This week’s article is based on the theme of the Bible readings listed for Sunday, September 12 in the Revised Common Lectionary, and it brings out the main teaching point which is about seeking God’s wisdom, particularly before we speak.
See also The Living Word for Sept 12, a Bible study with verse by verse commentary and reflections.
• Watch this week’s introductory video Speak Words that Bless
OT: Proverbs 1: 20-33 — Fools and mockers insist their way is best and suffer the consequences, rather than listening for God’s wisdom
NT gospel: Mark 8:27-38 — How do we talk about Jesus, representing Him as His disciples?
NT letter: James 3:1-12 — Does God have our speech? We are responsible for using our words to bless others, not harm them
We live in an information age. News reports tell us about being ‘guided by the science’. Hour by hour we are informed of medal-winning record-breaking athletic exploits, breakthroughs in medical care, advances or setbacks in wars and famine relief and data on how climate change will affect all of our lives.
The question is, how do we wisely act on all this information? Is it best to vaccinate young people against a disease that is unlikely to affect them much, but causes great disruption to education? Or are there greater priorities.
This is the area of wisdom, which we could define as knowing how best to deploy knowledge.
God, who is all-knowing, also exists beyond the constraints of time and space, and knows the end from the beginning. So not only does He have all knowledge, but all wisdom also resides in Him. Add to this the free-will which we have been created with, and man, with a bit of knowledge, limited wisdom and selfish tendencies, has great capacity to misuse or misdirect what we have.
In the OT book of Proverbs, wisdom is depicted as a voice — not the voice of God, although not dissimilar — which we can hear and use for guidance, if we are so minded. In fact it is the voice of a woman, making her announcement in the busy market square. In a male-dominated society, with the noise of bartering and transactions and debating about the matters of the day, how would a woman get a hearing? But this is precisely the point. There is a different tone, not the negotiating of the merchant or the assertive opinion of the elder, but the quieter voice of God’s wisdom.
Out in the open wisdom calls aloud, she raises her voice in the public square; on top of the wall she cries out, at the city gate she makes her speech:
“How long will you who are simple love your simple ways? How long will mockers delight in mockery and fools hate knowledge?Proverbs 1:20-22
And this is the issue: we like to think we know best. “The simple” are those who just like what they know and don’t want to explore further, as the saying goes, “Don’t confuse me with the facts”.
“Fools” are those who are late adopters, resistant to what they see as new or unfamiliar — sometimes holding off the wisdom until it is too late. But where we really get into problems is where our opinion becomes our religion, defended with criticism of other positions, dismissing those who hold another view. This is what Scripture describes in many places as the arrogance of the “mocker”, too prejudiced to hear wisdom’s voice.
The point of this ancient tried-and-tested teaching is that wisom is what works, and ignoring it is heading for a tough lesson on what doesn’t work.
“But since you refuse to listen when I call and no one pays attention when I stretch out my hand, since you disregard all my advice and do not accept my rebuke, I in turn will… mock when calamity overtakes you…”Proverbs 1:24-26
This is a picture of man’s condition apart from God, where pride and independence are dominant, pushing out the desires to explore and learn which would create a balance.
God is inclined to turn upsidedown our theological understanding. Just when we thought we had it worked out, something else comes along, muddles up the jigsaw and changes the picture slightly at the same time. Then, like Peter, we find ourselves struggling to reconcile what we are now seeing with what we thought we knew before.
Jesus and the disciples are travelling around the villages north of Galilee around the new town of Caesarea Philippi, and He asks them who they are hearing people say that Jesus is. They have seen the miracles and they have heard Him teach “as one who has authority”. And there are plenty of opinions out there, from Elijah, returning to them, to John the Baptist, not dead after all.
Jesus knows the disciples have seen who He is. They have been with Him. But can they say the unsayable (these are people brought up not to even say out loud the name of God because to do so might be blasphemy). Jesus puts Peter right on the spot, and compels him to speak out what He knows.
“But what about you?” He asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”Mark 8:29
Peter is acting as the spokesman for the group, who have worked it out but are reluctant to speak it out. But Jesus tells them this is for their ears alone at the moment, and takes the opportunity to teach them about the Messiah as God’s special servant who must suffer and take punishment on Himself.
He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that He must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him.Mark 8:31-32
To Peter, this is unthinkable. The Messiah was meant to be victorious, not rejected and killed!
The problem is that Jesus is explaining what will happen to Him in a Roman execution, which cannot be understood apart from the spiritual revelation of the spiritual transaction will take place at the Cross. That will take more time and more preparation.
Then He called the crowd to Him along with His disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be My disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me.
“For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for Me and for the gospel will save it.
“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”Mark 8:34-36
For now, Jesus turns to the wider audience and tells them that they have to let their old lives die, to embrace the new life that he offers. And he uses the familiar but horrific picture of a Roman execution parade with the prisoner made to carry to instrument of their death. There’s a part of us that has to die, be put to death — that’s the picture. And there’s a part of us that Jesus will grow in a new way.
The ‘old Peter’ hasn’t quite died yet. Did Peter submit what he said to God before saying it, or did it just come out on an outburst? We could all join him in answering that question.
The teaching James brings us comes from the perspective of those who have not only believed who Jesus is, but also had the empowering experience of His Spirit. This is after Pentecost, and the expectation in the early church was very much that people were in this new life, and being empowered to live differently.
Except when the old nature refuses to die and gets the upper hand from time to time.
James is writing to Christians who are believers in Jesus and in a relationship with God through their own decision. The idea of salvation through the church and its sacraments and the decision of others is a human construct, not the Bible’s teaching, and it did not arise until some centuries later. James’ readers were living their new lives in some trepidation, never far from persecution, but strengthened and encouraged by their experience of the Holy Spirit.
However, like all of us, they regressed from time to time to old habits and attitudes.
We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.James 3:2
James uses some familiar illustrations to illustrate relatively small things that produce great effect, a ship’s runnder or a horses bridle bit, or a forest fire from a spark.
Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts…. No human being can tame the tongue.
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.James 3:5, 8, 9-12
We are responsible for what we say, James is saying, and if we are truly the Lord’s, then what we say, and our tone towards others, will reflect the Lord’s love and grace.
In the ancient world, literacy and education was not universal, and the teaching gift, or the teaching office, was prized — often for the wrong reasons. It brought a certain status with it. The early church in every area came under attack on its teachers and teaching. But James warns, don’t be drawn by the honour but be aware of the accountability we have to teach God’s word accurately and well. Those who are not ministering in the Holy Spirit’s teaching gift, who easily drift into “a different gospel which is no gospel at all”, Galatians 1:7 — we have mentioned salvation through the church — must know that ther e is a penalty for that broken trust.
Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.James 3:1
Are we conversing, or teaching, in a way that is submitted to God and His wisdom? Are we encouragers, or mockers? Respected for our capacity to isten, or resented for being strong-willed and opinionated? This is the lesson of Proverbs 1, and who we say Jesus really is will have a bearing on it, too. If we have been born again into new spiritual life and filled with God’s Spirit — people will hear that in the gracious speech that God is giving us.