Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Faith Test: Trials

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An Introduction to the Book of James 

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, 
To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: 
Greetings (v. 1).

Genre: Letter.

The letter of James lacks many of the usual characteristics of a letter. It is called a “general epistle” because it wasn’t written to a specific person or church. It could be classified as a book of wisdom (similar to the OT book of Proverbs).

Author: James, the brother of Jesus.

James was not a follower of Jesus until after the resurrection (John 7:5; 1 Cor. 15:7). He became a leader of the Jerusalem church (Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:8; Gal. 2:9, 12) and was executed in A.D. 62.

Date: Probably around A.D. 45.

Recipients: Jewish Christians living outside Palestine.

Theme: Living out one’s faith.

Joy in Trials 

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds (v. 2).

Depending on the context, the Greek word for “trials” (peirasmos) can be translated either “trials” or “temptation.” Trials are troubles. In our lives, we face “various kinds” of troubles (illness, loss of a loved one, financial difficulty). What are the normal responses to trials? Sadness, discouragement, and anger. But what does James say? “Count it all joy.” (This, of course, does not mean that we should desire trouble or that we should not be sad when a loved one dies.)

Why should we “count it all joy” when we face trials?

Trials can help us reach our goal: spiritual maturity. 

Trials are like difficult, strenuous physical exercise. When you exercise, you often have a goal (lose weight, lower blood pressure, get in shape for a sporting event). Of course, exercising is voluntary; trials are not.

To be “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (v. 4) is to be spiritually mature. To be spiritually mature means to be like Jesus. To be like Jesus, is a goal we won’t be able to fully reach in this life, but we shouldn’t “lower the bar.” Paul wrote, “Not that I…am already perfect, but I press on….” (Phil. 3:12).

James gives us three facts about trials:

1. Trials test our strength (v. 3a). 

A physical fitness test shows us how physically strong we are. Trials show us how spiritually strong we are. The Greek word for “testing” (dokimion) is used only one other time in the NT. “In this [salvation] you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6-7). The fire shows what is pure gold and what is not.

2. Trials can increase our endurance (vv. 3b-4). 

It’s sometimes said, “No pain, no gain.” Trials cause us to exercise our faith and the result is spiritual endurance (“steadfastness”). Verses 9-11 also teach us that our trials (such as poverty) are temporary.

3. Trials can be rewarding (v. 12). 

The type of “crown” that James has in mind is the laurel wreath that was given to winners in the ancient athletic games. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize. So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (1 Cor. 9:24-25). We need to “commit to be fit.”

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Gratitude or Greed?

Grateful Giving

Chronicles 29:1-20

“But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you (v. 14).

In David’s prayer, he gives three reasons why we should give gratefully:

First, everything I have comes from God. 

“O LORD our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a house for your holy name comes from your hand and is all your own” (v. 16).

Many people will not acknowledge that everything good comes from God. Paul writes, “Although they knew God [through creation], they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” (Rom. 1:21). Mankind refused to give thanks to God for His blessings. Instead, they “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (v. 25). It’s sad that many people are now saying “Turkey Day,” rather than “Thanksgiving Day.”

Before the Israelites entered the promised land, Moses warned them, saying, “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth” (Deut. 8:17-18). As James writes, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17).

On January, 31, 1957, the Canadian Parliament proclaimed: “A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed…is to be observed on the second Monday in October.” The purpose of Thanksgiving is to thank God for all of the blessings that come from Him.

Second, God is the owner, and I am the manager. 

For all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all” (v. 11). The manager of McDonald’s doesn’t say to the owner, “Sorry, you can’t have a hamburger.” The owner has entrusted the manager with his business, but everything still belongs to the owner. The same is true with us and God. I can give nothing to God that doesn’t already belong to Him.

Third, my ability to give is a gift from God. 

“‘Who then will offer willingly, consecrating himself today to the LORD?’ Then the leaders of fathers’ houses made their freewill offerings as did also the leaders of the tribes, the commanders of thousands and of hundreds, and the officers over the king’s work” (v. 6).

The people gave 5,000 talents of gold (v. 7). What is the current value of 5,000 talents of gold? One talent is about 75 pounds, which means 5,000 talents would equal about 374,000 pounds. The current price of gold is $1,637/oz (USD). So 5,000 talents (374,000 pounds) of gold would be worth $9,822,000,000!

“Then the people rejoiced because they had given willingly, for with a whole heart they had offered freely to the LORD. David the king also rejoiced” (v. 9). God could force us to give, but He allows us to give willingly.

If something like this happened today, what would be the focus of the new reporters’ stories? Probably the generosity of the people. But to whom did David give the glory? God, not the people. “Therefore David blessed the LORD in the presence of all the assembly. And David said: ‘Blessed are you, O LORD, the God of Israel our father, forever and ever’” (v. 10).

Are You Grateful or Greedy?

“I know, my God, that you test the heart and have pleasure in uprightness. In the uprightness of my heart I have freely offered all these things, and now I have seen your people, who are present here, offering freely and joyously to you” (v. 17).

We can either be grateful for God’s grace or greedy for our own gain. Whether we are grateful or greedy affects our lives in many ways.

Money: The grateful person says, “God gives. Therefore my money is His, and I use it to glorify Him.” The greedy person says, “I earn. Therefore my money is mine, and I use it however I please.”

Possessions: The grateful person says, “I have enough” (contentment). The greedy person says, “I never have enough” (coveteousness).

Service: The grateful person says, “I want to serve.” The greedy person says, “I want to be served.”

Giving: The grateful person says, “How much can I give?” The greedy person says, “How much must I give.”

After asking the Corinthians to contribute to an offering to help struggling Christians in Jerusalem, Paul exclaims, “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (2 Cor. 9:15). God’s gift is the sacrifice of His Son (“gift”). God’s gift is too amazing for words (“inexpressible”). God’s gift is worthy of our utmost gratitude (“thanks”). And God’s gift should inspire us to give (cf. 2 Cor. 9:1-14). Does only 10% belong to God. No, everything belongs to God. And this truth applies not only to our money but also our time and energy. Giving flows out of gratitude.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Who Cares?

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God Cares!

You probably remember the “Miracle on the Hudson.” On Jan. 15, 2009­, U.S. Airways Flight 1549 began a routine journey that ended as anything but. Shortly after taking off from New York's LaGuardia Airport, the Airbus A320, which held 155 people, lost power to both engines after they were struck by birds.

Rather than panicking in a moment of sheer terror, pilot Chesley B. Sullenberger III decided to land the plane in the Hudson River in an attempt to avoid crashing in the densely populated area. Amazingly, no one was killed.

After landing in the Hudson, nearby ferry boats, police boats, fire boats, and tugboats picked up passengers who were standing up to their waists in 35 oF (1.6 oC) water and 18 oF (-7 oC) air temperatures. What could have ended in a disaster turned out to be one of the most amazing flight rescue stories ever. For his quick thinking and skill, Sullenberger was lauded as a hero (“5 Amazing Rescues,”

The book of Jonah is a rescue story. But it’s more than a story of God rescuing a prophet from drowning. It’s a story of God rescuing a city from destruction.

“That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster (4:2).

Why did God send Jonah to Nineveh? Because God cares. 

Why did Jonah refuse to go to Nineveh? Because Jonah didn't care.

The book of Jonah shows us the great lengths to which God will go to bring salvation: 
  • God commissioned a prophet to confront a sinful city. Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh....” (1:1-2). 
  • God caused a storm to stop a runaway prophet. But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up (1:4). 
  • God prepared a fish to swallow a drowning prophet. And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah (1:17). 
  • God directed the fish to release a trapped prophet. And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land (2:10). 
  • God recommissioned the prophet to confront a perishing city. And the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh....” (3:1-2). 
  • God used the prophet to save a repentant city. When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it (3:10). 

The Hebrew word shuwb (translated as “turn”) is found four times in verses 8-10. When the people of Nineveh turned from their sin, God turned from the judgment He threatened. The KJV says, “God repented of the evil [disaster]” (4:10). To “repent” means “to feel sorry.” God felt sorry for the Ninevites and spared them. The NIV says, “He had compassion.”

Jesus once compared Himself to Jonah. “Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40). Like Jonah, Jesus shared a message that brought salvation. But unlike Jonah, Jesus fulfilled His mission willingly. And unlike Jonah, Jesus was filled with compassion.

God so loved the Nineveh, that He sent his prophet Jonah, that whoever believed in his message should not perish but live. And “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Do I Care?

“You pity the plant.... And should not I pity Nineveh…?” (4:10-11).

Why did God spare the Ninevites when they repented? Because God cares. 

Why was Jonah angry when God spared them? Because Jonah didn't care.

A Hebrew word frequently found throughout the book of Jonah is ra‘ah (translated as “evil,” “disaster,” and “discomfort” in 1:2, 7, 8; 3:8, 10; 4:1, 2, 6). “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil [ra‘ah] way, God relented of the disaster [ra‘ah] that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. But it displeased [ra‘ah] Jonah exceedingly” (3:10-4:1). An alternate translation of 4:1 is “But it was exceedingly evil to Jonah.” To Jonah, it was a disaster than Nineveh escaped disaster.

Another key word in the book of Jonah is “perish.” Jonah was not concerned about the sailors and the Ninevites who were in danger of perishing (1:6, 14; 3:9) but was angry when the plant perished (4:10). Jonah cared more about a plant than the people of Nineveh. Do you care more about your things than your neighbors?

Do you care like God cares? If I desire to care like God cares, I must constantly remind myself of three truths:

1. God loves me, and God loves them.

Don’t think that you deserve God’s love more than anyone else. No one “deserves” God’s love. But God is merciful and gracious (4:2). Through Christ, He has made a way to withhold from us the punishment we deserve and give to us the salvation we don’t deserve (just like He did with Nineveh). “Salvation belongs to the Lord” (2:9). Thankfully, it didn’t belong to Jonah or Nineveh would not have been saved.

2. God wants me to be filled with compassion for them.

“As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezek. 33:11). The Lord is “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). “I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).

3. God wants me to play my part in His rescue plan.

Most of us would do everything we could to rescue someone in physical danger. If someone was drowning, you would do something to help (jump in the water, throw a life preserver, yell for help, call 911). What about those who are in spiritual danger? There is something every Christian can do.

The purpose of the book of Jonah is to show us that God loves all people and to lead each one of us to ask ourselves, “Do I care?”