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The Importance of Being Honest

Saturday, January 14, 2023

But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.

(James 5:12)

Among the many practical teachings in the book of James comes this word on honesty. In his typical tone of loving concern, James addresses his beloved “brothers” (and sisters) in Christ with this simple imperative: “do not swear.”

The kind of swearing he is prohibiting is not dirty language, although this too is something Christians must avoid (“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” [Eph. 4:29]), but rather the taking of oaths, invoking God’s name to guarantee the truth of what one says.

But didn’t God “swear” by his own name in the Old Testament? If so, how does this square with James’ prohibition against it? While it is true that God frequently guaranteed his promises to Israel with oaths, his purpose in doing so was not to increase his own credibility. “God is not man, that he should lie.” (Num. 23:19) God’s purpose in using oaths was to confirm our imperfect trust in him. The fault which made God condescend to our level was not due to any untrustworthiness on his part but rather to our unbelief and weakness. God swore not because he sometimes lies but in order to help us believe (Heb. 6:13-20).

It is also true that the Law of Moses allowed Israelites to take oaths, but it never commanded them. If one did voluntarily take an oath, he was obligated to keep it: “You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.” (Lev. 19:12) Also, “If you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and you will be guilty of sin. But if you refrain from vowing, you will not be guilty of sin. You shall be careful to do what has passed your lips, for you have voluntarily vowed to the LORD your God what you have promised with your mouth.” (Deut. 23:21-23; also Ecc. 5:4-5)

The point James is making is that Christians should be trustworthy people. We should not have to rely on oaths to guarantee our word; a simple “yes” or “no” should suffice. Swearing is often a confession of dishonesty. The more we resort to hyperbole and exaggeration, the less value our words and promises carry. James is echoing the Lord Jesus in Matthew 5:34-37. Oaths were devalued by their indiscriminate use and the tendency to avoid fulfilling them by swearing on ‘less sacred’ things (Mt. 23:16-22). In contrast, citizens of God’s kingdom, whose “righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” (Mt. 5:20), ought to say what they mean and mean what they say (Mt. 12:33). Those whose hearts and mouths are under God’s rule should have a reputation for honesty. After all, James warns, a failure to keep one’s word results in falling “under condemnation.” For there to be mutual trust in God’s family our promises must be firm and our words must count.

One final note on this topic. James and Jesus are not necessarily  prohibiting the use of every oath. We may be required to take an oath in a court of law. Jesus himself did not refuse to reply when the high priest put him on oath (Mt. 26:63-64). While our word should be enough, because of sin, sometimes more than a simple “yes” or “no” is necessary. If people never lied, oaths wouldn’t be needed. If promises were always kept, no one would be asked to swear. But because people do break their word, extra measures are sometimes required to guard against falsehood. Rather than forbidding legal oaths, James and Jesus are regulating voluntary oaths. While kingdoms of earth must rely on oaths to establish credibility, the kingdom of heaven needs nothing more than a “yes” or a “no.”

God's Agents of Forgiveness

Saturday, January 07, 2023

My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

(James 5:19-20)

James ends his letter in a unique but fitting way. Instead of the traditional greetings and benedictions we would expect, he calls his readers to action. Particularly, he calls us to bring our wandering brothers and sisters back into the fold of safety.

James uses the phrase “the truth” here, as he does previously in the letter, to refer to the revealed gospel of Jesus through which we were born again (1:18). Jesus is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:6); therefore, the truth is not only something to be believed but something to be “obeyed” (Gal. 5:7) and “practiced” (1 Jn. 1:6). This is what James has been arguing throughout the letter. Right doctrine cannot be separated from right behavior (1:19-27). What the mind thinks, the mouth confesses and the body will do. Anything less than this is worldly, sinful and “double-minded” (1:7).

To “wander from the truth,” then, is not some inadvertent, accidental or unconscious departure from the Christian life. It is a failure of the sheep to follow the Shepherd and Overseer of their souls (1 Pet. 2:25). This straying is a “forsaking” of “the right way” (2 Pet. 2:15). However, when we see our brother or sister wandering from the truth, we should seek to do all within our power to “bring him back” into the fold of safety. This requires compassion on our part, knowing that we too often stray from the Lord, and humility on theirs, a willingness to admit wrong and repent.

James makes an astounding remark at this point. He says that the Christian who succeeds in rescuing “a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” But whose soul has been saved and whose sin has been covered?

The Greek is ambiguous and allows either phrase to be applied to both the sinner and the rescuer. But the context suggests that the one who was wandering in the first place was in danger of “death” (spiritual death, separation from God [1:21; 1 Jn. 5:16-17]), the final destination of those who walk the path of the wicked. But when they turn back, they are saved from “death” (Rom. 6:23).

It is more difficult to determine whose sins are covered by this rescue operation. Is it one, the other or both? In 1 Peter 4:8, which is itself a quote of Psalm 32:1, Peter says something similar: “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” Here, the covered sins are forgiven sins, not overlooking the faults of others as in Proverbs 10:12. Rescuing a sinner from his error will certainly result in his sins being forgiven by God but it also covers one’s own sins. Consider Ezekiel 3:21, where the prophet is held responsible for warning straying Israel. God says, “if you warn the righteous person not to sin, and he does not sin, he shall surely live, because he took warning, and you will have delivered your soul.” This is similar to what Paul told Timothy: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Tim. 4:16)

The point is this: those who receive mercy should be merciful (Jas. 2:12-13; Mt. 5:7). This act of compassion blesses everyone involved. Timely intervention (Gal. 6:1; Heb. 3:13) will “save his soul” and bring forgiveness from God. The person who “saves” the sinner in this case is the person who restores the one who has fallen. Ultimately, only the Lord saves, but he who restores another will cover the many sins of him who strayed, for when he returns from his error he receives forgiveness. Only God can cover sin, but Christians can be agents of God’s forgiveness.

Four Reasons to Believe

Saturday, December 31, 2022

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

(Hebrews 11:1)

Some define faith as “belief in something you know ain’t so” or “the illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.” But Biblical faith is not unthinking, irrational or gullible. Rather, faith is the measured step we take based on evidence provided by God himself.

There is confidence in that step of faith because there is a sure foundation of trust beneath it. Though the Bible makes extraordinary claims, we have strong reasons for believing in the existence of God and the truthfulness of his promises. We can see four of those reasons by looking back, looking up, looking down and looking in.

Look back to the beginning of the universe. Just in the last 100 years, the majority of scientists have come to believe that the universe had a beginning. We are able to detect the expansion of the universe in size in all directions indicating a fixed starting point in time and space. In other words, as Stephen Hawking said, “the universe has not existed forever… it had a beginning.”

The opening verses of the Bible give a reason for that beginning: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). If God did not create the universe then what is the alternative? Many say that it simply came into existence for no apparent reason. But can something come from nothing? If the universe has a beginning, there must be a reason—a cause—for its existence.

Look up to see a universe finely tuned for life. Imagine a poker player who draws twelve straight royal flushes, the odds of which are about the same as winning the lottery twelve times in a row. Something similar could be said with respect to the universe. There are many features of creation that need to be precisely as they are for life to be possible, not just life on Earth or life as we know it, but any form of life anywhere. How are we to explain these amazing “coincidences”? The rational conclusion is that the universe is not a chance result of random forces but rather the result of a purposeful  and powerful mind. Paul says God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Rom. 1:20)

Look down into the empty tomb. The historical evidence of Jesus’ bodily resurrection agrees with what the apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, that he was raised from the dead and appeared before many people. Christians proclaimed this resurrection even under threat of death. Pliny the Younger, a Roman governor in the first century wrote, “I ask them if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and a third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution.” What alternatives are there to Jesus’ resurrection? Was it a legend? History shows it takes about three generations for a legend to develop yet Christians were proclaiming his resurrection immediately after it took place. A hallucination? Could hundreds of people have seen the same hallucination? Not likely. Was it all an elaborate lie? What would these Christians have to gain from lying? Poverty, prison and persecution awaited them. Or could it be that God “has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31)?

Look in the pages of Scripture. For me, more than all the philosophical and scientific arguments, the Bible itself is Christianity’s most powerful apologetic. And not just the proofs for the inspiration of Scripture either, but the message of the gospel, the beautiful story that unfolds to show God’s unconquerable love toward you and me, people who are so flawed and reprehensible, and yet are meant to be the recipients of his transforming grace!

Was Jesus Born in a Barn?

Saturday, December 24, 2022

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Luke 2:7

Picture the birth of Christ. If all we had were nativity scenes to judge by, we would imagine Mary and Joseph kneeling in a drafty stable next to the baby in a straw-filled manger with a few cows and sheep and, perhaps, a donkey, all sitting in silent adoration. All is lit by a warm glow, and all is calm… but all is not quite right. Contrary to Hallmark cards and longstanding traditions, the New Testament does not actually record that Jesus was born in “that poor and lowly stable.” Why, then, has the image of a stable prevailed?

Art — The stable comes from a “messianic” reading of Isaiah 1:3, “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master's crib [manger], but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Luke’s mention of a “manger” (a feeding trough) led medieval artists to depict the setting of the nativity in a stable. After all, animals are kept in stables, aren’t they? Not necessarily, as we will see.

Grammar — Luke uses the Greek word kataluma in Luke 2:7 which is usually translated as “inn.” Although the Septuagint uses this term to describe a public place of hospitality (Ex. 4:24; 1 Sam. 9:22), in the New Testament, kataluma is the same word for the private “guest” or “upper” room where Jesus and his disciples ate the Passover meal (Mk. 14:14; Lk. 22:11). The “inn” which the Good Samaritan used (Lk. 10:34) was different. That “inn” (not kataluma but pandocheion) resembled more what we would think of as a public inn or hotel where travelers would be welcome. Therefore, the “inn” at Bethlehem in which there was no room for the family of Jesus (Lk. 2:7) was most likely the guest room of a private home.

History — The historical and social context also don’t support Jesus’ birth in an outdoor stable. In a Jewish society which took hospitality seriously, it is more likely that Joseph, returning to his ancestral home, would have been welcomed by family members. What’s more, most families in ancient Palestine lived in a single-room house with a space for guests either in the back or on the roof. The main living area typically had depressions in the ground which were filled with hay for the animals (mangers). At night, the animals would be brought in from their stable outside to sleep in the main living area with the family. Therefore, typical families lived with their animals (Lk. 13:10-17) in single-room houses (Mt. 5:15).

If this is the case, what does Luke mean when he says they “laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the kataluma” or the guest room? It means that the house in which Mary and Joseph were staying was already occupied with guests. Since the guest room was full, they had to stay with the family in the main living area. When the baby was born, the most natural place to lay him was in the soft hay where the animals fed. The idea that they were in a stable outside the house, alone and outcast with only the animals for company, is possible but not plausible. It is more likely that our Savior came into the world in a crowded, warm and noisy living room (with zero privacy) surrounded by family and animals.

Why should any of this matter? The traditional view of the nativity has prevailed and permeated Western culture for hundreds of years and colors our interpretation of Christ’s birth. Dick France explains it well in We Proclaim the Word of Life (IVP, 2013): “The problem with the stable is that it distances Jesus from the rest of us. It puts even his birth in a unique setting, in some ways as remote from life as if he had been born in Caesar’s Palace. But the message of the incarnation is that Jesus is one of us. He came to be what we are, and it fits well with that theology that his birth in fact took place in a normal, crowded, warm, welcoming Palestinian home, just like many another Jewish boy of his time.” 

The Right Hand of Fellowship

Saturday, December 17, 2022

“Then the people of Israel cried out to the Lord, and the Lord raised up for them a deliverer, Ehud, the son of Gera, the Benjaminite, a left-handed man…”

Judges 3:15

The author of Judges points out that Ehud, Israel’s appointed deliverer, though from the tribe of Benjamin (literally, “son of my right hand”), was “a left-handed man.” What seems like an odd piece of information turns out to be a significant part of the story. Ehud’s dexterity (and possible ambidexterity) played an important role in Israel’s deliverance from Moab and her oppressive king, Eglon.

Living in a relatively peaceful society today, it is difficult for us to fully appreciate how important a simple handshake was in the ancient world. Back then, men regularly carried a weapon and, as it is today, most people were right-hand dominant. Therefore, the sign of peace was to offer one’s right hand because it meant one would not draw his sword. Historically, left handed men were distrusted because even while shaking hands they were fully capable of drawing their sword to deadly effect. Hence, the reader of Judges may suspect some treachery is afoot in the Ehud/Moab narrative just from the introduction. Indeed, the story unfolds to reveal that Ehud’s rather gruesome and deceptive assassination of Moab’s king was facilitated by his left-handedness.

Obviously, we do not—and should not—distrust people based on their dominant hand. But even still, we generally greet others by offering our right hand or by some other peaceful touch. Christians are commanded to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26). Peter calls it a “kiss of love” (1 Pet. 5:14). We shake hands or offer hugs in the same “holy” manner as expressions of peace, unity and affection. These physical greetings communicate something words fail to.

When Paul, Barnabas and Titus traveled to Jerusalem they were met with such a greeting by Peter, James and John. Peter and the rest of the Jerusalem leaders recognized Paul had been given a special ministry to the Gentiles just as Peter did the Jews and offered them “the right hand of fellowship” (Gal. 2:9). This was an expression of their support, unity and mutual sharing of labor. The apostles were not just giving their consent, they were effectively saying, “We are with you in this effort.” Their handshake was a physical affirmation, a kind of tangible “Amen,” to Paul’s work.

For various reasons, some people may feel uncomfortable with this kind of greeting and we need to be sensitive to them and respect their physical boundaries. Also there may be situations where this kind of greeting is inappropriate. For example, I remember a time of strife in my family years ago during Christmas. My step-grandma was in the process of unjustly suing my parents. We drove to their house on Christmas Eve mainly because dad said it was the right thing to do. After my step-grandma gave a round of awkward hugs to my brothers and I she finally reached for my mother who, in a rare display of boldness, rejected her show of affection and said, “I’m not feeling so warm and fuzzy right now.” Talk about the Christmas spirit! The image was indelibly etched on our young minds. It all worked out in the end, but the point is that when there is disharmony in the family these touches feel like forced, shallow attempts to convey feelings that aren’t genuinely there.

This is why the spiritual unity and genuine love of God’s family is so important. Without them, these expressions of greeting are meaningless or even injurious. We express our love and spiritual fellowship in various ways. Greeting each other warmly with “the right hand of fellowship” is just one example. Thanks be to God who touches us with his grace through Jesus Christ!


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