for saving, not for communing. Souls were for converting and, once they were converted, they were to be left alone. Souls were too mystical, too subjective, too ambiguous, too risky.

I came from a wonderful tradition that has always lifted up the integrity of the Word of God, the significance of the Church, the centrality of salvation. But that same tradition, in the past few years, as seen an epidemic of moral failure. In a tradition that has always placed a high value on morality, moral failure has become a common occurrence. There seems to be an ever-increasing amount of defections from the faith. More and more of my friends are dropping out, giving up, or just placing their faith on the shelf for awhile.

Why? We have lost touch with our souls. We have been nourishing our minds, our relational skills, our theological knowledge, our psychological well-being, our physiological health . . . but we have abandoned our souls. Our souls have been lost.

I read the essay, then went for a walk. Sitting on a wooden deck overlooking a waterfall on the retreat grounds, the risen Christ spoke to me. I never use that phrase. I have never heard God’s audible voice. But on that Monday before Easter, Jesus’ Spirit spoke to my spirit as tangibly as if his words were audible. He made me realize that I had lost touch with my soul. I was so busy doing the work of the Lord that I had lost touch with the Lord. Mike’s essay described the state of my soul:

I became aware that my whole life was consumed with doing rather than being. I knew what it meant to believe in Jesus, I did not know what it meant to be with Jesus. I knew how to talk about Jesus, I did not know how to sit still long enough to let Jesus talk to me. I found it easy to do the work of God, but I had no idea how to let God work in me. . . . I knew how to be busy, but I did not know how to be still. . . . I could meet God anywhere, except in my heart, in my soul, in my being.

Sitting on that wooden deck, I could not remember the last time I prayed just to be with Jesus rather than to ask him for something. The last time I read his word just to hear from him, rather than to prepare a message or complete the day’s Bible study. The last time I sat in silence and listened to him. The last time I told him that I loved him.

I believed he was alive and real, but he wasn’t alive and real in me. That day I realized that he wants me to love him before he wants me to serve him. He wants me to walk with him, to pray to him, to listen to his voice in his word, to worship him, to do life with him. Not just go to church and do the work of the ministry, but love the Lord of the church and the Lord of the ministry. To serve because he loves me, not so he will. To stay close to Jesus every day, not just on Easter or Sunday.

That Monday before Easter I learned this fact: If we believe that Jesus is alive, and act as though he is, he will be for us. He will be as real to us as he was to the women in our text. They came to believe intellectually that he was alive, but then they met him personally. “Greetings,” he said (v. 9a); the Greek word is “Rejoice!” And they “clasped his feet and worshiped him” (v. 9b), and then told his disciples and the world that he was alive.

Because they had found him to be alive in their souls.


The first Easter changed nothing for those who did not believe in Jesus’ resurrection intellectually, or meet the living Lord personally. Will this latest Easter in Christian history do any more for you? Will you be any different when you leave than when you entered?

“Come and see the place where he lay” (v. 6). Consider the evidence. Examine the options. Understand that the tomb is still empty, and there’s no explanation except that Jesus Christ rose from the dead on Sunday, April 19, AD 29. Accept the truth that Easter is real.

Now “clasp his feet and worship him” (v. 9). Abandon the self-sufficient, self-reliant way of life for which our culture is so famous. Ask the living Lord to guide your days and decisions. Start tomorrow by praying to him and listening to his voice through his word. Tell him you love him. Join us again next Sunday as we worship him. If you believe Jesus is alive, and act as though he is, he will be. Easter will be both real and relevant. And this will be Resurrection Sunday for you.

Mike Yaconelli’s essay closes:

God had been trying to shout over the noisiness of my life, and I couldn’t hear him. But in the stillness and solitude, His whispers shouted from my soul, “Michael, I am here. I have been calling you. I have been loving you, but you haven’t been listening. Can you hear me, Michael? I love you. I have always loved you. And I have been waiting for you to hear Me say that to you. But you have been so busy trying to prove to yourself that you are loved that you have not heard Me.”

I heard Him, and my slumbering soul was filled with the joy of the prodigal son. My soul was awakened by a loving Father who had been looking and waiting for me. . . .

It feels very different now. There is an anticipation, an electricity about God’s presence in my life that I have never experienced before. For the first time in my life I can hear Jesus whisper to me every day, “Michael, I love you. You are beloved.” And for some strange reason, that seems to be enough.

I can tell you that it is.