“The man who has been taught by the Holy Spirit will be a seer rather than a scholar. The difference is that the scholar sees and the seer sees through; and that is a mighty difference indeed.”
A.W. Tozer, Man - The Dwelling Place of God
Anyone who deliberately chooses to love the world is thereby making himself God’s enemy. Do you think what the scriptures have to say about this is a mere formality? (James 4:4b,5a)
Which begs the question: What would that latter question have meant to James' original readers, given that the New Testament didn't, at this time, exist? Well, consider some of the Old Testament context to which, perhaps, James was pointing their minds:
That's the War He's still fighting in and through us today. Let us march out under His orders only.
"When the Bible calls for action it does not refer a man to his own powers but to Jesus Christ Himself. ‘Without me ye can do nothing’ (John 15.5). This sentence is to be taken in its strictest sense. There is really no action without Jesus Christ. All the innumerable different activities which in general assume the appearance of action are, in the judgment of Jesus, as though nothing had been done."
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics
"Beasts, birds, reptiles and all kinds of sea-creatures can be, and in fact are, tamed by man, but no one can tame the human tongue. It is an evil always liable to break out, and the poison it spreads is deadly. We use the tongue to bless our Father, God, and we use the same tongue to curse our fellow-men, who are all created in God’s likeness. Blessing and curses come out of the same mouth — surely, my brothers, this is the sort of thing that never ought to happen! Have you ever known a spring to give sweet and bitter water simultaneously? Have you ever seen a fig-tree with a crop of olives, or seen figs growing on a vine? It is just as impossible for a spring to give fresh and salt water at the same time." James 3:7-12
James really gives the best of teaching-metaphors throughout Chapter 3, because they say what they say and yet there's even more behind them...
Think, for a moment, about the nature of a freshwater, sweetwater spring: how would you describe how it "works"? It comes from deep inside the earth; it's cool; it's clean; it's fresh; it brings life and refreshment to them that drink from it. And why can't it bring up bitter water alongside the sweet? Well, because that would mean that the source itself had been tainted; that something was wrong down at its essence; that it no longer is what it was.
And how about the fig tree and the olive tree: what can we learn from looking at their example? Personally, I would say that we see two distinct types of trees, with their own fundamental identities; yet both must source their life from soil, roots, air and water; both will be noted for the quality of their fruit.
So, with both the examples of the waters and the trees, James is not only teaching us about incongruity between fresh- and bitterwater, fig- and olive-trees, he is also pointing our minds and hearts to consider the essence of those things, the inner hidden life from which they spring and grow.
And now listen to James' brother get going on the same tack: “It is impossible for a good tree to produce bad fruit — as impossible as it is for a bad tree to produce good fruit. Do not men know what a tree is by its fruit? You cannot pick figs from briars, or gather a bunch of grapes from a blackberry bush! A good man produces good things from the good stored up in his heart, and a bad man produce evil things from his own stores of evil. For a man’s words will always express what has been treasured in his heart.” (Luke 6:43-45)
Friends, our words are the portal to get a real, true glimpse of what our real, true inner life is like. "For a man’s words will always express what has been treasured in his heart." If our inner life is all caught up in the great adventure of abiding in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, then we'll find our words are becoming His sort of words. It's our relish over the Kingdom of Heaven taking over the landscape of our heart that changes the outflow of our speech: don't forget it!
Truly, gloriously, to Abide in Him alters the very essence of our being!
Don't forget: His overabundance of love, goodness and mercy can always conquer our sense of feeling overwhelmed. No matter what.
The Pharisees came up to him in a body, and one of them, an expert in the Law, put this test-question: “Master, what are we to consider the Law’s greatest commandment?”
Jesus answered him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the first and great commandment. And there is a second like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' The whole of the Law and the Prophets depends on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:34b-40
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“There are people who think that the two commandments of Jesus are somehow a watering-down of the ten commandments of Moses. If they think that, then they plainly have not tried the way of Christ, which is the way of love. If we follow that way seriously, we shall find it far surpasses the demands of Moses’ Law. The ten commandments may produce law-abiding people, but the Law of Christ produces sons and daughters of God.”
J.B. Phillips, Good News
Then Philip began, and using this scripture as a starting point, he told the eunuch the good news about Jesus. As they proceeded along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look, here is some water; is there any reason why I should not be baptized now?” And he gave orders for the carriage to stop. Then both of them went down to the water and Philip baptized the eunuch... (Acts 8:35-38)
Isn’t the whole narrative of this man’s salvation a thrill and a joy? He was riding back from a probably painful worship trip to Jerusalem (being, after all, "unclean" because of his condition), confused by a scripture, when he looks out the window of his carriage and sees a man jogging alongside. For his part, Philip had been going about his day when, by the voice of an angel and the Holy Spirit, he was sent out on this slightly absurd adventure.
This is the joyous way of the wonderful God we serve!
And the before-and-after qualities of this scene remind me of Paul’s glorious descriptions of the befores-and-afters of our own salvation:
“To you, who were spiritually dead all the time that you drifted along on the stream of this world’s ideas of living, and obeyed its unseen ruler (who is still operating in those who do not respond to the truth of God), to you Christ has given life! We all lived like that in the past, and followed the impulses and imaginations of our evil nature, being in fact under the wrath of God by nature, like everyone else. But even though we were dead in our sins God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, gave us life together with Christ — it is, remember, by grace and not by achievement that you are saved — and has lifted us right out of the old life to take our place with him in Christ in the Heavens…” (Ephesians 2)
Thank you, Jesus!
A simple thought for our first day of the New Year:
"Later on the Lord commissioned seventy other disciples and sent them off in twos as advance-parties into every town and district where he intended to go." Luke 10:1
Our daily personal work for the Gospel is a procession that goes before His personal revelation of Himself. Where He “intends to go,” He’s happy to send us out as His envoys, even though, in reality, He's already always going there before us. As Paul saw it: “Thanks be to God who leads us, wherever we are, on his own triumphant way and makes our knowledge of him spread throughout the world like a lovely perfume!” (2 Cor. 2:14)
Let's be fully present in the places where He intends to go today!
As we launch into this New Year and make all kinds of personal resolutions about what we'd like to do and be within it, here's a little reminder to keep in front of ourselves all year long:
You and I are part of a Kingdom that cannot die because we follow a King who cannot be kept dead. May we take up an indomitable spirit all throughout this year, living by His Spirit, so that all the world may know.
“If anyone wants to follow in my footsteps, he must give up all right to himself, carry his cross every day and keep close behind me. For the man who wants to save his life will lose it, but the man who loses his life for my sake will save it..." Luke 9:23,24
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"With eyes wide open to the mercies of God, I beg you, my brothers and sisters, as an act of intelligent worship, to give him your bodies, as a living sacrifice, consecrated to him and acceptable by him. Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God re-mold your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity." Romans 12:1,2
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“Everyone has to give up a great deal of life to live anything deeply. But it’s worth it.”
John Dos Passos, Three Soldiers
The ending of 1 Thessalonians 1 (vv. 6b-10), with some thoughts in italics -
You remember how, although accepting the message meant bitter persecution, yet you experienced the joy of the Holy Spirit. And, by the way, the Holy Spirit is joy. No circumstances, no human hardships, trump the Holy Spirit’s ability to invest our spirits with His wondrous and eternal joy! (Test that fact today – and everyday - and you'll see what I mean.)
You thus became examples to all who believe in Macedonia and Achaia. You have become a sort of sounding-board from which the Word of the Lord has rung out, not only in Macedonia and Achaia but everywhere where the story of your faith in God has become known. We find we don’t have to tell people about it. They tell us the story of our coming to you: how you turned from idols to serve the true living God, and how your whole lives now look forward to the coming of his Son from heaven…
Don’t you just love the sentiment of that section? How absolutely wonderful that these believers, simply by believing and loving and hoping in Jesus, have become a “sounding-board” for the whole Gospel to the whole world! Their story needs no telling because the fruit is so obvious. And what joy Paul felt at how his friends were making the name Jesus famous!
And where did the Thessalonian church source its spiritual power? … the Son Jesus, whom God raised from the dead, and who personally delivered us from the judgment which hung over our heads.
And right there is the source of the Early Church’s zeal and steadfastness: their foremost belief in Jesus’ present “aliveness.” Nothing could faze them in the face of a Living Christ. For them, the Resurrection perfectly proved the power of the atoning Cross forevermore and they’d learned to live in this “personally delivered” posture with wild and unflappable joy.
How about us today?
Nearly no one can remember all the "important things" they were doing, say, three weeks ago today. All that day's busyness has now been swallowed up by the passing of time and by today's concerns. Yet if that particular day was bound up with faith, hope and love, its fruit was eternal and, even if we forget all its minutiae, it lasts. That is why our "seeking first His Kingdom and His righteousness" today must be everything; we've already been told that all else will be added to us if only we'll so fully seek.
The eleven went to the hill-side in Galilee where Jesus had arranged to meet them, and when they had seen him they worshipped him, though some of them were doubtful. But Jesus came and spoke these words to them, "All power in Heaven and on earth has been given to me. You, then, are to go and make disciples of all the nations and baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to observe all that I have commanded you and, remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the world." (Matthew 28:16-20)
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On one occasion, while he was eating a meal with them, he emphasized that they were not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the Father’s promise. “You have already heard me speak about this,” he said, “for John used to baptize with water, but before many days are passed you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
This naturally brought them all together, and they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
To this he replied, “You cannot know times and dates which have been fixed by the Father’s sole authority. But you are to be given power when the Holy Spirit has come to you. You will be witnesses to me, not only in Jerusalem, not only throughout Judea, not only in Samaria, but to the very ends of the earth!”
When he had said these words he was lifted up before their eyes till a cloud hid him from their sight… (Acts 1:4-9)
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“Great expectations are the proof of great love.”
- Honore de Balzac, The Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau
Then Jesus, knowing intuitively that his disciples were complaining about what he had just said, went on, “Is this too much for you? Then what would happen if you were to see the Son of Man going up to the place where he was before? It is the Spirit which gives life. The flesh will not help you. The things which I have told you are spiritual and are life. But some of you will not believe me.”
For Jesus knew from the beginning which of his followers did not trust him and who was the man who would betray him. Then he added, “This is why I said to you, ‘No one can come to me unless my Father puts it into his heart to come.’”
As a consequence of this, many of his disciples withdrew and no longer followed him. (John 6:61-66)
It’s important to note that this whole epilogue to John 6 is addressed specifically to actual disciples of His, not just some curious crowd. It is to us, in essence, that He turns His eyes and says these words:
“Is this too much for you? Then what would happen if you were to see the Son of Man going up to the place where he was before? It is the Spirit which gives life. The flesh will not help you. The things which I have told you are spiritual and are life. But some of you will not believe me.”
Friends, you and I must believe Him. We must ever want more, never less, of the presence of the Living One. May our hearts come to know and experience that yearning that eventually overtook the heart of the Apostle Paul: “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith -- that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3)
Yet to know “the power of his resurrection,” to be able to grasp – as Jesus mentions – the glory of His Ascension, we cannot lean upon our own understanding, our flesh, for, again, they will not help us. Only the Spirit can give life – only the words of Jesus are spirit – so may we allow Him to do His work of teaching us to follow. May we allow His flesh and blood, living right now within us, to do their work in leading us along His perfect Way.
Now after the death of Moses the servant of Yahweh, Yahweh spoke to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ servant, saying, “Moses my servant is dead. Now therefore arise, go across this Jordan, you, and all these people, to the land which I am giving to them, even to the children of Israel. I have given you every place that the sole of your foot will tread on, as I told Moses. From the wilderness, and this Lebanon, even to the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, and to the great sea toward the going down of the sun, shall be your border. No man will be able to stand before you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not fail you nor forsake you…” Joshua 1:1-5
Imagine being Joshua and standing upon the brow of a hill, looking into Canaan, with the voice of the Lord speaking whisperingly in your ear, like this. That morning you’d awoken with fear and anxiety about leading His people; now, at sunset, He is narrating the glories of your eternal possession, even as He shows it to you. Perhaps He even lengthened Joshua’s sights in order to see these lengths and breadths of the land He was set to give to his people. But can you feel the power of the Presence that had inhabited the cloud-by-day and the fire-by-night, as He's leaning over Joshua to point the way?
Abraham could certainly relate – both to the Presence and the precise words used:
“The Lord said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, ‘Look around from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.’” (Genesis 13)
“On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates — the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.’” (Genesis 15)
For us, it is our own knowledge that He never “fails nor forsakes us,” our remembrance that He’s never “failed nor forsook us,” and our belief that He never will in the future “fail nor forsake us” that gives us the ability – today – to arise, to go, to take, to tread, and to be dauntless in His leading and presence. Immediately, here, as we’re reading the opening words of the 24 chapters that make up the Book of Joshua, we must lift our gaze to examine the steadfast face of Yeshua, our Savior, our Leader, Jesus. For we’re only as good for His service as the measure to which we believe He is good; we must stand intimately with Him, today, as Joshua once stood breath-to-breath with Yahweh.
The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of wisdom, of hope, of joy, of courage, of knowledge, of comfort, of counsel, and of power. No matter what our life (or this next New Year) throws at us, we mustn't fall back on our own thoughts or emotions; we must make use of, and become increasingly totally dependent upon, the Spirit of God as our best and only source for the wisdom, hope, joy, courage, knowledge, comfort, counsel and power of Heaven itself.
Let's live up to our privileges, my brothers and sisters, both today and over these holidays!
"This is the reason why we never collapse. The outward man does indeed suffer wear and tear, but every day the inward man receives fresh strength. These little troubles (which are really so transitory) are winning for us a permanent, glorious and solid reward out of all proportion to our pain. For we are looking all the time not at the visible things but at the invisible. The visible things are transitory: it is the invisible things that are really permanent." 2 Corinthians 4:16-18
“In every man there are two hemispheres of light and dark, two worlds discrete, two countries of his soul’s adventure. And one of these is the dark land, the other half of his heart’s home, the unvisited domain of his father’s earth. And this is the land he knows the best. It is the earth unvisited – and it is his, as nothing he has seen can ever be. It is the world intangible that he has never touched – yet more his own than something he has owned forever.” Thomas Wolfe, The Web and the Rock
Clearing Winter Storm, Ansel Adams
"If you obey the royal law, expressed by the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,' all is well..." James 2:8
And here's one quick thought on this version of the Golden Rule, a basic pattern to remember. When you're trying to follow it, to literally "love your neighbor as yourself," and "do unto them as you would have them do unto you," the first step is not to think of yourself: not to think, "Let's see, I like to pamper myself and love myself and so now I'm going to pamper and love you like that..."
No! First, observe the other person with love and curiosity about what would make them feel loved and, in the spirit of Jesus, and now outside of yourself, you will begin to love the other person with a first-handedness that is how you yourself want to be loved.
I've shared this quote here before, but I love the old writer Henry Scougall's words, "Perfect love is a kind of self-dereliction, a wandering out of ourselves..."
Let's you and I become great wanderers of that sort, my friends! Especially at Christmas, as we seek to prove the Incarnation with our lives!
“Thus I stretch out my arms to my Savior, who, after being foretold for four thousand years, came on earth to die and suffer for me at the time and in the circumstances foretold. By his grace I peaceably await death, in the hope of being eternally united to him, and meanwhile I live joyfully, whether in the blessings which he is pleased to bestow on me or in the afflictions he sends me for my own good and taught me how to endure by example." (Blaise Pascal, Pensees)
"Yes, and I shall go on being very happy, for I know that what is happening will be for the good of my own soul, thanks to your prayers and the resources of the spirit of Jesus Christ. It all accords with my own earnest wishes and hopes, which are that I should never be in any way ashamed, but that now, as always, I should honor Christ with the utmost boldness by the way I live, whether that means I am to face death or to go on living. For living to me means simply 'Christ,' and if I die I should merely gain more of him." (Philippians 1:18b-21)
"Now what use is it, my brothers, for a man to say he 'has faith' if his actions do not correspond with it? Could that sort of faith save anyone’s soul?" (James 2:14)
And without reading any further into the famous "faith & works" section of James' letter, we have to stop right there, because THAT'S THE WHOLE QUESTION FOR US. The question of faith and works has everything to do with what we believe really happens because of "faith" at the level of the individual soul. Or let me put it to you this way: There was a real living person named Jesus, a man from Nazareth in Israel, who lived 2,000 years ago, in the midst of the Roman Empire.
Now what does that have to do with your soul?
(Insert you and I having coffee or talking on the phone this week, right here, because I'd really like to hear you answer that question.)
I think the reason we get into so many arguments and confusions about the "faith & works" question is because we don't really know what we actually believe about "faith." The true Christian faith - at least the one the first believers lived and died for - is that repentance and belief lead not only to salvation, but also to Jesus now living His life inside of you. And imagine questioning whether Jesus Himself would be able to show works and actions like... Himself! I truly dare us to have His presence inside us and to try and stop Him!
Really, the "faith & works" question should be a moot point for us, if we really believe the things we say we believe about Jesus, our soul, and the work of the Holy Spirit. (And I'd encourage you to read the rest of James 2 through the lens of His indwelling: it changes the whole scope of the argument entirely.)
As Jesus went on his way, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at his desk in the tax office and he said to him, “Follow me!” Levi got up and followed him. Later, when Jesus was sitting at dinner in Levi’s house, a large number of tax-collectors and disreputable folk came in and joined him and his disciples. For there were many such people among his followers. When the scribes and Pharisees saw him eating in the company of tax-collectors and outsiders, they remarked to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?” (Mark 2:14-16)
It occurs to me that it never occurred to Jesus not to eat with the tax-collectors and sinners and disreputable folk. He didn't ever even seem to have a second thought about it. Nor was this some "ministry strategy." His actions were ever and always the most natural inclinations of His heart and will: this is the actual heart of God on display. And thank you, Jesus, for that Kingdom of Heaven reality!
The Calling of St. Matthew, Caravaggio
"The Presence and the manifestation of the Presence are not the same. There can be the one without the other. God is here when we are wholly unaware of it. He is manifest only when and as we are aware of His Presence. On our part there must be surrender to the Spirit of God, for His work it is to show us the Father and the Son. If we co-operate with Him in loving obedience God will manifest Himself to us, and that manifestation will be the difference between a nominal Christian life and a life radiant with the light of His face."
A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God