17. The Yeast of Humility

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 3 – Making of Believers

17. The Yeast of Humility

Lk 18:9  To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable

Lk 18:17 anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it

Lk 18:24 “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!

Lk 18:34  The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.

Lk 18:40,41 Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?”  “Lord, I want to see,” he replied.

Refocus:  We are, you may remember, focusing on things that happen to the believer when they come to Christ and become a Christian, a member of the church. You may be wondering about the title of this series, ‘The Wonder of the Church’ but the point we are making again and again is that those who form the church are radically different from anyone else. Now when a believer becomes a believer, something takes place in them which, I think, is rarely observed and yet which is something vital and so often missing in the ongoing life of believers. It is the presence of humility and so we need to see what it is, why it is present, and how it is so easy to lose it.

Humility: Perhaps the significance of humility is seen in the apostle Peter’s words, All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favour to the humble,” (1 Pet 5:5) i.e. it is clearly something God wants in us (and we’ll see why soon), while the apostle James declared, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom,” (Jas 3:13) while the apostle Paul taught, “Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,” (Phil 2:3) and “as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” (Col 3:12)

What is it? Well a dictionary defines it as, “the quality of having a modest or low view of one’s importance,” but I think in a spiritual context it might be better defined as, “the quality of having a right assessment of yourself, to know your failings and your weaknesses in yourself, but also to recognize your greatness in Christ,” so that, yes, it does have a ‘modest or low view of one’s importance’ but it also should mean that we face the true wonder of what we are, a “new creation” who, as we saw two studies back have been ‘born of God’ and are being remade by God. if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Cor 5:17).

Why is it so important? I suggest four reasons: first because it mirrors what we felt when we first turned to God, second it is the characteristic of Christ who indwells us, third, it is a prerequisite to be able to receive his leading and guiding and, fourth, it is a requirement to be able to be Christ to other people. So let’s look at each of those and use Luke 18 as a guide to do this.

When we turned to God: Luke 18 is a useful chapter in that it says so many things pertinent to this subject. First we see Jesus challenging those “who were confident in their own righteousness.” (v.9). Now we have seen that vital steps for someone to become a believer who goes on to become a person of faith, a Christian, are conviction and repentance. Until we have seen ourselves as we truly are without Christ – helpless and hopeless (helpless without the power to change ourselves, hopeless because we’ve come to see that nothing we can do on our own stops us being self-centred and godless) – we will never come to repentance, and that work of conviction is a work of the Holy Spirit enabling us to face that truth, which comes as a point or time of crisis for our self-belief. In what followed Jesus also taught  that, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it,”  (Jn 18:17) In other words it is necessary to stop being ‘all grown up’ and self-satisfied and become simple in outlook as far as God is concerned, i.e. humble!

The character of Christ: Jesus taught, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Mt 11:28-30) Again and again the New Testament reveals a picture of Father and Son whereby the Son is submissive to the Father. For example, “the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing.” (Jn 5:19) Jesus portrayed a life reliant upon the Father, and it is the life He calls us to. Why? Because God knows best! It is as simple as that. But reliance upon God does not always come easily. In fact Jesus taught, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”  (v.24) Why? Because the rich person relies upon their wealth and it is very difficult to let go that reliance, especially if you had a hand in creating it! Pride and self-ability says, “I got rich on my own, why should I pray; humility recognizes affluence is a gift and wisdom is needed to live with it.

Accepting God’s Leading: it is fairly obvious that when we came to Christ it was in a way of submission so that we accepted that we had messed up in life and needed forgiveness, cleansing and redirecting, but unless we take that attitude on in life we will do what so many do, and that is relax into a self-centred and godless way of living. Simple tests of whether we do that are to ask some basic questions: when I start a new day do I start planning and working out how I will cope or do I commit the day to the Lord and ask for His wisdom and His grace to manage it? When illness strikes is my first response to ring for the doctor or pray and seek God’s hand on us? When problems arise, do we fret and fume and struggle with how to overcome to do we seek Him for His wisdom?   In each of those three cases if I opt for the first response that can only be described as self-centred and godless. If, when I surrendered to Him and was born again,  I gave Him control of my life, may have I taken it back again? Pride says, “I can do this,” while humility says, “Lord, with your help alone I will be able to handle this.

Being Christ to others: My problem is that other people are frequently less than a blessing and so they deserve criticism – but then that’s me as well! If I am to be Jesus to other people it means I will love them and accept them as they are and when I realize I am what I am only by the grace of God, I will never look down on them but will look to see how I can bless them.

Crisis and Ongoing: We said that to come to Christ there had to be a humility that sees me as I am – without Him, helpless and hopeless – and recognizes that I need His help. As life carries on, nothing has changed, except that He may have blessed and used me, and then the big temptation is to believe that I have so changed that I can manage it on my own. Deception! But this is a challenge that goes on and on throughout my life and will continue until I die. Humility was what brought me to my knees to be born again, and humility is what will maintain a channel of blessing from God to me.

And Luke’s teaching in chapter 18? Well again and again I will hear things from Him, or see things happening around me, that will leave me nonplussed. Life is often complex and so like the disciples (18:34) I will not understand what is happening or even what God is saying in it. Thus, like the blind man at the end of the chapter, I need to be ultra-simple and ask and say, “Lord, I want to see.” (18:41) Humility is acknowledging my need and recognizing that He alone has the answer. How long does it take to learn this, or how many times will it keep happening before we do learn it?  Maturity is about learning it quickly. Oh, why did I entitle this ‘The Yeast of Humility’? Because where there is true in-depth humility from the start, it will spread (like yeast through the dough) right the way through every aspect of our lives. Don’t kid yourself that because have a good education or good training, you can ‘handle’ certain areas of our lives. If you don’t believe me, just ask Him to send you a crisis in life and see how you get on – but there are easier ways!!!

57. The Humble Kingdom

Focus on Christ Meditations: 57.  The Humble Kingdom

Jn 15:19,20   I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: `No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.

There is always a temptation, when we start talking about the kingdom and about Jesus reigning, to fall into triumphalism. We have been considering his power and authority and how he was and is in complete control and how he rules in the midst of his enemies. Now this should leave us feeling good about him and about our place ‘in him’, and that is right and proper, for indeed we are the children of God and we have got everything going for us.

Having said that, there is this thing that we are now focusing on which I can only describe as the humility of Christ in the way he came (his humble birth), the way he grew up (hidden from the eyes of the world for the first thirty years) and then, as we are about to see, the way he ministered. The temptation for the Jews when they read the Isaiah prophecies at least, would be to expect a conquering king as their Messiah, who was coming to usher in a new world order, one where the Roman overlords would be thrown out of Israel and Israel would be seen as a world-leading nation. Indeed, that is what many of them did expect. However, the reality was different and in three particular respects.

A ‘played-down’ ministry: And then Jesus came and we see some strange acts, for example, after healing the leper who he touched, Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone.” (Mt 8:4) What, we’ve just seen a miracle of healing and you want to keep it quiet? But then we find, “Many followed him, and he healed all their sick, warning them not to tell who he was.” (Mt 12:15,16) Large crowds healed and he tells them to keep quiet about the many miracles that occurred???? But it gets worse. Shortly after Peter has made his famous declaration of who Jesus was, a conversation ensues and, “he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.” (Mt 16:20) They have just been given revelation and now he tells them to keep quiet about it????

But then there is the episode on the mount of Transfiguration and “As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” (Mt 17:9) They have just seen the glory of God on Jesus and he says don’t let anyone know what you just seen – well not yet anyway.  Mark also records the same thing happening when he cast out evil spirits (Mk 3:12) and also with the deaf semi-mute he healed (Mk 7:36).

So why did Jesus act like this? It appears that many if not most of these instances happened earlier in the three years of his ministry and we are left with the sense that Jesus didn’t want his following to grow so quickly that his time of ministry, revealing the Father and teaching his disciples, would be cut short. There appears a specific time frame in which he was working towards the Cross and so the will of God in that respect had to prevail. Thus he played down so much of his power and authority until near the end, when in fact he played it up to provoke the religious authorities to rise against him (the raising of Lazarus as we saw previously).

A life of persecution/opposition: Yes. the second of these two things that go against the ‘greatness and glory’ image that the Jews might have expected of their Messiah is the fact of the rejection he found among the religious leaders at least in his people – and he did nothing to ease it! That is the strange thing about Jesus’ rule. In the previous study we suggested various ways in which he was in absolute control and, from a human standpoint at least, we might have expected that power and authority to be used to convince the religious leaders that he was their Messiah – but he didn’t. In fact he seemed to do quite the opposite; he confronted them with their intransigence, self-aggrandizement, and hardness of heart. It is little wonder that this, in the face of human sin, provoked hostility as it still does today. But instead of trying to play it down, at the appropriate time he played it up to bring about his Father’s will, his death on the Cross. We have already noted in earlier studies the hostility that was there opposing him from early on, and which became the primary motivating force to bring about his death.

The Cross itself: Yes, the fact of the Cross was not foreseen, as we have previously noted, until Jesus himself started warning his disciples about it. If the prophetic pictures of the Messiah had largely been of a conquering king, the thought of death on the cursed Cross is the ultimate picture of weakness and humility, especially when we find out it was at the heart of the divine strategy to bring salvation to the world. Now wonder Paul could write, “we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (1 Cor 1:23)

Yes, we preach the glory and wonder of the Christ, the king ruling over God’s kingdom, the one seated at his Father’s right hand in heaven, ruling in the midst of his enemies – and it is essential that we do – but we must always balance it with the grace and humility of Christ if we are to be true to the record. And that will be true of our lives as well. Yes, on the one hand, we can rejoice at the wonder of being God’s children with all His resources available to us and with Him on our side, but on the other we must remember that He looks for grace and humility in us as we seek to be Christ-like, living out the will of God for our lives. Ours is not to demand, but to ask. Ours is not to be hostile but peace-loving. Ours is not to be arrogant but gracious. This is the kingdom of earth expressed through our lives and when we approach life like that, He will always be there for us, providing for us and revealing us for what we are – His children.

Knowing that we have a tendency to over-emphasise things, we will not leave these studies about the Christ on the ‘meek and mild’ note for that would not be an accurate representation. To hold the balance we will move on in the next studies to consider the varieties of ways the Lord moves in our lives today, and then see Christ as revealed in the book of Revelation.

18. Aspiring to Humility

Aspiring Meditations: 18.  Aspiring to Humility

Col 3:12 “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”

Prov 22:4  Humility and the fear of the LORD bring wealth and honor and life.

Mic 6:8  And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God

Phil 2:3  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.

Titus 3:1,2  Remind the people to ….. show true humility toward all men.

Humility is another of those words that gets hardly any press in today’s world. Many will know of Dickens’ character, Uriah Heep who, as one Internet page has it, was ‘notable for his cloying humility, obsequiousness, and insincerity, making frequent references to his ‘umbleness’, and who, if you’ve ever seen David Copperfield on TV, leaves you memories of a groveling man constantly wringing his hands – but it was all false!

A dictionary definition of ‘humility’ might be ‘Absence of pride, having a modest outlook, or low or realistic awareness or view of one’s self importance,’ which nicely fits the apostle Paul’s exhortation, “I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.” (Rom 12:3) For the Christian it is having a right estimation of who we are, and we’ll come back to this later.

Now interestingly, of course, in the Old Testament, apart from one oblique reference in Psa 45:4 the word is not used of God and His Messiah. Why? Because He is completely all-knowing and all-wise, and that applies as much to Himself as it does to everything else. God knows He is all-powerful, so He doesn’t need pride to boost His ego like we so often do. The person who truly knows himself or herself will truly be humble.

Perhaps the best example of that in the Old Testament was Moses who was described as, “a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” (Num 12:3) Moses had been through the mill, as we might say today, ground down by the failures of life – failure at forty as a Prince of Egypt who killed an Egyptian and had to flee, and who lived for the next forty years as a nobody on the backside of the desert looking after a bunch of sheep. In his final forty years he knew that all the power lay with the Lord. Hence he prayed much.

The teaching of the Old Testament shows how the Lord delights in the humble, for example, “He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way,” (Psa 25:9) and, “The LORD sustains the humble but casts the wicked to the ground,” (Psa 147:6) and, “For the LORD takes delight in his people; he crowns the humble with salvation.” (Psa 149:4) and, “He mocks proud mockers but gives grace to the humble.” (Prov 3:34 seen in  Jas 4:6 & 1 Pet 5:5)

When Jesus came, he taught, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Mt 11:29) Remember our definition, “realistic awareness”. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing.” (Jn 5:19)

With this in mind we might remember his teaching, “If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (Jn 15:5) Recognising our limitations is a sign of maturity and security (the insecure keep pretending and fail to see the big picture – see below). When we do recognize our limitations it will also affect how we view others: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” (Eph 4:2) This recognition is a part of wisdom: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” (Jas 3:13)

The anointed, powerful and authoritative apostle Paul knew these truths which was why he could say, “I served the Lord with great humility and with tears.” (Acts 20:19) He knew the origin and source and power of his ministry – and it was not him!

But before we finish, we need to realise something that we have alluded to a couple of times: humility is the recognition of who we are, yes, those reliant on our Lord and upon His Holy Spirit, but the other side of the coin is equally valid: I am a glorious child of God with all the resources of God. I have the potential to get it wrong, but I also, with His help, have the potential for getting it right, really right! Humility accepts both bad and good. That simple little verse in the Song of Songs always stays with me: “dark I am yet lovely.” (Song 1:5a) By that she meant she was sun-burnt dark brown by having been out in the world, in the fields and vineyards, and yet she remained beautiful, an object of love.

And so it is with you and me. Humility faces failure and weakness and vulnerability, but it also recognizes glory and greatness in us that He has made. The apostle Paul declared, “Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God,” (2 Cor 3:5) recognising that they were competent apostles but that competence came from the Lord. A little later he said, “we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” (2 Cor 4:7) We may be jars of clay but with the Holy Spirit dwelling within us we contain the glory of God. Seeing both things is humility. Hallelujah!

61. Humility for all

Meditations in 1 Peter : 61: Humility for all

1 Pet 5:5,6 All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because,   “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time

The world in which we live tells us to stand up and be ourselves. Don’t let anyone tell you what to do; be yourself! Stand up for yourself; make something of yourself. Don’t be a wimp, rise up above the rest. Be exalted in your greatness; make yourself even greater. These are the words of the twenty-first century. Rise up and go for it. They are, of course, words of deception. They are basically saying, pretend to be what you are not; make yourself something more than you are. Take one of the many ‘self-help’ courses that are available, change yourself.

Possibly an analogy that comes near the truth is of a cancer patient who is told, think positive thoughts. Positive thoughts can help – in a measure – but you still have cancer. Or to take an even more extreme idea – a man who is delusional and who genuinely believes he will never die. Yet in old age his body starts to decay and he keeps on telling himself, “I will never die.” Fear makes many of us deny the truth. You see it in a conversation between a Christian and a non-Christian. As the talk gets on to sin, the non-Christian starts getting edgy. “Don’t you tell me I am a sinner; I’m as good as the next man!” Deep down, that fear that the truth may be that “I am indeed a sinner” collides with the wrong thought that God is an angry, vicious, spiteful dictator who loves punishing people, and as the two ideas collide, fear acts in the only way it knows how and denies the truth – I am not a sinner!!!  But however much you say it, it doesn’t change the truth.

Now why, you may be thinking, am I rambling down this particular path? What is the connection with humility? Well, humility is simply an honest recognition of who we are. I am a sinner and without God I am utterly lost. I owe my entire life to the Lord. All that I have, which is good, has been a gift from Him. Left to myself, I am a mess. I am certainly no better than any other person. All I can do is say, thank you. Humility faces the truth about ourselves. Over the past few years I have become more and more aware of the incredible goodness of God that has blessed me over the forty years that I have known Him. I have grown incredibly thankful, mightily grateful for what He has done for me, in me and through me.

But there’s been something else growing in parallel with that sense of gratefulness; it is the awareness of who I am and, looking back down the years, a recognition of the weakness, failures, inadequacies and so on, of my life. That simply makes the good things that God has done, or made of me, even more wonderful. I can be blessed at who I have become, yet aware that I have nothing to be proud about because it has not been of my working. If anything, it has been despite me!  I have absolutely nothing to boast about. I have done some great things and blessed a good number of people, but I know the truth about that! It was Him! It was at His directions and it was with His enabling and still, today, I am incapable of any good thing without His guidance, direction, inspiration or power. I know who I am! Humility is not a “I’m a nobody,” but an accurate assessment of who you are.

Pride, by comparison, is having an inflated view of who you are or of your own importance. Now, says Peter, clothe yourself with humility – put it on like you would put on a coat. How do you do that? You do what I’ve just done; you state the truth about yourself, both the bad news and good news. The bad news is that left to myself, I am a wreck. The good news is that in Christ and with his direction and enabling I am a child of God who can prove to be a real blessing to people. ‘Putting on’ humility is declaring those truths.

Why does God oppose the proud but gives grace to the humble”? The answer is because He is always working for the truth or for reality. The proud are not being truthful about themselves and so He opposes their untruths, but the humble who are being utterly real and acknowledging their frailty, weakness, inadequacy etc. of themselves, these ones He is able to take and use and so blesses them with His grace, His enabling to cope, serve or triumph.

And so what about when he says, Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time? This means bring yourself into a right attitude or outlook in life where you realise your utter dependency on Him so that He may take you, pick you up, and exalt you as He uses you. Consider Elijah (1 Kings 18) who opposed the prophets of Baal. He was utterly dependent on God – and knew it – and he was exalted in people’s minds because of what God was able to do through him. Jesus, likewise spoke of the glory he had received which in fact belonged to his Father as he served him. We don’t seek it; in fact we seek nothing except to be obedient to the Lord, utterly reliant on Him, and when we do that we will be exalted – but we’ll still know the truth!

 

59. Shepherds’ Guidance

Meditations in 1 Peter : 59: Guidance for Shepherds

1 Pet 5:2-4 Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers–not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.

Peter, we saw in the previous meditation, is speaking to elders of the local church, the local leaders. Here he now instructs them to act as shepherds. Whereas “elder” is the designation of position, being a senior member of the local church in a place of oversight, ‘shepherd’ is a clearly defined role. We all know what shepherds do – they look after sheep – and if we aren’t very clear about it, Peter explains it in quite a lot of detail which every church leader should consider.

The first thing that spiritual shepherds are to realise is that the flock belongs to God. The people of God, the local church, only exist because each one has been born again – as we saw in earlier meditations – and they are each a unique work of God. The apostle Paul, when instructing the Ephesian elders said, Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28). If you bought something with some of your own blood, it would be very precious to you. The church is precious to God and we need to remember that. This is God’s flock we are thinking about.

Next then he states the obvious in his description of this flock: “that is under your care.” If you have been called into the position of leadership we need to realise that it is first of all a position of care. Our role is to care for these people, to look after them. Again Paul warned the Ephesian elders prophetically, “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.” (Acts 20:29-31) I include those verses in their entirety because they convey the awfulness of what can happen to the local church and the responsibility that local leaders have to prevent such things happening.

He then goes on to say that we do these things as we serve as ‘overseers’. Obviously an overseer sees over the whole flock and should be able to see the landscape surrounding the flock and so be on the alert to pick up any needs within the flock and ward off any attacks coming from outside the flock.

Then he touches the subject of motivation: not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be.” There should not be a sense of heavy duty about this call but a glad willingness which is a joyful response to seeing the need and sensing the call, which provokes the response, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isa 6:8) Indeed, he adds, not greedy for money, but eager to serve.” This is not a job and money is not to be the motivation; this is a calling to serve God and serve the people of God. The leader of the local church is first and foremost a servant of God. Jesus taught, “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave– just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.” (Mt 20:26-28). But there is another side of this coin: the flock needs to realise that this man is God’s servant and as such is both answerable and accountable to Him, but also under His direction and protection. This is a man to be honoured.

But that doesn’t mean that the man is put on a pedestal for Peter continues to describe the way of serving: not lording it over those entrusted to you.” There is no room for pride, arrogance and any similar thing in a leader in the church, no room for throwing your weight around. This is a calling to humility in service.

Yet this something more in this ‘job description’: “being examples to the flock.” The leader is to be someone who goes ahead and who therefore sets an example in life and service for the flock to follow. Paul laid down the criteria for this example giving, in his instructions to Titus: “An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer is entrusted with God’s work, he must be blameless–not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” (Titus 1:6-9) In all those ways he is to be an example for the flock to follow.

And his reward? And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.” Jesus will reward this servant in due time in the right way. This is not to say don’t pay the man, for Paul speaks strongly about this elsewhere; it just says God will honour this servant in due season. Rest in that. There are many important issues here for the local church. May we heed them!

 

40. Pride & Humility

Meditations in James: 40 : Pride & Humility

Jas 4:6     But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

The danger or difficulty of meditating on just one verse, especially when we don’t have a Bible open in front of us,  is that we don’t see the context and the context is so often all-important. Yes, we can get a general meaning from thinking about the verse on its own, but it is much more useful to study it in context so that we see why the writer was saying it and what it relates to that has gone before.

So let’s take the verse as if it were on its own and then later let’s put it in context to illustrate what we’ve just said above. First, he gives us more grace. God is in the business of giving us grace, and grace in this sort of context simply means the divine ability that he imparts to us to enable us to cope. Many of us struggle with this. We just can’t believe that God is standing in the wings, so to speak, just waiting to provide us with all that we need to cope with life today – wisdom, strength, health etc. That is grace, His divine ability imparted to us, but we have to receive it, and more often than not, we have to first ask for it.

But then the verse continues, That is why Scripture says…. It is referring back to the Old Testament, to Proverbs 3:34. We need to realize that the New Testament is built upon the Old. Jesus quoted from virtually all of the books of the Old Testament, and the epistle writers do the same. God’s will was declared in the Old and fulfilled or applied in the New.

The verse continues: God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. This is the Old Testament quote, the teaching that came through Solomon.  Those who are proud rise up and reject or ignore God and basically seek to oppose Him, so He opposes them, for He is God and He is exercising His will for the good of mankind. When we oppose Him we oppose this activity of His. As soon as God sees us coming to the end of ourselves, giving up all of our own self-endeavours, and turning to Him, He is instantly there as a loving Father, ready to pour out all of His wonderful goodness, the resources we need for life, His grace. Yes, when we are humble and acknowledge our need, He is there for us, but He can’t provide for us until we turn to Him and become desirous of His help. That’s what Solomon was saying, and is now quoted in this verse.

Now let’s see what has gone before so we can put it in context to see the wider picture. Having spoken about the tongue in the middle of chapter 3 and then gone on at the end of it to talk about the life style that is a reflection of the wisdom received from God, James has gone on to face us up with what goes on inside us and while doing that we realized that without God we were a mess. The key or turning point is when we come to the end of ourselves and we seek God. Before we do that we have wrong attitudes and motivations which are those of ‘the world’, godless humanity, but God is jealous for us and yearns to draw us more and more into a deeper relationship with Him.  However for that to happen we have to crucify our pride and come acknowledging our state and our need. When we come like that God’s grace is freely available to us. While we are holding on to those old worldly attitudes where self is paramount, we are likely to be in opposition to God (which is a frightening thought when you realize how great and powerful He is!) and we are doomed to failure.  It’s all about what we let Him do on the inside of us, as He brings His wisdom to bear on our lives and we are allowed to see ourselves as we really are, with all those self-centred desires in conflict.

This is what this is all about; facing up to ourselves so that we can come in humility to God, acknowledging our need of His help, and then receiving His grace which transforms our life. What is His grace but His own presence, His own Holy Spirit, dwelling within us.  It is He Himself empowering us, but as we’ve commented so many times in the past, He will not force Himself upon us, and so He waits until He sees we have a genuine, penitent attitude, which really does see that He alone is our answer. When we come to this place He releases His power in us – and that is the grace we need to cope. It is that which changes us, which transforms us, and gives us the ability to live the lives He’s designed for us.

Do you see now the importance of the ‘But’ at the beginning of the verse? He’s spoken about His Spirit, who He has given us, as yearning for us or being jealous for us when He sees we have a tendency to drift away, and so now he reminds us that God’s grace is there to stop us drifting and to help us back into a good place. That’s what the ‘But’ is about. It’s about the provision He has made to draw us back when we are drifting. Isn’t that wonderful!  He sees us drifting but He doesn’t scold or chastise us, because He is yearning to just get us back. It’s like when a teenage child runs away. What they have done is foolish, but you are more concerned to have them back than to remonstrate with them! And this is true of God as well. He is there, zealous to bring you back, and for you to be able to do that, you need His grace – and here it is!  Receive it today if you have been drifting. It’s there for the asking.

33. Humility

Meditations in James: 33 : Humility with Wisdom

Jas 3:13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.

We have in this day, in the West, many TV games shows that test knowledge. We may watch and wonder sometimes at the shear breadth or depth of knowledge that a particular contestant shows.  We move on to programmes about specialist subjects and we watch and listen to men or women who are ‘experts’ in their field, regaling us with the wonders that they know about. We think how great these people must be. We wonder at their learning, their scholarship, and their experience of life. And then the media tells us something about their personal life, and we hear they have just parted from their third partner, and a little nagging doubt rises in our mind. Then there are politicians or some of the world’s shakers and movers. We watch on TV as their latest achievements are being lauded and we think about what incredible people they must be. We slightly wonder about some of the people who are their friends, because they are those who live in the shadows, and we wonder. We don’t ‘know’ but we wonder. But God knows.

God is and never has been impressed by outward signs. We’ve seen that before with Samuel (1 Sam 16:7). The disciples were impressed by big buildings (Matt 24:1) but Jesus had bigger issues on his mind. No, we can be swayed by rhetoric or apparent knowledge, but God has different criteria for assessment of people. You can be very knowledgeable but godless. You can bring great changes in the world, but be unrighteous. Have you spotted the link yet with what James has been saying about the tongue? The tongue has the power to deceive us. We just mentioned ‘great people’ on TV who astound us with their words. There are politicians and world movers and shakers who speak and the world holds its breath. Oh yes, words are the currency of these people, but the trouble is, that so often they are godless and unrighteous people, and in God’s eyes they mean nothing. Their words do not impress Him.

So James seems to spin us on our axis and we point away from thoughts of the tongue and move to a wider sphere of thinking. Ah yes, thinking comes in here: Who is wise and understanding among you? Wisdom and understanding; these are things of the mind. They are the fruits of what has gone on inside us. Wisdom is the knowledge of ‘how to’. Moses was able to say to his people: See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” (Deut 4:5,6) God had spoken to Israel and given them His Law, which were simply rules on how to live wisely in accordance with the way He had designed people to live. If you follow them, said Moses, the nations round about will see your wisdom and comment upon it. It will be clearly visible. Wisdom is something that is practically worked out in life.

Understanding is knowing why things are. Understanding goes beyond simply knowing ‘how to’; it knows why is it right to do it. It knows the reasoning behind it. Of course as God’s people we know that it is right to follow God’s ways because He is all-wise and He is the Designer-Creator of this world and so He knows best.  The psalmist wrote, “I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong path.” (Psa 119:104). As He studied all that God had given Israel he came to understand the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of life. The more we consider God’s word as we seek His face, the more He gives us understanding of His ways.

James then challenges us. He basically says, if you understand life, then you will live God’s ways and if you live God’s ways, those ways will involve goodness, and people will see good deeds coming out of that knowledge and understanding. Just like Israel, as we saw just now, those round about us will see and wonder. But don’t we wonder about the life of the great and the glorious? Yes, until we start hearing about their personal lives which reveal the sort of people they are. This is where James differentiates between these people and the people of God. The people of God, he is saying, live out their lives in humility. Yes, here is an unusual characteristic in today’s age! Humility is about having a realistic assessment of yourself. When you really know yourself there is no room for pride (the opposite of humility). When we really know ourselves we know that without God we are lost. Without God we know our lives are pretence, a sham. We know that although we may look good on the outside, inside we’re something quite different. This realistic self awareness is humility. This humility comes from wisdom. Solomon said,The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Prov 9:10). An awesome respect for Almighty God brings wisdom and that wisdom brings humility as we realize our smallness and His greatness. As we live out our lives in the light of this, it will be seen, goodness!  May it be so!

27. Maturity of Teachers

Meditations in James: 27 : The Maturity of Teachers

Jas 3:1 Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.

We have often commented in these meditations that it is important to note the context and catch the thought pattern of the writer. When we come to chapter three, if we are not careful it could seem as if James is jumping to a new subject, but he’s not. If you scan back over the previous chapter you’ll see again that James has been concerned to emphasise to these scattered Christians the importance of living out practically, the Christian life, a life of faith.  Earlier, at the end of chapter one, he had cautioned us against letting our tongues run away with us. In the second verse of chapter three, which we’ll consider in detail tomorrow, he says, “We all stumble in many ways.” In other words James is wanting us to look at our lives to see that they conform with God’s expectations as seen in the New Testament, but at the same time realize that we all fall short and miss it sometimes.

In those days, the height of having become someone who had mastered life, was to become a teacher.  A teacher wasn’t just someone who imparted information, they were considered to be those who were mature and wise and who could impart truth from a life that showed by its fruits that it had grown in self-control and wisdom.  Now of course James is speaking to the church and this applies doubly so.  As he has been saying for a large part of this letter so far, we are called to be those who cope with the trials of life (1:2-18), those who DO what God has said (1:19-25), those who can control their tongue (1:26,27), those who do not have wrong assessments of people (2:1-13) and those who live out their faith in real and practical ways (2:14-26).  Now if you can say you’ve got on top of all these, he implies, then you can be a teacher of others, to lead them also into these things.

In fact, the way he says it comes with a warning. You really don’t want to be a teacher unless you have got it all worked out, because if you stand before others, telling them how to live, and actually haven’t done it yourself, then God is going to hold you accountable. You will be in trouble! In a sense this is just a further call to self-assessment.  That is what this letter is really all about. He is saying, look I know you have been scattered into the world, and so you are having to learn to live in the world without the strength of Jerusalem upholding and encouraging you, so I want to remind you of what you have been called to and I want you to check yourselves out against that. Don’t think too highly of yourselves because, probably there aren’t many of you who will have reached such maturity in these things that you can become teachers of others.

We also have to see these things in the wider context of the whole New Testament.  Jesus scolded the teachers of his day who loved being acknowledged publicly for what they were (Mt 23:7).  He looks for humility in such people.  That is a first thing to note.  With maturity comes humility that does not seek for position.  Indeed a teacher should be a servant: Nor are you to be called `teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Mt 23:10-12). So a teacher is to be a mature person who does all that James has been speaking about, so that maturity will bring wisdom with humility, to act as a servant of others, not as one who lords it over others. With all these warnings against being a teacher, one might think that the New Testament teaches against becoming a teacher, but the contrary is true.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:19). His implication is that after practice comes handing it on to other people. Indeed Jesus’ closing instructions at the end of Matthew’s Gospel were to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Mt 28:19,20). Teaching, or imparting to others all that Jesus had taught, was to be a very real part of the life of the church.

The writer to the Hebrews expected people to mature and to become teachers: We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again.” (Heb 5:11,12). Now there is a challenge to the church where most people are happy to sit back and do little. No, says the teaching of the New Testament, the role of the leaders is to bring YOU into a place of maturity so that YOU can do the work: It was he who gave some to be ….pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may …. become mature (Eph 4:11,12). So James’ call is a call to self-assessment, but it is not an excuse for immaturity. Our call is to become mature and to impart the truth to others. May it be so!

1. Servants

Meditations in James: 1 :  Welcome to Servant heartedness

Jas 1:1   James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ

Leaders in the church of the first century seem to be so different from so many leaders in the church of the twenty first century. In big churches in the United States, leaders seem not far removed from a CEO of a big company. Some have big cars, big houses and big minders. Even in smaller churches, church leaders often seem to be ‘big people’ who command awe and respect. Now I may be wrong, but when I read some of Paul’s writings, his second letter to the Corinthians for example, although there are times when he speaks strongly, when he writes to them he spends much time appealing to them on the basis of his weakness. James starts us of in his letter referring to himself as a servant. Now this is remarkable because commentators and scholars tend to think that he was probably one of the brothers of Jesus: Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas?” (Mt 13:55). Now if he was a worldly person he would drop this little fact for us, just to quietly remind us of his closeness to the Messiah. I mean, a member of that special family! What tales he could have told of Jesus’ early years, probably the closest in age to Jesus, coming at the head of that list we’ve just quoted. But no, there is nothing of that. He tells us virtually nothing of himself. Even if the assumption that he was one of Jesus’ brothers is wrong, he is clearly a leader who is well known, but still he doesn’t put on airs. He simply sees himself as a servant, and that is the only designation he wants to go by.

Yet when he refers to himself as a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, there is a confidence implied within that.  A lot of people wouldn’t have the confidence to call themselves a servant of God; they might feel it sounds too pious, but James knows who he is and who has called him and who he serves. Some people might feel that it would be too presumptuous to call themselves that and might feel that God might hold them to account for saying such things, but James knows who he is. If he is the brother of Jesus, the designation he gives himself is all the more amazing, the servant of… the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no familiarity about this designation. He could have said, I am a servant of my brother Jesus, but he doesn’t! He elevates Jesus for he has come to see him as he truly is – the Lord. It hadn’t always been like that. Once he hadn’t even believed Jesus was who he said he was (see Jn 7:3-5). Now he understands, now he realizes Jesus is the One who has the right to call on James as his servant. There is a humility that comes out in James in this, that not only doesn’t draw attention to his pedigree, but also bows the knee both to God and to Jesus.

Servants are those who serve another and don’t draw attention to themselves. Jesus called his disciples to be servants: whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave– just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt 20:26-28) To have a servant heart was to be the starting place of a disciple, yet as they developed their relationship with him, Jesus was able to say to them, You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (Jn 15:14,15). A servant doesn’t tend to know what is in his master’s mind, yet as Jesus shared his heart with his closest disciples he changed their designation from ‘servants’ to ‘friends’. Why, we might ask, doesn’t James call himself a friend of Jesus then, why a servant? Well the Greek word that James uses for ‘servant’ is doulos which means a bond-servant or slave, one who willingly submits themselves to their master. It is as if James says, yes, I know what our position is today, we are God’s children or friends of Jesus, and in my case he is my brother, but I want it to be known that I submit to him, he is my Lord and I don’t want to make any presumptions; I just want to be available to him, as his slave if need be.

How many of us come to God with this sort of self-imposed humility I wonder? Such humility only comes when there is a true awareness of just who Jesus is and just who we are. When we realise that he is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Rev 19:16) and that left to ourselves we are but helpless sinners, this gives us no room to boast and no room to feel great about ourselves. It only creates gratefulness and thankfulness and a desire to bow before our liege-Lord, as the servants of old did in feudal times, acknowledging their allegiance (do you see the similarity in words?). This is what James is doing as he describes himself like this; he is declaring his allegiance to Jesus as his Lord. It is almost as if he feels that he can only come as God’s representative to His church, if he comes in this manner. He can only speak the things he is going to speak to God’s people, if he comes with his heart bowed before his Lord. What a good attitude for any leader!

23. Wisdom Revealed

Ephesians Meditations No.23

Eph  3:8-10 Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms

I recently read an atheistic philosopher appealing to Christians to explain their beliefs. “But,” he said, “there’s one card you cannot play, the faith card. The faith card is when you say, well, no, we don’t talk about that, it’s a matter of faith… You are saying… I am not willing to give you reasons.” Somehow many of us have given this man cause to believe we can’t share our beliefs reasonably and rationally. If that is so we do not follow in the footsteps of the apostle Paul. In this letter he has been giving us immense detail about what has happened and the consequences of it!

He has, in this chapter, done a sidestep from the main doctrinal flow, to speak about his own ministry which has been about revealing the mystery of God’s will. Here he continues that: Although I am less than the least of all God’s people”. In displaying himself he reveals a genuine humility. Humility is about knowing who you are – without God, nothing; with the Lord wonderful! Are Paul’s opening words false humility? Definitely not! This man was very much aware of where he had come from, a Pharisaical background of self-achievement in the guise of godliness that had caused him to persecute true believers. Oh no, the more you know about yourself the more you put yourself down the social scale. The proud person is the most deceived because they highly esteem themselves and really don’t have a clue of what they are really like!

Anyway he says, “Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me. When we truly know ourselves, we marvel at the wonder of what God has done with us. I am amazed, is what Paul is saying, when I think about this incredible revelation that God has given me – me, being the minor figure that I am!!! Note that it was nothing to do with him being a clever guy (which he was) but it was a pure gift of God, this revelation.

So then he goes on to describe this grace, which comes in the form of his ministry: “to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.” Grace comes in lots of forms. For Paul it was the ability to ‘see’ that wonder of what God had achieved through sending His Son to die for us, and then share it!  Do you see the incredible words used here: “the unsearchable riches of Christ.”?  Who Christ is and what he has done, is of such staggering value that we’ll never be able to understand (this side of heaven) the extent of it. We really can’t grasp the wonder of this being who came from heaven and took human form and who now sits at his Father’s right hand ruling over EVERYTHING. We really struggle to grasp the wonder of what he has achieved for us, the incredible transformation that he has wrought in us because of his work on the Cross and the things that are now ours because of that.

He continues to describe ‘this grace’ that he has received from God: “and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things.” We’ve already touched on some of this language which he has already used earlier in the chapter. His ministry (his grace from God) is to unpack and apply (administer) that which had previously been a mystery – the will of God, formulated in heaven from before the creation of the world, that was about the Son of God coming to earth to redeem sinful mankind – or at least all those who would receive his redemption. Those atheists who claim that religions have evolved, misunderstand the Christian faith for all that has happened is that God’s plan, which was being referred to prophetically in the Old Testament, had actually been formulated before the world came into being. Thus it was only the revealing of it that was coming about two thousand years ago. This ‘revealing’ was first of all the implementing of it by the coming of Christ, and then the explaining of it after he had gone back to heaven.

But here is some more profound revelation: “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” Now that is amazing. Paul’s statement is that what Christ has done, and which is now being seen worked out through the church, is so amazing, that it is clear and visible to all the angelic and demonic beings in the spiritual world. They look on and watch you and me and, as they see the wonder of God’s grace through Christ being worked out in us, they realise the wonder of the wisdom of God, and we become a source of praise for God from all the angelic beings. How we live out our lives becomes a cause of praise in heaven. Isn’t that amazing!

So here we have Paul logically and systematically explaining our faith in ways that can be easily understood. All it needs is a little thought, but this ‘mystery’ is not something that is beyond ordinary people; it was simply a mystery in as far as it had not been revealed until Christ came. Now it has, and we can explain our faith more clearly perhaps than the atheist can his!