OPERATION RESTORATION – James 5:19-20

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INTRODUCTION:

We’ve come to the final two verses of James’ letter to the Hebrew Christians scattered all over the Roman Empire and beyond.  It’s not the typical conclusion of a letter, such as the ones written by the apostle Paul, or Peter, or John.  There are no parting words of farewell, and there is no closing prayer.  But James has a reason for ending his letter with the words he uses. We will soon see, as we fit these parting words into the context of the rest of the letter.

Having served as a chaplain in a hospital setting for many years, and having been “under the knife” several times myself, I’ve become somewhat familiar with the  procedures that are followed in some operations.  I think that there are some elements of comparison, and I will be pointing them out as we look at James 5:19-20 in the light of what has preceded it.

Here are two translations of this passage of Scripture, James 5:19-20:

“My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth, and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death, and will cover a multitude of sins.” (NASB)

“My dear friends, if you know people who have wandered off from God’s truth, don’t write them off.  Go after them.  Get them back and you will have rescued precious lives from destruction and prevented an epidemic of wandering from God.” (The Message)

I.  THE UNHAPPY WANDERERS (verse 19a)

James calls them “brethren”, meaning that they are either believers, or at least members of the congregations.  “If anyone strays from the truth”.  The word “if” implies that there are some in these congregations who have strayed, and there are others who haven’t strayed from the truth.  He is saying that straying from the truth can happen and has happened.  The word translated “strays”, or “wanders” is the Greek word “planao”.  We get our English word “planet” from this word.  It was generally believed, in those days, that the planets wandered around in the skies, and appeared in different places and at different times.  They didn’t realize that these planets are in an elliptical obit around the sun, as is the earth.

James has been describing and dealing with these “wanderings” throughout his letter.  Many of his readers and hearers have been guilty of impatience, misuse of their tongues, self-centeredness, greed, or other evidences of failing to practice the truth.  The following saying is so true:  “If truth isn’t applied, we’ve either wandered from it, or never possessed it.”

It’s a scary thing to wander from the truths of God’s Word.  It usually happens slowly, imperceptible at first.  Then we realize that we have not only wandered from the truth, but we have also drifted away from our closeness to the Lord Jesus Christ and to other believers.  Feelings of guilt, fear and embarrassment may keep us from seeking help and turning back.  We may begin to feel that our lives are out of control and that the situation is hopeless.

Have you ever been in a helpless situation because of a physical injury or infection? When I was in my early 20’s I felt pain in my lower abdomen.  Within minutes I was doubled over, and the pain was so intense that all I could do was to cry out for help.  My mother heard my cries and took me immediately to a nearby hospital.  I was given a shot to ease the pain and told that  I was having an acute appendicitis attack.  I would be going into surgery immediately.  My family doctor arrived, and told me that he would be performing the surgery.  I would be sedated and would not be awake or feel any pain during the surgery.  His presence and assurances relieved much of the tension I was experiencing.  When I awoke there was a scar, stitches and minimal pain.   The inflammation was gone and I was feeling much better.  One of my aunts died from a ruptured appendix when she was a teenager, so my fears were real.  I look back at that event as a life-saving experience, thanks in part to the immediate action by my mother and the doctor.

II.  THE RESTORERS (verse 19b)

The end of verse 19 contains five simple words:  “And one turns him back” (NASB).  The Message uses the words, “Go after them.  Bring them back.”  In verse 20 James gives a more detailed description of the wanderer’s condition when he says “turns a sinner from the error of his way.”  James uses the Greek word “hamartolos”, an archer’s term meaning, “missing the mark”.  But the word is also used to describe a traveler who has left the familiar road and is following winding, twisted paths that cause him to lose his way.  He has chosen to go his own way, and this choice has affected his thoughts, words, actions, and attitudes.  We are either walking in God’s truth or in our own way.  Those are the options.  The “turning back” is descriptive of the acknowledgement of one’s sin, confession of it, turning from it, and once again walking in fellowship with God and in obedience to God’s truth.

The apostle Paul, in Galatians 6:1, wanted to make sure that his readers knew what their attitude should be in the restoration process.  He says, “restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, lest you too be tempted.”  I have an anonymous poem in my collection of illustrations, and it brings tears of regret to my eyes every time I read it.  I hope it has a similar effect on you.

Pray don’t find fault with the man that limps

Or stumbles along the road,

Unless you have worn the shoes he wears

Or struggled beneath his load.

There may be tacks in his shoes that hurt

Tho’ hidden away from view,

Or the burden he bears placed on your back

Might make you stumble too.

Don’t sneer at the man who’s down today,

Unless you have felt the blow

That caused his fall or felt the shame

That only the fallen know.

You may be strong; but still the blows

That were his, if dealt to you

In the selfsame way at the selfsame time

Might cause you to stagger, too.

Don’t be too harsh with the man that sins,

Or pelt him with word or stone,

Unless you are sure – yes, doubly sure –

That you have no sins of your own.

For you know perhaps if the tempter’s voice

Should whisper as soft to you

As it did to him when he went astray

It might cause you to falter too.

In order to effectively turn another believer back to fellowship with God through gentle reproof and correction, we will need to have that kind of an attitude toward the wanderer and toward ourselves.   The hymn writer, Robert Robinson, expressed his inner struggles when he said:  “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love.” (Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing).  The wanderer will need love, concern, and encouragement in order to confess the sin which has dragged him down, and redirect his focus toward the God who loves him and wants to forgive him and welcome him back.  You might say that God is calling us to be part of the “welcoming committee”.

III.  THE JOYFUL RESULTS (verse 20)

At the end of verse 20, James describes the results of the restoration process. First, “He . . . will save his soul from death, and will cover a multitude of sins”.  These words can be confusing if taken out of their context, and without a grasp of the Hebrew concept of sin and death.  The word “he” refers to the restorer, as he is used by God. The phrase “save his soul from death” is probably referring to physical death, not spiritual death.  As a doctor often saves his patients from the harmful and continuing affects of an infection or an injury, the restorer has the responsibility and privilege of saving a wandering Christian from the continuing effects of his sin.  In the Old Testament scriptures, sin is often associated with physical death.  When Adam and Eve sinned, one of the penalties was eventual physical death.  Moses and a whole generation of the children of Israel spent 40 years wandering in the desert and dying because of their sins.  The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by fire because of sin, and only Lot and his family were spared.  The recipients of his letter didn’t need an explanation.  They already knew the record of God’s dealings with His people.

The other result of the restorer’s ministry is “the covering of a multitude of sins”.  By his own loving, listening, and forgiving attitude, the restorer mirrors God’s love and forgiveness, and becomes a model of forgiveness and acceptance to other believers in the fellowship.  As it says in Proverbs 10:12, “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all transgressions.”  King David said in Psalm 32:3-6, “When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.  For day and night Thy hand was heavy upon me.  My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer.  I acknowledged my sin to Thee, and my iniquity I did not hide;  I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’; and Thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin.”  As a restorer, God gives us the privilege of sharing in the joy of that forgiveness (covering) of sin and return to fellowship.  They say, “Misery loves company”.  Well, relief-from-misery loves company also, and we’re invited to the celebration!  If you’ve ever had a restoration experience, whether you were the restorer or the one who was restored, you know that it was a joy-filled experience for both parties!

IV.  SUMMARY AND PERSONAL APPLICATION

Pastor and Bible teacher Warren Wiersbe concludes his commentary on the epistle of James by asking a series of questions to help us examine our hearts and evaluate our own spiritual maturity.  Let’s reflect on each question and be honest with ourselves and with God as we answer them.

  1.  Am I becoming more and more patient in the testings of life?
  2. Do I play with temptation, or resist it from the start?
  3. Do I find joy in obeying the Word of God, or do I merely study it and learn it?
  4. Are there any prejudices that saddle me?
  5. Am I able to control my tongue?
  6. Am I a peacemaker rather than a troublemaker?  Do people come to me for spiritual wisdom?
  7. Am I a friend of God or a friend of the world?
  8. Do I make plans without considering the will of God?
  9. Am I selfish when it comes to money?  Am I unfaithful in the paying of my bills?
  10. Do I naturally depend on prayer when I find myself in some kind of trouble?
  11. Am I the kind of person others seek for prayer support?
  12. What is my attitude toward the wandering brother?  Do I criticize and gossip, or do I seek to restore him in love?

May the Lord give you diligence as you pursue godliness and divine wisdom.  May He also provide strength and a loving friend if you should begin to stumble or falter.

“But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.”  (James 1:22)

 

 

TRUE WISDOM IS FULL OF MERCY AND GOOD FRUITS – James 3:17 (Continued)

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Reporters and city officials gathered at a Chicago railroad station one afternoon in 1953.  The person they were meeting was the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize winner.  A few minutes after the train came to a stop, a giant of a man, six feet four inches tall, with bushy hair and a large moustache stepped from the train.  Cameras flashed.  City officials approached him with hands outstretched.  Various ones began telling him how honored they were to meet him.

The man politely thanked them and then, looking over their heads, he asked if he could be excused for a moment.  He quickly walked through the crowd until he reached the side of an elderly black woman who was struggling with two large suitcases.  He picked up the bags and with a smile, escorted the woman to a bus.  After helping her aboard, he wished her a safe journey. Returning to the greeting party he apologized, “Sorry to have kept you waiting.”

The man was Dr. Albert Schweitzer, the famous missionary doctor who had spent his life helping the poor in Africa.  In response to Schweitzer’s action, one member of the reception committee said with great admiration to the reporter standing next to him, “That’s the first time I ever saw a sermon walking.”

That was an act of mercy.  Dr Schweitzer saw a need.  He had compassion, and he met the need.  The title of this story was:  “Forget yourself for others and others will not forget you!  The Scripture reference was Matthew 7:12 where Jesus said, “Therefore, however you want others to treat you, so treat them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”  (Story taken from “God’s Little Devotional Book”)

By contrast, worldly wisdom tends to be self-centered and ego-centered, envying people above them, and treating people beneath them with harshness and disdain.  Having worked in a large company for several years, I noted that some people in positions higher than mine would not talk to me, respond to a greeting, or even look at me..  They treated me as if I didn’t exist. The Lord Jesus directed His attention to this kind of behavior in one of His parables.

The parable of the Good Samaritan, in Luke 10:30-37, is one of the most well-known of Jesus’ parables.  In it, the priest and levite see the injured man at a distance and cross over to the other side of the road as they pass him.  Rather than taking responsibility and showing mercy for a fellow-Jew, they cross over to the other side of the road and treat the person as if he didn’t exist.  However, the Samaritan, who was hated by the Jews, felt compassion and made sure that the man was taken care of at his own expense.  He had nothing to gain from this other than the satisfaction that he was pleasing God. That was truly an act of mercy on his part.

The apostle James, here in verse 17, describes this fifth evidence of wisdom from above. It is “full of mercy and good fruits” or “controlled by mercy and good fruits”. This word “mercy” is found 78 times in the New Testament Scriptures, and many of those occurrences are associated with the miracles of Jesus Christ. Mercy and good fruits are linked together here. Mercy, or compassion, is an attitude and motivation that is evidenced by “good fruits” or the outward acts of mercy. James expressed that concept earlier, in chapter 2, verses 14-17, when he said, “What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works. Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? James is saying that genuine faith is evidenced by genuine works, and he is also saying that genuine wisdom is evidenced by outward acts of mercy.

We find in Scripture that mercy is closely associated with several other character qualities and behaviors. For example, mercy and love are often found together. Ephesians 2:4 says, “But God, who is abundant in mercy, because of His great love, which He had for us.”  Mercy and forgiveness belong together also.  Daniel 9:9 says, “To the Lord belong compassion and forgiveness.”

In his book, Beneath the Cross of Jesus, A. Leonard Griffith tells the story of a young Korean exchange student, a leader in Christian circles at the University of Pennsylvania, who left his apartment on the evening of April 25, 1958, to mail a letter to his parents.  As he turned from the mailbox, he was met by eleven leather-jacketed teenage boys.  Without a word, they beat him with a blackjack, a lead pipe, and their shoes and fists – and left him lying dead in the gutter.

All Philadelphia cried out for vengeance.  The district attorney planned to seek the death penalty for the arrested youths.  And then, this letter arrived, signed by the boy’s parents and twenty other relatives in Korea:  “Our family has met together and we have decided to petition that the most generous treatment possible within the laws of your government be given to those who have committed this criminal action. . . . In order to give evidence of our sincere hope contained in this petition, we have decided to save money to start a fund to be used for the religious, educational, vocational, and social guidance of the boys when they are released. . . . We have dared to express our hope with a spirit received from the gospel of our Savior Jesus Christ who died for our sins.”

What a testimony of mercy, finding expression in forgiveness!  A hymn comes to mind that is a reminder and encouragement to be a vessel of mercy to others.  Here is the last stanza and chorus:

Give as ’twas given to you in your need, Love as the Master loved you;

Be to the helpless a helper indeed, Unto your mission be true.

Make me a blessing, Make me a blessing,

Out of my life may Jesus shine;

Make me a blessing, Make me a blessing,

Make me a blessing to someone today.

 

 

 

 

A LESSON ON COMPASSION (Part II) – Jonah, chapters 3 and 4

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The book of Jonah, chapter 2, ended with the description of the great fish spitting up Jonah onto the dry land at God’s command.     God caused this to happen because of what Jonah said at the end of his prayer of thanksgiving.  To put it in today’s language, Jonah was saying, “I’ll do what you command”  and “You can save whomever you choose.”  Let’s see what happens in chapters 3 and 4.

III.  JONAH’S PREACHING AT NINEVEH (Chapter 3)

We find God repeating His initial command to Jonah in chapter 3, verses 1 and 2, and this time Jonah obeys God’s command and walks through the city over a period of three days crying out and saying, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”  The result was that the people believed in God and repented of their sins.  They demonstrated their repentance by proclaiming a fast and putting on sackcloth.  That would be like wearing a large burlap sack over your bare body.  Can you imagine how much that would itch and irritate your skin.  Even the king of Nineveh took off his royal robes and put on sackcloth and sat on the ashes.  He also issued a decree, beginning in verse 7 saying, “. . . Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing.  Do not let them eat or drink water.  But both man and beast must be clothed in sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and the violence which is in his hands.  Who knows, God may turn and relent, and withdraw His burning anger so that we shall not perish?”

It doesn’t say how long they did this.  It may have been for days, or weeks, or even the full 40 days.  They were appealing to God’s mercy and they found that God is a merciful God.  In verse 10 it says, “When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them.  And He did not do it.”

II.  JONAH’S DISCONTENT AND CORRECTION (Chapter 4)

There must have been great rejoicing in the city of Nineveh.  But one person wasn’t rejoicing.  He was angry.  And that person was the prophet Jonah.  Was Jonah mad because his prophesy didn’t come true?  Was he embarrassed?  No.  The real reason why Jonah fled from the Lord, and why he was angry with God is found in 4:2-3.  Jonah was willing to die for the sailors.  He thanked God for sparing his own life.  But Jonah didn’t want God to spare Nineveh because they were a very wicked people; they weren’t Jewish, and Nineveh was the capitol of the nation of Assyria.  The prophet Isaiah had already prophesied that Assyria was going to someday destroy the nation of Israel  and take the remainder of the people back to Assyria as captives.  This prophecy is found in Isaiah 7:17-20 and following.  In Jonah 4:2 he even accuses God of being “gracious, compassionate, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness”, as if those were God’s faults or weaknesses!

Jonah is so angry that he asks God to take his life.  He would rather die than have God spare the lives of the people of Nineveh, and God questions his anger.  Jonah leaves the city and builds a booth “outside” the city; waiting to see if God will come to His senses  and decide that these people don’t deserve to be spared.  While Jonah sleeps God causes a gourd plant to sprout out of the ground overnight and grow big enough to provide shade for Jonah.  This makes Jonah very happy!  He must have been thinking, “God has finally come to His senses and has agreed with me that these people don’t deserve to live!”  But then God causes a worm to destroy the vine, and Jonah becomes very angry again.  There is an important lesson here.  God is in control.  He caused the storm.  He caused the fish to swallow Jonah and later spit him out.  He caused the vine to grow up overnight, and He caused the worm to kill the vine.  Everyone and everything obeyed God except the preacher.  The storm, the dice, the sailors, the fish, the Ninevites, the east wind, the gourd plant, the worm!  Everyone and everything except . . .  Jonah!  Sometimes God allows us to suffer the consequences of our actions so that we might know that He is in control.

A second lesson is found in 4:10-11.  Jonah lacked God’s compassion for people.  There’s a little bit of Jonah in all of us sometimes, isn’t there?  Sometimes more than a “little bit”?  It is the Jewish custom on the annual celebration of the Day of Atonement to read from the book of Jonah.  And at the end of the reading all would say, “We are Jonah!”

If you don’t know Jesus Christ as your personal Savior and Lord, the book of Jonah is saying that God loves you and wants to show you mercy, no matter how sinful you have been.  God wants to receive you into His family if you are ready to turn from your sins and let the Lord Jesus Christ take control of your life.  The Controller of the universe gives you the freedom to give Him control over your life, and you can do that right now.

If you are a Christian, the book of Jonah is saying that people are precious because God considers them to be precious.  God wants us to lay aside our prejudices and let Him fill our hearts with His compassion for the sinning and suffering people we meet.  Do you remember that person I asked you to bring to mind at the beginning of this message?  What are you and I going to do this week to reach out by the power of God’s love to that person we’ve been avoiding?

I’m closing this message by reading a portion from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  The Lord Jesus says it better than anyone else.  The passage of Scripture is Matthew 5:43-48.  The Lord Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  For if you love those who love you, what reward have you?  Do not even the tax-gatherers do the same?  And if you greet your brothers only, what do you do more than others?  Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”