God’s Best Gifts, Part 4

If you are a Christian, then you enjoy the blessings of the Lord. Yes, you! You walk in His blessings, everywhere you go, every day of the week. All the time, God is giving you good things. And, of course, because they come from God, you know that you don’t really deserve them. You may be wondering what blessings I’m referring to. I guess it really all depends on your perspective. Consider this:

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:17 | NIV84)

Let’s take a closer look at this oft-quoted verse. Every word is literally dripping with meaning and importance. In fact, you need to read the verse directly preceding it to grasp its full meaning. Verse 16 is short, but important:

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. (James 1:16 | NIV84)

When you read a verse like that, you should be asking yourself, “Who’s being deceived about what?” The “who” bit is easy. James is writing to Christians, his “dear brothers.” But what are the brothers being deceived about, anyway? James had been writing to his “dear brothers” about negative things. Things like the way life often treats us. It’s not fair. There are people who have, and people who don’t. There are Christians who are being persecuted on account of their faith in Jesus Christ. That’s hardly fair. Reading parts of James 1, we are reminded of the lament of the psalmist:

For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For there are no bands in their death: but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men; neither are they plagued like other men. (Psalm 73:3 – 5 | KJV)

Some of James’ “dear brothers” must have been feeling that way, so he gives these discouraged believers some good advice:

The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower. (James 1:9-10 | NIV84)

In other words, regardless of their lot in life, believers need to have a God-centered perspective; a perspective that places God and God’s will right in their view of everything. So, whether you have much or hardly anything, you should be content, at least to the extent that you don’t blame God for your state. Another way to think about verses 9 and 10 would be take the view the apostle Paul adopted regarding life. If any Christian had an up-and-down life, it was surely Paul:

I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:11-13 | NIV84)

That’s a God-centered worldview right there. No matter how good Paul had it or how long the next rough patch would last, Paul just knew that God would give him strength to see him through. And it’s this attitude that James wanted his “dear brothers” to have. Sure, they were suffering some, but it was important for them to not be deceived. Rather than blaming God for their current state, they needed to see God as the source of all that is good, not bad. God doesn’t make bad things happen to the people He saved and loves. God doesn’t manipulate your life so as to cause you to sin. He doesn’t operate like that. If you believe that kind of nonsense, then you are, to use James’ word, “deceived,” that is, you aren’t thinking straight!

Far from being the source of hard times, God only gives good things, as verse 17 tells us. In fact, that phrase, “every good and perfect gift” is vitally important. It tells us something of God’s blessings. First, anything beneficial that comes into the life of the believer comes from God. That’s the implication of the word “every.” It’s an all-inclusive term. Regardless of the apparent source of the good thing, it ultimately came to you from God. A good verse to keep in mind that will help you understand what James is getting to is this one:

A good man leaveth an inheritance to his children’s children: and the wealth of the sinner is laid up for the just. (Proverbs 13:22 | KJV)

You are “the just,” if you are a Christian, so regardless of where your blessing seems to come – a check from the IRS or a bonus from work – the wealth of the world is yours. Or rather, God has a right to funnel it to His people, for their benefit.

That brings us to the next word, “good.” God’s gifts are “good,” a word that means “useful,” “beneficial,” and “profitable.” In other words, if a thing comes to you that helps you out in some way – solves a problem or gets you out of a jam – then it came from God. The other word James used to describe God’s gifts is “perfect.” That’s a wonderful word that means “complete,” and “lacking nothing.” God gives us just what we need, when we need it, and what He gives will always work and there will always be enough of it.

And you can count on God to be this generous and thoughtful all the time because He doesn’t change. He’s always the same.

Long before James wrote to his persecuted, frustrated friends, there was a group of Jews in a particularly bad state.

Not forgotten

History tells us that around 586 BC, the Jewish exile to Babylon began. Jew would tells us it began a little earlier, around 597 BC, but without regard to exact date of the exile, it lasted 70 years. During this time, Jerusalem and the temple lay in ruins. Much of Judah was steam rolled by Nebuchadnezzar when he plowed through the land not once but three times, taking citizens back to Babylon and resettling them there. In those intervening seven decades, the Jewish population in Babylon grew and grew and while they would eventually prosper to some degree while in exile, and while many of them remained utterly faithful to the beliefs of their forefathers, there was a sense that some day they would return to Jerusalem. This had been promised to them by the prophets, and many – though not all – clung to those promises and passed them on to their children.

The day came when a small group of Jews returned to Jerusalem, tasked with rebuilding the wall and the Temple. What they saw when they got close to the old home town was, to say the least, devastating. There was almost nothing left. A pile of overgrown rubble.

It was a big job, but the builders got to it and at last the project began to take shape. There was a lot rejoicing when the foundation was laid. At last, in spite of all the odds, the small group of expatriates was getting it done. But, not everybody was happy.

But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. (Ezra 3:12 | NIV84)

So, it was a time of mixed emotion, and it’s understandable that the older folks weren’t as excited as the young people. This new Temple was a shadow of Solomon’s Temple. The young people had never seen that one. But the memories of its grandeur were emblazoned on the minds of the elderly. They were sad, not glad.

The Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of the the rebuilding of the walls around Jerusalem and of the Temple. By the time we get to Nehemiah 8, the Temple had been rebuilt and many homes in Jerusalem had been rebuilt and other towns and cities were being resettled. From Nehemiah 8 on, we read about a “back to the Bible moment,” or a mass religious revival.

The priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers and the temple servants, along with certain of the people and the rest of the Israelites, settled in their own towns. When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns…. (Nehemiah 7:73 | NIV84)

The cusp of revival

But, they didn’t stay in there towns. And Nehemiah, with his job done, could have returned to his job back in Susa. He was not really an architect or a builder, but a cup-bearer to king Artaxerxes. He had a comfortable life to which he could have returned. But he didn’t because t here was more to be done:

all the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel. So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. (Nehemiah 8:1-3 | NIV84)

Nehemiah’s big concern was for the spiritual well-being of the Jews. He, a cup-bearer from Susa, along with Ezra, the spiritual leader of the returning exiles, ministered to the spiritual needs of the people by teaching them the Law, celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles, and by leading the people in rededicating themselves to the Covenant.

It might be difficult for you, a 21st century Christian (assuming you are a 21st Christian), to understand how reading the books of the Law, not exactly a crackling read, could induce a religious revival. And yet it did. From the Exodus to the Crucifixion, the believing Israelite’s relationship with God was governed by the Mosaic Covenant. The written code didn’t create a relationship between God and Israel, but it did serve to regulate it. That spiritual relationship was by faith, even back then.

When Ezra opened the book, something remarkable happened:

Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. (Nehemiah 8:6 | NIV84)

The “amen” was shouted in agreement and faith with the prayers that had been prayed and then the people, as one, bowed low in worship. This was no show. This was a heartfelt, sincere expression of their humility before their awesome God.

Power of the Word

And then it happened.

They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read. Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is sacred to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. (Nehemiah 8:8-9 | NIV84)

The Word of God wasn’t just read aloud, but it was “preached,” it was expounded upon so as the people could understand not just the words but the meaning behind the words. This clear exposition of the Word moved the people – it convicted them of sin in their lives and that resulted in repentance.

This is a valuable lesson for us to learn. In our day, so much preaching and so many elements of church service are based on feelings and emotions. This isn’t a diatribe against those things, by the way. God gave us feelings and emotions for reasons, so they are part of who we are. The powerful exposition of God’s Word often brings about a deep conviction of sin. Repentance, though, must not be an emotional response only. That’s self-centered and that kind of remorse is not acceptable to God. Rather, it’s important to note what Ezra and the Levites did when the people emoted. Essentially, they told the people to stop it. Instead of making repentance all about how you feel, it should be about how wonderful God is and how profound His forgiving goodness is. That’s why they were told to do the exact opposite to what they were doing.

Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10 | NIV84)

This verse is remarkable on a couple of levels. First, following the reading and teaching of the Word, a spiritual awakening occurred – people were moved to repentance and worship. But that’s not where it ended. If the Word of God means anything to you, it will make you want to DO something for others. It will make you want to serve God. Here, Nehemiah made sure all the people enjoyed a great feast, even those who were unprepared. It was like a massive potluck dinner! Nobody was left out.

But second, and of great import, was that because this particular day was sacred to God, the people needed to stop grieving – stop feeling sorry for themselves – and rejoice. They probably didn’t feel like rejoicing – they were grieving and mourning – but those are self-centered emotions. Rejoicing occurs when a person makes a determined effort to take their eyes off of themselves and look to God. When you do that, you can’t help but rejoice. And here’s the kicker: the joy of the Lord is your strength. In other words, His joy is IN you and that joy makes you strong. When you don’t feel like rejoicing, God gives you His joy, which gives you strength to rejoice. This was something Paul knew all-to-well:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! (Philippians 4:4 | NIV84)

Rejoice in the Lord always. Always, no matter how you feel or what’s going on around you. Rejoice in Him and you will be strong. And you will make the world a better place. Dennis Prager, in writing about happiness, wrote something very profound. Happiness and joy are not quite the same things, but what he wrote of happiness certainly applies to joy:

For much of my life, I, like most people, regarded the pursuit of happiness as largely a selfish pursuit. One of the great revelations of middle age has been that happiness, far from being only a selfish pursuit, is a moral demand.

When we think of character traits we rightly think of honesty, integrity, moral courage, and acts of altruism. Few people include happiness in any list of character traits or moral achievements.

But happiness is both.

Happiness — or at least acting happy, or at the very least not inflicting one’s unhappiness on others — is no less important in making the world better than any other human trait.

Just imagine what the world would be like if Christians, who ought to be happiest people on earth anyway, did that? And we can, because God gives us the strength to do just that. Rejoice in Him and marvel at how other people respond.

The Word of God brings you joy. John wrote about this:

We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete. (1 John 1:3 | NIV84)

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