Walk in My Ways

37 The Lord said to Moses, 38 “Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner. 39 And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the Lord, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after. 40 So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God. 41 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am the Lord your God.”  Numbers 15:37-41 ESV

This is a rather strange and seemingly out-of-place passage. Why did God choose to give Moses these odd-sounding instructions at this particular point in time? It’s clear from the book of Deuteronomy that this was not the first time that God had issued this command.

“You shall make yourself tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself. – Deuteronomy 22:12 ESV

But what was the purpose behind this non-negotiable piece of fashion advice? As the text points out, they were to serve as a kind of memory enhancer.

“When you see the tassels, you will remember and obey all the commands of the Lord instead of following your own desires and defiling yourselves, as you are prone to do.” – Numbers 15:39 NLT

As the old saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The tassels were to be an ever-present visual reminder to keep the commandments of God. It would be like someone tying a string on their finger in order to remind them of something important.

“These tassels were to act as reminders to be totally loyal to the Lord…” – Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries

It seems that every time an Israelite looked down at his feet, he would see the tassels and be reminded to “walk” according to the will of God. They would recall God’s command to their patriarch, Abraham.

“I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless…” – Genesis 17:1 ESV

The Hebrew word is הָלַךְ (hālaḵ), which can mean “to walk,” but can also refer to conducting one’s life. Abraham had been commanded to live his life blameless, in full view of God Almighty. There was to be no compartmentalization or hidden areas in Abraham’s life. No aspect of his life was off-limits to the all-knowing, all-seeing God. And God was demanding that Abraham live the same kind of life that Noah had lived.

Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God. – Genesis 6:9 ESV

And Noah was following the example of his ancestor, Enoch, who had also “walked with God” (Genesis 5:22). And when Jacob was blessing his son, Joseph, he spoke of how his father and grandfather had “walked” with God.

“The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day…” – Genesis 48:15 ESV

Because the tassels were located on the hem of the garment, they would be in clear sight every time an Israelite looked down to determine his or her next step. When the prepared to ascend a set of stairs, they would see the tassels and be reminded to consider their steps. When they looked down to assess the ground beneath their feet, the tassels would prompt them to take special care of their spiritual footing. They were not to stray from God. They were to remain on the straight-and-narrow.

The prophet, Isaiah, would later warn the people of Israel to watch their step.

Thus says the Lord:
“Stand by the roads, and look,
    and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way is; and walk in it,
    and find rest for your souls.” – Jeremiah 6:16 ESV

They were to seek directions so that they might not take a wrong turn and end up in the wrong destination. But, sadly, Jeremiah points out that the people of Israel refused his advice.

“But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’” – Jeremiah 6:16 ESV

They ignored the tassels, forgot to obey God’s commands, and ending up losing their way. And rather than seeking help, they stubbornly persisted in following their own misguided directions. The apostle Paul describes the destiny of all those who take their eyes off the tassels and forget to walk in obedience to God.

They are headed for destruction. Their god is their appetite, they brag about shameful things, and they think only about this life here on earth. – Philippians 3:19 NLT

In the book of Numbers, God warns what happens when His children follow their own desires: They end up defiling themselves. They replace God’s will with their own and step off the path that He has chosen for them. God’s choice of words is strong. He compares their disobedience to adultery or prostitution. The Hebrew word is זָנָה (zānâ), and it means “to be a harlot, act as a harlot, commit fornication.” And this description was meant to stand in stark contrast to their calling as God’s people. He had set them apart as His own, declaring them to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” – Exodus 19:5-6 ESV

There is a huge difference between a priest and prostitute, or there should be. And to drive home the concept of the priestly status, God commanded that they were to use blue threat to attach the tassels to their garments. Blue was the color of royalty and divinity and its presence on their garments would to signify their position as servants of the King. This symbolism would not have escaped them because the ark of the covenant, over which God’s glory rested, was to be covered with a blue cloth everytime it was transported (Numbers 4:6). According to God’s instructions, “a veil of blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen” was to hung between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle (Exodus 26:31, 36). Even the robe of the high priest was to be made of royal blue (Exodus 28:31).

Each and every Jew was to consider themselves a priest of God and, as such, they were expected to live in obedience to His commands. The tassels were intended to serve as reminders of their status as His chosen people.

“The tassels will help you remember that you must obey all my commands and be holy to your God.” – Numbers 15;40 NLT

Their lives were to match their calling. Set-apart people are expected to live set-apart lives. Unlike the man who willingly violated the Sabbath and was stoned to death, they were to walk according to God’s commands. Each time they prepared to take a step, they would see the tassels on the hem of their garments and be reminded to tread carefully and obediently.

Not long before his death in the wilderness, Moses had delivered a lengthy and passionate speech to the people of Israel. Because of his own disobedience, he would not be entering the land of Canaan with them. So, motivated by his own failure to fully obey the Lord, he called the people to “walk” before the Lord all the days of their lives.

“You shall be careful therefore to do as the Lord your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. You shall walk in all the way that the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess.” – Deuteronomy 5:32-33 ESV

Moses longed for the people of Israel to enjoy all the blessings that God had in store for them. But he knew it would require obedience.

“And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God. – Deuteronomy 28:1-2 ESV

“The Lord will establish you as a people holy to himself, as he has sworn to you, if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in his ways.” – Deuteronomy 28:9 ESV

But Moses also warned them about the consequences of disobedience. Failure to “walk” with God would prove costly, even catastrophic.

“But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you.Deuteronomy 28:15 ESV

“All these curses shall come upon you and pursue you and overtake you till you are destroyed, because you did not obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that he commanded you.Deuteronomy 28:45 ESV

It pays to obey. Walking the talk has its benefits. God wanted the Israelites to know that conducting one’s life in keeping with God’s commands wasn’t just good advice, it was a matter of life and death. And the Israelites received a much-needed reminder to consider the source of the commands they were called to keep.

“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt that I might be your God. I am the Lord your God!”Numbers 15:41 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

 

No Rest for the Wicked

26 And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, 27 “How long shall this wicked congregation grumble against me? I have heard the grumblings of the people of Israel, which they grumble against me. 28 Say to them, ‘As I live, declares the Lord, what you have said in my hearing I will do to you: 29 your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness, and of all your number, listed in the census from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against me, 30 not one shall come into the land where I swore that I would make you dwell, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun. 31 But your little ones, who you said would become a prey, I will bring in, and they shall know the land that you have rejected. 32 But as for you, your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness. 33 And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness. 34 According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, a year for each day, you shall bear your iniquity forty years, and you shall know my displeasure.’ 35 I, the Lord, have spoken. Surely this will I do to all this wicked congregation who are gathered together against me: in this wilderness they shall come to a full end, and there they shall die.”

36 And the men whom Moses sent to spy out the land, who returned and made all the congregation grumble against him by bringing up a bad report about the land— 37 the men who brought up a bad report of the land—died by plague before the Lord. 38 Of those men who went to spy out the land, only Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh remained alive.

39 When Moses told these words to all the people of Israel, the people mourned greatly. 40 And they rose early in the morning and went up to the heights of the hill country, saying, “Here we are. We will go up to the place that the Lord has promised, for we have sinned.” 41 But Moses said, “Why now are you transgressing the command of the Lord, when that will not succeed? 42 Do not go up, for the Lord is not among you, lest you be struck down before your enemies. 43 For there the Amalekites and the Canaanites are facing you, and you shall fall by the sword. Because you have turned back from following the Lord, the Lord will not be with you.” 44 But they presumed to go up to the heights of the hill country, although neither the ark of the covenant of the Lord nor Moses departed out of the camp. 45 Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and defeated them and pursued them, even to Hormah.  Numbers 14:26-45 ESV

God essentially told the Israelites that the worse-case-scenario they had conjured up in their minds was going to take place. Their greatest fears were going to become reality. In an attempt to rationalize their rebellion against Moses’ leadership, they had predicted a foreboding future if they stayed where they were.

“Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. – Numbers 14:2-3 ESV

And God let them know that their projections of doom and gloom would come true.

“As surely as I live, declares the Lord, I will do to you the very things I heard you say. You will all drop dead in this wilderness! Because you complained against me, every one of you who is twenty years old or older and was included in the registration will die. You will not enter and occupy the land I swore to give you. – Numbers 14:28-30 NLT

As punishment for their rebellion, God revealed their fate. They would not be returning to Egypt and they would never enter the land of Canaan. Instead, they could die in the wilderness. They wouldn’t have to worry about dying in battle because they would never make it to the promised land. No, their deaths would be from old age as they spent the next 40 years wandering in the wilderness; a year for every day the spies had spent in Canaan.

There would be no supernatural cosmological display of fire and brimstone to consume the wicked. The ground wouldn’t open up and swallow all those who were guilty. In fact, for the next 40 years, God would continue to provide for their physical needs; providing them with manna, quail, and fresh drinking water. They would continue to live, raise their children, and live out their days in relative peace and security. But they would never enter the land that God had promised as their inheritance.

“Not one of you from this wicked generation will live to see the good land I swore to give your ancestors.” – Deuteronomy 1:25 NLT

Canaan was to have been their final destination. It was a rich and fertile land, just as the spies had discovered. And even before God had leveled a single plague against Egypt, He had promised to lead the descendants of Jacob to their new homeland.

“I have promised to rescue you from your oppression in Egypt. I will lead you to a land flowing with milk and honey—the land where the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites now live.” – Exodus 3:17 NLT

But as a result of their stubborn refusal to trust God, they would spend 40 years wandering on the wrong side of the border of Canaan. In time, one by one, they would succumb to old age and die, and their bodies would be buried in the wilderness. And the author of Hebrews uses their rebellion and punishment as a warning to a new generation of Jews who had been offered another promise of future inheritance by God.

“Today when you hear his voice,
    don’t harden your hearts
as Israel did when they rebelled,
    when they tested me in the wilderness.
There your ancestors tested and tried my patience,
    even though they saw my miracles for forty years.
So I was angry with them, and I said,
‘Their hearts always turn away from me.
    They refuse to do what I tell them.’
So in my anger I took an oath:
    ‘They will never enter my place of rest.’” – Hebrews 3:7-11 NLT

Canaan was to have been their place of rest. That doesn’t mean Canaan was going to be a stress-free environment, devoid of difficulties. There actually were enemies in the land and the Israelites would have to do battle with each of them in order to make the land their own. But God had promised them victory. He was going to use them to purge the land of all the wickedness, immorality, and godlessness that had filled it since their departure more than 430 years earlier.

Yet, rather than obeying God and doing battle with those who opposed Him and had desecrated the land He had given them, the Israelites ended up having God for an enemy.

“Because your men explored the land for forty days, you must wander in the wilderness for forty years—a year for each day, suffering the consequences of your sins. Then you will discover what it is like to have me for an enemy.” – Numbers 14:34 NLT

What makes this story so painful and impactful is that it involved the people of God. These were His chosen ones. He had redeemed them out of slavery in Egypt. He had graciously offered them freedom and a permament home of their own where they could enjoy His presence, power, and provision. Yet, because the conquest of the land appeared to be more difficult than they had imagined, they turned their back on God’s gracious offer. And the author of Hebrews emphasizes the disbelieving nature of God’s chosen people.

And who was it who rebelled against God, even though they heard his voice? Wasn’t it the people Moses led out of Egypt? And who made God angry for forty years? Wasn’t it the people who sinned, whose corpses lay in the wilderness? And to whom was God speaking when he took an oath that they would never enter his rest? Wasn’t it the people who disobeyed him? So we see that because of their unbelief they were not able to enter his rest. – Hebrews 3:16-19 NLT

And he warns his fellow Jews to learn from their ancestors’ mistakes.

Be careful then, dear brothers and sisters. Make sure that your own hearts are not evil and unbelieving, turning you away from the living God. – Hebrews 3:12 NLT

For if we are faithful to the end, trusting God just as firmly as when we first believed, we will share in all that belongs to Christ. – Hebrews 3:14 NLT

God’s promise of rest required obedience. The land was theirs, but they were going to have to do battle in order to take full possession of it. They would have to cleanse the land from all its impurities, and that would require hard work and faith. Any effort they put forth would have to be based on their faith that God would go before them and provide them with victory. But for the Israelites, a long march back to Egypt and the promise of certain enslavement were more appealing than doing the will of God. And, as a result, they would never enter His rest.

And, as for the ten spies, they would face a more immediate and unpleasant end for their leadership in the rebellion.

The ten men Moses had sent to explore the land—the ones who incited rebellion against the Lord with their bad report—were struck dead with a plague before the Lord. – Numbers 14:36-37 NLT

God had not changed His mind. His promise of providing an inheritance for the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob remained just as firm as ever. But there would be some who would never get to enjoy it. They had forfeited that right.

But when the people heard the news of God’s judgment against them, they were grieved and attempted to repent for their rebellion.

“We realize that we have sinned, but now we are ready to enter the land the Lord has promised us.” – Numbers 14:40 NLT

But it was too little, too late. Moses even warned them that they were only making matters worse by attempting to escape God’s judgment through further rebellion. They were suggesting immediate entrance into the land, even though that is not what God had ordered. They thought a show of enthusiasm might temper God’s anger. But Moses warned them against making such a dangerous and ill-fated decision.

“Why are you now disobeying the Lord’s orders to return to the wilderness? It won’t work. Do not go up into the land now. You will only be crushed by your enemies because the Lord is not with you. When you face the Amalekites and Canaanites in battle, you will be slaughtered. The Lord will abandon you because you have abandoned the Lord.” – Numbers 14:41-43 NLT

But stubborn as always, the people rejected Moses’ counsel and attempted to enter Canaan – without God’s approval or help – and they failed miserably. They had forfeited their right to the inheritance. The land would never be theirs and they would never enjoy the rest that God had promised. And the apostle Paul provides a powerful application of this story for those who long to enter the eternal rest that comes through faith in Christ.

I don’t want you to forget, dear brothers and sisters, about our ancestors in the wilderness long ago. All of them were guided by a cloud that moved ahead of them, and all of them walked through the sea on dry ground. In the cloud and in the sea, all of them were baptized as followers of Moses. All of them ate the same spiritual food, and all of them drank the same spiritual water. For they drank from the spiritual rock that traveled with them, and that rock was Christ. Yet God was not pleased with most of them, and their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.

These things happened as a warning to us, so that we would not crave evil things as they did, or worship idols as some of them did. – 1 Corinthians 10:1-7 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

I’ve Got Good News and Bad News

25 At the end of forty days they returned from spying out the land. 26 And they came to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation of the people of Israel in the wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh. They brought back word to them and to all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land. 27 And they told him, “We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. 28 However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. 29 The Amalekites dwell in the land of the Negeb. The Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the hill country. And the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and along the Jordan.”

30 But Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” 31 Then the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.” 32 So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. 33 And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”

Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” Numbers 13:25-14:4 ESV

For 40 days, the people of Israel anxiously awaited the return of the 12 men who had been sent to reconnoiter the land of Canaan. And each passing day must have fueled their growing doubts and concerns. The longer the delay, the more they must have wondered whether the spies had met an untimely demise at the hands of the land’s current occupants. Had they been captured and enslaved? Worse yet, had they been tortured and forced to disclose the location of Israel’s camp in the wilderness of Paran? Was a heavily armed force headed their way with plans to annihilate the rest of the Israelites before they could cross the Jordan River?

But much to the relief of the Israelites, the spies eventually returned, bearing news and “the fruit they had taken from the land” (Numbers 13:26 NLT). Rumors of their return spread quickly through the camp and soon everyone had gathered to hear their long-anticipated report. And as the people stood in breathless silence, they heard the spies deliver their findings.

“We entered the land you sent us to explore, and it is indeed a bountiful country—a land flowing with milk and honey. Here is the kind of fruit it produces. – Numbers 13:27 NLT

The spies had not returned empty handed. According to verse 23, they had gathered tangible evidence of the land’s fruitfulness and now used these props as a kind of show-and-tell.

When they came to the valley of Eshcol, they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes so large that it took two of them to carry it on a pole between them! They also brought back samples of the pomegranates and figs. – Numbers 13:23 NLT

It was as if the spies knew that their words would not be enough. Any attempts they made to describe the land’s abundance would fall short and be met with skeptical ears. So, they brought proof. And it was like nothing the Israelites had ever seen before. A single cluster of grapes had to be carried on a pole between two men. This land was super-abundant and more than adequate for meeting the physical needs of the Israelites. It’s interesting to remember that, just recently, the Israelites had been reminiscing about the wonderful cuisine they had enjoyed in Egypt.

“We remember the fish we used to eat for free in Egypt. And we had all the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic we wanted. But now our appetites are gone. All we ever see is this manna!” – Numbers 11:5-6 NLT

While their memories of the food they enjoyed in Egypt were probably a bit cloudy and far-from-accurate, they couldn’t argue with the evidence right before their eyes. Canaan was a virtual cornucopia of culinary delights. And it was just across the river Jordan.

But before the Israelites had time to take in the wonderful news about the fruitful land of Canaan, the spies poured a bit of cold water on their enthusiasm. They delivered the bad news.

“But the people living there are powerful, and their towns are large and fortified. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak! The Amalekites live in the Negev, and the Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites live in the hill country. The Canaanites live along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and along the Jordan Valley.” – Numbers 13:28-29 NLT

If the size of the grapes had been enough to make their mouths water, this news must have made them sick to their stomachs. It was the last thing they wanted to hear. After all, what good was a fruitful and abundant land if it was filled with frightful and dominant enemies?

As soon as the Israelites heard the downside of the spies’ report, they went into a panic. And Caleb, one of the 12 men who had seen the land with his own eyes, tried to calm them down. He didn’t attempt to dismiss or discredit the presence of enemies in the land. He didn’t refute their existence or diminish the report of their superior power. Instead, he simply encouraged the people to do what God had commanded them to do.

“Let’s go at once to take the land,” he said. “We can certainly conquer it!” – Numbers 13:30 NLT

The spies had done exactly what Moses had instructed them to do.

“Go north through the Negev into the hill country. See what the land is like, and find out whether the people living there are strong or weak, few or many. See what kind of land they live in. Is it good or bad? Do their towns have walls, or are they unprotected like open camps? Is the soil fertile or poor? Are there many trees? Do your best to bring back samples of the crops you see.” (It happened to be the season for harvesting the first ripe grapes.) – Numbers 13:18-20 NLT

They had returned with a report and samples. But at no point were their findings intended to play a role in whether or not the Israelites entered the land. Their mission had been a fact-finding one. And when their report turned out to be a combination of good news and bad news, it should have had no bearing on God’s plans for Israel. It provided proof that the land was fruitful. But it was also provided evidence that the land was already occupied. While the first fact was encouraging, the second was disheartening. But both were intended to remind the people that God was their provider. Not only had He given them a land, but He would also give them victory over its more formidable occupants.

But for ten of the spies, the thought of the Israelites defeating the Canaanites was a pipe dream. There was no way a rag-tag army of former shepherds and slaves was going to conquer a land filled with “giants.” The Israelites would find themselves up against Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, and Canaanites. They would be out-numbered and under-equipped for the task. And the ten spies made their views plainly known.

“We can’t go up against them! They are stronger than we are!” – Numbers 13:31 NLT

These men were more than scared. They were absolutely petrified and determined to convince the people to disobey God’s command to enter the land of Canaan.

“The land we traveled through and explored will devour anyone who goes to live there. All the people we saw were huge. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak. Next to them we felt like grasshoppers, and that’s what they thought, too!” – Numbers 13:32-33 NLT

Notice how they conveniently leave God out of the picture. It was all “us-versus-them.” It was giants against grasshoppers, the powerful against the weak. The odds were completely lopsided and any hope of victory was wishful thinking.

And their words had the desired effect. The people were devastated and demoralized. They wept and mourned. They regretted ever having left Egypt. And any encouragement they may have received from the sight of oversized fruit was crushed by the prospect of annihilation at the hands of their enemies.

Fueled by the disheartening rhetoric of the ten spies, the people railed against Moses and Aaron, questioning why they had ever left the land of Egypt in the first place.

“If only we had died in Egypt, or even here in the wilderness!” they complained. “Why is the Lord taking us to this country only to have us die in battle? Our wives and our little ones will be carried off as plunder! Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?” – Numbers 14:2-3 NLT

They had regrets. And they suffered from a severe case of good-old-days syndrome. When confronted with the less-than-ideal option of entering the land of Canaan, they began to long for their days back in Egypt. They preferred slavery to possible slaughter at the hands of the Canaanites. Their view of the promised land was anything but promising. Filled with pessimism and fueled by fear, they lashed out at Moses and Aaron. And then, anxious to derail any plans these two men may have had to lead them into Canaan, the people began to plot their overthrow.

“Let’s choose a new leader and go back to Egypt!” – Numbers 14:4 NLT

Little did they know that they were thumbing their noses in the face of God Almighty. They were rejecting the gift of an inheritance that He had promised to Abraham. The land was theirs by right. But now, they were declaring their intention to return to slavery rather than obey the word of their gracious deliverer. They were rejecting the will of the One who had redeemed them from captivity and refusing to believe that He could provide them with victory over their enemies. And they were about to learn just how deadly their decision would be.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Forgetfulness and Faithlessness

1 And the people complained in the hearing of the Lord about their misfortunes, and when the Lord heard it, his anger was kindled, and the fire of the Lord burned among them and consumed some outlying parts of the camp. Then the people cried out to Moses, and Moses prayed to the Lord, and the fire died down. So the name of that place was called Taberah, because the fire of the Lord burned among them.

Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”

Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its appearance like that of bdellium. The people went about and gathered it and ground it in handmills or beat it in mortars and boiled it in pots and made cakes of it. And the taste of it was like the taste of cakes baked with oil. When the dew fell upon the camp in the night, the manna fell with it.

10 Moses heard the people weeping throughout their clans, everyone at the door of his tent. And the anger of the Lord blazed hotly, and Moses was displeased. 11 Moses said to the Lord, “Why have you dealt ill with your servant? And why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? 12 Did I conceive all this people? Did I give them birth, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a nursing child,’ to the land that you swore to give their fathers? 13 Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they weep before me and say, ‘Give us meat, that we may eat.’ 14 I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me. 15 If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness.” Numbers 11:1-15 ESV

The people of Israel were on the move. After nearly a year encamped near Mount Sinai, they had watched as the cloud of God’s presence departed the tabernacle, indicating His desire for them to break camp and continue their journey to the land of Canaan. They had followed His instructions and methodically made their way to the wilderness of Paran where the cloud had come to rest.

But it wasn’t long before the obedient children of God became disgruntled and obstinate. Their willingness to follow God’s leading came to a quick end as soon as they encountered any kind of discomfort or dissatisfaction. And this was not the first time they had expressed their displeasure with God. A year earlier, when they were leaving Egypt after their 400 years of captivity, they found themselves in an unexpected and highly uncomfortable predicament. After Pharaoh had finally agreed to release them, they followed Moses into the wilderness and found themselves on the shore of the Red Sea.

When Pharaoh finally let the people go, God did not lead them along the main road that runs through Philistine territory, even though that was the shortest route to the Promised Land. God said, “If the people are faced with a battle, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led them in a roundabout way through the wilderness toward the Red Sea. Thus the Israelites left Egypt like an army ready for battle. – Exodus 13:17-18 NLT

God had led them to that very spot. It had been His will that they arrive on the banks of the sea just as Pharaoh and his army were bearing down on them. It seems that Pharaoh had experienced a change of heart and decided to force the Israelites back into slavery. So, when the people found themselves with their backs to the sea and the army of Egypt bearing down on them, they responded to Moses in anger.

“Why did you bring us out here to die in the wilderness? Weren’t there enough graves for us in Egypt? What have you done to us? Why did you make us leave Egypt? Didn’t we tell you this would happen while we were still in Egypt? We said, ‘Leave us alone! Let us be slaves to the Egyptians. It’s better to be a slave in Egypt than a corpse in the wilderness!’” – Exodus 14:11-12 NLT

Yet, despite their complaining, God miraculously delivered them. He had Moses part the waters of the Red Sea and they crossed over on dry ground, and the cloud of God’s presence kept the Egyptians at bay until the very last Israelite had made it to the eastern shore of the sea. Then, as Pharaoh’s army attempted to pursue them, “the waters returned and covered all the chariots and charioteers—the entire army of Pharaoh. Of all the Egyptians who had chased the Israelites into the sea, not a single one survived” (Exodus 14:28 NLT).

Their miraculous crossing and the destruction of the Egyptians made an impact on the Israelites.

When the people of Israel saw the mighty power that the Lord had unleashed against the Egyptians, they were filled with awe before him. They put their faith in the Lord and in his servant Moses. – Exodus 14:31 NLT

Now, more than a year later, it appears that their faith had run out. Once again, they find themselves struggling with discontentment concerning God’s will for them. They were not happy with their circumstances and so they began to complain to Moses once again.

Soon the people began to complain about their hardship, and the Lord heard everything they said. – Numbers 11:1 NLT

Their year-long hiatus at Mount Sinai had made them lazy and unprepared for the difficulties of traveling through the wilderness. So, the journey from Sinai to Paran left them disgruntled and dissatisfied with God’s plan for them. They were unhappy and more than willing to voice their displeasure. But again, this was not the first time the Israelites had become disenchanted with God’s will for them.

Three days after their miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, they found themselves in the desert of Shur, a barren place where water was scarce. When they finally discovered an oasis, its water was contaminated and undrinkable. This disappointing outcome led the people to direct their anger at Moses.

Then the people complained and turned against Moses. “What are we going to drink?” they demanded. – Exodus 15:24 NLT

But God directed Moses to a particular piece of wood that, when thrown in the spring, “made the water good to drink” (Exodus 15:25 NLT). Having temporarily satiated the thirst of His dissatisfied people, God then led them to another oasis “where they found twelve springs and seventy palm trees” (Exodus 15:27 NLT). He provided for all their needs. And He even “set before them the following decree as a standard to test their faithfulness to him” (Exodus 15:25 NLT).

“If you will listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in his sight, obeying his commands and keeping all his decrees, then I will not make you suffer any of the diseases I sent on the Egyptians; for I am the Lord who heals you.” – Exodus 15:26 NLT

All God required of His people was that they remain faithful and obedient. In return, He promised to provide for and protect them. They would never go without. That doesn’t mean they would never experience difficulties along the way. But by trusting God, they would get to see His providential hand providing for their every need.

Yet, a year later, they exhibited the same stubborn tendency to grouse and complain at the slightest inconvenience, and God heard everything they said. As a result, “his anger was kindled, and the fire of the Lord burned among them and consumed some outlying parts of the camp” (Numbers 11:1 ESV). It’s unclear whether anyone actually died in this conflagration or whether it was only meant to get their attention. Whatever this “fire” was, it had its intended effect, producing fear in the hearts of the Israelites.

…the people screamed to Moses for help, and when he prayed to the Lord, the fire stopped. – Numbers 11:2 NLT

But while the fire died down, their complaining did not. It wasn’t long before another round of grievances made their way to the ears of God. It seems that the foreigners who had chosen to accompany the Israelites when they left Egypt had grown disenchanted with the manna that God had provided for them. One month after the Israelites departed Egypt, the people had expressed their displeasure to Moses and Aaron over the lack of food.

“If only the Lord had killed us back in Egypt,” they moaned. “There we sat around pots filled with meat and ate all the bread we wanted. But now you have brought us into this wilderness to starve us all to death.” – Exodus 16:3 NLT

But God heard their complaints and responded in grace and mercy. Rather than sending fire as a punishment for their ungratefulness, He determined to shower them with manna.

“I have heard the Israelites’ complaints. Now tell them, ‘In the evening you will have meat to eat, and in the morning you will have all the bread you want. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.’” – Exodus 16:12 NLT

God fed them. He miraculously met their physical needs with spiritual food. No one knew exactly what manna was. But it provided them with the strength and stamina to continue their journey to the land of Canaan. And God would provide it every day for over 40 years.

So the people of Israel ate manna for forty years until they arrived at the land where they would settle. They ate manna until they came to the border of the land of Canaan. – Exodus 16:35 NLT

Yet, just a year after having left Egypt, the people were complaining about the monotonous menu of manna.

“Oh, for some meat!” they exclaimed. “We remember the fish we used to eat for free in Egypt. And we had all the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic we wanted. But now our appetites are gone. All we ever see is this manna!” – Numbers 11:4-6 NLT

They returned God’s grace and mercy with ungratefulness and dissatisfaction. They didn’t like God’s culinary skills. They wanted a more varied and appetizing selection of menu options. In their faulty imaginations, they recalled enjoying a much more diverse and appealing range of food choices back in Egypt. They conveniently forgot the part about slavery and making bricks without straw. They left out the persecution and pain they had experienced during their 400 years of captivity. Driven by their physical appetites, they conjured up memories of their halcyon days in Egypt – which were nothing more than figments of their imaginations.

And, once again, their complaints reached the ears of Moses and God.

Moses heard all the families standing in the doorways of their tents whining, and the Lord became extremely angry. – Numbers 11:10 NLT

But this time, it’s Moses who displays his anger with the people and expressed his frustration with God.

“Why are you treating me, your servant, so harshly? Have mercy on me! What did I do to deserve the burden of all these people? Did I give birth to them? Did I bring them into the world? Why did you tell me to carry them in my arms like a mother carries a nursing baby? How can I carry them to the land you swore to give their ancestors? Where am I supposed to get meat for all these people? They keep whining to me, saying, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I can’t carry all these people by myself! The load is far too heavy! If this is how you intend to treat me, just go ahead and kill me. Do me a favor and spare me this misery!” – Numbers 11:11-15 NLT

Moses was not a happy camper. For more than a year he had been attempting to lead a people who were inflexible and incorrigible. Nothing seemed to make them happy, and he was at his wit’s end. He had had enough of their constant complaining and expressed his frustration to God. The burden of caring for these people had taken its toll and he boldly conveyed his frustration to God. In fact, Moses seems to blame God for the whole state of affairs. He shakes his fist in the face of God and, essentially, accuses Him of abandonment. According to Moses, God had placed all the burden of leading the nation of Israel on his back, and he was overwhelmed by it all. He was tapped out and ready to throw in the towel.

Moses was suffering the same condition as the people he claimed to be leading. He had taken his eyes off of God. He no longer recognized the sovereign hand of God over his life and had lost sight of God’s provision for all his needs. As a result, he had wrongly assumed responsibility for the well-being of God’s people. Moses had ceased to be a conduit of God’s blessing and had begun to believe he was expected to be the source of blessing. But when God had given the people the manna to eat, He had told them it would be a sign of His power and provision.

Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.” – Exodus 16:12 NLT

Yet, Moses and the people had lost sight of that fact. The people had made a god out of food, and Moses had mistakenly placed himself in the place of God. But God was about to correct those mistakes.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Don’t Judge by the Numbers

1 The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying, “Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, by clans, by fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male, head by head. From twenty years old and upward, all in Israel who are able to go to war, you and Aaron shall list them, company by company. And there shall be with you a man from each tribe, each man being the head of the house of his fathers. And these are the names of the men who shall assist you. From Reuben, Elizur the son of Shedeur; from Simeon, Shelumiel the son of Zurishaddai; from Judah, Nahshon the son of Amminadab; from Issachar, Nethanel the son of Zuar; from Zebulun, Eliab the son of Helon; 10 from the sons of Joseph, from Ephraim, Elishama the son of Ammihud, and from Manasseh, Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur; 11 from Benjamin, Abidan the son of Gideoni; 12 from Dan, Ahiezer the son of Ammishaddai; 13 from Asher, Pagiel the son of Ochran; 14 from Gad, Eliasaph the son of Deuel; 15 from Naphtali, Ahira the son of Enan.” 16 These were the ones chosen from the congregation, the chiefs of their ancestral tribes, the heads of the clans of Israel. Numbers 1:1-16 ESV

The book of Numbers is the fourth book of the Pentateuch, which contains the first five books of the Bible. According to verse 1, the author of Numbers was none other than Moses, the man whom God had chosen to deliver the nation of Israel from their captivity in Egypt. Over the centuries, there have been some who have attempted to discount Moses as the author of Numbers and the rest of the books of the Pentateuch. But the Scriptures seem to consistently support the Mosaic authorship of these books sometimes referred to as the Law of Moses.

These are the stages of the people of Israel, when they went out of the land of Egypt by their companies under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Moses wrote down their starting places, stage by stage, by command of the Lord, and these are their stages according to their starting places. – Numbers 33:2 ESV

Jesus believed Moses to be the one who recorded the content found in the Law of Moses. In one of His post-resurrection appearances to His followers, Jesus told them:

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” – Luke 24:44 ESV

After first having met Jesus, Phillip declared his belief that he had met the Messiah, the one whom Moses had written about in the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” – John 1:45 ESV

It is likely that Moses recorded the books of the Pentateuch late in his life as he prepared the people of Israel to enter into the land of Canaan, promised to them by God as their inheritance. The Pentateuch contains the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Each was penned by Moses under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and contains a unique historical record of the people of Israel. Genesis covers the creation of the universe, the fall of man, the dispersal of the nations, and the eventual call of Abram, who would become the father of the Hebrew people. Genesis tells the story of their eventual captivity in Egypt, then the book of Exodus reveals how God used Moses to deliver them from slavery and lead them across the wilderness to the land of promise. The book of Leviticus continues the historical record of Israel’s wilderness wanderings, outlining how God provided His people with the Law and gave specific instructions to the tribe of Levi regarding their God-ordained role to serve as priests and caretakers of the Tabernacle.

The book of Deuteronomy might be considered a collection of sermons or messages that Moses gave to the people of Israel as they prepared to enter the land of Canaan. He would not be joining them as they crossed over the River Jordan, so he wanted to make sure they understood the gravity of what they were about to do. He had led them for more than 40 years and was determined for them to fulfill their God-ordained occupation of the land.

The Book of Numbers essentially bridges the gap between the Israelites receiving the Law (Exodus and Leviticus) and preparing them to enter the Promised Land (Deuteronomy and Joshua). The title of the book is based on the two censuses taken by Moses. Chapters 1-4 record the first “numbering” of the people and chapter 26 records the second. The first 25 chapters of Numbers cover the exploits of the first generation of Israelites who successfully escaped their captivity in Egypt. Under the leadership of Moses, they eventually made their to the border of Canaan but refused to obey God’s command and cross over the Jorden to take possession of the land. Fearing the more formidable nations that occupied Canaan, they turned away and were forced to wander in the wilderness until that rebellious generation died off. The final chapters of Numbers record what happened to the next generation of Israelites. The themes of obedience, rebellion,  repentance, and blessing run through the entire book.

The book of Numbers opens up with the first generation of Israel in the second month of their second year since their escape from Egypt. Chapters 7-10 provide a recap of what happened prior to that point. But the entire book spans a period of nearly 40 years, chronicling what happened to the people of Israel from the time they refused to enter the land the first time until the second generation arrived on the shore of the Jordan River again.

We know from the book of Exodus, that during their 400-year stay in the land of Egypt, the number of Jacob’s descendants had expanded greatly. When Jacob and his family initially entered the land to escape a famine in Canaan, there had only been 70 of them (Exodus 1:5). But during their time of captivity, their numbers had increased significantly.

the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. – Exodus 1:7 ESV

It was their vast numbers that caused Pharaoh to begin a campaign of persecution against the Israelites designed to demoralize them and diminish their numbers.

“Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel. So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves. – Exodus 1:9-14 ESV

He even tried to reduce their numbers through infanticide, ordering the Hebrew midwives to execute all male babies born among the Jews.

“When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” – Exodus 1:16 ESV

But these faithful women refused to obey Pharaoh’s command and the number of Israelites continue to increase. Some 430 years later, when Moses led the nation of Israel out of Egypt, they could have been well over a million in number.

And the people of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. – Exodus 12:37 ESV

The 600,000 number would have been adult males, many of whom would have been married with children. So, it would not be a stretch of the imagination to estimate a crowd of more than a million people making their way out of Egypt and into the wilderness. Some have estimated that Israel had grown to be 2.4 million in number.

So, the book of Numbers opens up with a census, designed to determine exactly how many Israelites there were according to their tribes. But Moses was particularly interested in how many warriors he had at his disposal because they would be needed when the time came to enter the land and destroy the nations that lived there.

“From the whole community of Israel, record the names of all the warriors by their clans and families. List all the men twenty years old or older who are able to go to war. You and Aaron must register the troops, and you will be assisted by one family leader from each tribe. – Numbers 1:2-4 NLT

One of the important points to remember is that Moses was under the impression that they were just weeks away from the conquest of the land. He had no way of knowing that the people were going to refuse to obey God’s command and take possession of the land. He was taking a census in order to determine the size of his army and to prepare his forces for the inevitable battles they would face in occupying the land of promise.

According to verse 46, the census revealed a sizeable force of 603,550 men. This number would have consisted of all males over the age of 20 and Moses must have been encouraged by the size of the army God had provided. Their future looked bright. Their success seemed to be assured. With an army of this size and God’s help, the land of Canaan was as good as conquered. Or was it?

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Repentance, Reconciliation, and Restoration

13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.

19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 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 5:13-20 ESV

Back in the previous chapter, James wrote, “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2 ESV). He accused his readers of two sins. The first had to do with allowing their unfulfilled passions to turn into covetousness and greed. Unable to get what they believed to be rightfully theirs, they were attempting to get it by force, even expressing a willingness to kill for it. But that raises the second sin of which they were guilty. They never made their request known to God.

These people were fighting amongst themselves because their unmet desires were producing uncontrollable jealousy and envy. Rather than expressing their so-called needs to God, they were taking matters into their own hands. And, on those rare occasions when they did manage to ask God for what they craved, they did so with the wrong motives.

You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. – James 4:3 ESV

James accused them of spiritual adultery because they displayed a greater love for the things of this world than they did for God. The things they so greatly desired were of more value to them than their relationship with God.

In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul addressed a conflict between two women in the congregation.

Now I appeal to Euodia and Syntyche. Please, because you belong to the Lord, settle your disagreement. – Philippians 4:2 NLT

These two godly women were experiencing some kind of personal disagreement that had become apparent to the rest of the church members. And Paul called on the church to come to their aid so that their dispute could be resolved and their relationship restored. Then he addressed the entire faith community.

Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice! Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do. Remember, the Lord is coming soon. Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:4-7 NLT

There was no place for quarreling and fighting within the body of Christ. Jealousy and greed should not exist among believers because we serve a God who is fully capable of meeting all our needs. But we must never forget that God is not obligated to fulfill all our desires. At times, we treat God like a cosmic genie in a bottle by demanding that He give us whatever we wish for. But God does not exist to obey our every command and to fulfill our deepest cravings and desires.

Notice that Paul told the Philippians to make their requests known to God, but he didn’t promise them that all those requests would be fulfilled. Instead, he assured them that God would give them the one thing they needed more than anything else: peace of mind. God would replace their craving with contentment. Oftentimes, the things for which we ask God reveal that our hope is misplaced. We wrongly believe that our answered prayer will bring us joy, fulfillment, and satisfaction. If we’re sick, we become convinced that healing is what we need most. If we are having financial difficulties, a sudden influx of cash will surely make all our problems go away. If we’re experiencing a relational conflict, we convince ourselves that if God would only change the other person, everything would be better.

But prayer is less about getting what we want from God than it is about us learning to trust Him. Prayer is the believer’s primary form of communication with the Father and it is intended to be a conversation, not a monologue. Too often, we craft our list of petitions and methodically communicate them to God, fully expecting Him to fulfill each and every request. And we base our belief in this make-a-wish approach to prayer on the words of Jesus. After all, didn’t He say, “Ask, and it will be given to you…” (Matthew 7:7 NLT)? And wasn’t it Jesus who promised, “If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you” (Matthew 18:19 NLT)? And didn’t He tell His disciples, “whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Matthew 21:22 NLT)?

But Jesus was not offering His followers carte blanche when it came to prayer. He wasn’t providing them with a blank check that obligated Him to give them whatever their heart desired. There is a sense in which our requests need to line up with the will of God and demonstrate faith in His greatness and goodness. We are not free to dictate to God what we have determined to be best for our lives. He is sovereign over all things, including our desires. Only He knows what we truly need at any given moment. In making our requests known to God, we are expressing our hearts and desires to Him, but we are also placing our hope in His providential plans for our lives. We are trusting Him to do what He deems best.

And that is the gist of James’ closing words to his audience. He wraps up his letter by calling them to pray. Rather than fighting amongst themselves, they were to take their problems to the Lord. If they were suffering, they were to pray rather than figure out ways to get out of it on their own. On the other hand, if they were experiencing joy and contentment, they were to offer up prayers of praise to God for His goodness and grace. If they were experiencing poor health, they were to call on the elders of the church and seek their wisdom and prayers.

James seems to be suggesting that there are some illnesses that are spiritually related. His instructions to call on the elders would indicate that there are times when there is more to a physical illness than meets the eye. Verse 15 seems to suggest that the one who is suffering may have unconfessed sin in their life?

Such a prayer offered in faith will heal the sick, and the Lord will make you well. And if you have committed any sins, you will be forgiven. – James 5:15 NLT

We must be careful to not assume that all sickness is the result of sin. That was a false perception of Jesus’ own disciples. One day, they encountered a man who had been blind since birth, and they asked Jesus, “why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins?” (John 9:2 NLT).

They wrongly assumed that this man’s condition had been the direct result of somebody’s sin. He was suffering because someone had offended God. But Jesus corrected their misconception by stating, “It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins…This happened so the power of God could be seen in him” (John 9:3 NLT). According to Jesus, this man’s blindness was nothing more than a perfect opportunity to display God’s power through healing, and Jesus went on to restore his sight. 

But James makes it clear that there can be a direct correlation between continued sickness and unconfessed sin.

Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. – James 5:16 NLT

James has already accused this congregation of committing spiritual adultery. They were displaying jealousy and greed, fighting and quarreling amongst themselves, and manifesting an inordinate love for the things of this world. They had offended one another. They were guilty of treating one another with contempt and unjust discrimination. Feelings had been hurt. The poor had been mistreated. The name of Christ had been damaged in the community. And repentance, reconciliation, and restitution was required.

And James insists that their less-than-ideal spiritual state could be changed for the better – through the power of prayer. And he used the story of the Old Testament prophet, Elijah, as an example.

Elijah was as human as we are, and yet when he prayed earnestly that no rain would fall, none fell for three and a half years! Then, when he prayed again, the sky sent down rain and the earth began to yield its crops. – James 5:17-18 NLT

This story ties into James’ earlier statement: “The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results” (James 5:16 NLT). Elijah was a righteous man who made his request known to God and his prayer was answered – in a spectacular and supernatural way. This one man, praying in tune with the will of God, had been able to summon a three-and-a-half-year drought. And then, at just the right time and in keeping with God’s will, Elijah brought down much-needed rain.

In order to understand James’ use of Elijah as an example of a righteous and prayerful man, you have to go back to 1 Kings. There we can see the spiritual conditions that led Elijah to pray for a devastating drought, and it all had to do with the ungodly leadership of the king.

Ahab son of Omri began to rule over Israel in the thirty-eighth year of King Asa’s reign in Judah. He reigned in Samaria twenty-two years. But Ahab son of Omri did what was evil in the Lord’s sight, even more than any of the kings before him. And as though it were not enough to follow the sinful example of Jeroboam, he married Jezebel, the daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians, and he began to bow down in worship of Baal. First Ahab built a temple and an altar for Baal in Samaria. Then he set up an Asherah pole. He did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than any of the other kings of Israel before him. – 1 Kings 16:29-33 NLT

The drought was intended as punishment for the unfaithfulness of Ahab. The king had sinned against God by leading the people of Israel to commit idolatry. By withholding rain, God was punishing His rebellious people and encouraging them to repent and return to Him. And the restoration of the rain was God’s gracious attempt to remind them of His goodness.

And James ends his letter with a similar call to repentance and restoration, so that the church to whom he wrote might experience the grace and goodness of God.

My dear brothers and sisters, if someone among you wanders away from the truth and is brought back, you can be sure that whoever brings the sinner back from wandering will save that person from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins. – James 5:19-20 NLT

It’s clear from the rest of the letter, that there were some who had wandered away from the truth of God’s Word. They were living apart from the will of God and damaging the spiritual well-being of the body of Christ. And it was up to the entire congregation to take seriously the sin within their midst and call one another to repentance and reconciliation. Because unconfessed sin can result in spiritual death or separation from God and the community of faith. But repentance can bring forgiveness and restoration.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Living With the End in Mind

Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. 10 As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

12 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 5:7-12 ESV

It’s all about perspective. If you expect this life to be a constant source of joy and contentment, you will always be disappointed with the results. Yes, Jesus did promise His disciples He came to bring them abundant life (John 10:10), but He also warned them that their earthly lives would be difficult.

“…the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when you will be scattered, each one going his own way, leaving me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” – John 16:32-33 NLT

Their lives on earth would be full and abundant because of Him. Their ability to have peace in the midst of troubles and trials would be a result of their relationship with Him and the promise of eternal life made possible through Him. The apostle Paul discovered the secret of enjoying a life full of joy and contentment even while experiencing all the difficulties that come with living in a fallen world.

I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. – Philippians 4:11-13 NLT

His strength to endure suffering and enjoy contentment came from His relationship with Christ. Paul wasn’t looking for satisfaction and security from the things of this world. He didn’t rely on circumstances for his joy or sense of self-worth because he knew that his hope was in Christ.

Yet, James knew that the believers to whom he wrote had not yet learned Paul’s lesson on contentment. In fact, James had to call them out for having placed their hope in the things of this world. Their insatiable desire for earthly pleasures had resulted in discontentment that led to division and strife.

What is causing the quarrels and fights among you? Don’t they come from the evil desires at war within you? You want what you don’t have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war to take it away from them. Yet you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure. – James 4:1-3 NLT

So, James demands that they learn to be patient. They have their sights set on the wrong thing. Rather than seeking satisfaction from the things of this world, they were to focus their attention on the return of Christ. This life was never intended to be the end-all. Their earthly existence was intended to be a temporal state that would end in death and their resurrection, or culminate with the Lord’s return and their final glorification. Either way, their hope was to be future-based.

And James provides them with a simple analogy to help them understand their need for maintaining a hope-filled perspective.

Consider the farmers who patiently wait for the rains in the fall and in the spring. They eagerly look for the valuable harvest to ripen. You, too, must be patient. Take courage, for the coming of the Lord is near. – James 5:7-8 NLT

A farmer understands that the harvest for which he hopes is dependent upon factors that are out of his hands. As he waits for the day when he can reap the fruit of his labors, he must exhibit patient endurance and faithful hope in the God of the harvest. And in the same way, a believer must remember that his “harvest” is in the hands of God as well. His hope for a truly abundant life is based on the promise of the Lord’s return. And Paul reminds us that present suffering is no match for future glory.

what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. – Romans 8:18 NLT

But waiting requires patience. And while we wait, we’re not to grumble and complain about our lot in life. There’s no place for greed or jealousy in the life of the believer because we are each an heir of the Kingdom of God. As the apostle Paul told the believers in Philippi, we have all the riches of His glory at our disposal.

…this same God who takes care of me will supply all your needs from his glorious riches, which have been given to us in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:19 NLT

A believer who makes a habit of complaining about their earthly circumstances reveals that they expect heaven on earth. They want the promise of abundant life fulfilled in the here-and-now rather than the hereafter. And James warns against expecting the good life in this life.

the Judge is standing at the door. – James 5:9 ESV

One of the things we have to remember is that the return of Christ will also bring God’s judgment upon the wicked and unbelieving. James is not suggesting that believers who complain and judge one another run the risk of forfeiting their salvation and facing eternal judgment. He is simply stating that those of true saving faith will not exhibit such godless characteristics. The apostle Paul wrote an extended explanation of how the believer’s life should differ from that of a non-believer.

Since you judge others for doing these things, why do you think you can avoid God’s judgment when you do the same things? Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?

But because you are stubborn and refuse to turn from your sin, you are storing up terrible punishment for yourself. For a day of anger is coming, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. He will judge everyone according to what they have done. He will give eternal life to those who keep on doing good, seeking after the glory and honor and immortality that God offers. But he will pour out his anger and wrath on those who live for themselves, who refuse to obey the truth and instead live lives of wickedness. There will be trouble and calamity for everyone who keeps on doing what is evil—for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. But there will be glory and honor and peace from God for all who do good—for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism. – Romans 2:3-11 NLT

James was calling his audience to repentance. He was warning them that their current behavior was out of step with God’s will and they needed to refocus their attention on the promise of the Lord’s return. And to help them understand their need for patient endurance, James provided them with two examples from their own Scriptures. First, he reminded them that every prophet of God had been required to suffer while doing His will. Their words were rejected and their lives were subjected to all manner of distress while they faithfully fulfilled their God-ordained mission. But their motivation was the reward that awaited them for faithful service to their Lord and Master.

Secondly, James brings up the story of Job, the great saint of God who suffered great loss and endured unimaginable pain in his earthly life. But James reminded them that, despite the seemingly unjust nature of his suffering, Job kept trusting God and was ultimately rewarded.

For instance, you know about Job, a man of great endurance. You can see how the Lord was kind to him at the end, for the Lord is full of tenderness and mercy. – James 5:11 NLT

Even when Job’s wife encouraged him to curse God and die, he was able to respond with confidence in the ultimate goodness of God.

“You talk like a foolish woman. Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” – Job 2:10 NLT

Job kept trusting in the promises of God. He didn’t rejoice in his pain or refrain from seeking an explanation for his suffering, but he never stopped believing in the integrity and righteousness of God. And, ultimately, his faith was rewarded.

“James has been concerned to help believers to overcome the tendency to react like the world to the injustices heaped on them by the world. The world, by its very nature antagonistic to God and His kingdom, will continue to oppose God’s people. But if these truths grip the hearts of His people, it will enable them to overcome the spirit of worldliness by refraining from a worldly reaction to the world’s injustices.” – D. Edmond Hiebert, The Epistle of James: Tests of a Living Faith

James ends this section with a warning against making rash or unnecessary oaths.

But most of all, my brothers and sisters, never take an oath, by heaven or earth or anything else. Just say a simple yes or no, so that you will not sin and be condemned. – James 5:12 NLT

In essence, James is warning about making bargains with God. The idea behind oath-making was a promise made to God that came with expectations. You might refer to it as a quid pro quo. It would be like saying to God, “If you’ll bless me with great wealth, I will faithfully serve you all my life.”

It reminds me of the character, Wimpy, from the Popeye comic strip. He was famous for saying, “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” In his attempt to fulfill his passion for burgers, he was willing to make an oath he never intended to fulfill. And James warns his readers against practicing such behavior with God. It is a dangerous thing to try and bargain with God. He doesn’t make deals. And this admonition seems t tie in with an earlier statement made by James.

…you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure. – James 4:2-3 NLT

Don’t try to make deals with God. He knows your heart and He can see through your thinly veiled promise to keep your end of the bargain. Instead, rest in His faithfulness and let your requests be based on His goodness. He knows what is best for you and you can trust Him to provide all that you need. And, in the meantime, keep your focus on the future, remembering that eternal life is the ultimate form of the good life.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Subtle Snare of Self-Sufficiency

1 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you. James 5:1-6 ESV

It would seem that much of the conflict within the congregation to which James wrote had to do with the haves and the have-nots. There was obviously some kind of tension taking place between the wealthier members and those who were of less fortunate means. James has already addressed this cause of disunity several times in his letter.

Believers who are poor have something to boast about, for God has honored them. And those who are rich should boast that God has humbled them. They will fade away like a little flower in the field. The hot sun rises and the grass withers; the little flower droops and falls, and its beauty fades away. In the same way, the rich will fade away with all of their achievements. – James 1:9-11 NLT

In chapter two, he addressed their problem of showing partiality to the rich while treating the poor with contempt. He even presented them with a hypothetical scenario that was probably more fact than fiction.

suppose someone comes into your meeting dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in dirty clothes. If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, “You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor”—well, doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives? – James 2:1-4 NLT

James pointed out that those who attempted to flatter the wealthier members of their community were doing so for the wrong reasons. They were motivated by greed and hopeful of winning over the very ones who were making their lives miserable.

…the rich who oppress you and drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who slander Jesus Christ, whose noble name you bear? – James 2:6-7 NLT

It seems that some of the believers were inviting their affluent oppressors to visit their worship services where they treated them like celebrities. But in doing so, they were discriminating against the poor whom God had chosen to extend His grace and mercy. In fact, James reminded them that God had chosen the poor to be rich in faith. Not only that, they stood to inherit the Kingdom God had promised to all those who love him (James 2:5).

In chapter four, James addressed the curse of self-confidence. He pointed out that there were those who somehow believed that they were in control of their own lives.

Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” – James 4:13 NLT

This describes a person of means, someone with the financial resources to relocate to another city in order to set up a new business. Only a person with substantial capital could afford such a costly and potentially risky proposition. But just because they have the financial wherewithal to pull off such a grandiose plan doesn’t mean they should. James warns that their sense of self-sufficiency was a bit presumptuous because they had no way of knowing what the future held.

How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. – James 4:14 NLT

The problem with having ample financial resources is that it can create a sense of autonomy and an attitude of independence from God. James wanted the wealthy to understand that their capacity to make things happen could cause them to replace God’s will with their own, and that would be a risky proposition. So, he encouraged them to put their money and their means at God’s disposal, to do with as He saw fit.

What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” Otherwise you are boasting about your own pretentious plans, and all such boasting is evil. – James 4:15-16 NLT

It was Jesus who said, “No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money” (Matthew 6:24 NLT).

Money is amoral and not inherently evil. But it can become a source of temptation and a means of living outside the will of God. Rather than waiting on God to confirm His will through the provision of resources, the wealthy can formulate and fund their plans independently. It is this propensity for prideful self-sufficiency that James addresses in this section of his letter. In a rather prophetic and unapologetically harsh tone, James calls out the privileged class. He doesn’t seem to be differentiating between believers and unbelievers but is pointing out the fate of all who use their wealth for unjust purposes. And he is unsparing in his criticism.

Look here, you rich people: Weep and groan with anguish because of all the terrible troubles ahead of you. Your wealth is rotting away, and your fine clothes are moth-eaten rags. Your gold and silver are corroded. The very wealth you were counting on will eat away your flesh like fire. This corroded treasure you have hoarded will testify against you on the day of judgment. – James 5:1-3 NLT

To a certain degree, James is also addressing the have-nots within the local congregation by opening their eyes to the less-attractive side of financial independence. They all aspired to have more. They longed to experience all the pleasures and benefits that money could provide. But James wanted them to understand that wealth could be both a blessing and a curse. It is as if he had in mind the words that Paul wrote to Timothy.

…people who long to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows. But you, Timothy, are a man of God; so run from all these evil things. Pursue righteousness and a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness. – 1 Timothy 6:9-11 NLT

With wealth comes great responsibility. And the rich to whom James referred were guilty of abusing their responsibilities by taking advantage of the less fortunate. They were lining their pockets by defrauding their employees. They were increasing their wealth by fleecing the poor and defenseless. But James warns them that their immoral and unethical actions had not gone unnoticed.

For listen! Hear the cries of the field workers whom you have cheated of their pay. The cries of those who harvest your fields have reached the ears of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. – James 5:4 NLT

This is a direct reference to the Mosaic law, where God warned His people against abusing their less-fortunate laborers.

“Never take advantage of poor and destitute laborers, whether they are fellow Israelites or foreigners living in your towns. You must pay them their wages each day before sunset because they are poor and are counting on it. If you don’t, they might cry out to the Lord against you, and it would be counted against you as sin.” – Deuteronomy 24:14-15 NLT

James is continuing to remind his readers that faith is always tied to behavior. That’s why had told them, “Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it” (James 4:17 NLT). To know the will of God and then fail to carry it out was nothing less than sin and worthy of His judgment. To claim to have faith in God but to live in disobedience to the will of God rendered your faith lifeless and impotent. There was no evidence of transformation. And regardless of whether someone was wealthy or poor, they had an obligation to demonstrate the sanctifying nature of their faith through acts of righteousness. In this passage, James is simply supporting what he said earlier in his letter.

So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless. – James 2:17 NLT

And James declares that the wealthy to whom he referred had more than proven the lifeless nature of their faith. Their works gave testimony to the worthlessness of their so-called faith in Christ.

You have spent your years on earth in luxury, satisfying your every desire. You have fattened yourselves for the day of slaughter. You have condemned and killed innocent people, who do not resist you. – James 5:5-6 NLT

James is merciless in his condemnation because of the serious nature of the problem. He seems to infer that the unethical actions of the wealthy had resulted in the deaths of innocent people. Whether James is speaking hyperbolically or literally is unclear. If these affluent landowners were guilty of underpaying their employees, it could have easily resulted in the starvation of some of the more destitute among them.

“. . . for day laborers it was very serious not to find work or not to be paid. For this reason James personifies the salary, seeing it as the very blood of the exploited workers crying out pitifully. The case was the same for the peasants. The peasants die because they pour out their strength in their work, but the fruit of their work does not come back to them. They cannot regain their strength because the rich withhold their salaries. Therefore James accuses the rich of condemning and killing the just (5:6).” – Elsa Tamez, The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without Works is Dead

Our behavior should be a reflection of our beliefs. The presence of wealth or poverty should not determine the nature of our lives. For the Christ follower, the indwelling Holy Spirit should be the motivating force behind our every action and activity. The apostle John provides a much-needed reminder that we should emulate Christ in all that we do. His love for us should show up in our love for others, and be evidenced by our willingness to use every resource at our disposal to benefit those around us.

We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person?

Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. Our actions will show that we belong to the truth, so we will be confident when we stand before God. – 1 John 3:16-19 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

His Will, Not Mine

11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?

13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. James 4:11-17 ESV

James had strong words for those who claimed to be Christ-followers but failed to live in obedience to God’s commands. That kind of behavior was unacceptable because saving faith always results in sanctification, the Spirit-empowered transformation of the believer into the likeness of Christ. The apostle Paul’s informed the believers in Thessalonica of his ongoing prayer for them:

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. – 1 Thessalonians 5:23

The New Living Translation words Paul’s request this way: “Now may the God of peace make you holy in every way…”

Both James and Paul had high expectations for the believers to whom they each ministered. There was no room for spiritual apathy or complacency. God’s gift of salvation was not intended to be viewed as a ticket that gained the holder entrance into some future state of glorification. While eternal life is the final reward for all those who place their faith in Christ, there is also the present reality of our ongoing transformation into the image of Christ.

Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth, who were primarily Gentiles, and reminded them that there had been a time when their hearts were incapable of seeing the truth. It was as if they had a veil over their eyes that prevented them from recognizing the gift being offered to them in Christ. Their condition had been just like that of the Jews in the days of Moses. He had delivered to them God’s law but they had been unable to understand or obey it.

…the people’s minds were hardened, and to this day whenever the old covenant is being read, the same veil covers their minds so they cannot understand the truth. And this veil can be removed only by believing in Christ. And this veil can be removed only by believing in Christ. Yes, even today when they read Moses’ writings, their hearts are covered with that veil, and they do not understand. – 2 Corinthians 3:14-15 NLT

Little had changed over the centuries. Even Paul, a Jew himself, recognized that his people still lived in a state of spiritual darkness, unable to see or receive the truth concerning Jesus as their Messiah and Savior. Then he reminds the Corinthians believers that they had come to faith in Christ because the Holy Spirit had removed the veil of ignorance and apathy.

But whenever someone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. – 2 Corinthians 3:16-18 NLT

Not only had they experienced freedom from sin and condemnation, but they had begun the process of transformation into the likeness of Christ. And all those who are being conformed to His image should reflect His character. That is the whole point behind James’ letter. He is demanding that his readers embrace the life of holiness to which they had been called by God. They were free in Christ, but they were not free to live as they pleased. Their behavior was to be in keeping with the Word of God. Obedience to God’s law was non-optional. And he made that point perfectly clear.

Don’t speak evil against each other, dear brothers and sisters. If you criticize and judge each other, then you are criticizing and judging God’s law. – James 4:11 NLT

And James appears to have the Mosaic Law in mind. He is calling believers to live in keeping with the commands of God as found in the book of Leviticus.

“Do not twist justice in legal matters by favoring the poor or being partial to the rich and powerful. Always judge people fairly.

“Do not spread slanderous gossip among your people.

“Do not stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is threatened. I am the Lord.

“Do not nurse hatred in your heart for any of your relatives. Confront people directly so you will not be held guilty for their sin.

“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against a fellow Israelite, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.

“You must obey all my decrees.” – Leviticus 19:15-19 NLT

While these commands had been given by God to the people of Israel as they made their way from Egypt to the promised land, James insists that they were still relevant and required for his 1st-Century audience. God’s will regarding the interpersonal interactions between His people remained unchanged. And James warns his readers against cherry-picking which laws they wanted to obey.

…your job is to obey the law, not to judge whether it applies to you. – James 4:11 NLT

In order for them to practice partiality and justify their fits of anger against one another, they were having to play fast and loose with God’s law. If nothing else, they were violating the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And they were disobeying the command of Christ.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” – Jonn 13:34 ESV

These people had made a habit out of judging one another. They were hyper-critical and harsh in their treatment of one another. But James warns them:

God alone, who gave the law, is the Judge. He alone has the power to save or to destroy. So what right do you have to judge your neighbor? – James 4:12 NLT

They were guilty of violating every command found in Leviticus 19:15-19. It was as if they had chosen to put back on the veil that the Spirit had removed. They were willingly closing their eyes to the truth of God’s Word and living in disobedience to His will for them.

In a sense, they were acting as if they were large and in charge. They had decided that they wanted to be the masters of their own fates and the captains of their own souls. And this shared sense of autonomy and self-determination was doing great damage to the body of Christ. And James warns them against trying to play god. Their desire to control their own fates was not only misguided but impossible. And James points out just how ludicrous their attempt at self-sovereignty really was.

Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. – James 4:13-14 NLT

Their power was limited and their ability to predict the future was laughable. While they could make grandiose plans, they had no idea what tomorrow would bring. In fact, they had no guarantee they would live long enough to see the next day. So, James provides them with an alternative perspective.

What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” Otherwise you are boasting about your own pretentious plans, and all such boasting is evil. – James 4:15-16 NLT

This all points back to the issue of holiness. As followers of Christ, they were to recognize their new status as children of God and citizens of the Kingdom. They were no longer of this world. They belonged to God and were expected to live according to His will and not their own. They could make plans, but they were to hold them loosely and always remember that those plans must be in keeping with God’s will.

The apostle Paul constantly encouraged believers to recognize their new identity in Christ.

Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body. – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 NLT

And Paul made it clear that this set-apart status as God’s temple applied to the corporate community of faith, not just the individual believer.

Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? – 1 Corinthians 3:16 NLT

The temple of God in Jerusalem had been set apart for His use. It was intended to be His earthly dwelling place. And it was the responsibility of the priests to maintain the holiness and purity of the temple through constant obedience to God’s laws. A believer’s body belongs to God. It is the temple or dwelling place of the Spirit of God. And God expects us to keep His house pure and set apart for His use. The same thing is true regarding the body of Christ, the church. According to Paul, it too is the temple of God and its holiness should be diligently maintained. That’s why James pleads, “Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world” (James 4:8 NLT).

They needed to do some serious house cleaning. They had allowed the temple of God to become impure and uninhabitable. Unconfessed sin had made God’s dwelling place unacceptable. And their individual battles with sin had done serious damage to the faith community. So, James closes out this chapter with a call to obedience.

Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it. – James 4:17 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Father Knows Best

1  What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. James 4:1-10 ESV

James ended the last chapter with the declaration, “where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:16 ESV). Now, he reveals what lies at the heart of the problem. He discloses the root cause behind the jealousy and selfish ambition that are wreaking havoc on the congregation to whom he is writing.

James appears to drop the pastoral tone of his letter and takes his readers to the proverbial woodshed with a strongly worded disciplinary message. He calls them out and airs their dirty laundry right in front of them. He has received word of their unhealthy penchant for quarreling and infighting and is more than a bit unhappy about it. As a congregation, they have allowed their love for the world to take precedence over their love for one another.

He has already dealt with their practice of showing partiality to the wealthy and influential within their fellowship. This blatant display of favoritism was rooted in greed and jealousy. While flattering and fawning over the well-to-do, they were dismissing and mistreating the less fortunate among them, all in a vain hope that the rich would somehow reward them for their actions. There was an ulterior motive behind their attempt to give the high-capacity donor the best seat in the sanctuary.

Evidently, their worship services had become a competitive event, with everyone jockeying for position and fighting for prominence. But, sadly, their infighting was a byproduct of a much more serious problem. They were suffering from a heart condition. James reveals that the cause behind their quarreling and fighting was internal, not external.

What is causing the quarrels and fights among you? Don’t they come from the evil desires at war within you? – James 4:1 NLT

The pleasures or desires to which James refers are evil because they drive human behavior until they are fulfilled. They are like an addiction that incessantly demands its needs be met, regardless of the price or consequences. These evil desires were worldly and out of step with the godly wisdom that God offered.

…the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. – James 3:17 NLT

But James describes a far different atmosphere within this local body of believers.

You want what you don’t have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war to take it away from them. – James 4:2 NLT

There was no evidence of peace, gentleness, mercy, sacrifice, or selflessness. Their “fellowship” had become a hotbed of strife and destructive self-promotion. Everyone was operating by the myopic mindset: What’s in it for me? The love of self had replaced God’s call to love one another. And James has already told them “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well” (James 2:8 ESV). Yet, they were actually making love of self their highest priority. All in a vain attempt to satisfy their individual cravings for power, pleasure, and prominence. And James rebuked them for trying to take matters into their own hands. Rather than taking their needs to the Lord, they were trying to fulfill them through worldly and ungodly means.

Yet you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. – James 4:3 NLT

Even when they did pray, they did so with the wrong motives. They asked God for those things that would bring them personal pleasure and satisfaction. And He refuses to answer those kinds of requests.

This is where James pulls no punches and displays his disgust for their ungodly behavior. He accuses them of spiritual adultery. They had proven themselves to be unfaithful to God by unashamedly flaunting their love affair with the world. And in doing so, they had made an enemy of God.

You adulterers! Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God? I say it again: If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God. – James 4:4 NLT

The philosophies of this world stand diametrically opposed to the will and the ways of God. Satan, the prince of this world, uses every weapon in his arsenal to tempt the child of God to abandon his relationship with the Almighty. His goal is to lure the believer into a life marked by unfaithfulness and spiritual infidelity. And he cleverly uses the pleasures and perks this world has to offer as bait. He knows we crave significance. He fully understands our need for self-importance. He is well aware of our insatiable appetite for forbidden fruit, and he is more than willing to offer us whatever our heart desires – in exchange for our affections.

When Satan tried to distract Jesus from His God-ordained mission, he made Him a highly tempting offer.

Then the devil took him up and revealed to him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. “I will give you the glory of these kingdoms and authority over them,” the devil said, “because they are mine to give to anyone I please. I will give it all to you if you will worship me.” – Luke 4:5-7 NLT

But Jesus refused. Instead, He reminded Satan that God alone is worthy of worship.

“You must worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” – Luke 4:8 NLT

And Jesus would later warn His disciples about the danger of duplicity in the life of a child of God.

“No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money. – Matthew 6:24 NLT

God longs to have an unbroken relationship with each of His children. He is a jealous God who will not tolerate infidelity and unfaithfulness. He has displayed His unparalleled love by sending His Son to die in our place and by placing His Spirit within our hearts. He has more than proven His love for us and expects us to return the favor. And through His grace, He makes it possible for us to say no to the overtures of the world and the temptations of the enemy.

But His grace is only available to the humble. The presence of pride blocks the flow of God’s grace and prevents us from experiencing the fulness of His love. As long as allow our love for the world to lure us away from God, we demonstrate that we really don’t need or want what He has to offer. Our desire for worldly pleasures indicates that He is not enough. He cannot satisfy our deepest longings or fulfill our insatiable passions. We know what we want and, if He won’t give it to us, we will seek it from the world. And the apostle John warns us about seeking our satisfaction from the things of this world.

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever. – 1 John 2:15-17 NLT

And James gives us the key to rejecting the enticing allure of the world: Humility.

So humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor. – James 4:7-10 NLT

God knows what is best. His will for us is always right and His love for us is always pure and selfless. But we have to trust Him and believe that He knows what we need. The world is about to steal our hearts and affections. It offers us a range of tempting treasures and pleasures designed to appeal to our sinful natures. But they are empty promises that never deliver what they offer. Instead of pleasure, they produce pain. In place of significance, they leave the gaping hole of futility and despair. Rather than joy, they produce a fleeting form of happiness that disappears as soon as the pleasure fades. But when we humble ourselves before the Lord and rest in His love for us, we find fulfillment, joy, satisfaction, and the immeasurable honor of being His child.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.