Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Christmas is worth Defending

I. The Sign of the Virgin

During Christmas and Advent celebrations we focus much on the family of the Messiah or in our language the Christ. But liberal scholarship has been trying to make a point of the plain human and non-divine nature of the Messiah.

Topic: Proper understanding and ability to defend the virgin birth.

Complement: Believers who do not understand Messianic prophesies are missing an important part of their sanctification knowledge.

1A The Controversy

Isaiah 7:13-14 is a prophecy concerning the virgin conception and the birth of the Messiah. This is perhaps the most controversial of the messianic prophecies and therefore requires a closer textual analysis than others. The exact meaning of this passage is disputed by rabbis, liberal theologians, and even by some evangelical theologians.

1B The passage talks of “a sign: The virgin will be with child...” There are two areas of controversy here:

1C. The sign:

Since the context of the chapter requires a short range prophecy – giving a sign to King Ahaz – how can this be applied to the birth of a child some 700 years later, as claimed in Matthew 1:22-23?

2C. The Hebrew word “almah: Does it really mean a virgin, or simply a young unmarried woman? We will deal with both of these contentious issues before proceeding to discuss the passage itself.

2B Hermeneutics and why does it matter?

Since Isaiah 7:13-14 requires an immediate sign to King Ahaz, many Evangelicals have taken this verse to be an example of “double fulfillment.” This principle states that a prophecy may have more than one fulfillment. This verse may, accordingly, be both a sign for King Ahaz and the sign in Matthew 1:22-23 for the birth of Jesus.

1C This author does not accept the principle of double fulfillment either here or in any other place in the Bible. If this principle were true, there would be no real need for the virgin birth at all.

2C There is another, better principle of biblical interpretation which is “double reference.” This principle states that one block of Scripture dealing with one person, one event, one time, may be followed by another block of Scripture dealing with a different person, place, and time, without making any clear distinction between the two blocks or indicating that there is a gap of time between the two blocks. The act of a gap of time is known only from other Scriptures.

3C There are, therefore, two separate prophecies side by-side each having their own fulfillment, but with only one fulfillment per prophecy. “Double Fulfillment” states that one prophecy can have two fulfillments. “Double Reference” states that the one piece of Scripture actually contains two prophecies, each having its own fulfillment. Isaiah 7:13-17 contains two quite separate prophecies with different purposes, and having different fulfillments at different times.

3B The Hebrew Word Almah

The major debate, of course, is over the exact meaning of the Hebrew word almah, translated here as virgin. In describing a young woman, there are three Hebrew words which Isaiah could have used:

1C Na’a’rah

Na’a’rah means “damsel” and can refer to either a virgin (as in I Kings 1:2), or a non-virgin (as in Ruth 2:6).

2C Betulah

This is commonly considered to mean a virgin, exclusively. It is argued that if Isaiah had really meant to say a virgin, the he would have used this word. It is true that this word is often used to mean virgin, but not always. For example:

1D In Joel 1:8 it is used in reference to a widow.

2D In Genesis 24:16, because the word does not exclusively mean “virgin” the writer adds the phrase “had never known a man” in order to clarify what he means.

3D Again in Judges 21:12 the phrase “had not known a man” has to be added to give the precise meaning.

3C Almah

Almah means “a virgin,” “a young virgin,” a “virgin of marriageable age.” This word is used seven times in the Hebrew Scriptures and not once is it used to describe a married woman; this point is not debated.

1D Genesis 24:43. In contrast to 24:16 mentioned above, verse 43 requires no additional qualifying remarks since the one word alone is sufficient to mean “virgin.” Furthermore, it is used of Rebekah who was obviously a virgin at the time of her marriage to Isaac.

2D Exodus 2:8. Used in reference to Moses’ sister Miriam, who was a virgin.

3D Psalm 68:25. Used in reference to the royal procession of virgins. Since the King in this context is God Himself, absolute virginity is required; it is unthinkable that God would allow unchaste, unmarried women in His procession.

4D Song of Songs 1:3. The context here is purity in marriage.

5D Song of Songs 6:8. The word is used here in contrast to wives and concubines who would obviously be non-virgins.

6D Proverbs 30:18-19. The word is used in verse 19 in contrast to an adulteress in verse 20.

7D Isaiah 7:14. Since all of the above six verses mean “a virgin,” what reason is there for making Isaiah 7:14 the only exception?

Since everyone agrees that almah means an unmarried woman, if the woman in Isaiah 7:14 were a non-virgin, then God would be promising a sign involving fornication and illegitimacy. It is unthinkable that God would sanction sin, and in any case, what would be so unusual about an illegitimate baby that could possibly constitute a sign?

As far as ancient Jewish writers were concerned, there was no argument about Isaiah 7:14 predicting a virgin birth. The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures made about 200 B.C., 200 years before the issue of Jesus’ Messiahship ever arose. The Jews who made this translation, living much closer to the times of Isaiah than we do today, translated Isaiah 7:14 using the Greek word partheno" which very clearly and exclusively means a virgin. There can therefore be no doubt that the unique event which God is promising as a sign, is the miraculous conception of a son by a girl who is still a virgin.

Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel. Isaiah 7:4

Why the extended treatment of the context surrounding this verse? In preparing to apply this passage we need to understand what God was saying to Ahaz and why it is important to defending the virgin birth.

II. Satanic Activity to Destroy the Messiah

2A The Threat to the House of David – 7: 1-2

At this point in history there was an empire arising which was threatening the smaller kingdoms of the Middle East – the Assyrian Empire.

Among these smaller kingdoms was Syria (or Aram), the northern Kingdom of Israel (or Ephraim), and the southern Kingdom of Judah. The kings of Israel and Syria joined forces against their common enemy (verses 1-2), but still did not have enough military might to withstand an Assyrian attack. They invited Judah to join forces with them, but Ahaz, King of Judah, refused.

Israel and Syria then conspired, not only to dethrone Ahaz, when they might have succeeded, but to depose the entire House of David. This is the emphasis in verse 2. They would then establish a new dynasty in Judah more favorable to an alliance against Assyria.

This, then, is a direct attack upon God’s eternal covenant with David. It is therefore doomed to failure. (The Davidic Covenant is discussed under 1 Chronicles 17:10b-14 in the section on The Writings.)

3A The Message to Ahaz – 7:3-9

Ahaz is not a worshipper of the one true God, but has fallen into idolatry and is very much afraid of the approaching attack (verse 2). In verses 3-9 God gives a message to Ahaz. In verse 3, Isaiah is commissioned to meet with Ahaz, who is inspecting water supplies in preparation for a siege. Isaiah is also to take his son with him. His son is called Shear Jashub, meaning “a remnant will return.” The reason for taking his son is not explained until verses 15-16.

In verses 4-6 the message is given, describing the plot and telling Ahaz not to be afraid. The plot consists of overthrowing Ahaz and replacing him with the son of Tabeel. Isaiah was a master of the Hebrew language and loved playing word games. He does so here in verse 6. Tabeel means “God is good.” By altering the vowel pattern very slightly, Isaiah changes this to mean “good for nothing.” The one that means “God is good” will prove to be “good for nothing.” Because of the Davidic Covenant, no conspiracy against the House of David can ever succeed. God clearly states this in verse 7, and in verses 8-9 God will judge the two kinds involved in the conspiracy.

4A The Signs of Deliverance – 7:10-17

1B The offer of a Sign – 7:10-11

Ahaz, however, is an idolater who does not trust in God and has made his own arrangements. He has sent letters and gifts to the Assyrian Emperor, asking for assistance in his defense against these two kings. He has greater faith in the Assyrian Empire than in the god of Israel. So, inverse 10, God speaks a second time. He offers Ahaz a sign – whatever it takes to convince Ahaz not to fear, not to trust the Assyrians, but to trust in God. Whatever it takes let him ask for it and God will do it for him. The word for “sign” does not of itself mean a miracle; it could be a miraculous or a natural sign. Within this context, however, it is clear that it will take a miracle to convince Ahaz. God offers him a sign anywhere he wants – in heaven on earth, under the earth – whatever it takes to convince him.

2B The Rejection of the Offer – 7:12

In response, the idolatrous Ahaz suddenly becomes very spiritual. In verse 12 he refuses to “test” God or “tempt” Him. This is a reference to Deuteronomy 6:16, but he misapplies it. Nevertheless, it is evident that even in idolatry; Ahaz was not ignorant of the true God! Deuteronomy 6:16 warns against asking for a sign, but here God is offering a sign and Ahaz is invited to respond. Ahaz does not want a sign, lest it come to pass, and he be forced to abandon his alliance with Assyria. The come the crucial verses, 13 and 14.

3B The Sign to the House of David – 7:13-14

In verse 13, Isaiah turns from addressing Ahaz as an individual and addresses the entire House of David. The English language does not distinguish between “you” addressed to one person and “you” addressed to many people. In Hebrew there is a difference, and there is a clear change between the singular “you” of verses 9,11,16,17 and plural “you” of verses 13-14. The sign therefore is not just for Ahaz, but for the whole House of David. This becomes clearer if we state the passage again with the singular [s] and plural [pl] words indicated.

7:9 …and the head of Ephraim is Samaria and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah.  If you [s] will not believe, you [s] surely shall not last.”’” 10 Then the Lord spoke again to Ahaz, saying, 11 “Ask a sign for yourself [s] from the Lord your God; make it deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” 12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, nor will I test the Lord!” 13 Then he said, “Listen now, O house of David! Is it too slight a thing for you [pl] to try the patience of men, that you [pl] will try the patience of my God as well? 14 “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you [pl] a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel. 15 “He will eat curds and honey at the time He knows enough to refuse evil and choose good. 16 “For before the boy will know enough to refuse evil and choose good,  the land whose two kings you [s] dread will be forsaken. 17 “The Lord will bring on you [s], on your people, and on your father’s house such days as have never come since the day that Ephraim separated from Judah, the king of Assyria.”

1C In verse 14, the Hebrew word for “behold” is a word which draws attention to an event which could be past, present or future. However, grammatically, whenever “behold” is used with the Hebrew present participle, it always refers to a future event. That is the case here. Not only is the birth future, but the very conception is future. This is not referring to a pregnant woman about to give birth.

2C The text specifically says “the virgin” (the NIV and NKJV are correct at this point; the NASB like most translations says “a virgin,” which is quite wrong.) According to the rules of Hebrew grammar, when finding the use of a definite article (the), the reader should look for a reference in the immediate previous context. Having followed the passage from chapter 7:1, there has been no mention of any woman. Having failed with the immediate context, the second rule is the “principle of previous reference,” something which has been dealt with much earlier and is common knowledge among the people. Where in Jewish Scripture or tradition is there any concept of t “the virgin giving birth to a son”? The only possible reference is to Genesis 3:15. Contrary to the biblical norm, the Messiah would be reckoned after the Seed of the Woman. Why? Because He would have no human father; His would be a virgin conception and birth.

3C The key point of this should not be missed. God is promising that the House of David cannot be deposed or lose its identity until the birth of a virgin-born son. Again, the requires that Messiah be born prior to the destruction of the Temple and its genealogical records in 70 A.D.

4B The Sign to Ahaz – 7:15-17

Having concluded that Isaiah 7:12-14 is a long range prophecy concerning the birth of Messiah, that still leaves a problem. What about Ahaz? An event 700 years in the future is of little significance to him. There is however a second sign in verses 15-17, and this time it is specifically for Ahaz. The “you” in verse 16 is again singular, meaning Ahaz. Before Isaiah’s son is old enough to make moral distinctions between right and wrong, the kings of Israel and Syria will be deposed and their threat removed. This was fulfilled within three years. Isaiah again uses the definite article before the term “boy.” This time there is another boy mentioned in the context: Isaiah’s son. The boy of verse 16 cannot be the son of verse 14 but refers back to Isaiah’s son in verse 3. Why else was Isaiah commanded to take him?

III. Summary and Application of Isaiah 7: 1-17

In Isaiah chapter 7, King Ahaz, the King of Judah, is under threat of attack. This threat is not only to him personally but to the whole House of David. Through the Prophet Isaiah, God tells King Ahaz to be at peace and to be unafraid. Two reasons are given, two signs which guarabtee God’s promise of security. The first sign, in verses 13 and 14, is that no attempt to destroy the House of David will succeed until the birth of a virgin-born son. The term “virgin” is required both by the Hebrew vocabulary and the context. The second sign, in verses 15 and 16, is given to Ahaz personally. God promises that the attack upon him by Israel and Syria will not succeed, and before Isaiah’s son, Shear-Jashub, reaches an age of moral maturity, the two enemy kings will cease to exist.

Isaiah 7:14 and the context of this passage teach us that:

1. The Messiah would be born of a girl who is still a virgin; the explanation of Genesis 3:15

2. Messiah will be the God-Man

3. Messiah will be a King

4. Messiah must be born prior to the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

The many Jews missed the coming of the Messiah because they did not know the scriptures. May we continue to look diligently into the Bible to see and be watchful for the coming King who was born in a manger in Bethlehem!

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Faith That Doesn’t Play Favorites - James 2:1-13

Topic: Improper External Expressions of Religion
Complement: Believers who with an attitude of partiality towards others (like the rich) will be judged by God without partiality. (2:1-13)

James introduces a hypothetical situation involving two very different people who receive two very different responses: The rich man gets preferential treatment; the poor man is treated like a second-class citizen. James argues that everyone deserves preferential treatment, and those who provide it selectively are guilty before God. He concludes this section with a powerful passage that describes one of the clearest—and most difficult—ways you and I can love our neighbor as ourselves: By extending mercy and forgiveness. Once again, James unapologetically challenges us with some very difficult teachings. A. We should stop holding our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of partiality (who will come again as judge) because that would divide the assembly, and demonstrate that they are judges with false standards of judgment, and demean someone God has chosen to be an heir of the kingdom. (2:1-5)

My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality.

James’ is telling the hearers of this letter that they should stop holding their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of partiality toward others. (2:1)

It reminds me of the teacher’s pet—not a name we like to be called when we are kids. We don’t want anyone to think that we receive special treatment, even if it is true! I know that I never liked the person who was the teacher’s pet, but I liked the teacher even less for having favorites! Even as adults we often play favorites. We defer to those with power, money, or status.

Even in the church we are guilty of giving preference to some over others. The same problem was found in the churches of James’ day, and he decided to deal with it in a straightforward way! James begins by setting down a principle in verse 1, which might be paraphrased in this way: “Favoritism is not compatible with the Christian faith.” This principle is rooted in the character of God, who does not show partiality, and who commands His people not to do so, either:

For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God and awesome warrior who is unbiased and takes no bribe, who acts justly toward orphan and widow, and who loves resident foreigners, giving them food and clothing (Deuteronomy 10:17-18).

In the Greek, this word for partiality came to be used of any form of improper preferential treatment. In the New Testament it always denotes favoritism or partiality, a biased judgment based on external circumstances….

Also note that James (as he has done in this letter up to this point) addresses the readers as believers.

For if there should come into your synagogue a man with a gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and your pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “you sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,”…

James now provides an illustration of the principle he has just stated. He sets the scene in church. Two men enter the church at the same time. One of the two is wealthy. He is wearing a gold ring and “fine clothing.” Literally, he is wearing “shining” or “bright” clothing. The rich man is dressed in a way that is intended to display his wealth. He wants others, including the usher, to know that he is a man of wealth? Why? Because he desires to be treated with partiality. The other man (who arrives at the same time as the rich man) is poor. His clothes give him away. The difference is that the rich man is purposely wearing clothing that signals his wealth to others. The poor man has nothing else to wear. His clothing sends a signal that he does not really desire. The poor man’s clothing is not just old, and it is not just ragged. Literally, the poor man’s clothing is filthy. This same word “filthy” is used only one other time in the New Testament, in Revelation 22:11, where it describes those who are morally filthy, and who will not enter into the kingdom of God.

The reason we should not be partial to the rich is because that would be divisive to our assembly. (2:2-4a)

…have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

The usher (“you”) immediately responds. He does not disappoint the rich man. The brightly attired guest is given a warm welcome and ushered to one of the finest seats; the poor man is barely tolerated and told to stand off out of the way, or to sit at the usher’s feet. (Notice that this man is not only given the poorest seating, but he is not allowed to sit on anything that he might soil with his filthy garments.) In responding to wealth and poverty in this way, the usher (or, in reality, the church) is guilty of sin. James will press this point home with several powerful arguments in verses 5-13.

The reason we should not have an attitude of partiality is because that would constitute us as judges of our fellow Christians with false standards of judgment. (2:4b)

The first argument or principal is in showing preferential treatment to the rich, one acts contrary to Christ (verses 5-6a).

Listen my beloved brethren: Has not God chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?

The reason why we should not have an attitude of partiality is because God has chosen the poor Christian who is rich in faithfulness to be an heir of the kingdom which He promised to those who love (equals to obey) Him. (2:5)

It is no wonder, then, that we would read these words from the lips of our Lord:

Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God belongs to you.
Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and jump for joy, because your reward is great in heaven. For their ancestors did the same things to the prophets (Luke 6:20b-23).

This contrast is evident in many scriptures in the Gospels and the rest of the NT. One point for us all to consider is that the poor person described by James is one of heirs of the Kingdom. Just as Christ will inherited the Kingdom by His obedience to God the Father:

Ask of Me, and I will give You The nations for Your inheritance, And the ends of the earth for Your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron; You shall dash them to pieces like a potter’s vessel. (Psalm 2:8-9)

So the Kingdom is promised to those who love God and they will inherit it as co-heirs as well for their obedience:

If we endure, we shall also reign with Him. (2 Tim 2:12)

And he who overcomes, and keeps My works until the end, to him I will give power over the nations— He shall rule them with a rod of iron; They shall be dashed to pieces like the potter’s vessels’— as I also have received from My Father; and I will give him the morning star. (Rev 2:16-28)

In contrast to God’s choice of the poor Christian James’ points out that his readers should not have dishonored the poor by preferential treatment of the rich, because the rich normally oppress them by abusing the legal process for their own benefit, and because the rich normally oppress them by abusing the legal process for their own benefit. (2:6-7)

James now moves on from God's choice of the poor Christian to another principal. This Second principal is to show partiality toward the rich flies in the face of our experience and common sense (verses 6b-7).

But have you not dishonored the poor man?

His readers (which include us) should not have dishonored the poor by preferential treatment of the rich because the rich as a group are normally the ones who dishonor the readers. (2:6a)

Do not the rich oppress you…

His readers should not dishonor the poor by being partial to the rich is because the rich as a group are normally the ones who oppress the readers. (2:6b)

...and drag you into court?

His readers should not dishonor the poor is because the rich normally oppress them by abusing the legal process for their own benefit. (2:6c)

Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you have been called?

Another reason why his readers should not dishonor the poor is because the rich normally oppress them by abusing the legal process for their own benefit. (2:7)

Remember that James is writing to Jewish Christians who are dispersed among the nations. They have begun to experience persecution. Some of their poverty was the direct result of their generosity (see Acts 2:44-46; 4:32-37), and some was the result of persecution because of following Christ (see Hebrews 10:32-34). The rich were quick to drag them into court. They could afford the legal costs and could also influence the outcome of the trial. As a rule, the rich were not a friend to the Jewish saints; they were their enemy. Why, then, would anyone show favoritism to their opponents?

The command of Christ to love your enemy to do good to those who spitefully use you. My first house building project ended in disaster and the builder had identified himself as a believer. When I sought legal counsel, the lawyer was stunned that I would not sue. When he pressed the issue I spoke to him about 1 Corinthians 6. In the end God provided a couple who was looking for just this situation and they bought the land and unfinished house.

And if this personal insult and injury were not enough to James readers, the rich were also those who were blaspheming the very name of our Lord (compare Psalm 73:1-14, especially verses 8-9).

Favoring the rich is contrary to all good reason.

A third principal James is making is that to show partiality toward the rich was to break God’s law (verses 8-11)

James is contrasting to the preferential treatment of the rich to the ideal of his readers continuing to do good deeds (2:8)

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” you do well

James’ starts this section by exhorting his readers to continue to do good deeds. (2:8a)

The reason why his readers should continue to do good deeds is because they have looked into the law that Christ gave (the mirror we talked about before in the previous sermon) that requires unconditional not preferential love for one’s neighbor. (2:8b)

The result of continuing to give preferential treatment to the rich is that they will be committing sin. (2:9-11)

The royal law commanded God’s people to “love their neighbors as themselves” (note the emphasis on “as”). Their neighbors included the wealthy and the poor (see Luke 10:29-37 parable of the Good Samaritan). The “as” means that we must love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We must love our neighbors with the same level of concern and care that we have for ourselves. But in addition to meaning that we must love our neighbors and ourselves equally, James insists that we must love each of our neighbors equally, not treating one neighbor better than another.

The royal law of Christ calls for equality. Showing partiality violates the principle of “equal treatment under the law.” To show partiality to the rich and to discriminate against the poor is to break God’s law. And to break God’s law in this one matter is to become a violator of the whole law. These Jews to whom James wrote were no doubt scrupulous in keeping other parts of the law, but James says that this is of no value if the law is broken in the matter of dealing equally with our neighbors.

Thus, we may not be guilty of breaking the law by committing adultery, but if we murder, then we are lawbreakers anyway. To break the law at one point is to break the whole law. Those who show partiality to others are law-breakers.

...but if you show partiality you commit sin, ...

The result of continuing to give preferential treatment to the rich by James readers is that the believers in that congregation will be committing sin. (2:9a)

...and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

The reason why James can claim that they will be committing sin is because they have been convicted by the law of Christ as a transgressor. (2:9b)

For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.

The reason that James can claim that they have been convicted by the law of Christ as a transgressor is because the law of love is a unity that results in guilt for only one violation of a commandment to love your neighbor. (2:10)

For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do commit murder…

The reason why the law is a unity is because of the unity of essence of the Lawgiver. (2:11a)

...you have become a transgressor of the law.

The result of the law being a unity is that one broken commandment results in the total transgression of the law. (2:11b)

As a result of the possibility of transgressing the law of love James highlights the manner in which his readers should speak and act is in the same manner as those who are destined to be judged by the law that sets men free from sin (2:12-13)

So the fourth and final principal, is if we show partiality in our judgments we ignore the certainty of consequences when we stand before Christ as our Judge.

So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty ...

James points out the manner in which his readers should speak and act is in the same manner as those who are destined to be judged by the law that sets men free from sin. (2:12)

For judgment will be without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy.

The reason why his readers should speak and act like those who are to be judged by the law that set men free from sin is because judgment will be without mercy to those who have not shown mercy in words or actions. (2:13)

Mercy triumphs over judgment.

This is contrast to the reason why his readers should speak and act like those who are destined to be judged by the law that sets men free is because those who have shown mercy will boast in triumph at the judgment. (i.e. they will be rewarded) (2:13b)

There is a day of judgment coming for all men. There is a judgment for unbelievers (John 5:22-29; Acts 17:30-31; Hebrews 9:27), just as there is a different day of judgment for the saints (1 Corinthians 3:10-15). If we have not shown mercy to those in need, then we should not expect God to be merciful to us in their day of judgment. Jesus own words are very sobering on this:

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy (Matthew 5:7).

Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For by the standard you judge you will be judged, and the measure you use will be the measure you receive (Matthew 7:1-2; see also 18:21-25).

But is not going to be the OT law by which Christians will be judged, but rather by the law of liberty to which has already been referred to in verse 1:15. The qualifying phrase of liberty clearly differentiates the term law. James concurred with Peter's description of the OT law "as a yoke of bondage" we see this in Acts 15:10. James leaded the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:13-29) to the final solution to believers being under the OT law.

James knows also as did Paul that Christians "are not under law but under grace." James also knew that God's will revealed in the New Covenant and the Law of Christ which is the law of liberty or that brings freedom. James answer to the future situation was to show mercy to people in need or that have sinned.

In that day of our evaluation by our Lord our lives as believers will be evaluated and the scripture, His very words cannot be broken. So in verse 12 and 13 we can see that James is giving us again application just as he did in verses 26 and 27 of Chapter 1.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Look At Yourself! James 1:19-27

This sermon was delivered in a small country church in Colorado, where I was privileged to meet some more of God's household and share common experiences. It reminded me of the Evangelical Free Church where my first time as an elder and really serving the sheep happened.

I was a child of the 60s and 70s, and I remembered the songs of my youth when looking at the text of James 1:22-25. I was trying to come up with a title to the sermon after working thought the diagramming, outlining, and homiletical work. The thought struck me about an album I had as a teenager by the band Uriah Heep. The cover song was called "Look at yourself." It was a toss up between this and the Who's, "Can you see the real me?" In fact I am listening to the media player on my computer. The whole exegetical idea was that believers who hear and obey the word save their souls.


James wrote the letter somewhere around A.D. 45 or 46 which would make this probably the earliest New Testament book other than Galatians. The purpose of this potent letter is to exhort the early believers to Christian maturity and holiness of life. This letter deals more with the practice of the Christian faith than with its precepts. James told his readers how to achieve spiritual maturity through the word applied to their lives.

The readers (who were believers and predominately Jewish) where apparently having trouble with obedience to the word (specifically the command of/Law of Christ to love others) who were loosing control of their tongue and becoming angry with fellow believers among other things we see in this letter. (1:19)

Ineffectual learning is always condemned in Scripture. That is, the Word of God doesn’t frown upon knowledge itself, but upon dormant, unapplied knowledge. Likewise, James is not impressed when people merely listen to a message; he is encouraged when he notices someone’s life changed by a message. That’s why James calls for applied knowledge. Any other knowledge is merely academic and unfruitful.

Question: Do you apply the knowledge you have?

The measure of your spirituality does not rest in what you know alone, but in whether you apply that knowledge or not. It’s not intelligence alone, but applied intelligence.

Question: Are you guilty of unapplied knowledge of Scripture?

If so, your problem isn’t an overabundance of knowledge, but a deficiency of application. James knew this and encourages us to live consistent with what we’ve learned, and he offers some tests to determine if we’re doing so.

James knew well the wisdom sections of the Old Testament; remember in those days all they had was the Old Testament to teach from:

Even a fool who remains silent is considered wise, and the one who holds his tongue is deemed discerning.
Proverbs 17:28 (NET)

When words abound, transgression is inevitable, but the one who restrains his words is wise.
Proverbs 10:19 (NET)

The one who denounces his neighbor lacks wisdom, but the one who has discernment keeps silent. The one who goes about slandering others reveals secrets, but the one who is trustworthy conceals a matter.
Proverbs 11:12-13 (NET)

The one who guards his words guards his life, but whoever is talkative will come to ruin.
Proverbs 13:3 (NET)

Do not be rash with your mouth or hasty in your heart to bring up a matter before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth! Therefore, let your words be few. Just as dreams come when there are many cares, so the rash vow of a fool occurs when there are many words.
Ecclesiastes 5:2-3 (NET)

His readers would be very familiar with these passages. He was also familiar with the concepts that Paul wrote about the believers reward or loss of reward at the Judgment Seat of Christ (1 Corinthians 5:10)

Also, James was pointing out that the anger resulting from the loss of control does not produce practical righteousness. In other words it stunts their spiritual growth (sanctification) (1:20)

Receiving the Word

When believers understand that the word of God is the instrument by which the Holy Spirit use to regenerate them; they also need to understand that this same word taken in and acted upon will save their physical (souls) lives from temporal judgment. (1:21)

The need to be receptive to the Word of God is tied to the larger "Gospel" message that God will preserve the believers life now as well has give him or her reward in the life to come. This is different that the promised eternal life at the resurrection. (1:21a)

What does it mean to "receive the word"? - James thought is that it is to be obeyed to preserve physical life and subsequently to receive reward at the Judgment Seat of Christ. How is James using the term "soul" here? (1:21b)

The reason James readers should obey the word is so they can "lay aside" sinful behavior and live in purity. (1:21c)

Hearing and Not Doing (1:22-24)

James’s statement about observing one’s natural face in a mirror is one of a kind in the New Testament. The mirror is the word of God that James refers to in verse 22. But what does the reference to our natural face, in verse 23, mean?

Zane Hodges make some very insightful thoughts on this,

The Greek of this phrase has often perplexed the interpreters of James. The words translated as "natural" by the KJV, NKJV, and NASB have seemed problematic to many. The NIV completely ignores these two words and simply has “like a man who looks at his face in a mirror,” while the Jerusalem Bible paraphrases with “looking at your own features in a mirror.” The Greek word is the same one from which we derive our word “genesis,” it can signify ideas like “beginning”, “origin,” “descent”, or even “existence.” The latest scholarship observes this meaning in both secular and biblical Greek. It also happens to be the meaning that best fits this context. So we could say that a more accurate translation would be the following: “he is like a man observing the face of his birth (=the face he was born with) in a mirror.”

I prefer this translation, but what does this mean to us in this context spiritually?

There is a story told of a a gentleman in California had two daughters in their early teens. One was fair and attractive of features; the other was rather plain.

One day as they were getting ready for school the better- looking girl peered into the mirror beside the face of her unfavored sister. The latter complained to her father that this was done as a reflection on her lack of looks. Instead of growing angry or taking sides, the father called both girls to himself and gave them this excellent advice:

“I want both of you to look in the mirror every day. You who are favored of feature that you may be reminded never to dishonor the beauty of your face by the ugliness of your actions, and you who lack beauty that you may hide your lack of it by the superior attractiveness of your virtue and beautiful conduct.”

Note that James 1:23 follows another important statement about “birth.” In 1:17 James states that, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the father of lights.” He immediately reminds his readers of the supremely perfect gift they had all received from their heavenly FATHER (vs. 18). James is referring to the gift of spiritual “birth”.

Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures (NKJV)

Peter likewise states that we were…

…born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever.
1 Peter 1:23 (NKJV)

Peter and James declare that our new birth is by means of God’s Word. Notice, that the Father has “brought us forth” using “the word of truth.” People are saved at the very moment that they believe any of the promises God makes in His Word about giving eternal life to the believer in Jesus. We all know John 3:16,

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.

...and 6:47 …
Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life.

…and there are many others. The word is also the instrument by which the Holy Spirit transforms us more and more into the likeness of Jesus Christ. Paul spoke of this mirror as well,

But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.
2 Corinthians 3:18

There are 2 observations we can make about this mirror, first, the Word of God must be received in faith in order for God to “bring us forth” (that is, to regenerate us), and second the word must also be received in faith for God to transform us.

James went on from a reference to our new birth (1:18) to a the role of God’s Word in Christian living (1:21-25). But this process of receiving biblical instruction must be followed by an obedient response. We are “to be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving” ourselves. (1:22)

Christians have deceived themselves into thinking that mere exposure to God’s Word will be effective for Christian living. They may think, for example, that hearing a good sermon or listening to edifying teaching on T.V. or the internet will make them grow spiritually. But this is a delusion. The effect of the Word is only truly realized when it is put into practice. I could preach another sermon on just this alone, but that is for another day.

For now, however, notice that a mere hearer of the word is like a person who forgets what he sees in his mirror. He forgets the face of his birth!

Question: What is the face of our birth?

Based on what we have seen in the James 1, the face of our birth represents what we inwardly by virtue of having been born from above. A new “person” lives inside the same old physical house (the body), and we can see this ‘person” in the mirror of God’s word. Hearing God’s word correctly taught or preached, or to read it with spiritual illumination and understanding, means that we have seen what we truly are by the grace of God. But as we have already seen from Paul, it also involves seeing the glory of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

But it also shows where we are not like him. That is the process we need to understand that James is talking about here in the passage in front of us. This process begins with a radical transformation within us. This is the 2nd birth that Jesus spoke about with Nicodemus in John 3.

Remember this! If you take nothing else away today, take this: From the moment of regeneration on, we have a sinless inner nature.

Believers are often not aware of this. We know only too well that we have a great deal of sin in our lives. It does not seem likely to us that we have a basically sinless inner nature. We are painfully aware of the defilement of sin in our inward experience.

We can say with Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). But if “Christ lives in” us, then that life can only be sinless.

Turning for a moment to 1 John 5, I want you to see that John agrees as well with James and Paul. If we have eternal life we have Christ, because “He who has the Son has life” (1 John 5:12). In fact, He Himself is “the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20). To those who possess eternal life, John can also say, “we know that whoever is born of God does not sin, but he who has been born of God keeps himself, and the wicked one does not touch him” (1 John 5:18)

Paul’s personal struggle with his sinful physical body led him to a twofold understanding of himself. At the end of Romans 7 he is able to conclude,

So then, with the mind I myself [that is his true inward self] serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin” (Romans 7:25)

However before he made this statement - look at verse 24,

Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

In these verses, Paul’s word for “serve” is a strong one that means “to serve as a slave.” Paul is telling us here that his “inner man” is a slave to “the law of God,” but his physical body is enslaved to “the law of sin.” From Paul’s perspective, his inward nature could produce only obedience. But this was hindered and blocked by the dominance of the flesh or old nature in his physical body. Paul cried out to be released, several scholars have looked at this phrase and concluded that Paul was using a very specific metaphor here…

Chained To The Dead

The Romans sometimes compelled a captive to be joined face to face with a dead body, and to bear it about until the horrible effluvia destroyed the life of the living victim. Virgil describes this cruel punishment:

“The living and the dead at his command
Were coupled face to face, and hand to hand;
Till choked with stench, in loathed embraces tied,
The lingering wretches pined away and died.”

Paul goes on to teach in Romans 8 that our body the one we are dragging around is “dead” and incapable of expressing the life of God that is within us. Only the resurrecting power of the indwelling Holy Spirit can overcome this deadness.

The New Testament teaches that when we are born again God imparts to us a spiritual nature that responds only to His word and will. This inward nature has a moral likeness to God’s sinless Son. Inwardly, therefore, we have a “spiritual face” that is like the face of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

It follows from this that contemplating the Lord Jesus in God’s Word shows us what we ourselves are like at the deepest level of our being. In God’s Word we both His face and our own!

I think that James is writing to warn believers about the consequences of a dead, inactive faith both personally and corporately and to stir them to growth and true spiritual maturity. We all can identify with times where we weren't doing much other than sitting in the pew soaking in the word and not living it out and loving others…

The Law that Produces Freedom

We ought to observe carefully what we are, by the grace of God, in our innermost self. We should carry that recollection with us in everyday life. What differentiates between forgetful and obedient hearing?

Zane Hodges make an excellent summary of this,

Fundamentally, obedient hearing springs from the moral and spiritual beauty of the Lord Jesus Christ deeply impacting us. A Christian can rejoice at the realization that such inward beauty is his by new birth. He can be inspired to express this beauty through obedience. But, or course, this “captivation” of the heart by the “beauty of Jesus” is the work of God’s Holy Spirit through God’s Word. However, a moment’s reflection will show that obedient hearing cannot be the result of an enormous burden of guilt or an intolerable load of obligation. If such responsiveness does not arise from our innermost self as a deeply felt desire, it remains a work of the flesh. The spirit of the legalist is far removed from what we are talking about here.

That is why James goes on to say this:

But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.
James 1:25 (NKJV)

Watch this, James now refers to God’s Word as “the perfect law of liberty.” So far from being a burden the law of liberty frees us to be what we truly are by virtue of our birth from above (see again 1:18). When Christian living becomes a burden which we must “grind out,” we have forgotten what we truly are. Life in Christ is true liberty!

This is the very thing Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:17: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty”. In contrast to the Law of Moses, Paul is saying, the transforming work of the Holy Spirit is an expression of true freedom.

The Apostle John says essentially the same thing. He maintains that obedient Christians not only,

...keep His commandments,” but also find that “His commandments are not burdensome...
1 John 5:3

The late Apologist and Theologian Francis Schaffer said that he hated this passages because he could not reconcile it in his experience. Too bad that he missed this secret of living a abundant life!

We have all heard preaching that left us feeling bad or convicted. Hopefully, we have heard God’s Word taught or preached in such a way that we intensely desired to obey it. In the former, the preaching did not show us the marvelous freedom of God’s “perfect law of liberty.” In the latter, we sensed the tremendous freedom that comes by acting in accordance with what we really are as a people born from above.

But even in this latter case, we need the help of God’s Spirit to act on what we have heard and thus to become what we already are in our inner being. Otherwise we become forgetful hearers, who do not relate their daily life to their true identity in Jesus Christ.


We can see as we wrap this up that God’s Word offers us a “double reflection.”

On the one hand God's word shows us the glory of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. But on the other hand, that same word shows us “the face of our spiritual birth.” These two reflections are in harmony. Jesus Christ Himself is the Eternal Life that we already have within us, and when that live is lived it is Jesus Christ living in me (Galatians 2:20). The mirror of God’s word transforming us through the ministry of God’s Spirit. It is the increasing expression in word and deed of what we have become by the miracle of new birth.

This is one of the secrets of the Christian life: It is our coming to be in experience what we already are in our innermost being! Some may be asking the question, "How do we know that this is taking place?" Or someone might be wondering, "What is the application?" James tells us in verses 26 and 27…take them home and meditate on what James is saying to us now in the 21st century…