The Story of Jonah

I. Introduction

The Book of Jonah is one of the most famous bible stories. Children learn it, atheists scoff at it.  The basic story is well-known – Jonah is on a ship, gets tossed overboard, then he is swallowed by a whale where Jonah lives for 3 days, then the whale spits him out. Lots of lessons can be learned from the book of Jonah, including obedience… and fishing, but after spending the week studying the book of Jonah, I came away with a different lesson I’d like to share with you.

But first, we’re going to correct whatever misconceptions you may have about Jonah and the Whale because we’re not going to study the children’s fairy tale, we’re going to study scripture.

II. Jonah

Jonah is the fifth minor prophet in our bible and the book is almost completely a narrative, a story. Jonah lived after Elijah and Elisha and we are first introduced to him in 2 Kings 14:25. King Jeraboam did evil in the eyes of the Lord, and Jonah was his prophet.

Slide2.JPGThen we get to the book of Jonah that’s unique because, even though Jonah was a prophet, there are no prophecies in the book of Jonah. Just a story. But an important story, because Lord Jesus affirms that Jonah was a prophet and spent 3 days in the belly of a great fish.

And then…

III. Jonah 1 – Running from God

Jonah 1:1-3,

The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”

But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.

In Jonah chapter 1, Jonah attempts to flee from the Lord. I thought it odd that he’s physically fleeing from the Lord, as though Jehovah is only the God of Israel and not the rest of the world.

Jonah is comfortably at home when God speaks in his hometown of Gath Hepher in the region of Galilee. The LORD speaks to Jonah abruptly – the book opens with the Hebrew word for “Now” even though many translations omit it. God wants Jonah to go 550 miles to Nineveh preach “against” some of the most vicious people on earth. How vicious?

There are historical records from the kings of Nineveh that kings boasted of their atrocities – I pulled up an ancient stone relief from the British museum showing two Ninevite soldiers erecting a stake with an impaled, naked man on it. And here’s some translations from Ninevite records from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, and I’m not even going to read the worst –

“I flayed as many nobles as had rebelled against me and draped their skins over the pile of corpses; some I spread out within the pile, some I erected on stakes upon the pile … I captured soldiers alive erected them on stakes before their cities. … I flayed many right through my land and draped their skins over the walls.” … I cut off the heads of their fighters and built with them a tower before their city. I burnt their adolescent boys and girls.”

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So Nineveh was beyond nasty. It was evil. And Jonah wasn’t being asked just to go down to Nineveh and start a ministry, the Lord told Jonah to preach “against” them.

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Jonah immediately arose as the Lord commanded, but that’s about as far as his obedience went. Jonah went to the nearby town of Joppa and found a ship headed 2500 miles in the opposite direction. Jonah purchased his ticket and sailed away from the Lord’s direction.

I’m not exactly sure what Jonah was thinking here, running away from God. Certainly he was scared, but maybe he thought God lived in Israel and he could sail away. But maybe you and I have the same thoughts sometime, that maybe God won’t notice our sin. Maybe we can hide it. Maybe we can run away from it. Maybe God only sees us when we’re outside of our house or apartment. Let’s see in verses 4-6 how that worked out for Jonah –

Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.
But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.”

But God’s power is not limited to Israel’s borders. God sends Hurricane Harvey directly at the ship, terrifying the sailors. The sailors start dumping cargo to make the ship lighter and they start praying to *other* gods.

Talk about a witnessing opportunity here. A prophet on the ship full of sailors that are looking for God. But Jonah is sleeping, oblivious to the tragedy going on around him. And I cannot help but draw a parallel – we live in a world that is being torn apart by cultural storm and we, the adopted children of God, have a perfect opportunity to share the message of God’s love, but instead, so many of us are asleep while those around us are perishing.

I know my own actions this month are not enough. All month long I’ve been seeing “gay pride” advertisements, as if either sexual deviancy or lack of humility was something to be proud of. And every time I see a product that sports that deviant rainbow in blatant disregard for God’s promises from Noah, I cross another product or company off my list of places I’ll do business with. But it’s not nearly enough.

Jonah 1:7-9,

Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?”
He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”

So the sailors have prayed to every god they know of, and Jonah just stands there silent. The sailors are like, “Who is responsible for all this calamity?” And Jonah just stands there. The sailors are like, “Let’s throw lots to find out who is responsible!” And Jonah just stands there. Then they all cast their lots, and it points to Jonah. And Jonah is like, “,,,, [pause] … Ok, it was me.”

The sailors discover that the LORD is not just a local god or the god of the sea or even just the God of Israel, but the God. The God who made the sea. Their fear is real; even today, many peoples of the world hold the idea that all misfortune comes from some offense to some god. Jonah tells them the truth and tells them about Jehovah God.

Verse 10-12,

This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.)
The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?”
“Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”

When the sailors try to make things right, Jonah tells them to pick him up and throw him overboard. The next verses show the sailors instead try to return to land, but God whipped up the waves even more. So the sailors tossed Jonah over, the sea grew calm, and the sailors praised Jehovah God.

And Jonah? Verse 17,

Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

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If this was a made for television movie, we would break for a commercial here. Maybe for a seafood restaurant.

IV. Jonah 2 – Repenting toward God

In Jonah chapter 2, Jonah has a lot of time on his hands. Probably a lot of fish, too. Before being tossed overboard, the captain of the ship told Jonah to call on his God, but nowhere in chapter 1 does it say Jonah called on God. He acknowledged God, but didn’t pray to God. In the belly of the great fish, however, Jonah’s finally hit rock bottom. Well, not rock bottom. Ocean bottom. You know what I mean.

Jonah finally calls out to God in chapter 2 because Jonah is in trouble. When the Ninevites were in trouble, Jonah was silent. When the crew of the ship was in trouble, Jonah was silent. When Jonah’s in trouble oh man does Jonah remember to pray.

Jonah realizes how serious his condition is; he is in deep water. Physically and spiritually, and Jonah tells God that he feels far away from God. Jonah is in trouble, yet he also feels banished from God’s presence.

Jonah remembers the promise of God through Solomon in 1 Kings 8:46-49a,

“When [Your people] sin against You (for there is no one who does not sin), and You become angry with them and deliver them to the enemy, . . . and when they return to You with all their heart and with all their soul . . . and pray to You toward the land which You gave to their fathers, and the city which You have chosen and the temple which I have built for Your name; then hear.”

Slide10.JPGJonah turns toward the temple of God and prays, claiming God’s promise. In the belly of the fish, Jonah comes right up to the precipice of death, but God answers him in time, hearing his prayer and sparing his life. Why did God allow Jonah to experience the fear of death and the sensation of drowning? So that Jonah may empathize with the people of Nineveh.

Then at the end of Jonah chapter 2, Jonah realizes that God is showing him mercy and grace, Jonah promises to fulfill his calling from the LORD in verse 9 –

But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’

And the Lord’s response in verse 10 –

And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.

Jonah declares that salvation is of the LORD, and God speaks to the great fish to spit Jonah up on the shore.

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Two things here – one, the Lord spoke to Jonah, and the Lord spoke to the fish. Only the fish was obedient. And second, the Lord’s will be done, despite Jonah’s disobedience. But if Jonah had been obedient, he wouldn’t smell so much like fish.

V. Jonah 3 – Revival from God

So, laying on the shore, smelling like fish, what is the command from the Lord? Jonah 3:1-2.

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”

The word of the Lord that Jonah hears in Chapter 3 is almost identical to the word Jonah heard in Chapter 1. God gives a second chance to Jonah. God often gives second chances, amen and amen. No person can ever live fully in God’s will. We all fail, we all fall down. And God provides all of us that second chance. God is not obligated to use Jonah; this second chance is a precious gift.

So Jonah finally begins his mission trip. He arrives at Nineveh and begins preaching against the city for 3 days and proclaiming the message of the LORD to every area of the city. The city of Nineveh was laid out in a great square with twelve gates that was used for town meetings. It’s likely Jonah went to each gate and proclaimed the word at each gate and each marketplace.

His message is harsh and brief:

“In forty days Nineveh will be overthrown.”

Jonah offers no grace, he promises no deliverance, he proclaims swift and impending judgment.

Slide14.JPGAnd Jonah’s message is effective. The entire city believes this message from God and repents in sackcloth and ashes. Even the king of Nineveh got up off his throne, put on sackcloth and sat down in the dust.

God has been probably preparing the city for a long time, working in the hearts of the people. God just wanted Jonah to go to Ninevah and give the final word. Some scholars believe that just prior to Jonah’s arrival were two famines plus a total solar eclipse that occurred on June 15, 763 BC.

Whatever circumstances God used, their hearts were ready to hear this message of judgment.

And while Jonah’s message promised no mercy, the king of Nineveh looked to the God of heaven for mercy in Jonah 3:9, the king said,

“Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

And then in verse 10, God provides second chances:

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.

Nineveh is spared from destruction until the time of the prophet Nahum around 612 BC. This repentance also spares Israel, for this entire generation of Ninevites does not invade Israel again for many years.

VI. Jonah 4 – Resentment toward God

And how does Jonah feel about the city being spared? You would think Jonah would say God’s will had been done and offer thanks for saving the lives of so many people. Jonah 4:1-3,

But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

The story of Jonah closes in a surprising way. Jonah isn’t joyful. Jonah confesses to the Lord that the real reason Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh was because Jonah wanted the town to be destroyed, and he’s frustrated that God showed mercy to them.

Jonah 4:5 says Jonah had gone east of the city and sat down to wait for the fireworks to start, and then, when the Lord turned out to be a forgiving God, Jonah expresses resentment toward God.

And God then provides a lesson to Jonah. While Jonah is sitting on the hill to watch the fireworks, God provided some sort of leafy plant to grow and give Jonah shade so he’d be comfortable.

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The next day, God provided a worm to eat the plant, and then God provided a heat wave to beat down on Jonah so hard Jonah wanted to faint. Jonah was bitter and said, “Ok, God, just kill me now.” In Jonah 4 verses 9 and 10,

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”
“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”

God responds with a question to Jonah to illustrate God’s lesson. Verse 6 said Jonah was very happy about the plant. But then, when the plant was gone, Jonah says, “just kill me now.” And God exposes Jonah’s self-pity for a plant that grows up and dies in a single day, even though Jonah didn’t plant it, water it, or cared for it in any way. God asks Jonah if you can pity a plant, why can’t you pity a city of 120,000 souls in Nineveh? God used a fish to teach Jonah obedience, and God used a worm to teach Jonah compassion.

God cares about the children of Nineveh – He counts their number and He sent Jonah to bring His Word to their door. He pities the cruel people of Nineveh because all of them belong to God by virtue of creation, and He is a God of love and grace and second chances. God is slow to anger, slow to judgement, and rich in mercy.

VII. Conclusion

So today we studied a wee bit more depth the story of Jonah, and it turns out to be much more than deep sea fishing tips. There are lessons in the book of Jonah about obedience, God’s will, God’s judgment and God’s mercy.

But I think it’s more than that. Jonah learns what God wants all of His children to learn. God loves people. He knows where they live, He knows how many there are, He knows their spiritual emptiness.
God calls each and every one of us to share His message, but I think too often we’re too scared to share God’s message to those we love. We all have friends and family we love that, let’s be honest, we are not brave enough to tell them how much God loves them. And we will sleep in the bottom of the boat like Jonah did while the Day of the Lord and the Trumpet Judgements get closer every day.

And that’s for those we love. What about those we hate, and those that hate us? The Ninevites in our lives? If we don’t see God’s hand of judgement on our enemies, do we resent God for not making things right today?

So who are the Ninevites today? John 8:44, Jesus said,

You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires.

You were once a Ninevite, an enemy of God. I was once a Ninevite, an enemy of God. And yet, God didn’t hate us. In fact, Romans 5:8,

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

And those that are Ninevites to us? God loves them, too. God wants nothing more than to be reconciled with His children. God is calling you and me to bring God’s message of love and forgiveness to a dying world, not just to those we love, but to those we do not like and those that hate us.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

 

Slide22.JPGTurns out the book of Jonah isn’t just about obedience or fishing.

The book of Jonah is about love.

To God be the glory.

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Blessings for Those Who Fear the Lord

I. Introduction
I want you to think back, remember yourself at a young age.

Who or what did you want to be when you grew up?

What qualities of that person or job did you like that attracted you?

Do you still sometimes think of what it would be like to be that person?

Our lesson today is from Psalm 128, and we’re going to study about growing up in the Lord.

II. Psalm 128
First, let’s take apart our scripture. When I study scripture, I heard a simple three step process that really helps me understand life applications from the bible.

First, what does the bible say? Word for word, understand what the bible stays, who it’s being said to, why it’s being said, basically, read it and understand the context.

Second, what does the text mean? Sometimes, like in the parables, it’s very easy to see that the verse says one thing but means something different. The scripture on sowing seed on rocky soil is not necessarily instruction on agriculture and how to manage a successful farm. The scripture on the adulterous woman is not instruction on how to throw rocks. The verse says one thing and means something more.

Third, what the text mean to me? God placed these words in the bible and now I’m reading them. What does God want me to understand? How should it affect me? How should this scripture change me?

Psalm 128 is only 6 verses, so let’s see first what it says.

1 Blessed are all who fear the LORD,
who walk in his ways.
2 You will eat the fruit of your labor;
blessings and prosperity will be yours.

3 Your wife will be like a fruitful vine
within your house;
your sons will be like olive shoots
around your table.

4 Thus is the man blessed
who fears the LORD.

5 May the LORD bless you from Zion
all the days of your life;
may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem,

6 and may you live to see your children’s children.
Peace be upon Israel.

I don’t think it’s any surprise that this Psalm is often taught during Father’s Day. Most of the commentaries I read on this Psalm focus on the obvious, what it means to be a family man, a father, and how to raise a family that pleases God.

Our class has a couple of fathers, but there’s a bigger picture here that applies to all of us. First, let’s talk about what the scripture says, and we’ll spend most of the lesson on just the first 2 verses, so don’t panic if we’re still on verse 2 when 12 o’clock rolls around.

III. Blessed are all who fear the Lord
Blessed. The Hebrew word for this can be translated as “happy,” and it’s not as easy to understand as we might think. Does God want us to be happy? Of course He does, who wants to see their children unhappy? But it’s not the same happiness that the world might teach us. The world teaches us that it’s our happiness that’s most important, and we should seek happiness. Buy this and it will make you happy. Drink that and it will make you happy. If your spouse or your family or your friend makes you unhappy, you should leave them, because it’s your happiness that’s most important.

But God doesn’t tell us to do that. God doesn’t tell us to seek our own happiness as a goal. Rather, happiness is a reward for living His way. I can tell you this – the times in my life I spent seeking happiness, I didn’t find it. I found a whole range of other emotions – shame, depression, unhappiness. Many years ago I divorced my wife; I was unhappy at the time and I believed divorcing her would make me happy, or at least happier. I found no happiness there, nor have I found happiness in any place other than living righteously by the word of God. And believe me, I’ve looked in enough other places to know that happiness isn’t something you can seek.

This verse says this happiness is available to all who fear the Lord. Are you happy? If a follower of Christ says there is no happiness in their life, what advice could you offer?

James 4:9 says “Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.” Ecclesiastes 3:1,4 says, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” And Romans 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” Is it wrong to mourn and weep?

Weeping, mourning, sadness are an integral part of our lives, and it’s healthy to weep and cry. The shortest verse in the bible is John 11:35, after Jesus arrived at the tomb of Lazaras, “Jesus wept.” But we find ultimate happiness in the Good News of Christ, that our sins have been paid in full. Matthew 5:4 says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

This blessing of happiness isn’t reserved for a select few, but it is available to everybody. I don’t know about you, but I’m comforted by the fact that others struggle with life just as I do, that I haven’t been singled out somehow for mistreatment. As people, there are very few statements we can make that apply to everyone. Sometimes I hear, “Take all things in moderation,” and I always think, “whoa, *all* things? Let’s not go overboard here.” Romans 3:23 was an integral part of my Christian walk because I once felt that I had made so many mistakes that somehow I was damaged goods, that I understood if God no longer wanted me. But Romans 3:23 says “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” I realized that my feelings were not unique and recognizing that I’m a sinner was important to understanding God’s grace.

Same thing here; God says that all those who fear Him are happy. Fear and happiness aren’t usually two things that go together in my head. “Hey I saw Friday the 13th Part 30 last night and scared me so bad I’m happy.” So even though scripture says “fear,” what does scripture mean by “fear?” We’ve talked about this a lot the last several weeks about the fear of the Lord.

There’s a passage in the book, The Chronicles of Narnia, that illustrates this very well. Mrs. Beaver is describing Aslan, the Christ figure in the book.

“If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly,” said Mrs. Beaver.

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

A healthy respect of fear for the Lord recognizes the awesome power of the Lord. But the Bible is clear, though, that we can approach God in His love and mercy. The fear of the Lord is the recognition that God has the ability and the right to punish us for our transgressions. Fortunately for us, the mercy of the Lord saves those who place their faith in Him; in Luke 1:50, Mary says, “His mercy extends to those who fear Him, from generation to generation.” But we should never forget that God’s mercy, God’s blessings, are extended to those who acknowledge the sovereignty and holiness of the Lord God almighty.

So we’ve read, “Blessed are all who fear the Lord.” We’ve understand it to mean that the Lord grants happiness to those who acknowledge Him in all they do. Let’s bring it to a very personal level. What does it mean to me? What does God want specifically from you and from me?

That’s something only you and I can answer to God. G.K. Chesterton, the English author, once wrote, “We fear men so much, because we fear God so little. One fear cures another. When man’s terror scares you, turn your thoughts to the wrath of God.” Psalm 128 reminds me that my fear of God should extend to all areas of my life, not just to bible study or church, but to my family and my office and anywhere I may go. G.K. Chesterton also once wrote, “Just going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in your garage makes you a car.”

IV. You will eat the fruit of your labor
Verse 2 of Psalm 128 describes this happiness that God provides. “You will eat the fruit of your labor.” How many think this is instruction to eat organic food?

The Psalmist is explaining the reason for the happiness in verse 1. It’s a positive reinforcement of Galatians 6:7-8 –

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.

I wish we had time to study all the nuances of reaping and sowing. I found a great article called The Seven Laws of the Harvest that discusses reaping and sowing from a biblical view. Here’s the list of the Seven Laws:

  • Law #1, we reap only what has been sown. The sower may be us, it may be others before us, it may be God who has sown on our behalf. We reap the good that others have sown, we reap the bad, too.
  • Law #2, We reap the same in kind as we sow. If you sow watermelon seeds, you reep watermelon seeds. If you sow selfishness, you reap selfishness. If you sow anger, you reap anger.
  • Law #3, we reap in a different season than we sow. Many believers sow wild oats all week and then on Sunday pray for crop failure. What we sow, we reap in the future.
  • Law #4, we reap more than we sow. Seeds bring forth entire crops.
  • Law #5, we reap in proportion to what we sow. If we sow sparingly, we reap sparingly. Abundant seed grows abundant crops.
  • Law #6, we reap the full harvest of good only if we persevere. Evil comes to harvest on it’s own.
  • Law #7, we can’t do anything about last year’s harvest, but we can about this year’s.

We usually think of reaping and sowing from a negative sense, but Psalm 128:2 says our happiness comes from what we sow.

Ephesians 5:15-17, “Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men, but as wise, 16 making the most of your time, because the days are evil. So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” We reap only what has been sown; either from what we have sown or what those before us have sown. The biggest positive is that we are reaping what God has sown on our behalf, the blessings of salvation and grace and Jesus Christ and all the believers in this world that have passed the message of the gospel to us over the ages. Likewise, the choices we make today will have far reaching consequences. If we are sowing good seed of sharing the Word and loving our neighbors, we will reap the benefits of those choices.

It’s important to realize there is no middle ground. Our time is a gift given to us by the Lord, and we sow with every minute. Are we using those minutes wisely? With every passing minute we are sowing. And if we choose to ignore the world around us, focus on our own pleasures, our own hobbies, our own entertainment, those are minutes not sown productively. In my own life, I’ve learned something of this principle. I like time alone occasionally. But time alone is not sowing seeds. Psalm 128 specifically talks to fathers and husbands to spend appropriate time with family. By myself, I enjoy reading the news, financial websites, and playing games. But I must always be mindful that the most productive seed I personally can sow revolves around my wife, around my family, around my church, around my job. Watching a funny video on Youtube sows no productive seeds. We are either sowing, or we’re letting the seeds go unsown.

And reaping productive seeds in accordance with God’s will brings blessings and happiness, happiness that eludes us if we’re seeking it for our own pleasure. I can read a book; I am entertained. I can read a Christian book, I grow. I can read the bible, and God will speak to me. Which sows the better seed?

I can play a video game, I am entertained. I can play a board game with my spouse, we grow together. Which sows the better seed?

We always have the option of choosing the better choice. What are you reaping now, what is the biggest joy in your life, and what was sown to make that happen?

2 Corinthians 9:6-8,

“Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.”

V. Conclusion
So, now we’re all adults, it doesn’t mean we’re done growing. Now who do you want to be when you grow up? And what sort of seed should you be sowing?

1 Blessed are all who fear the LORD,
who walk in his ways.
2 You will eat the fruit of your labor;
blessings and prosperity will be yours.

Faith and Deeds

Charles Schultz often touched on religious themes in his cartoons. You might remember his Christmas special years ago, where Linus recited the meaning of Christmas from the book of Luke. Charles Schultz taught bible study into the 1980’s, and many of his cartoons were thought to illustrate bible scripture. His illustration for our study today, the second half of James 2, shows Snoopy shivering outside in the cold. Charlie Brown says to Linus, “He looks kind of cold, doesn’t he?” And Linus says, “Maybe we’d better go over and comfort him. So they walk over to Snoopy, wearing their warm coats and mittens and hats and Charlie Brown says, “Be of good cheer, Snoopy!” Linus also says, “Yes, be of good cheer.” And then they walk on by.

Today, we’re going to learn that Christian faith and Christian deeds are one and the same, and you can’t have one without the other.

I’m going to be honest about today’s lesson – it’s a difficult lesson to grasp. Not even all the commentary I found on the subject agrees. Last month I taught from the book of Galatians, and how it is grace that saves us through faith and not by our own works. Today, the book of James, at first glance, appears to contradict this, and says our salvation depends on our deeds. Do they contradict? Or is this a deeper walk with Christ with a lesson to teach us about what our faith is and what it does? We’re going to come back to this point because it’s an important step in understanding our salvation and sanctification.

First, let’s talk about things that always seem to go together.

i. Peanut butter and _______ (jelly)
ii. Salt and _______ (pepper)
iii. Hugs and _______ (kisses)
iv. Spaghetti and _______ (meatballs)
v. Socks and _______ (shoes)
vi. Thunder and _______ (lightning)
vii. Death and _______ (taxes)

Certain things go together, and you know one by the other. If you met somebody who claimed to be an auto mechanic, what outward, visible sign would you expect to see that proves they are what they say they are?

What if you met a doctor? A chef? What if you met somebody that said they are a Christian, what sort of evidence would you expect to see?

James 2:14-18, Rhetorical Questions
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.

James begins with two rhetorical questions. First question, “What good is faith without deeds?” Answer: none. The needy brother or sister, without clothes or food, finds no good in a pious response of, “Go in peace, may you be warmed and filled.” It’s an expectation that God will step in and do what we will not.

Second question, “Can faith without deeds save? Answer: no. James isn’t asking if faith alone can save others; James is asking if our faith alone can save *us*.

James makes two combined points. First, faith without actions is useless, and second, faith by itself cannot save us. The combination of these two questions to state without a doubt that faith without deeds is completely useless to others, to ourselves, and to our salvation which is the primary point of having faith in the first place.

The trouble with interpreting this passage is that so much scripture seems to say the opposite. We cannot work our way into heaven. There are not enough good deeds we can do to gain entrance to the heavenly throne room. Paul says specifically in Romans 3:28, “So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law.” He says again in Galatians 2:16 that I taught from last month, “Yet we know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law.” In Galatians 2:21, “For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die.” The entire New Testament says we are saved by faith alone. “By grace, through faith, we are saved.”

So, do we need to do works or not? The key to understanding these passages is to understand that Paul and James are discussing to entirely different things. Paul was talking to the Jews. They believed they were God’s Chosen Ones, and as such, all they had to do was follow the bazillian laws perfectly and they win a prize. The Jews also believed that Gentiles who wanted to be Christians also had to follow these same bazillian rules. It’s a problem that still confronts us today, the problem of legalism. That if we’re Christian, we must have so much quiet time, we’re not allowed to go dancing, we must do this or that.

James is fighting the opposite problem; lackadaisical faith. Lax faith. Lazy faith. All you have to do is believe and you are saved. Where Paul was talking about laws and rules and regulations, James is talking about acts of love, sacrificial love, agape love. Paul talks about what happens to you on the inside, and how you are saved. James is talking about the outside; how to show you are saved.

One way to think of it is how we know certain invisible things exist. We cannot see the wind. How do we know it exists? We can see the wind blowing the branches of the trees, we can see the waves on a lake. We can harness the energy of the wind for power. We know wind exists because we see what it can do. How do we know oxygen exists? How do we know love exists? How do we know faith exists?

So James asks a question in verse 14, what good is faith without deeds? Then he answers it in verse 17, faith without deeds is dead. James is severe in his criticism. Faith alone is dead. James certainly understood the saving grace of faith; back in James 2:5, he notes that some people are rich in faith. And certainly James is not advocating deeds instead of faith. What James is telling us is that one cannot have authentic faith by itself, without any deeds to show for it. James says there is no separation of faith and deeds, they are one and the same. They are not equal, they are not contradictory, they are not alternatives. When James says in verse 18, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith in what I do,” James declares that the only way to have genuine faith is to demonstrate it with deeds. Works aren’t added to faith; genuine faith includes works. Otherwise, the faith is useless and dead. To you, to others, to God.

Let’s turn to Luke chapter 5 and look at Jesus giving us a great example of this. Verse 17, Jesus, the Great Healer, is teaching:

Luke 5:17
One day while Jesus was teaching, some Pharisees and teachers of religious law were sitting nearby. (It seemed that these men showed up from every village in all Galilee and Judea, as well as from Jerusalem.) And the Lord’s healing power was strongly with Jesus. Some men came carrying a paralyzed man on a sleeping mat. They tried to take him inside to Jesus, but they couldn’t reach him because of the crowd. So they went up to the roof and took off some tiles. Then they lowered the sick man on his mat down into the crowd, right in front of Jesus. Seeing their faith, Jesus said to the man, “Young man, your sins are forgiven.”

That must have been some sight. Imagine being at some small group study, listening to a great teacher, and all of a sudden somebody pries off a skylight and lowers a sick and paralyzed man through the roof. And Jesus says, “Young man, your sins are forgiven.”

Is that it? A sick, paralyzed man, unable to walk, meets Jesus, and all Jesus says is “Your sins are forgiven?” Remember the story of Snoopy, and how Charlie Brown and Linus say, “Be of good cheer?” That comes from this very story; the King James Version in Matthew 9, Jesus says, “Son, be of good cheer, thy sins be forgiven thee.”

Is Jesus guilty of giving the paralyzed man a sermon instead of a sandwich? A message instead of medicine? What did Jesus do? He followed up his good wishes with good deeds. Jesus healed the paralyzed man.

Let’s look at James 2:19-26 and see three examples –

You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.
In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

a. Demons
James uses a horrible warning to people who claim to have faith and yet have no deeds. People who claim to believe in the one true almighty God, but do not demonstrate it with deeds, are indistinguishable from demons. Demons, too, believe in the same God.

That’s horrible. What could possibly be worse than to be compared to a demon? In Mark 5, there is a story of a man with an evil spirit inside him named Legion. When the man saw Jesus, he shouted at him, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God that you won’t torture me!” The demons know who Christ is, but do they have a saving faith? The demons recognize Christ and continue to do evil deeds, and rather than changing their behavior, they only shudder at the judgment to come. Their belief is correct, their behavior is not. Believing the truth without obeying the truth does not save us, anymore than it saves demons. Some commentaries say this comparison to demonic faith implies that belief without obedience is even worse than useless.

b. Abraham
Whew. I’m ready for a more positive example. James brings up Abraham as an example of righteousness. If you recall, Abraham waited years and years for an heir. And then Abraham was called to sacrifice his only son Isaac on the altar, but at the last moment, an angel stayed his hand and Isaac was spared. Abraham had faith. His faith prompted Abraham to obey. His obedience completed his faith. Abraham’s deeds give testimony to his faith. By Abraham’s obedience, Abraham’s faith was perfected. In other words, the more we trust God and go out on a limb to do His will, the more we find that God is trustworthy.

God was surely satisfied with Abraham long before because of Abraham’s faith that God would give Abraham a son. What God really wanted was for Abraham to be an example of genuine faith to others.

c. Rahab
Abraham and Rahab, by human standards, couldn’t have been further apart. Abraham, a major, revered patriarch, father of the faithful. Rahab, a foreigner, disreputable, a minor character in the bible. If you recall, Rahab was a prostitute in Jericho. Joshua, in preparation for battle, sent two spies to investigate. When soldiers came looking for the spies, Rahab hid them. Rahab tells the spies that she has faith in the same Lord they do. What if Rahab had simply said, “Be Safe! Hope you don’t get caught!” No, she risked herself and was obedient to God.

The reason James uses both Abraham and Rahab is to make a point about our station in life. It doesn’t matter who we are – from Abraham to Rahab, from respected patriarch to redeemed prostitute, our faith is perfected by our deeds. James says both Abraham and Rahab are declared righteous because of their actions.

James’ conclusion in verse 26 repeats what he said in verse 17. Faith without action is dead. It’s not a genuine, saving faith, but a useless imposter. A genuine faith is a saving faith.

I think James is trying to clarify exactly what faith is. When you dissect this chapter, James is saying that faith is not something you say, or think, or feel, or believe. And it’s not even a question of faith versus deeds. Real faith is something you do. Saying you trust God, and actually trusting God are two separate things. Saying you have faith, and actually having faith means you do what God tells you to do, stop making excuses about why you can’t help or serve, and actually getting up to help and serve. God wants us to demonstrate our faith because demonstration means we have to trust God for who he says he is. And when we trust God, he strengthens our faith so we can do even more.

I read a story about faith verses words and belief. George Blondin was a famous tightrope walker in the 1860’s. For a publicity stunt, he decided to walk across Niagara Falls on a tightrope. He started slowly, walked step-by-step, very carefully, inch by inch… when he got to the middle, everybody knew one little step would plunge him down the falls to certain death. And when he finally reached the other side, the crowd went wild. And George Blondin said, “I’m going to do it again.” And he did. And when he got to the other side, he said, “I’m going to do it again, pushing a wheelbarrow full of dirt.” And he did. And a second time, and a third time. And a fourth time. And then at the one trip across, one of spectators says to him, “Wow. That’s incredible. I believe you could do that all day.” And George Blondin dumps the dirt out of the wheelbarrow and says, “Get in.”

An empty faith is no faith at all. And empty faith is a working faith. We can make one of two major mistakes when dealing with faith and deeds. Either is a hindrance to understanding the true gospel, the good news of Christ.

  • Salvation comes by faith plus works. Paul dealt with this subject frequently. We often hear it referred to as “Jesus Plus”. In order to gain salvation, you need Jesus Plus something. This leads to legalism, a focus on the deeds themselves. We cannot work our way into heaven, we cannot earn our salvation. We become like the Pharisees that Jesus had no use for.
  • Salvation comes by intellectual faith alone. Our study today deals with the opposite view that deeds aren’t necessary; it is faith alone that saves. James explains that this, too, is incorrect. Faith alone is worthless, it’s dead, and he even compares it to demonic faith.

    What does the life of a person look like when they hold to one of these false views of salvation? (People focused on deeds are burdened with an expectation to do more, and fail to realize God’s grace. People focused on faith without deeds are pious, holy, useless, and obedience no longer produces sanctification.)

The correct view of salvation which James explains in our text is: Salvation comes by genuine faith that is evidenced by works. Faith and works are not separate, but intertwined as one thing. Jesus Christ is both our savior and our lord. He is not two separate people. Faith alone professes Christ as Savior, and that sort of faith is worthless. True saving faith recognizes Christ both as Savior and as Lord. As He is Lord, we are called to obey, and it is this obedience to Him that demonstrates a saving faith. Jimmy Carter once said, “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

Jesus himself admonishes us to be obedient and express our faith with our deeds. In Luke 6:46, Jesus says, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” And in Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

Ephesians 2:8-10 sums it up: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, for a life of good works that God has already prepared for us to do.” That’s what God wants from us. That’s genuine faith.

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