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Articles posts of '2016' 'June'

“I Am the Bread of Life”: A Devotional on John 6:35

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

—John 6:35

Our focus in this series will be on the seven “I Am” statements taken from the Gospel of John. In each of the statements, we learn about the person and work of Christ as it is emphasized in a metaphor. He calls Himself the “Bread of Life,” the “Light of the World,” “Gate for the Sheep,” “Good Shepherd,” “Resurrection and the Life,” “The Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and the “True Vine.” Upon first hearing this, we might think those are vivid pictures to show us that Jesus is nice or kind, but there is something far deeper going on. Jesus is calling Himself the eternal God. Jesus is identifying Himself with the voice that came out of the burning bush when Moses was in the wilderness (Exod. 3). When God told Moses to go to Pharaoh, Moses asked God to tell him who he should tell Pharaoh is sending him. God’s response is to give His name as “Yahweh,” which is translated “I AM.” This becomes the covenant identification of God, as the Creator who has redeemed for Himself a chosen people. This is why when Jesus calls Himself the “I Am,” the Jews become angry. In John 6:41 they begin to grumble among themselves.

Statements like this ultimately will anger the Jews so much that they eventually cry out “crucify Him.” Jesus was accused of blasphemy, which would have been true if He was not the God-Man. Over these seven devotionals, I invite you to put yourself in the mind of a Jew two thousand years ago and seek to understand what Jesus meant. He is identifying Himself in a beautiful way. The Jews asked, “Who is this man?” Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” What we must answer is a similar question, “Who do you say Jesus is?” This is a personal, subjective question which has eternal consequences. As you read ask yourself, “Is Jesus your bread of life?” If so, then ask yourself, “Why does that matter in my life?”

Being Hungry

Let’s focus on John 6:35, although we could easily focus on verses 25–59. The point is that Jesus is identifying Himself as the bread of life. The first question we must answer is what is bread? Simple, we know what that is. If we go out to eat at a restaurant and order a nice steak, when they bring out our salad as a first course, they might also bring out a basket with bread in it. That is just preparation for the main course.

In the ancient world, bread played a far more prominent role in sustaining life. Bread and water were what you would have primarily lived on. If you could find a little piece of meat or fish or some dates to eat with your bread and some wine, then you were eating well. What for us is a nice little appetizer, for the Jews was the main part of their diet. Bread made the eater go from hungry to full.

Those who followed Jesus were hungry. In the context, in the beginning of John 6, Jesus just fed the five thousand. Now, they find Jesus on the other side of the lake. Jesus knows their motives. In John 6:26–27, “Jesus answered them and said, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him.’” Jesus calls them out. They are following him to get a free meal. What Jesus will point out is that their true need is not some more loaves and fish; it is to believe on the one the Father sent, to feed on Christ.

Another important point about the context deals with Jesus and manna. Every good Jewish boy or girl knows about Moses leading the people in the wilderness: when there was no food, God provided manna. The Jews now tell Jesus (wrongly) that Moses provided manna; what is He going to provide? What will be His sign? Jesus corrects them and says that it wasn’t Moses but the Father, the I AM, who provided true bread. When the people heard this, they then asked for that bread. In John 6:35, “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.’” Further, in John 6:40, Jesus says, “And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day.”

The people were hungry! They ate and they ate, but they were not satisfied. Their experience is the experience of the world today. They eat and eat, but they are never satisfied. They are like the crew of the Black Pearl with Captain Barbossa in The Pirates of the Caribbean. Part of the curse of the crew of the Black Pearl is that no matter how much they eat, they cannot be satisfied. They cannot taste, they cannot enjoy, they cannot be filled. The bread turns to ashes in their mouth. This is the plight of all who are sons and daughters of Adam. This is the description of the world. They eat, but they will not be satisfied; they seek happiness, but they will not find it. For a time they might be relatively content, but it will be fading. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O Lord.”

Even the manna in the wilderness left the people unsatisfied because so many of them ate without faith. They grumbled: “Manna again?” But it was that manna which pointed ahead to Jesus Christ. Jesus was the water that came out of the rock in the wilderness, and now Jesus says that He is the bread of life: if they eat that bread, they will never be hungry, and if they believe, they will never be thirsty. The people responded rightly in John 6:34, “Sir, from now on give us this bread.”

Being Fed

How would one go about receiving the benefits of this bread of life? Well, they must eat it. John 6:51 says, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” This saying divided the Jews. Obviously, cannibalism was forbidden. But Jesus wasn’t talking about cannibalism, was He? No, He wasn’t. He was talking about eating His flesh. This is a graphic and vivid picture of believing. Some of the early Christians were accused of cannibalism when unbelievers heard about the Lord’s Supper, eating Christ’s flesh and drinking His blood. What they didn’t realize was that what was eaten and drunk was done so by the mouth of faith.

So, to go back to the earlier question, how are the benefits received? By faith. Looking again at John 6:35, there are two important words used in that verse to describe faith. One is coming to Christ; the other is believing in Christ. These are active words describing faith. Our catechism makes clear that there are three main parts of faith: knowing, agreeing, and trusting. You can know a truth, such as God created the world; you can agree with it or assent to it by saying yes, that happened; but then there is a trust in the object, namely, in God. It is that third one that Jesus emphasizes throughout this chapter.

To be sure, they must know that Jesus is the I Am, but then they and we must trust that this is the case. What this involves is a complete and utter surrender unto God. God’s ways become our ways, God’s love becomes our love, God’s mission becomes our mission, God’s people become our people, so to speak. Without that last part of faith, however, the whole point is missed. Wasn’t this the problem with the Pharisees? They knew it all. They were the best catechism students. If there was a theological question, they would have been quick to give the answer, but the problem was that they didn’t believe in their hearts. Their heads and their hearts were separated.

As we think a bit deeper about this, we notice John 6:44, for instance: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day.” Now it sounds like it is up to God. This is true. God knows those who are His; every person the Father has given to the Son will indeed eventually come to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. But this does not make us passive. Even babies eating baby food know to open their mouths when the spoon comes close to their mouths; so too we, babes in Christ, must come to the Savior and believe in Him. Christ accomplished salvation, the Holy Spirit applies salvation, but He does so through the means of an active, living, and true faith.

Those who eat of the bread of life by coming and believing in Jesus will never go hungry, and they will never be thirsty. We will see in a moment how this is in terms of being full, but for now, the implication is that God is continuing to feed us. God provides continual nourishment in the preaching of the Word. There is nourishment to be found in the spiritual disciplines of the Christian life, such as reading the Bible, prayer, doing good, fasting, service, encouragement. But the primary food comes through the preaching of the Word. The preaching of the Word is not an appetizer. It is the meal itself. When preaching is faithfully done, the hearer is confronted with the risen and reigning Lord Jesus Christ.

In the preaching Jesus invites you to feed upon Him. Isaiah prophesied such in Isaiah 55:1–2, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.” Will you come to the waters? By nature, we have no money, we have nothing to bring, like the crowds coming to hear Jesus and being hungry but having no food. “Bread of Heaven, feed me till I want no more.” Don’t neglect the opportunity to come and feast upon Him twice every Lord’s Day. However, don’t just come; come ready to be fed. May we confess with Bernard of Clairvoux, who nearly a thousand years ago wrote:

Jesus, Thou Joy of loving hearts,

Thou Fount of life, Thou Light
of men,

From fullest bliss that earth imparts,

We turn unfilled to Thee again.

We taste Thee, O Thou living Bread,

And long to feast upon Thee still;

We drink of Thee, the Fountain-head,

And thirst our souls from Thee
to fill!

We come to the Savior to feast upon Him who said, “I Am the Bread of Life.”

Being Full

When humble sinners call upon Christ in faith, then they are filled. Jesus preached to the people, showing that God performed a miracle and gave the Israelites manna in the wilderness, but they ate it and died. The bread of life is of such a nature that one who eats of it will never die but will live. Looking at John 6:48–51, we see the cross in view, specifically in verse 51: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” Jesus is the one who would take our sin upon Himself and give His flesh for our life. We see this in verse 56 as well: “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me.”

What this means is that those who eat of the Bread of Life will live because He lives. Two senses are given: in verse 56 is a picture of remaining united, and then in verse 57 is a picture of Jesus being the source of life. Similar to a root and branches, so is the bread of life and those who partake of the bread of life. What happens is that they are filled; they live life forevermore. Though they may die, yet they will live. No one else can say that but one who has died to self and now lives unto Jesus Christ. Our life is hidden in Jesus Christ.

Is this true of your life? Have you found your life in Christ? Have you found a peace which surpasses all understanding? Have you found that rare jewel of Christian contentment? Do you possess that pearl of great price? If not, then turn in repentance and give up your self-trust, self-reliance, and rebellion against God. Come to the one who said, “I Am the Bread of Life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”

After Jesus preached this startling sermon about Himself, the Jews grumbled. The uninspired title of the next section is “Many Disciples Desert Jesus.” The Jews wanted to be fed; they wanted some more bread and fish, maybe a glass of wine. They loved the things of this world.

The Jews listening to Jesus wanted physical blessings. They didn’t care about spiritual blessings. Similarly, North Americans want more and more. Jesus said in John 6:27, “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” Dear friend, what are you working for? What are you living for? Give it over to the Lord.

There are many things in this life which promise nourishment. They are like a bag of candy bars in the hands of a child. The belly may become full, but the child will not be nourished. Even though children love the taste of a candy bar, they will long for meat and potatoes, that which nourishes. The world has many things that promise happiness, but there is only one source of true joy, and that comes from feeding on the Bread of Life. May it be our prayer that the Lord continues to feed us on Jesus. Let us pray that He feeds us until we want to no more, and that will take place, both now and in the life to come.

 

Rev. Steve Swets
is the pastor of Rehoboth United Reformed Church in Hamilton, ON.

Archaeology: Friend or Foe of Biblical History?

Even before Indiana Jones wooed a generation of young people into pursuing careers in ancient history, archaeology was grabbing the world’s attention. The drama-laden story of Lord Carnarvon’s several-week journey to join Charles Carter in descending the steps of the newly discovered tomb of King Tut is nearly one hundred years old. In the 1800s, the quote attributed to Heinrich Schliemann, excavator of the ancient site of Troy, “I have gazed on the face of Agamemnon,” excited people’s imaginations: look what archaeology can do!

In reality, archaeology is—with some exceptions, of course—a bit less dramatic. For the most part, gone are the days when archaeologists excavated at a particular ruin with the primary aim of shedding light on biblical people, events, and places. Most excavations are funded by secular universities, so the objectives and goals usually reflect the diverse aims of a university curriculum. Indeed, archaeology in places like Israel and Jordan is treated as a subset of anthropology, and a dig site will employ a number of different specialists (e.g., seismologists, botanists, geologists, zoologists) and technologies (e.g., magnetometers, ground-permeating radar, satellite photography, carbon-14 dating).1 Their motivation is to understand broader patterns of human civilization in the history of that region or site.

Why Is Archaeology Important for Christians?

Though archaeologists are now interested in a wider range of information, this does not mean that it is unrelated to the Bible. Indeed, the relationship between archaeology and the Bible is one that will not (and must not) go away. Since the Christian faith is a historical one, Christians ought to be interested in archaeology. It is, after all, a key tool in the historian’s handbag. In spite of pious-sounding claims that “archaeology cannot prove or disprove faith,” archaeology is indeed relevant (albeit not always decisive) if one holds the faith to be truly objective and not just a subjective inner feeling.2

Though archaeology is of great value for understanding the historical setting of God’s Word, there are misconceptions about what archaeology can and cannot do. Skeptics, for example, often cite archaeological finds as disproving Scripture, claiming that they pose insurmountable challenges to the faith. They place a high degree of confidence on the ability of archaeology to determine “what really happened” and will not accept the historicity of the Bible unless it is corroborated by archaeological finds. (And sometimes not even then!) Ironically, some conservative Christians unwittingly agree with the skeptics and feel that unless the claims of the Bible are illustrated by archaeology, those claims are somehow less certain or deserving of our trust.

How then should Christians assess the finds of archaeology? How can study of archaeology be most beneficial to the Christian faith? It is to these questions that we now turn.

Scripture Is Self-Attesting

Before we even begin to relate archaeology to the historicity of Scripture, we must state an important presupposition up front: Christians believe the Bible to be the inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God because it is trustworthy in and of itself. That is to say, the Bible is what theologians call a self-attesting “first principle” for Christians; it is not something that requires authentication from an outside source (whether the church, science, history, or archaeology). The Belgic Confession articulates it this way: “We believe without a doubt all things contained in [the Scriptures]—not so much because the church receives and approves them as such but above all because the Holy Spirit testifies in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they prove themselves to be from God” (art. 5; cf. Westminster Confession, art. 1.5; Westminster Larger Catechism, Q&A 4).

Of course it sounds circular to say we believe the Bible to be the authoritative Word of God because the Bible claims to be the authoritative Word of God. And yet a degree of circularity is inevitable, even for non-Christians. Herman Bavinck explained: “[I]n every scientific discipline, hence also in theology, first principles are certain of themselves. The truth of a fundamental principle (principium) cannot be proved; it can only be recognized. ‘A first principle is believed on its own account, not on account of something else. Fundamental principles cannot have a first principle, neither ought they to be sought.’”3 If Scripture needs something else to stand as an authenticator, that other thing must be a self-attesting fundamental principle. Thus there is no escaping the fact that something is presupposed by every human being—believer or non-believer alike—to be a self-authenticating first principle against which all other beliefs and ideas must conform.

So in sum, when an archaeological find is touted as proving the Bible to be historically unreliable, we must remember that the person saying this has a different first principle, one that person has, incidentally, adopted by faith. And how did they come to adopt that first principle? This is where a presuppositional apologetic method provides a strong response.4 Christians confess that the Bible cannot be disproven since it is itself the only thing we have for proving or disproving anything. And while we do accept it by faith, we also have what other purported first principles do not: the attestation of the Holy Spirit. Though it may not be immediately clear howa given archaeological find harmonizes with God’s Word, our assumption is that it does. Even when the answer escapes us, this does not mean that no answer exists.

Archaeology Is Not Self-Interpreting

It is often claimed that artifacts are more reliable than texts (especially the biblical text) since artifacts are unprejudiced and unbiased. Critical historian Lester Grabbe states it this way: “[A]rchaeological data actually existed in real life—the artifacts are realia. . . . Texts, on the other hand, are products of the imagination. The content of a text always contains human invention, and it is always possible that a text is entirely fantasy.” Thus Grabbe concludes: “Preference [in reconstructing Israel’s past] should be given to primary sources, that is, those contemporary or nearly contemporary with the events being described. . . . This means archaeology and inscriptions” (emphasis added).5 But is this really the case? True, a pot, wall, figurine, or seal impression was touched by an ancient person, but it does not follow that an artifact is thereby more reliable than a narrative. In fact, in order to explain that artifact, one must have some narrative, some story that can give an account of the item in question. But where does this story come from? Here is where critics begin to stumble.

In their magisterial volume A Biblical History of Israel, Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III examine the claims of critical archaeologists and historians. Unlike the critics, Provan et al. refuse to dismiss the claims of the biblical texts due to their supposedly unreliable nature (i.e., the Bible’s belief in the miraculous) or their supposedly ideologically loaded content (i.e., the Bible says that God’s sovereign will governs the events of history, not evolution and chance). They note that both the Bible and archaeological finds present testimony about the past, and that responsible historians will take into account all available testimony when telling the story of Israel’s past. To disregard the Bible as an historical source is irresponsible even by critical standards.

Provan et al. go on to note that critical historians are often inconsistent in their use of archaeology. They cite the work of Keith Whitelam, who believes that archaeological finds are unbiased and reliable and the Bible is not. But when archaeological finds are clearly in harmony with the Bible, he pivots and claims that these finds have simply been misinterpreted. Thus while claiming that archaeology takes priority over the biblical texts, he regularly reinterprets archaeological data to match his belief that the Bible is wrong. Provan et al. conclude with an appropriate level of sarcasm: “Whitelam cannot have it both ways. Either archaeological data do or do not give us the kind of relatively objective picture of the Palestinian past that can be held up beside our ideologically compromised biblical texts to ‘show’ that the ancient Israel of the Bible and its scholars is an imagined entity.”6 Indeed, while critics accuse the Bible of being “ideologically loaded,” Provan et al. respond with the jarring reality: “In fact, all archaeologists tell us stories about that past that are just as ideologically loaded as any other historical narratives and are certainly not simply a neutral recounting of the facts.”7

And so in sum, whenever news flashes across one’s Twitter or Facebook feed about a new archaeological discovery that has disproved the Bible, one must remember this important fact: archaeological finds do not interpret themselves. Thus we should ask: What would make the critical historian come to this conclusion? What storyline is the historian holding to? Why did he choose to embrace that storyline instead of the Bible’s? Are there other ways of explaining the significance of this find? What we must not do is assume that the critical historian or archaeologist is working from a legitimate starting point and then try to answer him on that playing field.

The Role of Archaeology in Biblical Study

Detailing the ways in which archaeology supports the historicity of the Bible and explaining the finds that seemto contradict the Bible would take more space than this article will allow. In future issues of The Outlook, I hope to introduce readers to some different archaeological finds that are relevant to the Bible’s narrative in order to help Christians gain confidence in the historical reliability of God’s Word. For now, I will conclude this article by describing four ways, adapted from James Hoffmeier, in which archaeology can assist Bible reading.8

1. Providing a Context. Archaeology can help to illustrate the context of a given passage. The finds of archaeology help us to place the biblical stories into a concrete time and place. Hoffmeier says that ancient texts and artifacts “serve as a kind of time machine that moves us back to the world of the Bible.” Objects found in Scripture (gates, pots, houses, walls) are not always the same as what we have today. Archaeology helps us to better picture the objects used in the Bible’s stories.

2. Complementing the Text. The finds of archaeology often give insights into the past that the Bible does not cover. The Bible, after all, is selective in what it chooses to recount, not only in terms of particular historical events, but even in terms of details in a recorded event. Archaeology helps us learn about things that were assumed by the biblical writers even when they did not state them explicitly.

3. Responding to Challenges. Hoffmeier writes: “[E]rroneous theories and interpretations of biblical passages have been offered by critics of the Bible over the centuries. Archaeology offers the best way of dealing objectively with such problems.” As an example, older scholars viewed the conquest of Canaan under Joshua as a blitzkrieg, scorched-earth campaign that would have left charred remains at nearly every major city in Canaan. When critics claimed that destruction layers were lacking at these sites, scholars gave a more careful reading of Scripture and noted that in fact the older scholars had been reading into the text. A close reading of Joshua indicates that only three cities were burned: Jericho (Josh. 6:24), Ai (Josh. 8:28), and Hazor (Josh. 11:11–14). What is more, Scripture explicitly says that most of the cities were left standing so that Israel could more easily settle into them without costly and time-consuming rebuilding: “I gave you a land on which you had not labored and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant” (Josh. 24:13). Moses had prepared them for this very thing (Deut. 6:10–11). Thus archaeological discoveries gave an opportunity to restudy the biblical text and come to a more accurate understanding of God’s Word.

4. Confirming the Text. There are many instances when archaeology uncovers objects that cannot be easily explained apart from the history presented in Scripture. When this happens, we can see that the events of the Bible are also attested by external sources, exactly what we would expect for a Bible that claims to recount actual history. Of course critical scholars tend to disagree with this; they are often hesitant to agree that archaeology confirms the historicity of the biblical text. But as we noted above, this is not due to archaeological finds themselves; rather it is due to the non-biblical presuppositions and narratives embraced by critics as being authoritative by faith. Cornelius Van Til wrote that apart from Scripture, scientific and archaeological evidence cannot be adequately explained: “This is not . . . to disparage the usefulness of arguments for the corroboration of the Scripture that come from archaeology. It is only to say that such corroboration is not of independent power. . . . The facts of nature and history corroborate the Bible when it is made clear that they fit into no frame but that which Scripture offers.”9

Conclusion

And so as we conclude this introduction, let us keep in mind the true value of archaeology and not be shaken by the claims of unbelieving criticism. There are times when archaeological finds pose significant conundrums. And some of these conundrums will never be solved satisfactorily before Christ’s return. That does not mean, however, that Christians cannot offer alternative explanatory theories, provided we do so provisionally and with humility.10 Nevertheless, let us remember that even when critical historians interpret archaeological finds as the Bible’s foe, archaeology really is a friend of biblical history.

 

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1. See John D. Currid, Doing Archaeology in the Land of the Bible: A Basic Guide (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 17; Eric H. Cline, Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 132. (Note: Cline’s book is useful but is written from a critical perspective.)

2. For an indispensable though more technical recent work refuting the claim that the Bible can be true without being historical, see James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magery, Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?: A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).

3. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1: Prolegomena, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 458. Cf. Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 2d ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 79–82.

4. Two highly recommend books about defending the Christian faith presuppositionally are Richard L. Pratt, Every Thought Captive: A Study Manual for Defense of Christian Truth (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1979); Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith, ed. Robert R. Booth (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 1996).

5. Lester L. Grabbe, Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It? (New York: T&T Clark), 10, 35.

6. Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel, 2d ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2015), 8.

7. Provan et al., Biblical History of Israel, 85.

8. These four items are adapted from James K. Hoffmeier, The Archaeology of the Bible (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2008), 31.

9. Cornelius Van Til, introduction to The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, by B. B. Warfield, ed. Samuel G. Craig (Philadelphia: P&R, 1948), 37. Contrary to what is often claimed, Van Til recognized the value of evidences in apologetics. He called this “historical apologetics.”

10. For an encyclopedic resource of such believing theories, see Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

 

Rev. R. Andrew Compton
is Assistant Professor of Old Testament Studies at Mid-America Seminary in Dyer, IN.

 

Control Your Tongue

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. (James 1:26)

In a previous article, I sought to show what it means to be “slow to speak” according to God’s Word. Guarding our speech, though, requires that we learn how to control the use of our tongues for God’s glory. In the following paragraphs, I will first offer three biblical reasons why we must control our tongues, followed by three practical suggestions regarding how we may do so.

Three Reasons Why We Must Control Our Tongues

1. If we do not control our tongues, we deceive ourselves.

Since the book of James was written specifically to Christians, it is worth noting that the word anyone at the start of James 1:26 does not exclude faithful, growing Christians. On the contrary, it suggests that every person who professes to follow Christ should receive and heed the warning which follows. However, James is specifically describing a person who has convinced himself that he is religious—someone who is not genuinely submitted to Christ but who outwardly performs most or all of the expected activities of the Christian life.

This sort of person is likely to be active in attending church, generous in giving, quick to volunteer to serve others, and involved in evangelism, missions, choir, or virtually any other aspect of a church’s ministry. Someone fitting this description could conceivably be a deacon, an elder, a Bible teacher, a missionary, or even, in some cases, a pastor. Yet, to a person who is externally religious, James warns, “You may believe yourself to be a religious person, but if you do not bridle your tongue, you deceive your heart!”

As you may know, a bridle is a device that fits on a horse’s head for the purpose of controlling and guiding the horse. The bridle enables riders to steer horses away from danger and toward the proper path. In this verse, James is using the term bridle as a verb, to strongly emphasize the need for every Christian to guide, guard, and restrain our speech. In fact, James warns readers that if we don’t do this, we are deceiving ourselves concerning our relationship with Christ.

So, if there is a local church member who is active in the life of the church but who consistently slanders, backbites, and spreads gossip about others, then it’s likely, according to James, that this person has deceived himself into thinking that he belongs to Christ when he does not. People in this situation need to stop flattering themselves and believing themselves to be better than they are, and instead examine their hearts sincerely before the Lord.

By the way, we always need to be extremely cautious of people who try to spread gossip to us, because the same person who is willing to gossip to us will also surely be willing to gossip about us. One of the implications of this verse is that we probably shouldn’t even entertain a person who is known to behave this way.

It can be tricky, though, when the people who behave this way profess to be fellow Christians, because they will often share idle gossip about others disguised as prayer requests—sometimes even verbally attacking someone and then asking us to pray for them to change in some significant way. When this happens, we need to learn to say to the gossipers, “Thank you for your concern, but that’s not the kind of information that I need to hear about from you.”

We should also recognize that this sin can be demonstrated in a variety of ways. It can be practiced by children who knowingly tell lies to their parents or to others, or by parents who regularly use abusive words when they discipline their children. Parents—we must always be careful to use words which will help and not hurt our children! The “anyone” in this passage may also refer to a wife or a husband who uses hateful words to respond to marital conflict. No marriage is perfect, but when there are problems and disagreements, we must be intentional about handling them in God-honoring ways.

James is reminding us, though, that while it’s always good to do Christ-honoring things such as attending church regularly and actively serving others, such practices tell us little about what’s truly in a person’s heart. A person’s speech, more than outward practices, can serve as a more accurate barometer of what’s happening in a person’s heart and of where that person stands in his relationship with God.

So, what should we learn from this? Here, James is calling us to examine ourselves sincerely. If people believe themselves to be righteous in Christ but do not bridle their tongue by speaking in ways that honor God, they deceive themselves and need to examine earnestly their own heart, ultimately acknowledging this sinful behavior that they practice and repenting of it before the Lord. The people who are currently in this situation are not being told by God that they are truly His, but rather they deceive themselves into believing that they do, though their assumptions about their own spiritual well-being are false. Search your hearts, my friends!

Paul writes in Galatians 6:3–4, “For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work.” God expects us to test, or examine, our own behavior to see if it matches the behavior of a true child of God. In a similar way, Ephesians 5:4 exhorts us, “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking [among you].” If we belong to Christ, both our words and our actions must be notably different from those who remain outside of Christ.

To be more precise, James warns that the person who fails to bridle his tongue “deceives his heart”—as in, his own heart, even more so than the hearts of others. It’s bad enough to deceive people and to cause others to be hurt by our speech, but this verse reminds us that by doing this, we are causing the greatest harm to ourselves, as we consistently offend God with our speech while pretending He’s pleased with us.

People who claim to belong to Christ but use their words to harm others prove themselves to be liars, cheaters, and hypocrites. They hear God’s Word being taught, and are likely familiar with the ninth commandment, which commands that “you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exod. 21:16). Yet, they still use their words to destroy the lives of others.

We should acknowledge that all of us have been guilty of sinning in this way at times. We have used our tongues to praise God on Sunday, but then used the same tongues to curse others at other times. We have been worshipers on Sunday and then gossipers on Monday. However, God wants us to examine ourselves on this matter, to ask sincerely whether we have sinned with our speech, and to commit, by His grace, to change for the better.

2. If we do not control our tongue, we damage our religion, which is biblical Christianity.

When people fail to bridle their tongues and are deceived about their own devotion to Christ, James teaches, “this person’s religion is worthless.” By failing to guard our speech, we can permanently destroy our public witness for Christ. The people who hear our sinful speech will either believe that we don’t belong to God or else they’ll wrongfully accuse God of being responsible for our sinfulness. God-honoring speech reflects the “religion that is pure and undefiled before God” (James 1:27), which God calls us to live out, but an unbridled tongue can publicly defile that very religion.

Lost sinners will certainly not be drawn nearer to Christ by our unholy speech but are more likely to be pushed further away from Him. Almost as tragic is the shame which we can bring upon our churches, as people who hear our conversations are left believing that we genuinely represent the churches we attend and then judge them for our sinful behavior.

Consider how easily ungodly speech can cause damage in the work environment. When an employee frequently curses, lies, argues, tells vulgar jokes, or speaks harshly to others, it’s common for the other employees to question his character. If it becomes known that the ungodly employee claims to be a Christian and attends a particular church, ­­­­­what will the other employees be left to believe about God and about the church that he attends? Many non-believers have been discouraged from following Christ because of situations like this, reasoning “If that’s what Christianity looks like, I want nothing to do with it!”

Even the name of Jesus can be damaged (in an earthly sense) by our sinful behavior, because when we claim to be Christians, we carry His name with us wherever we go. People who know us, and who know that we profess to be Christians, will hear our ungodly talk and believe that our speech must be typical of those who belong to Christ. Worse yet, they might even presume to blame Jesus for our ungodly speech and actions, believing our behavior to be a result of His teaching and authority in our lives. How can we possibly bring such shame upon our blessed Savior’s name?

Why is it that the sin of an uncontrolled tongue is singled out here as the one which could render a person’s religion “worthless”? James, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, highlights this sin because the Bible takes this kind of sin very seriously! It is a really big deal in Scripture, because, again, our speech is an indicator of our spirituality. What you say is reflection of what you think and what you feel. That’s why, in Matthew 12:34, Jesus says, “How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”

I remember talking to a lady who was born in the Netherlands but has lived in the United States for many years. She was a bit disappointed that whenever she speaks in English she still has a Dutch accent. I said to her, “Please don’t be disappointed with your accent, because it’s an indicator of your identity.” I asked, “Are you not proud of your Dutch heritage?” She replied, “You’re right. I should be proud of my heritage.”

When I speak in English, which is not my first language, people hear my accent and recognize that I’m not originally from the United States. As Christians, we have become citizens of heaven. Now, whenever we speak, people around us should be able to hear our “heavenly accent.” Do they? Are we ever asked, “Where are you really from?” Do we speak in a way that reflects our Lord and our true eternal home?

In Colossians 4:5–6, the apostle Paul admonishes us, “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” God expects us to bring this area of our lives under submission to Him—looking to Jesus Christ as the ultimate example of how we should speak and trusting in the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts and lives increasingly into the likeness of Christ.

3. If we do not control our tongues, we destroy ourselves.

If we willfully and deliberately let our tongues go unguarded, it’s like riding a horse with no bridle or driving a car with no steering wheel. In either case, we’re sure to cause great harm to ourselves, as well as to others. Failing to bridle our tongues, though, is just as dangerous.

A number of Bible passages affirm this point, including the following:

The mouth of the righteous brings forth wisdom, but the perverse tongue will be cut off. (Prov. 10:31)

Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin. (Prov. 13:3)

Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit. (1 Pet. 3:10)

Someone once said, “Gossip not only hurts others, it can also boomerang and hurt the one who starts it.”1 If you are a gossiper, do not think that you won’t be hurt by what you do, for by not controlling your tongue, you are destroying both yourself and your family.

Three Biblical Exhortations

So, what should we do in response to the warnings given in James 1:26? Here are three biblical exhortations which we should be especially careful to heed.

1. Get down on your knees and pray to God.

In this passage of Scripture, James isn’t only addressing other people; he’s speaking to you­­­­­ and to me, as well. We should all be deeply convicted by this passage of Scripture, because all of us have failed in this area at times. We are guilty before God of sinning with our speech, and we should want to do all that we can to avoid sinning in this way again.

So, with that in mind, we should readily confess our sinful use of the tongue to God, not denying it, making excuses for it, or attempting to justify it in any way. Instead, we should be honest with God about the ways that we’ve failed Him and caused others to be hurt, and earnestly seek His forgiveness, asking the Spirit of God to help us guard our speech in the days to come.

We should pray with King David in Psalm 141:3: “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!” In a similar manner, we can sing the lyrics of one of the great hymns:

Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.

Take my voice, and let me sing always, only, for my King.

Take my lips, and let them be filled with messages from Thee.

2. Guard your tongue.

Of course, we must become increasingly intentional about doing precisely what this biblical text warns us to do—guarding our tongues. However, we must also remember that we can’t do this in our own strength, but only with God’s help will we be able to succeed in this challenging but crucial task.

Some additional Bible verses which can serve as helpful reminders to us include the following:

I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with my tongue; I will guard my mouth with a muzzle. (Ps. 39:1)

Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. (Ps. 34:13)

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. (Eph. 4:29)

These verses, and others like them which remind us to guard our speech, should become increasingly familiar to us. Even a beloved children’s song can help remind us to guard our words in a way that honors the Lord:

O, be careful little mouth what
you say;

O, be careful little mouth what
you say;

There’s a Father up above

And He’s looking down in love;

So, be careful little mouth what you say.

Some people have even found the following acronym for THINK to be a helpful tool in this journey:

T—Is it true?

H—Is it helpful?

I—Is it inspiring?

N—Is it necessary?

K—Is it kind?

In any case, we should always strive to use our tongues for God’s glory and for the edification of his church, and ask the Holy Spirit to assist us with this task.

3. Go to Jesus Christ.

As in every other area of our lives, we are to keep looking to Jesus as our ultimate example and working to imitate the way He lived during His earthly life. First Peter 2:21–23 serves as a strong reminder in this regard: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”

So, again, we must determine to make guarding our speech a high priority in our lives, since by doing so we will demonstrate our genuine faithfulness to God and our true concern for the well-being of others as well as ourselves. God shows us, through the Spirit-inspired writings of James, that an unbridled tongue is a serious sin which should not be practiced by the people of God. Let’s respond appropriately by receiving this instruction from God’s Word and speaking only words of love and grace through which Christ will be glorified.

Study Questions

1. What does unguarded or sinful speech reveal about the true condition of our hearts?

2. How is Christ’s reputation in the world affected by the words and actions of His followers?

3. How can sinful speech lead to our own destruction?

4. What does it mean to seek to have a “heavenly accent”?

5. According to James, what causes, and what results from, “worthless religion”?

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1. Roy B. Zuck, The Speaker’s Quote Book (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1997), 176. 

 

Rev. Brian G. Najapfour
is the pastor of Dutton Reformed Church, Caledonia, MI, and author of The Very Heart of Prayer: Reclaiming John Bunyan’s Spirituality (2012) and  Jonathan Edwards: His Doctrine of and Devotion to Prayer (2013). He and his wife, Sarah, have two children, Anna and James. He blogs at biblicalspiritualitypress.org.


Current Issue: November/December 2018
Volume 68 Issue 6

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