One word sparks hell fire!

James 3:3-11

Words are equally agents for evil and for good. They both control and require controlling. They are controlled by the heart and reveal the heart. James uses the images of the tongue and a spark for speech. In our personal lives the language we use both internally and crucially externally influences not only our personal lives but also those around us. James is not here contrasting the Christian to non Christians, he is warning Christians about the effect of sinful speech on their own lives and the lives of the church. Where a Christian’s speech is harmful it will also dramatically affect how the gospel is presented to the world.

A single prominent orator is capable of steering the whole ship, or church, onto the rock of false beliefs and conduct. Such an orator may be driven by self-importance and grandiose claims. ‘So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.’ An indicator of such speech could be how much they talk about themselves rather than Jesus. Similarly a wise speaker will be humble v13 and Christ centred in their speech able to guide the church in ways that are spiritually fruitful whatever the strong winds of circumstances surround them. What applies to the whole church also applies to families, small groups and individuals. Sometimes it only takes one conversation or statement to cause lifelong harm. The evil one delights in sowing division, mistrust and temptation. Things can be said in jest to build oneself up and yet crush the listener. Such speech breaks the Royal law.

Sinful speech: lying, coarse words, hateful words, blame without justification, refusing to forgive, encouragement to sin, expressed favouritism, frequently harms not only the speaker and the immediate hearer, it can damage the entire body of the church. James pulls no punches, sinful speech has life long impact and can be devil sent. ‘The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.’ v6

James then focuses on the source of sinful speech, its origins are the natural human heart. ‘No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.’ v8 With the same voice we can praise the Lord and then go on to curse the very people the Lord loves and gave his life for. vv9-10 James is clearly concerned that this is a present reality for the church. Where this is the case the matter of the heart has to be addressed. Repentance and sanctification of the heart are necessary. He draws on Jesus’ teaching that good fruit comes from a good heart and applies it here to speech. vv 11-12 ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ Mathew 7:15-20

Have you been built up by a fellow believer’s kind and wise words?

Have you a long standing hurt from damaging words and are in need of Jesus’ healing from them?

Is there an area of your own speech you need the Spirit’s presence in your life to rectify?

God is trying to tell you something – Argentina Gospel Choir

Mum I just heard my teacher swear!

James 3:1-2

‘Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.’ James 3:1-2

It is true there are recent changes in society’s attitudes towards swearing, it is not an urban myth perpetrated by Old Stagers who still wish TV was in black and white. But does it matter and are some double standards being applied here? The British Board of Film Classification are considering if they should change the criteria used to apply their age ratings to take account of changes in public perception. They say a third of people in the UK are more likely to use strong swear words than five years ago. Six in ten people saw strong swearing as part of everyday life. However, there is a generational divide with 18 to 34 year olds most likely to swear and they are desensitised to its impact. Among older people, strong swear words remain taboo with 75% of over 65s saying they would not use strong swearing in public.

Parents do not want their children to be exposed to swearing and to remain protected for as long as possible. The BBFC are adopting a policy of treating acronyms for swearing in the same way as the full words. Very many work places including all public services have policies prohibiting the use of verbal abuse and yet at the same time in the highest level of public service personal abuse is endemic as is lying when the facts are public knowledge. Today there were published “expletive laden” messages from the Prime Minister decrying the health secretary, the authenticity of these messages has not been denied. (BBC UK News website 16.6.21)

How does this relate to the Christian faith and Christian leadership? It makes clear the division between an obedient life as a disciple of Jesus and the common culture of the wider world. However, this is not a new issue and it goes to the heart of humankind because our language exposes our heart. Two thousand years ago James wrote to the church extensively because it was very important then and it is very important now. The whole of Chapter 3 and on to 4:12 is devoted to the use and impact of our speech. The use or misuse of speech is far from limited to swearing although its use can be a litmus test. In my own life one of the earliest challenges the Holy Spirit brought to bear was in how I spoke and what I said. That refining process continues to this day.

James makes clear that teachers and church leaders are subject to God’s particularly strict scrutiny. v1 Why do parents care about their children not being exposed to swearing? Because the examples laid before them are powerful influences. Those who are our teachers and leaders influence perhaps even more by example than they do by the content of the words said. There is an understanding that we will sin (stumble) v2 unless we have already become perfect. That however is not a position we will achieve prior to our arrival in heaven, however we are or should be being perfected by the Holy Spirit as we grow in Christ.

We should be cautious about wanting to take up the position of a bible teacher. It is an honourable and important role but has great weight. Jesus warned teachers that if they differ from his teaching they will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven, whilst those who practise his commands will be called great. Mathew 5:19 The elders of Ephesus were told they were shepherds of the sheep that Jesus had bought with his blood, laying responsibility on them in their choice of words. Acts 20:28 But they were also warned that wolves (false teachers) would rise up to take the church away from Christ’s teachings. Acts 20:29 Paul reminded them he was constantly warning them, even with tears, of the dangers that would disturb or distort their faith.

How can you tell the difference between a wolf and a shepherd?

Did becoming a Christian impact on the way you spoke?

Do you consider whether the impact of your speech builds people up and reveals Christ’s character?

In Christ Alone – Celtic worship Steph Macleod

Does God judge by what we do or believe?

James 2:21-26

James may seem to contradict Paul when he wrote, ‘Was not Abraham our father justified (considered righteous NIV) by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? (ESV v21) James here is using the language of the court with God the Father being judge. Paul wrote, ‘For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in[a] him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.’ Romans 4:3-5

The bible teaches all will be judged by God including disciples of Jesus. 2 Corinthians 5:10, Romans 14:12 It is a painful thought and rightly should be viewed with the greatest seriousness. It is a mistake to think that there is a pass mark where if the balance of good in our terms outweighs the balance of bad then God will choose to overlook the not so good. It is also a mistake to think there is an appeals process, God is the highest court there is no appeal beyond him. We are not the ultimate arbiter over our own lives even though this is anti the majority perspective of the western world. The modern western individual normally takes the perspective if it is good for me then it is good. Goodness is relative, it is argued except in the most extreme examples there is no ultimate right and wrong. So for example one might say if I have an affair and my spouse does not know and the affair brings me happiness then there is nothing wrong. Others would go further and say even if my spouse does know and is made very unhappy about it, as long as I was happy then for me it is a good thing.

James has already made clear that one transgression from God’s law means that they are guilty of breaking the whole of God’s law. James 2:10 James is concurring with Paul that, ‘none is righteous no not one.’ Romans 3:10 This leaves us with the dilemma, is it possible for God to make the judgement that we are considered righteous or justified. Paul says only through faith in Jesus, referring to Genesis 15:6 where Abraham was justified through faith. James seems to be saying we can be justified through what we do, citing Abraham’s preparedness to sacrifice Isaac Genesis 22:9-10 and Rahab helping the Israelite spies when they were planning to conquer Jericho. Joshua 2

The apparent difference is explained by James applying a different sense to the word “justify”. Paul uses “justify” to mean being declared righteous by God through faith on the basis of Jesus’ sacrifice which atones for sin. Romans 3:24-26 James uses “justify” to show the way works reveal that someone has been justified. James here is concurring with Jesus’ own teaching. Mathew 12:33-37 Paul’s intention is to show how one is justified, James is drawing attention to what justification looks like in the life of a Christian.

Do you feel God has the right to judge you?

How do you feel about God’s judgement on your life?

If you have trusted in Jesus’ atoning sacrifice how has that impacted on your life?

And can it be – Stuart Townend

Dead or just useless?

James 2:17-20

James Chapter 2 is at the centre of a longer passage where he expands on the meaning of the Royal Law v8 to love one’s neighbour as oneself. It is impossible to fulfill the law without actively doing things. James writes using very pointed phrases because of his need to press his teaching home. One can sense the resistance to his teaching and the counter arguments being raised. Phrases such as, ‘What good is it, my brothers’, ‘faith by itself if it does not have works, is dead’, ‘you foolish person’, ‘faith apart from works is useless.’ James is not engaged in an interesting philosophical debate, he is pressing home the life changing imperative that comes from believing in Jesus. So, is your Christian faith alive, useless or dead?

There are those who wish to drive a wedge between the teaching of Jesus, Paul and James. No such division exists. Paul writes, ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.’ Ephesians 2:8-9 Salvation is by grace alone by faith, however the outworking and evidence of faith is through good works. Division arises where bible sentences are taken out of context without the qualification of either the whole passage or indeed the whole bible. Paul goes on to make the same point that good works arise from faith in the same Ephesians’ passage. ‘For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.’ Ephesians 2:10

We see in contemporary Christian culture the same argument being played out as some say the church should only be engaged in preaching the gospel while others want to play down the gospel and say outreach is by good works. Where this takes place both sides are pleasing themselves and not obeying the whole gospel. Faith translated into good works alongside the ministry of the word is now at the forefront of mission at home and abroad. Faith leading to good works is for the individual Christian and the church community.

The Baptist Missionary Society encapsulates, along with many others, this idea that the Christian life is a missionary life in what we do, what we say and the relationships we build. Laura, a linked missionary with our local church, is currently home between assignments in Peru. In her prayer letter she is asking for prayer for a couple to come to faith, who are living in the rainforest with whom she has been reading the bible. Additionally, she has been involved in establishing training events and programmes for church leaders. This is alongside her work as an environmental scientist impacting local public health through creation care practices. So many ways to take the good news of Jesus to the local community.

James is scornful of those who adopt a stance based on intellectual pride alone. ‘You believe that God is one; you do well.’ (James’ tone combines sadness and sarcasm.) ‘Even the demons believe – and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?’ vv19-20 Living faith involves getting one’s hands dirty and altering what one does with one’s life for the sake of others.

How has faith in Jesus changed how I live my life?

Do we pray for the Spirit to bring opportunities to love others as we love ourselves?

Does our joy found in Jesus overflow into how we engage with others?

Love divine, all loves excelling Joy of heaven to earth come down.

Generosity of faith

James 2:14-17

Malik, an asylum seeker, is told the local church is where to go for help and Malik does need help. He is now in a country where he does not know anybody, he does not know who to trust, he finds the language difficult to understand and express himself, he has very little income and does not understand how to get medical help for the pain he has from the result of torture he received in prison in his country of origin. Malik is confident he will receive help when he goes to the church because he is a Christian as well.

When Malik arrives for the Sunday service he is very wet, it was raining and Malik does not have a waterproof coat. His feet hurt him from when he was beaten on them and his old trainers are soaked because they have holes in their soles. He is smiled at, given a service sheet, sits at the back leaving a space of several seats between himself and the next person. During the service he feels miserable, lonely and cold. After the service he stands around while coffee is served. The room is noisy, people are chatting glad to see their friends. Eventually a man approaches Malik asks his name and where he comes from. The conversation is difficult because they each find the others language hard to understand and the man feels awkward and finds a way to move on to more comfortable territory.

An evidently kind woman comes over smiles and struggles through a conversation. She is worried, Malik is obviously new and an asylum seeker, seeing his coat is hopelessly inadequate and it is still raining she breaks off, says reassuring words to Malik and asks one of the church leaders if the second-hand clothes they keep in the back cupboard could be got out to see if there is a coat that would fit Malik. The church leader says, “We don’t do that on Sundays, he must arrange to come back midweek. Sundays are for worship and getting bags of old clothes out makes the church a mess and is unsuitable for Sundays.” The woman has found out about Malik’s feet and trainers and asks if the church could pay for new trainers for Malik. She is told we can’t start paying for new trainers, it would soon get out and then where would it end? If there are some old ones in the bag, he can have them midweek.

Later in the week Malik is a topic for discussion at the Church Leader’s prayer meeting. They pray for him but are worried about several things. Was Malik really a Christian or is he just trying to use the church as a soft touch? The question was raised if what Malik meant by God and religion was exactly what their church believed? They agreed getting out bags of second-hand clothes was unseemly on a Sunday and broke years of tradition about what was suitable on a Sunday. When told about Malik’s torture and his feet they prayed again but were too unsure about the evidence to agree to pay for new trainers. Then one of the church leaders read James 2:14-17.

‘What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.’

What would you have done if you had the conversation with Malik the kind woman did on that Sunday?

If you had been the Church Leader the woman spoke to that Sunday, what would have been your first reaction?

Were the church leaders being careful stewards of church finances?

Were the church leaders right to be initially so concerned about Malik’s theology?

If you were Malik, would you have gone back to the church?

Kindness – Chris Tomlin