On evil speaking, part 2

30 Oct

What does it mean to speak evil against someone?

Let me get specific.

We speak against others when we speak words that are intended to hurt not to help.   

When you speak against someone your words are like soldiers that you send out to do war.  The term James uses here literally means to speak down on. When you speak down on someone what are you doing?  You are speaking to crush them, to hurt them, to punish them, to pummel them, to put them in their place.  Why do you do that?  At that point, your words certainly aren’t motivated by love. When our words are motivated by hatred instead of love, when our words are motivated by a desire to tear others down instead of a desire to build them up, when they are motivated by a desire to hurt others not to help them, we can know for sure, that we are doing just what James forbids.

We speak against others when we speak words that are produced by pride not humility.

Notice in the second part of verse 11 James expands his thought.  “He who speaks against a brother, or judges his brother…”  This is basically the same activity just viewed from a different angle.  

When we speak against others we are setting ourselves up as their judge.  James is not talking about evaluating someone, he’s talking about condemning them.  He’s talking about the kind of speech that flows out of a heart that is filled with pride, that comes from a person who is looking down on others, and thinks that he has the right to make disparaging comments about them because he is so much better than they are.  

Some people get a little confused here, and they use these verses as an excuse. 

Somebody confronts them in their sin and they say you know who are you to judge me, who are you to speak against me?  That’s not the kind of speech James is talking about here.  That’s taking this verse way out of context. 

It’s not wrong for us to confront someone in their sin.  We’re commanded to.  You look over at Galatians 6, “Brethren even if a man is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, each one looking to yourself lest you too be tempted.”  It’s kind of hard to do that without words.  God’s not calling us to be namby-pamby, to be spiritual Barney’s just going around with plastic smiles on our faces ignoring reality.  

It’s not even wrong to be passionate about the way we confront, and to when appropriate use some strong language.  If you flip back to Matthew 3 you see John the Baptist confronting the Pharisees and Sadducees, verse 7, “You brood of vipers who warned you to flee from the wrath to come…”  Or you look at Paul in Galatians 3, and he writes, “You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you…”  Or over in Philippians 3:2, he’s warning the church about a certain group of men and he says, “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision…”  That’s passionate, strong language. Jesus Himself, who is perfect, confronts Peter and says “Get behind me Satan…”  You can’t say anything much stronger than that.  

No, when James talks about not speaking against others, and not judging others he’s not talking about lovingly dealing with someone’s sin; he’s not talking about closing your eyes to reality; he’s not talking about humbly going to someone and dealing with an issue.  

Really, at a fundamental level, he’s talking about selfish speech, speech that has one purpose, to make you look good and to make others look bad, speech that is motivated by selfishness, not selflessness, characterized by pride not humility. 

You know, we can get specific, and we should get very specific about exactly how we do this, but first we’ve got to start out in a very general way and just look at what motivates our words. 

That’s really the issue here.  

Next time you find yourself talking about people or talking to people, I just beg you, ask yourself, why am I saying what I’m saying? 

First, is it even true?  Or am I just assuming? And then even beyond that, what’s the point?  Why am I talking about this?  What is it that is motivating my speech?  

To get a little more specific, sometimes we speak against others by lying about them. 

As Exodus 20 puts it, we bear false witness.  We say things that aren’t true.  That’s actually how Noah Webster defines slander.  He says it is a “false tale or report maliciously uttered and tending to injure the reputation of another by lessening him in the esteem of his fellow citizens…”   A story that makes someone look bad.  

You wouldn’t think we’d have to point this out in church, but guys, the Bible makes it clear God does not want us to say things that aren’t true about others.  That’s sin.  And we do it all the time.  

Sometimes we do it in very blatant ways. 

We say things that we know aren’t true about other people just because we want to make them look bad. 

But most of the time, we’re not so obvious about it. 

We say things we don’t know are true about others just because we enjoy looking like we know something important. 

We’re quick to pass on that word of gossip. 

We hear something negative about someone, and what’s the first thing we do?  Do we go to that person to find out the truth, to see if we can help?  Do we get on our knees and pray for that person?  No, we go out and we talk about it.  We spread the word.  And it could be we are just flat out lying because we’ve never taken the time to figure out the truth. 

Sometimes we just exaggerate a person’s faults.  We paint a caricature of them.  

A lot of times a spouse will do this.  They’ll be talking with their friends about their husband or wife, and they will keep emphasizing their spouse’s bad qualities – and don’t tell their friends the whole story.  

Or sometimes when someone does something to hurt us, we’ll run and tell others about it.  And we keep talking about the way they hurt us, only to find out later that we didn’t know the whole story, and they had a reason for saying what they said, or doing what they did.  We just didn’t know it.  And so we went out and lied.   We slandered them.

But slander’s not just lying. 

Sometimes we speak against others by saying things that are true about them behind their backs for no other reason than just to put them down. That too is slander.  

This is such a powerful temptation.  You’ve got to recognize that. 

You know it must be a powerful temptation because there are at least three shows on television devoted to doing just this about celebrities.  Britney Spears smoked a cigarette in Mexico, we’ve got pictures, whoo, come find out.  And people just eat that stuff up.  We love gossip.  

But, God hates it. 

As John MacArthur explains, “The Old Testament denounces the sin of slandering God or men more often than it does any other sin.  In Leviticus 19:16, God commands His people, ‘You shall not go about as a slanderer among your people.’  It is the mark of a godly man that ‘he does not slander with his tongue;'(Ps.15:3) it is the mark of the wicked that they do slander others; (Ps.50:19-20; Jer.6:28; 9:4; Rom.1:30).  The seriousness of slander caused David to vow, ‘Whoever secretly slanders his neighbor him I will destroy’ (Ps.101:5), and to pray, ‘May a slanderer not be established in the earth’ (Ps.140:11).  Solomon wisely counseled against associating with a slanderer. (Prov.20:19)  The New Testament also condemns slander.  The Lord Jesus identified its source as an evil heart. (Mt.15:19) and taught that it defiles a person. (Mt.15:20)  Paul feared that he would find slander among the Corinthians when he visited them (2 Cor.12:20) and he commanded the Ephesians (Eph.4:31) and the Colossians (Col.3:8) to avoid it.  Peter also exhorted his readers not to slander others. (1 Peter 2:1)”

Gossip might taste sweet, but God says it is a poison. 

A sweet, sweet poison.  

Sometimes we speak against others by just being hypercritical.  That’s what’s implicit when James talks about judging people.  He’s talking about finding fault with others, constantly putting people down.  We don’t just do that behind people’s backs, sometimes we do that right to their faces.  Nitpicking at everything that person does.  Whatever they do, it’s not good enough for you. Constantly standing in judgment on people. 

I heard a story about David Simmons, “a former cornerback for the Dallas Cowboys which illustrates this kind of speech. His father, a military man, was extremely demanding, rarely saying a kind word, always pushing him with harsh criticism to do better. The father had decided that he would never permit his son to feel any satisfaction from his accomplishments, reminding him there were always new goals ahead. When Dave was a little boy, his dad gave him a bicycle, unassembled, with the command that he put it together. After Dave struggled to the point of tears with the difficult instructions and many parts, his father said, “I knew you couldn’t do it.” Then he assembled it for him. When Dave played football in high school, his father was unrelenting in his criticisms. In the backyard of his home, after every game, his dad would go over every play and point out Dave’s errors. “Most boys got butterflies in the stomach before the game; I got them afterwards. Facing my father was more stressful than facing any opposing team.” By the time he entered college, Dave hated his father and his harsh discipline. He chose to play football at the University of Georgia because its campus was further from home than any school that offered him a scholarship. After college, he became the second round draft pick of the St. Louis cardinal’s professional football club. Joe Namath (who later signed with the New York Jets), was the club’s first round pick that year. “Excited, “I telephoned my father to tell him the good news. He said, ‘How does it feel to be second?'” 

We may not be that extreme. 

But we do have to be honest, and recognize that for many of us it is easier to constantly be criticizing others than actually try to help them and encourage them and build them up.  

Listen. 

Our words have power. 

They can either build others up or they can tear them down.  God doesn’t want us to use our words to tear others down. 

That’s why James writes, “Do not speak against one another, brothers…”

On speaking evil…

29 Oct

“Do not speak evil against one another brothers…” James 4:11

Every week, every one of us experiences all sorts of different problems. Our car breaks down, a friendship crumbles, we lose our job.

Now obviously such a wide variety of problems require a wide variety of solutions. But regardless of what particular problem we experience, every solution, every real solution has at least one thing in common. We all know if you are going to effectively deal with any sort of problem you have to move beyond merely treating the symptoms of the problem to dealing with what is actually causing those symptoms.    

Imagine taking your car to a mechanic because the engine is making funny noises. He listens, says you are right, sounds funny. So he goes out into the garage and comes back with a pair of headphones. Put these on, you won’t hear the noises anymore. 

Or imagine if one of your kitchen pipes burst. And so you call a plumber to come out and fix it.  And he takes a look, scratches his head and comes up with a solution.  He twists the pipe so the water shoots out into a bucket, then he sits down at your kitchen table and makes out a schedule for your family, every person has three hours a day that they have to watch and dump the buckets when they start to overflow.  

It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out if you just deal with the symptoms you are not going to really deal with the problem. But unfortunately for many that basic principle is not so obvious when it comes to their spiritual life and their spiritual problems. They are continually frustrated in their attempts to change because they are dealing with the symptoms, not their real problem. They are putting band-aids on a broken leg.

In James 3 and 4, James is doing everything he can to make it very clear, that our problems in our relationships with others are symptoms.  They are symptoms of a problem in our relationship with God. Therefore to resolve the problems you have in your relationships with others, you must first resolve the problem you have in your relationship with God.

One reason so many Christians are stuck in sinful conflict is because they fail to understand just that. They see their relationships with others as somehow disconnected from their relationship with God.  And so they are continually trying to solve their problems in their relationships with people while ignoring what their relationships with people say about their relationship with God. They are continually treating the symptoms but never dealing with the cause.  Because they don’t see how the two connect.

And, that apparently is what is happening here in James.  There were a number of people who wanted to be teachers because they thought they were spiritually mature, but failed to control the way they spoke to others.

They were failing to see how their relationship with God had anything to do with their relationship with one another.  They were so blinded by their own spiritual pride that they failed to see they even had a problem. And so James goes to great lengths here in chapters 3 and 4 to show that their relationship with God has everything to do with the way their relationship with one another.   

Point blank: 

You are not spiritually mature if you are stirring up strife.  

So although they may appear religious and wise, James makes it clear since they are so quarrelsome that proves their life is not controlled by wisdom from God but by the wisdom of the world.  The fact is, they live their lives as slaves to their own selfish desires, which is just how the world lives.  And really that’s a way of life that is hostile towards God Himself.

So ultimately the reason they are having these problems in their relationship with others is because they have a major problem in their relationship with God.  They are proud.  And Scripture makes it clear that they’ll never resolve their problem with others until they resolve their problem with God.  

God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Therefore instead of exalting themselves in the eyes of others they need to humble themselves before God and repent.  

That’s the pathway to peace.  

So you say how do I resolve my conflicts with others? 

James answers, you need to begin by dealing with your conflict with God.  

Fights and quarrels are a symptom. A symptom of a problem in your relationship with God. And James explains, the problem is pride.  You haven’t humbled yourself before God so you aren’t humbling yourself before others.  

Now that is helpful. 

It gives us an entirely new perspective on our problems with people.  You’ve got to see what your problem is before you can deal with it.  

But even still, you may be thinking, what do you mean?  It’s still a little bit fuzzy for me.

I mean, I get the general overarching principle, pride is at the root of my problems with others, but I need you to show me how this works out in real life. 

How does a problem in my relationship with God produce a problem in my relationship with others?  

So James illustrates. 

That’s what he is doing in James 4:11 and 12. 

He is giving a very practical real life illustration of how the problem of strife in our relationships with others is directly and inextricably linked to the problem of pride in our relationship with God.    

And he does so by addressing an issue that is of particular importance in dealing with conflict, the way we speak.

He begins with a command: 

Do not speak evil of one another

There’s no doubt one of the most common ways we sin is the way we speak. 

And one of the most common ways we sin when we speak is by speaking against others.  

Perhaps that’s one reason why James keeps highlighting the importance of godly speech. He knows how easy it is for us to fail to pay attention to the way we communicate.  And that’s a terrible mistake. Because he explains in chapter 1 that the way you speak is a test of whether or not you are a believer. In fact, he continues in chapter 2 by reminding us God is going to judge us for the way we communicate. Then he follows that up in chapter 3 by pointing out the power of speech and especially it’s potential to destroy.  People may minimize this issue, but God does not.  He cares about how you speak.

Now you know James. 

He’s so practical. 

And so here in chapter 4 he gets very specific. 

He doesn’t just tell us vaguely to pay attention to the way we speak, he points out very specifically, the kind of speech that displeases and dishonors God.  

God doesn’t want us to speak against each other.  

This is one of those times we have to be very careful we don’t miss James’ point.  The problem is this is such a common sin that many of us do it without even realizing we are doing it.  We speak against others all the time, but we don’t even think of it as speaking against others, because it’s just the way we normally speak.   

I remember watching a story about an EMT up in Boston who only had one arm.  And she was so used to her handicap that she didn’t even really think about it.  She went out on runs, went to people’s houses, did her job and didn’t stop and think about the fact she only had one arm.  But you can bet other people noticed.  It was obvious.  But she had that physical handicap for so long she’d become accustomed to it, so she didn’t even really notice it.  Everybody else saw it; but she didn’t because she was used to it.  That’s the way some of us are with the way we speak. 

We’ve got a major problem. It’s obvious to others. But we’re not even aware of it.  

So, in the days ahead, let me take some time to break down what James is talking about here very specifically so you notice it and can turn from it.   

Truth Matters

25 Oct

Truth matters to God.

In James 5:12, he shows us how much, when he writes, “let your yes be yes and your no be no, so that you may not fall under judgment.”

This word judgment is intense.

Obviously, as Christians, we know God disciplines us and prunes us to make us more like Him.  That’s a kind of judgment.

But that’s not the judgment James is referring to here.

Apparently, the particular term he uses is never used in Scripture to refer to the judgment of believers. Instead it’s always used of the judgment of unbelievers.  In fact, James uses it back in 2:13 to describe God’s merciless judgment of those who refuse to repent and turn to him.

And so his warning here is very obvious. 

If you are characterized by a casual attitude towards the truth, if you are not consistently honest,  you are showing the characteristics not of a believer, but of an unbeliever, and therefore you need to be warned because if you refuse to repent you are going to experience God’s everlasting judgment.  

So again it comes down to this, you better pay attention to the way you speak, whether or not you speak the truth, because how you speak and whether or not you speak the truth is a test of whether or not you are truly a Christian.

You see, how can you claim to love God and yet continue to do what He hates? If you say you love God but you are continually weaseling out of the truth without repenting and changing, not only are you untrustworthy, you may not even be a Christian.

John MacArthur explains, “Lying…demonstrates utter disregard for God… throughout the Old Testament, you have this little phrase “lying lips” and wherever it appears, it’s linked with disdain for God. You could really care less about God, about God’s love for truth, about God’s requirement for truth—there’s a disdain for that and a love of lying and deception…”  Satan is the father of lies, and so when you lie you are doing Satan’s will not God’s. 

God is absolutely against the liar.  Psalm 5:6 says God abhors the liar.  Abhor is a strong word.  It’s closely related to the word horror.  It means to shudder with hatred.  To treat with extreme repugnance.  Lying is an abomination to Him.   

That’s made real clear over in Proverbs 6:16-19, turn there with me, “There are six things which the Lord hates, Yes, seven which are an abomination to Him.  Haughty eyes, a lying tongue and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that run rapidly to evil, a false witness who utters lies and one who spreads strife among brothers…”  And Proverbs 12:22, “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord but those who deal faithfully are his delight.”  

Again MacArthur explains, “The worst thing that can be said about a person is that they are a habitual, inveterate liar because a person who is adept at lying and who has run roughshod over conscience and no longer feels the shame and remorse that normal people feel about lying, someone who has developed such a skill as a liar—the worst thing about that is that their ability to cover up things makes them vulnerable to every temptation. That’s why we have so much to fear from people who are chronically deceptive.”

In other words, lying isn’t just about lying.

You lie to cover up other sins.

Revelation 21 and 22 sum it all up.

Listen to this frightening warning.

Revelation 21:8, “But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake of fire and brimstone…”  Revelation 21:27 speaking of heaven, makes the distinction very clear,“…and nothing unclean and no one who practices abomination and lying shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”  And then in Revelation 22:14,15 quite a picture, “blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city.  Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and…” get this “…and everyone who loves and practices lying.”  

If you are a liar, and this is the warning of James, watch out, judgment is coming.  

What you need is a new nature.  You need to be transferred from the kingdom of darkness and of lies into the kingdom of God’s precious Son, the kingdom of truth.  Because while, true Christians, may lie sometimes, and may seriously struggle with it, they don’t love and they don’t practice lying. 

You know how I know that? 

Because John says that those who love and practice lying won’t be in heaven. 

They’re going to hell.  

Which means, today, when you are tempted to make promises you aren’t intending to keep, to say things, that are not actually true, remember the priority God places on truth, your relationship with the One who is truth, and the dangerous consequences of not speaking the truth, and make a deliberate decision to honor God.

Above all, speak the truth

24 Oct

We are thinking a little about James 5:12.

Partly because there’s a little statement at the beginning of this verse that is somewhat shocking. 

You don’t want to miss it. 

James says, “Above all…” 

And.

That means most importantly.  

Now James has already said some pretty important things. He’s already given us a great deal of instruction on how God desires for us to speak. But here as he is drawing this letter to a conclusion, he is coming to a climax, he wants to address the issue when it comes to how we speak that he feels is most important, so he says, “Above all…” or “This is especially important…”

Speak the truth.

I think, one reason, we need to think carefully about these two words, ‘above all’ is, because we live in a society that doesn’t place much value on truth. It’s really unusual for you to hear a call for truth, because almost anywhere else in society, if I made this kind of call to unswerving, unflinching honesty I would be greeted with blank stares, and incredulous faces.

Our culture doesn’t think speaking the truth at all times is all that important. 

We’re constantly being made aware of that.

I mean, honestly, just look at the way our political leaders speak.

There are too many examples, especially now, in our current political climate, but I don’t really keep up with the news as much as I used to, so while it might not seem fair for me to stretch so far back, indulge an old man, let me remind you of one example that struck me when I was a bit younger.

Remember Bill Clinton?

At one point he got himself caught in a web of deception.

From what I understand. He perjured himself.

He looked straight into a camera and said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman…” when he in fact did, he got caught and then went to great lengths to explain away and cover up his sin, and in spite of all that, and really we could go on and on, he had a huge, monstrous approval rating.

He lied and nobody really cared.

And you know what that approval rating proved? 

It proved just how much like the Pharisees we’ve become.  The Pharisees made a big show about being committed to the truth.  But they had all kinds of outs, all kinds of situations in which it was perfectly acceptable not to speak the truth.  And that’s really the way most Americans look at life.  There are certain things you must not lie about, but there aren’t very many of those things, there are many more things you can lie about without a twinge of conscience.  That’s why you could have a man who is in the highest office in the land, and there was very little outrage over his complete disregard for honesty.   I can’t believe how many times I heard the sentiment, “I mean I can understand why he lied about that.  That was embarrassing.  He had a right to keep his private life private.”  

Listen.

If it were easy to tell the truth, everybody would do it.  Anybody can tell the truth when there is no cost, it takes absolutely no character to do that.  And if he had told the truth in the first place, on his wedding day when he promised that he would be faithful to his wife, he wouldn’t have been faced with the temptation to lie later on.  

Almost as surprising the widespread approval of that particular president was the complete vilification of the man who was charged with prosecuting him. Here this man who was pursuing the truth, and people kept blaming him, why are you making such a big deal out of all this.? There was a gigantic cost to his investigation, something like forty million dollars and people blamed who for that?  The prosecutor.  When if the president had just told the truth, we wouldn’t have needed to spend a cent.  

Now we know, Scripturally speaking, that the world is constantly trying to conform us to its way of thinking. 

So if we look out at our society and we see this kind of thing happening, a disregard for truth, people minimizing the seriousness of the sin of lying; then we have to realize we’re going to be tempted to do the same thing, to act as if speaking the truth were not really that big an issue. So we have to come back to Scripture and fill our minds with God’s Word. 

Why does James say here above all, speak truthfully? 

Why does God place such a high value on the speaking the truth?  

There are a number of different ways we could go about answering that question.

First a failure to tell the truth is source of many of our problems as a society.  This is one of the major sources of problems in international relations.  One country can’t believe the other.  They make a vow, they sign a treaty, but they quickly go ahead and break that vow or treaty as soon as they get a chance.  But not only that, a failure to speak the truth is one of the primary sources of problems in domestic politics.  The political ads on television almost drive me crazy, because I never know who to believe.  Our politicians are not at all interested in speaking plainly, they just want to spin the truth so you never know who to trust.  

But still that seems far away.  So let’s move a bit closer to home. 

Every day thousands of couples stand before each other and before a group of people and make a commitment.  They look into each other’s eyes and say something like, “I take you to be my wife or husband, to have and to hold, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, as long as we both shall live…”  They all make basically the same promise.  But over half of those who make that promise fail to keep it.  At the heart of a broken marriage, lies a broken promise.  A failure to speak the truth.  To let your yes be yes and your no be no.  So one of the reasons James says above all speak the truth is because a failure to do just that is one of the primary reasons we have the problems we do. 

But second, we can see why James says above all speak the truth, by looking at what God says about the importance of truth.  

We know truth is important because throughout Scripture speaking the truth is given as one of the essential characteristics of a godly man.  

In Exodus 18:21 Jethro is counseling his son in law Moses, and he’s describing for him the kind of men who should be chosen to help him lead the people of Israel, he says, “you shall select out of all the people men who fear God, men of truth; those who hate dishonest gain…”  He saw truth as an essential quality for leadership.   The Psalmist explains in Psalm 101:7 that one of the marks of a righteous leader is that he hates deceit.  He prays, and we find this over in Psalm 119 that God would remove all those who speak lies from His presence.  A righteous man is so committed to the truth that he will not tolerate anyone who tells lies.  A godly man is absolutely committed to the truth.  Remember Psalm 15?  “O Lord who may abide in Thy tent?  Who may dwell on Thy holy hill?  He who walks with integrity and works righteousness, and speaks truth in his heart….”   Our culture may act like the truth is not all that important, but God does not.  You can’t live a life that pleases Him unless you are committed to the truth.  The apostle John actually describes being a Christian as being a person of the truth.  

We truth is important because God earnestly exhorts us to speak the truth. 

God pleads with us to be truthful.  That’s what we are seeing here in James.  And that’s what we see throughout Scripture.  In Proverbs 3:3 we’re told to refuse to allow “kindness and truth to leave us, to bind them around our neck and to write them on the tablet of our hearts.”  Then over in Proverbs 23:23 Solomon exhorts us to “Buy the truth and do not sell it, get wisdom and instruction and understanding…” 

There’s a powerful passage in Jeremiah 5. 

God is angry with the nation of Judah because they are living in complete and absolute wickedness.  They are ignoring Him.  And yet because He’s merciful He says to Jeremiah, “Roam to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, and look now and take note.  And seek in her open squares, if you can find a man, if there is one who does justice, who seeks truth then I will pardon her.”  God is saying, look I want to have mercy on this nation, I am a God who loves mercy, and if you can just find one person who is committed to the truth than I will relent from punishment.  One person who speaks truth can save a nation.  God values the truth.

A commitment to the truth is a means of protection for you.  Charles Spurgeon, once explained, “When a heart is untruthful, when honesty has gone from it,” in other words, when it’s characteristically untruthful, when it is habitually a deceptive heart, when it lies as a pattern of life, he said, “then it is prepared to be the seed plot of every evil thing.  Any crime is possible to a liar.  He who is rotten with falsehood will break at the touch of every temptation.”    

If you make lying a practice, if if it is natural for you to lie, you are placing yourself in a very dangerous position.  You’ll do anything.  Because you don’t fear getting caught.  If you get caught you will just tell a lie, and that right there, removes a great barrier to temptation. 

Listen to how John MacArthur puts it, “If you’re devoted to the truth, if you’re committed to truth and speaking truthfully and being honest, you are restrained in temptations because you’re afraid that somebody might ask you about your life—somebody might ask you about your behavior and you really don’t want to lie.  So, that disdain for lying, that reluctance to be put in a position to have to lie becomes a restraint in the time of temptation.  You see, for a person whose heart has been cultivated to being truthful, the thought of lying produces fear, guilt, shame, apprehension,…anxiety.” So a commitment to consistently speaking the truth, that’s a means of protection for him. That’s why and this is just a footnote, as parents you want to severely punish lying.  You’ve got to build in your children a love for truth and a real fear of lying.  Because if they don’t fear lying, than any sin is an option.  They’ll just cover over their tracks.  But if they are committed to the truth, that’s going to be a restraint when they face temptation because they know they are going to be found out sometime soon.  

But perhaps nothing highlights the importance of truth to God than the fact that Scripture consistently portrays truth as one of His essential qualities. 

In Psalm 31:5 He’s called the God of truth; in Psalm 86:15 we see that He is abundant in truth; in Psalm 108:4 that His truth reaches to the skies; and in Psalm 111:7 that truth is the work of His hands.  John says that Jesus came to earth full of grace and truth; and Jesus Himself says in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”  Jesus is the truth.  Paul explains in Ephesians 4:21 that the truth is in Jesus.  In John 14:17, 15:26 and 16:13 the Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of truth. God’s Word is called the word of truth, the gospel is called the message of truth, and Christianity in 2 Peter 2:2 is actually called the way of truth.  

“Lying is contrary to everything that represents God.”  And that’s why, while our world may minimize the importance of truth, and, our world may tell you it doesn’t matter, you don’t have to keep your word, as Christians we know that God does not minimize the importance of truth, and we understand why James says here above all you must speak the truth.   

Why, above all, speak the truth? 

One.

Because of the high priority God places on it.

Truth telling

23 Oct

“But above all, my brothers, do now swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no…”

Why do you think people have to swear or to make oaths?  

Because they are liars. 

You make an oath to say this time I really am telling the truth.  I know, I know you normally can’t trust what I say, but this time I am serious, I’ll even take this oath to show you how honest I’m being.  

Helmut Thielicke, a German scholar and pastor during the era of Hitler explains, “Whenever I utter the formula, ‘I swear by God,’ I am really saying, ‘Now I’m going to mark off an area of absolute truth and put walls around it to cut it off from the muddy floods of untruthfulness and irresponsibility that ordinarily overruns my speech.’ In fact, I am saying even more than this.  I am saying that people are expecting me to lie from the start.  And just because they are counting on my lying, I have to bring up the big guns of oaths and words of honor.”  

So what James is saying here when he writes, “…let your yes be yes and your no be no…” is that as believers “our truthfulness should be so consistent and dependable that we need no oath to support it: a simple yes or no should suffice.  ‘Our mere word should be as utterly trustworthy as a signed document, legally correct and complete.’”  

As a Christian, you should not have any need to make an oath or to swear to tell the truth because God wants your word to be your bond.  When you say yes, you mean yes.  And when you say no, you mean no.  You are not constantly flip flopping back and forth. We should be completely distinct from the world around us because of our absolute, unswerving, unflinching commitment to keeping our word and speaking honestly.  

Be careful here. 

Because, when is it most difficult to keep your word?  Is it hard to keep your word when it involves doing what you want to do?  Of course not.  Do you think the Pharisees and others really struggled with keeping their promises when it was a promise to do what they wanted?  No.  Those were the promises they kept.  They had a problem and this is when we have a problem, when keeping our promises means do something difficult for us.  And that’s when you need to think very carefully about what James is saying here – not when you are doing what you want to do, but to keep your word you have to do something that is difficult for you to do.  One of my favorite descriptions of a godly man is found in Psalm 15:4, “He swears to his own hurt and does not change…”  He’s faithful to his word even when it requires great sacrifice.  That’s James’ point.

We’re going to face temptations to weasel out of speaking the truth, temptations to go back on our word, to say one thing and mean another, but one of the things that should most set us apart as followers of Christ is our firm resolve to be absolutely and completely honest.

Do you swear?

22 Oct

“But above all…”

Whenever the Bible says above all, it’s a good idea to listen up because obviously, that’s a way God stresses the importance of what he’s about to say.

We find this phrase often through the Bible, and when we find it, we discover a number of different commands coming next.

James 5:12 may be one of the most unique.

He says, “But above all my brothers, do not swear…”

Now, when we typically use this word ‘swear’ we are talking about cursing, taking the Lord’s name in vain, or using profanities.  And although the Bible does speak against that, that’s not what James is referring to here. 

He’s not saying do not curse. 

You know that first of all just by reading his explanation of swearing in the rest of this verse, “by heaven or by earth, or with any other oath…”   

That word oath is key. 

The Greek word that James uses here for swear does not describe profanity or vulgarities, but instead a solemn vow.  He’s talking about an oath in which you call upon heaven or earth, or something or someone else as a witness to the veracity of what you are about to say.  

Now that’s not the most common practice in our day, though occasionally you’ll hear someone say something like, “I swear in the name of God…” or “Do you swear…” or even “I swear on my great grandmother’s grave…”  Probably a simpler way of saying the same thing would be, “I promise I’m telling you the truth…”

You swear like that to emphasize the truth of what you are saying.

And. James here is saying we must not do that.  And he says it is very important that you do not do that.

“Above all do not swear.”  

The question is why?  That seems like a strange thing to forbid. 

Well this is a situation where we have to be very careful that we are reading the Bible in its historical context.  Some throughout history have read James’ command here “Do not swear…” and have mistakenly concluded that it is wrong for Christians to make any type of vow.  That’s why you have certain groups of people; in particular the Quakers and the Friends, who refuse to swear to tell the truth in court or make any kind of public oath like that.  

But that’s a problem, because if you carefully study Scripture you’ll find that all swearing is not evil. 

For one, God Himself swears.  Moses says in Numbers 11:12 that God swore to bring Israel into the Promised Land.   But it’s not just Moses who said that, God agrees and says in Numbers 14:23 that he swore to bring Israel into the Promised Land.  In Psalm 110:4 David says very simply, “The Lord has sworn and will not change His mind…”  In Luke 1:73 Zacharias says that God has remembered “the oath which he swore to Abraham our father…”And Hebrews 6:13 explains that oath, saying “For when God made the promise to Abraham, since He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself.”  Now we know without a doubt, God can not do anything sinful, therefore swearing an oath must not be intrinsically evil.  

But that’s God, you say.  Well take a look at the perfect man, Jesus Christ.   As we’re going to see, Jesus says in Matthew 5:37, “But I say to you make no oath at all …” yet we read in Matthew 26:63,64 that Caiphas said to Jesus, “I charge you under oath by the living God: tell us if you are the Christ the Son of God…”  and Jesus didn’t say, no – no I will not speak under oath.  Instead he simply went on to say, “Yet it is as you say…”   Therefore in Matthew 5, Jesus must forbidding something different than what he went on to do in Matthew 26. 

Third, God actually gives certain instructions to His people on the taking of oaths.  In Numbers 30:2, Moses explains to the people of God “If a man takes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.”   If all oath taking was evil, wouldn’t God have commanded His people not to take oaths at all rather than teaching them exactly the kind of oaths He desired.  In fact we see in Exodus 22:10-11 that there was a time when God required His people to take an oath.  “If a man gives his neighbor a donkey, an ox, a sheep, or any animal to keep for him, and it dies or is hurt or is driven away while no one is looking, an oath before the Lord shall be made by the two them that he has not laid hands on his neighbor’s property…”  The truth is we find godly men throughout Scripture making and keeping their oaths.  (Abraham, Jacob, David, and Paul…) “We even read of an angel in Revelation 10:5-7 who with uplifted hand, swore an oath to God.”  

So when we read James 5:12, “Do not swear…” in the context of the teaching of the rest of Scripture we see that James must not be forbidding all vows, but instead a certain kind of oath-making.  

And really you can see that just by looking at the rest of this verse. 

This is one of those places where you need to be very sure you read Scripture very carefully.  James makes a contrast here between what he means by swearing, what he is forbidding; and what they should do instead.  Look at verse 12.  He says, “But above all my brothers, do not swear either by heaven or by earth, or with any other oath, but let your yes be yes and your no be no…” 

So to know what James means is forbidding you need to know what he is commanding.  He’s commanding us to let our yes be yes and our no be no. 

What’s it mean to let your yes be yes and your no be no?  To say what you mean and mean what you say.  To be consistently truthful.  

The person who swears is not letting his yes be yes and his no be no.  He’s not being consistently truthful.  He doesn’t always say what he means and he doesn’t always mean what he says. 

He manipulates the truth.   

And, this is where it gets a little bit interesting. 

Apparently in James’ day, particularly in the Jewish culture, it was a very common thing to make an oath when you didn’t really intend to keep it.  You wanted to look very sincere and honest so you would swear that you were telling the truth, the problem is, that vow didn’t really mean anything.  It was all for show.  

I want you to see something.  Jesus gives us some background to James’ command back in Matthew 5:33-37.  His statement is so similar that many think James is actually quoting Jesus here, though he doesn’t specifically say so. In Matthew 5, Jesus is confronting the sham religiosity of the spiritual leaders of his day; comparing their statements and standards with God’s Word in order to show that their righteousness falls far short of the real thing.

Look at what Jesus says, “Again you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord’ But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.  Nor shall you make an oath by your head, fo ryou cannot make one hair white or black.  But let your statement, be Yes, yes or No, no; and anything beyond these is evil…”  

In the Old Testament God gave certain commands and the Pharisees took those commands and twisted them into something else so they could look like they were obeying God’s commands when they really weren’t. 

For example, they would say the Bible says, “Do not commit adultery,” so that means we can lust.  As long as we don’t commit the physical act of adultery than we are not sinning.  Or the Bible says, “Do not murder,” therefore it’s not a big deal if we get angry.  As long we don’t actually murder someone we are not sinning. 

In reality, the Pharisees were legalists.  They claimed to hold to the letter of the law, when they really didn’t, because they denied the very spirit of the law.  They wanted to appear righteous without really being righteous.  So they were constantly looking for ways around what God’s Word actually said, by adding their own little traditions and caveats to God’s commands, and in the end they paid more attention to what they said than what God said.  

And that’s what they were doing with the taking of oaths.  The Pharisees were in once sense very strict about the making of vows, and in another sense they were very loose about it.  They were very clever.  They would so redefine the law of God so that they could do whatever it was they wanted to do, and still say that they weren’t breaking God’s law.  

And the way they did this here with oaths was by teaching that only vows to the Lord were binding.  You could make all sorts of other oaths and break them at will. 

“These religious men in Jesus’ day knew that if they swore an oath invoking the name of the Lord then they were bound by it, so in order to avoid that they would swear by heaven or by earth or by Jerusalem or by my head.  They could say words like that and then not be so careful about the truth.” 

As one writer explains, “…they drew a distinction between various oaths saying that some were binding while others were not.  If you took an oath by the temple that was not binding, but if you took an oath by the gold of the temple that was binding.  If you took an oath by the altar you need not keep it.  But if you took an oath by the gift on the altar, then it was absolutely binding.”

And you can see how exact they got about this if you turn over to Matthew 23:16-22 where Jesus says “Woe to you blind guides who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obligated.  You fools and blind men; which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold.  You blind men, which is more important, the offering or the altar that sanctifies the offering.  Therefore he who swears swears both by the altar and by everything on it.  And he who swears by the temple swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it.  And he who swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it.”  

But, I guess the point is, do you see what these men were doing? 

They were looking for ways, they were actually making up ways, to weasel out of keeping their word. 

And that’s the issue James is addressing. 

He’s speaking about the person who has all sorts of fancy ways of looking like he’s serious about telling the truth, of fooling people into thinking that he’s really a sincere person, when really he’s not serious about what he is saying at all.  He’s talking about the person who makes rash promises and doesn’t keep them, about the person who sounds so good, who is a smooth talker, but whose actions do not measure up to his words, about the person who may have good intentions, who makes a commitment, but when it starts to get difficult, when keeping that commitment would require a sacrifice on his part, looks for a way to weasel out.  

Now we have to be careful here. 

Because I know, we could easily think this is not relevant to us. After all, very few of us swear by the temple or swear by our heads in order to fool people into thinking we are serious about the truth when we are not. We might not go about weaseling out of the truth the exact same way the Pharisees and religious people of James’ day did. 

But even though we may not be tempted to make the same kind of vows they did, we are tempted to look for ways to weasel out of the truth just like they did.  And James is warning us that as believers we must not be flippant about speaking the truth. 

It’s very important we do not play word games in order to get out of actually having to keep our word.

What do we do with bad people? Part 4

17 Oct

All of heaven celebrates the repentance of one, single, solitary sinner.

The door, is WIDE OPEN.

If you come to him in faith and repentance.

That’s a glorious gospel truth and I am not sure of a story in the Bible that makes that truth more clear than the third story Jesus tells in Luke 15. 

“And he said, ‘There was a man who had two sons.”

Which is important for us because you remember he’s talking to these two groups. 

The Pharisees and scribes and the tax collectors and sinners. 

Two sons. 

And the younger of them, which obviously represents the tax collectors and sinners, said to his father, ‘Father give me the share of property that is coming to me.”’

Which was shocking.

That’s not something people said. 

Essentially it was his way of saying, dad, why don’t you drop dead. And the normal response in that culture, would have been to slap the son in the face.

And yet, obviously the father didn’t. 

Instead Jesus tells us, he divided his property between them. 

 The elder son would have gotten two thirds of the property. Though, at this point, it’s likely the father still would have retained control, and the younger son, received his in advance. 

And then he left. 

“Not many days later, the younger son gathered all that he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.”” 

Which was foolish and wicked, and sad. 

Here this son has broken his relationship with his father, he’s wasted the privileges his father had given him, and he’s going to experience the consequences. 

“And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pig ate, and no one gave him anything.”

Which is a pretty pathetic picture, and yet it’s so real, because, in general, while you are powerful and important, the world is celebrating with you, but once you start, experiencing the consequences of your sin, this world has very little compassion. 

And, I don’t know, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Pharisees at this point, were thinking the son was getting, what he had coming, and yet, God used these consequences to wake this younger brother up. 

In verse 17, Jesus says.

“But when he came to himself.” 

And that’s like a picture of a drunk man, finally becoming sober. 

And I am not sure it’s genuine repentance yet, as much as it is, what have I done? Though that’s sometimes where genuine repentance starts. And he says.

“How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.””

Which was basically, all true. 

This son, finally did have an accurate view of himself, he wasn’t worthy to be called this father’s son. 

Just like we are not worthy to be called God’s. 

And there are a lot of people who think this is where the story should end. 

When the world says erase the categories of shameful and honorable, they are saying, stay in the pig pen, but pretend like it’s really wonderful. And when the religious people say, that’s it, that’s where you belong, they are saying, what sometimes our own hearts, are tempted to believe, that God’s not good.

But obviously, Jesus doesn’t end the story there. 

“And he arose and came to his father.” 

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.”

Which have to be some of the most beautiful verses in all of Scripture. 

I mean did you read that?

His father saw him while he was a long way off. 

He felt compassion.

He ran.

And old men don’t run.

And embraced him.

And kissed him.

And those verses are beautiful because Jesus is saying, that is God’s attitude towards repentant sinners.

He celebrates. 

Like a shepherd who finds his sheep. Like a woman who finds her coin. Like this father who is embracing his son. 

It’s funny.

You might remember this whole chapter begins with the Pharisees who are getting upset that Jesus eats with sinners, which is why Jesus tells this story about a father eating with his son. 

This is the answer to their question. 

As religious people, they couldn’t understand Jesus. 

There is good and there is bad, you say you are good and you are eating with the bad. 

And, of course the world would come along and say, well that must mean, Jesus doesn’t think there is bad. 

But, if we look at those two lists, good people and bad people, we know that can’t be the answer. It’s not that Jesus was eating with those people, because he didn’t think these things were bad. 

They were bad. 

It’s because he knew those weren’t the only two categories. 

There was a third category.

And that’s someone who has been humbled, and someone who is repentant, and it’s that person, that God really finds joy in. 

Good, bad, FORGIVEN.

And, this is really the key to this whole series.

What do we do with bad people?

We’ll never understand Jesus until we understand.   

While we may only have these two categories, good  and bad, God has one more.

Good, bad, forgiven!

And that’s the category that matters. 

We bring the lists, I am bad I can’t come, I am good I can come, and God’s saying, put away your lists, because you are both wrong. Your good isn’t good enough and your bad isn’t too bad, because I am looking for someone who is REPENTANT and when God finds a humble, repentant person, he’s like this father, who says to his servants.

“Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and eat, and let us celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”

Listen.

God celebrates the repentant sinner.

This is who God’s banquet is for. 

Not for good people, not for bad people, for repentant people.

God loves repentant people. 

It seems like it is so hard for us to believe that. 

I think it’s one of the hardest things in the world for us to believe. That God is this good, really.

You know, even unbelievers, will say God is love and God is good, and yet, they don’t really believe it.  

It’s like this younger son in the story. The younger son didn’t even know how good his father was, and that’s why he rebelled against him in the first place. And that’s why, when he came back he thought he had to come up with this plan to work as his father’s servant, to pay back his debts.

But he could never have worked his way back. 

And neither can you. 

The way we’ve sinned against God is terrible. 

And, we can’t get around that. 

As we look at this list of bad things people do, we can’t pretend like those things aren’t horrible. 

Just like, everything this son did to this father was horrible. And yet as horrible as sin is, the good news of the gospel, is that we serve a God who is willing and able and eager to forgive. He’s so eager to forgive that He’s made a way for forgiveness to even be possible, by sending His own Son Jesus to die in the place of sinners, like this prodigal son.

And He absolutely delights in forgiving sinners who come to Him in repentance. 

He celebrates. 

And while the Pharisees were looking at Jesus and saying how can you spend time with these people, Jesus is looking at the Pharisees, and saying how can you not?

If the friends of the shepherd celebrate with him after he’s found his sheep and the friends of the woman celebrate with her after she has found her coin, how can those who say they are friends of God, not celebrate, when a sinner repents?

And, this is actually where it all starts to get serious. 

How can those who say they are friends of God, not want what God wants?

How can friends of God not celebrate what God celebrates? 

Because, if you look at this list, of what people would say, is good, and if you are doing everything on that list, how good are you really, if you are not finding joy, in what brings God joy? 

You know? 

Something is wrong if we are not seeking what God seeks and we are not excited about what God’s excited about, then something is definitely broken and the story of the prodigal son ends with a warning.  

“Now his older brother,” Jesus says in verse 25, “was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called on the servants and he asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he received him back safe and sound. And he was, angry and refused to go in.”

I mean, that’s messed up. 

Sometimes people call this story of the Prodigal Son, and I understand why, but there are two sons here, and they both have problems. 

It’s not just people on the bad list who rebel against God, it’s also people on the good list. 

You can rebel against God by living in this world or you can rebel against God by being self-righteous, and this older brother, was self-righteous, and I know, for me, it’s off easier to write self-righteous people off, honestly.

I can look at the prodigal son in the pig sty and I think he has hope, but this older brother, this attitude, like the Pharisees, all throughout the gospels, it’s hard to have any hope, and it’s easy, to just say whatever, but notice this father doesn’t. 

Because, he’s just so good. 

He humbles himself once again and comes out to his elder son. 

And Jesus says, “His father came out and entreated him” which we find God doing through Jesus, all throughout the gospels.

He didn’t only go after the bad, he also went after the good, and yet the good had such a hard time, hearing Jesus, like this older son had hearing his father. 

“But he answered his father.”

And his response helps us understand what the Pharisees were getting wrong. 

“Look,” he says, “these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’”

And really, who knows if everything the son is saying is true, I don’t think that’s the point, the point is, that this son, doesn’t understand GRACE. He only thinks in terms of justice. 

This man’s sinned, he should be punished, I’ve obeyed, and I should be blessed. 

And while Jesus doesn’t correct that theology exactly here, we know from the rest of the Bible, if that’s the way it worked in our relationship with God, we would all be damned. 

The people on the good list and the people on the bad. 

If we start forgetting that, the party is over for us as believers. 

Of course there is bad, and the bad is bad, and there’s good and the  good is good, but if we start thinking these are the only two categories that matter to God, and if we forget, this ONE category that MATTERS MOST, repentant, forgiven, in Jesus, than the we are going to miss out on the beautiful thing God’s doing. 

And I guess I am just burdened, as we seek to grow and to become good people, you know holy people, is that we don’t start becoming impressed with ourselves, and start thinking that we really have earned this, that we are better than we really are, that God somehow owes us because of these things that we have done, which is the way the older brother’s talking.

He’s not enjoying the party, he’s not enjoying his privileges, he’s angry at the father.

And it’s all nonsense.

And I am sure the father could have rebuked him. 

He could have said son, seriously?

You’ve obeyed everything I’ve asked? 

I mean, look at what you are doing right now, you won’t even come into the celebration, when I am out here, pleading. 

But instead, you know what the Father does, he reminds him, once again, that he’s good!

“And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive, and was lost and is found.”

Which I guess is where I want to end today. 

If you are lost and you know it and you feel like God could never love you, because all these things on this bad list, are true of you, He can, come home to God, and you can be sure GOD WILL CELEBRATE. 

And if you are good and you’ve done everything right, and you are just so proud of yourself, there’s enough grace for prodigals, and there’s enough grace enough for self-righteous, good, religious people as well, like the apostle Paul, lay down your self-righteousness, and humble yourself before it’s too late. 

And if you are here and you are a believer, let’s never forget that God does save sinners, religious ones and irreligious ones, and let’s worrying so much about who is good and who is bad, and keep taking the gospel out, to absolutely everyone, because we know the CATEGORY that matters most, and that is REPENTANT AND FORGIVEN.