Well, it’s time to start again. On January 1st no one writing columns really knows how to say anything new. As a pastor who must preach a fresh sermon every Christmas and Easter and all the other holidays, and has been doing it for most of my life, I can tell you I repeat myself a lot. You know the man who only comes to church on those two holidays and leaves saying, “pastor, you preach the same thing every time I come to church.” So as I start the 24th year of writing Aletheia you may want to just put it down and say, “he said this last year.”
Do you remember January 1, 2000, or Y2K? It wasn’t really the start of a new millennium yet, but the world was changing from writing 1900 to writing 2000. Well, some gearhead somewhere told us that all computers in the world could not handle the automatic change in those digits and would instantly jam and shut down. It was pointed out that almost everything in our lives has a computer chip in it and therefore will instantly quit working at midnight of the new year. The computer in your car, your microwave, your watch, your pacemaker; the computer that runs the city power grid and the one that runs the water works; all of Washington, the Pentagon, the White House (yes, there was some disappointment in its failure here), and even Big Ben and Greenwich Meridian Time. All of these were supposed to stop and, of course, the world as we know it would come crashing to a halt. Some were actually disappointed when the world went right on instead of reverting back to outhouses and wood stoves. Talk about New Year articles being a bummer! Ironically, the year 2000 started, not with a computer glitch, but with good old, manual, “hanging chad.” It was probably a natural harbinger of things to come in the next decade.
This year we kind of have a Y2K politically which will start on January 20th when a different kind of President, at least from what we’ve known in our life time, is sworn into office. Since November 8th, or make that 9th, we have been receiving warnings of coming doom and gloom, or, on the other hand, of the golden age itself. I would imagine that either side is going to experience quite a bit of disappointment that it doesn’t happen as predicted.
Then there was Harold Camping. Even Wickipedia proudly (or maybe disappointingly) reports, “Camping predicted that Jesus Christ would return to Earth on May 21, 2011, whereupon the saved would be taken up to heaven in the rapture, and that there would follow five months of fire, brimstone and plagues on Earth, with millions of people dying each day, culminating on October 21, 2011, with the final destruction of the world.” Poor Harold died in 2012—the fate of all writers who go a little overboard predicting what is going to happen next year.
Isaac Watts, my favorite song writer of all time, wrote a little known hymn which he titled, “Begin, My Tongue, Some Heavenly Theme,” and continues in the second line, “And speak some boundless thing” (see the rest at the conclusion of this article). Since I don’t have boundless things to speak, I am going to let the last two chapters of James speak for me. Am always enticed by 4:13-17 where James says to his people, “Go to now, ye that say, Today or tomorrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain.” Then James continues, “For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that.” This admonition to approach the next year with God’s will in mind rests in the middle of the last two chapters both of which move our attention in the right direction.
Friendship with the world is the enemy of God (4:1-12)
“Ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts. Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.” Pretty tough language! We know that the Bible uses the word “world” in a few different ways and that here it means that worldly system of which Satan is the god and people are his subjects—sometimes evidently even believers.
When believers, who actually belong to Christ and are no longer legal subjects to Satan, love the world it causes the Holy Spirit Who dwells within to “yearn jealously” (vs. 5). Though James attributes this to “the scripture,” we have no Old Testament verse that says it exactly. I think the study Bibles are correct in referencing Genesis 6:3, which says, “My Spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh.” James next tells us that God “giveth more grace.” This could be his analogy to Noah in Genesis 6:8, “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.” With the end of the old world coming, when “every imagination of the thoughts of men’s heart was only evil continually,” it was imperative for the believers to look ahead and live by grace. The friends of that world tragically died in the flood.
Seek God’s will for the year ahead (4:13-17)
James, the pastor of the church in Jerusalem and the first New Testament writer, had to warn his people about their new year’s resolutions. The book of Acts indicates that these were tough times for the believers because of persecution (11:19) and increasing recession due to famine (11:27-30). It was only natural for the people to make financial goals for the coming year. They would go here and there, do this and that, and make some money. But they had left out the most important consideration, “For that ye ought to say, if the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that. But now ye rejoice in your boastings: all such rejoicing is evil. Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin” (4:15-17).
It is a “sin” for us both to leave God out of our plans and also to run contrary to His will when we know better. There is something in us here that makes us gravitate toward our own selfishness, especially when we can “consume it upon our own lusts.”
This world is no friend of grace (5:1-6)
“Go to now, you rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you!” If a time of famine was coming, and evidently it was, the rich people were about to enter a recession or even a great depression. But God did not have pity because they had “kept back by fraud” the wages of honest workers (4). “Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter. Ye have condemned the just; and he doth not resist you” (5-6).
Believers cannot always count on unbelievers to be honest with them, though the believer ought always to be hard working and honest regardless of his or her working situation. Natural law speaks to all parties involved, but inspired Law speaks even more to Christians. Why would we want this part of the “world” to love us when, in fact, it can’t love us. Jesus said to the unbelievers of His day, “The world cannot hate you; but me it hateth, because I testify of it, that the works thereof are evil” (John 7:7). A generation who loves the world so much that it seeks its love rather than rebuke is not a friend of God.
Take the long look (5:7-11)
This section in James begins, “Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord.” Let me point out the language here, at the risk of being boring. “Patience” (as a noun) almost always comes from the Greek word hupomonee, to remain under a burden or trial. The verb, hupomeno, is usually translated “endure” because it admonishes us to remain under our trial with this patience. But “patience” here in the three times it appears in James 5:7-10, does not come from hupomonee, but from makrothumia, which is almost always translated “longsuffering.” I think that would be a much better translation here instead of “patience” although virtually no common translation does it.
James is directing the reader’s attention, in all three cases, to the “coming of the Lord,” “for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh,” and because, “the judge standeth before the door.” In other words, the admonition is more than just patience, it is also looking far ahead to the time when we see the Lord! Makrothumia is a combination of two words: makro, meaning long, and thumia, meaning desire. The same root with a different prefix, epi, meaning short, or short desire, is usually translated lust. Having a long desire is good and gives us the word longsuffering. Having a short desire is not good and gives us the word lust. We should be longsuffering in this world because the Lord is coming one day.
How should we approach 2017?
Here are a few of the things believers should be paying attention to and being aware of in the new year.
Promoting the Lord more than ourselves. “For not he that commendeth himself is approved, but whom the Lord commendeth” (2 Cor. 10:18). It seems like everything on line, on TV, in sports, in theater, in music, is about the performer, and this is too often the case in God’s church. There are so many ways in which we can feed this tendency for the “pride of life” that we must be especially aware of it.
The world does not operate from the perspective of being fallen creatures. To the average person, the exalting of self is a good thing, it is a way to get ahead, to get oneself noticed. Even humility is generally used as a way to gain a compliment. And why shouldn’t they think like this if there is no higher Authority in one’s life? Still, we know better. As Paul prefaces that verse, “But he that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord” (2 Cor. 10:17).
Furthering the gospel more than good deeds. Of course, we know that when we present the gospel that it is a gospel of grace not works. But I am thinking from the sinner’s point of view. There are many good things to do in this world and we all should be busy with them as much as possible: helping the helpless, comforting the weak, lifting up the downhearted. The world, however, sees these as an end in themselves. The “real” meaning of Christmas, as we have seen, becomes the gift of giving. The “real” meaning of love is to never give up. In the old modernistic way, the real meaning of Christianity is to follow Christ’s example and to be like Him, since He was the great Example.
All of these good works are good but they lack one thing: being the result of a new birth and not the way to a new birth. The politically correct world is fine with the good works, but they don’t like to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact, the gospel is almost outlawed in free societies. With all of our good deeds, let’s not neglect the most important thing, the need for saving faith.
Using our time wisely. I think we must all feel the contradiction of living in the most convenient time in history, and yet being chronic time wasters. Never have we needed more to be, “Redeeming the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:16). No doubt, in many ways modern conveniences save a lot of time. Just think of flying across country rather than driving, and driving rather than riding a horse! I am writing this article and will send it out by email which will reach anywhere in the world instantly. I just took a break from writing to heat my cold coffee in 30 seconds in the microwave. I just texted my brother-in-law across the country to remind him to cheer for my football team in tonight’s game. Grandpa would not have believed it.
The problem with the gadget age is that we love gadgets. My wife and I play word games on our phones with our kids in four different time zones, but these games can go on all evening! I can read texts, emails, and Facebook all afternoon while half a dozen good books sit next to my chair without ever being opened. And (the chronic time waster of my life time) kids can watch virtually any program in the world for hours at a time and not have time to finish their homework. Should I go on?
Somehow our forefathers managed to read more, write more, build more, even attend church more. Maybe the biggest challenge in time management is ourselves, and it is a constant battle.
Keeping the main things the main things. At the first of the year we all need to be reminded of the essentials of the Christian life: prayer, Bible reading, church attendance, witnessing, and doing the things necessary for a close walk with God. I’m not talking about simply going through the motions without applying ourselves. These things are commanded of us in the Scripture. They are like food and water, clothing and shelter. These we ought to have done, and not left the others undone.
With all the advantages of the modern conveniences and the ability to work on the go, to communicate instantly, there is something good and settling about establishing patterns and times and habits for these basic Christian virtues. Sometimes we just have to turn everything else off and sit in a chair in a quiet room with our Bible in our laps (even if it’s an electronic Bible). And what about our kids and grandkids? Life will get even busier for them and they need to see biblical priorities in us. We need to leave those footprints in the sands of our time and pray that generations will follow wisely until the Lord comes.
And So . . .
Having said more than enough to begin a new year, let me end with the rest of Watts’ old song. I don’t know how he accomplished so much living in the 15th and 16th centuries, but may we match his enthusiam in ours.
Begin, My Tongue, Some Heavenly Theme (Isaac Watts, 1674-1748)
Begin, my tongue, some heav’nly theme,
And speak some boundless thing—
The mighty works or mightier name
Of our eternal King.
Tell of His wondrous faith-ful-ness
And sound His pow’r a-broad;
Sing the sweet prom-ise of His grace,
The love and truth of God.
His very word of grace is strong
As that which built the skies;
The voice that rolls the stars a-long
Speaks all the prom-is-es.
O might I hear Thy heav’n-ly tongue
But whis-per, “Thou art Mine!”
Those gentle words should raise my song
To notes al-most di-vine.*
*These verses still appear in Great Hymns of the Faith. Six other verses appear in his original version (in Songs and Hymns of Isaac Watts).