A Kind of First Fruit
What I want us to try to do together in the time that we have this morning is unpack these verses that we have read together from James Chapter 1, the verses 16, 17 and 18. The book of James, like all Bible books is not simply a collection of isolates verses to which we turn to for inspiration. There is usually a theme, there is usually an argument, there is usually a position, a train of thought that the author tries to communicate to those who are his readers.
If I were to try to summarize this morning what it is that James has been saying to us in these first verses of this chapter, I think I would summarize it something like this: James is trying to teach us how to live by wisdom from above. That is to say he is trying to teach us to look at life from God’s point of view. And he says, when you look at life from God’s point of view, then you discover that God allows and trials and purposes in your life, not to destroy you, not to harm you, not even to hurt you, but to strengthen your faith to teach you perseverance an endurance and to help you grow up in Christ in every way.
Why is that so important? Because God has laid up for us a crown of life. He has a position of glory in store for us. We looked together at that last week—glory not only this age but especially in the age to come.
Does that make God the author of sin? James says no, indeed not. “God does not tempt us because He cannot be tempted himself by evil.” Temptation comes because the enemy finds something in our hearts that resonates with him and God’s purpose is to flush that out into the open and to teach us to stand against it for His glory. That brings us this morning to Verse 16.
And as we look at verses 16, 17, and 18, let’s notice how the argument continues to unfold, how James builds his case. Notice he begins with the observation of and warning us against deception.
Verse 16, “Don’t be deceived my dear brothers” Now to be deceived is to buy the lie. It is to believe something to be true when in fact it is false and Satan throughout Scripture is said to be the great deceiver. That is to say that one of the primary tools that he has in his arsenal to try to break us away from God is this thing called deception. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 11:3
puts it this way, “I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpents cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” Satan is a deceiver.
To understand and appreciate why all of a sudden James begins to talk about deception, we’ve got to ask ourselves this question: When we face difficulties, when the bottom falls out of our world, when life gets hard, what is the most likely lie that we are capable to embracing? When your world falls apart, what is the biggest temptation?
Well actually, there are two big temptations that we fall into. The first is this: That God is not good. He’s not interested in me, doesn’t care about my hurts, doesn’t care about my needs, doesn’t care about my pain. In fact He may have it in for me, I cannot and I will not trust Him. And even while I may trust Him intellectually with many areas of my life, the place where I do my real living, where I am most vulnerable and where I am most authentic, in that place I cannot believe that God will do me good. The barrier goes up, I hide myself, I try not to get too close to Him because I fear that not only will He not do me good, He will do me harm and He may even hurt me. That’s the first temptation.
The second is: if God is not good and will provide for my needs, then I need to look elsewhere to get my needs met. And in the Bible that is known as idolatry. Idolatry is looking to creation rather than to the creator. Idolatry can take many different forms. It can try to make deals with other spiritual powers in the universe. I am astonished at how many television shows there are today that are physic in nature, have you noticed that? People are hungry for the spiritual, they are hungry for a world outside of themselves. But the don’t want to come to God on God’s terms, they want to make a God they can live with and use for their own purposes. That is idolatry
Idolatry can also take the form of looking to a person or a thing to meet the deepest needs of our lives. Look at the many people whose lives are occasioned and conditioned by the significant people in their lives, because they want to draw life from their relationships. The ultimate deception in terms of idolatry is where you make yourself God. And there is coming a day when the anti-christ sits upon a throne and he will declare himself to be God and the spirit of the anti-christ is present among many, many people. Satan tries to deceive us about the character and the nature of God so that he can hook us and draw us away.
Once you understand that this is what he is talking about here in Verse 16 then you immediately see how it links to the previous verses James 1:13-15) where James talks about “when tempted no one should say God is tempting me for God cannot be tempted by evil nor does He tempt anyone.” What is the implication there? God is not good He is out to do me in. When we have bought into that lie, when in some place in our lives we do not believe in the fundamental goodness of God and His kindness towards us, then you see we become susceptible to try to find help elsewhere.
That’s why James in the previous paragraph says, “Each one is tempted when by his own evil desire he is dragged away and enticed.” Why does the fish take the worm on the hook? Because he is hungry and you and I when we are hungry and we don’t believe that God is going to be there to satisfy that need hunger in our lives, that’s when we start looking around for other food to eat, in other words, drugs or sex or alcohol or relationships or some other form of spiritual idolatry. And that’s when Satan lures us into the belief that he is interested in feeding us. But remember he’s always got an ulterior motive—he’s not interested in meeting the hunger in your life or in mine. He is interested in snagging us with his hook and dragging us away.
James says, “Don’t let anybody deceive you.” And all through Scripture that word echoes over and over and over. “Don’t let anybody deceive you.” Don’t let anybody buy you into the lie, that because God doesn’t seem to be interested in you, you can find life somewhere else. That temptation, that deception is as old as the fall of man in the garden of Eden (Genesis 3).
So James starts by warning us against deception and then he goes on to show us that the antidote to that lie is knowing God’s character. For he says in Verse 17 “Every good and perfect gift is from above. Coming down from the Father of heavenly lights who does not change like shifting shadows.”
I’ve always found that a very difficult verse to understand. Let me try to unpack it with you a little bit this morning.
Let’s begin with the phrase “Father of the heavenly lights.” I believe this is the only place in Scripture where that phrase occurs and it’s a reference to God as the creator of the sun and the moon and the starts, the bodies that give light to the world.
The purpose of light is to help you to see where you are going. It is very interesting that when God begins to create the world, though the son and the moon and the stars are not created until, I believe, the fourth day of creation, God begins His creative work with the words “Let there be light.”
Why? Because light shows up in the darkness. God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. And light represents the favour and the power of God that breathes life into all of creation.
God is the Father of light, that’s why so many people are afraid of God. That’s why a lot of people hide in the darkness, because when you draw near to God He always exposes what lies underneath. Adam and Eve when they had sinned, what was the first thing that they did? They covered themselves with fig leaves and as if that was not enough, they went and they hid under the bushes so that God, they thought, could not find them. God will always come and find you. When He finds you, He will always expose the places of your nakedness. Not to embarrass you, not to humiliate you, but because you can never be comfortable in His presence until the sin is processed, dealt with, repented of and forgiven. God he says is the creator of all the world and He gives light and life to everything that He has made. The sun and the moon and the stars are the physical bodies in nature that embody that reality for us on a physical level.
But there is a problem—the light that we get from the sun and the moon and the stars is a changing light. The sun rises in the east, sets in the west. The light of the sun can be hidden by the clouds. The light of the sun and the moon can be eclipsed when we experience a lunar or solar eclipse. The light of the stars can twinkle, we can lose sight of them. They are here today, but they are gone tomorrow. They cast shifting shadows and so James goes on to say that God while He is the Father of heavenly lights does not change like shifting shadows. One of the outstanding characteristics of God is that while He is the giver of light and that is reflected in the creative order of nature, He does not change.
God, in Malachi 3 says “I the Lord do not change and therefore you the sons and the daughters of Jacob are not destroyed.” Theologians call that they immutability of God and while there are many, many areas and places in which God is immutable or unchangeable, let me very quickly highlight three very significant areas for you and for me.
The first is God is unchanging or immutable in His being. That is to say He never changes who He is. He’s always been there, He will always be there and because He is already completely perfect He cannot ever change. There are many things that God cannot do because they would be in violation of His very being. That’s hard for us to understand, hard to us to get our heads around. As we will see in a few moments, there are huge practical implications for our dealings with Him and our relationship with Him. God does not change in His being.
Secondly, neither does He change in His character. He is not only good, He is good all the time. That is to say, God’s fundamental character is a character of love. One of our confessions in the back of our hymn books, the The Belgic (or Netherlands) Confession of Faith, the first article, tells us “He is the overflowing fountain of all that is good.”
James starts this verse by saying that “Every good and perfect gift is from above.” Anytime you experience anything good in your life. Anytime there is something in your life that moves your forward in the purposes of God, it comes from the hands of God, there is no ounce of sin, selfishness, pride, or arrogance whatever in God. He is unchanging in His character from everlasting to everlasting. “You are God eternally” Says Scripture. God does not change in His character.
And then, thirdly, God never changes in His purposes. The plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of His heart through all generations. God doesn’t start something and then not finish it. God cannot be bullied, cajoled, bargained with, fought with. God will not fundamentally change the purposes of His heart and of His mind and there isn’t anybody big enough in the universe to deflect Him from His chosen course of action. He is God and He does perfectly well, what He perfectly will. God is immutable, unchangeable in His being and in His character and His purposes. And you say, “Well, what’s the big deal?” Think it through with me a little bit:
Why in human relationships are we so loathe to give our hearts to one another? Why do so many of us learn to guard the deep places of our hearts? Well, it’s usually because somewhere along the line we have opened up our heart to somebody and somebody has said, “you know, I’m going to be there for you.” It might have been a parent, it might have been a lover, it might have been a friend. They swore up and down, “I’ll be there, trust me.” And then when push comes to shove they disappear. Maybe they die, and likely they had not control over that. But sometimes they just get tired of us, they dump us, walk away.
God is not like that. God never changes. Other people, we enter into relationships with them but it’s like walking around on eggshells, you never know what kind of mood they are going to be in. Are you going to be hugged or are you going to be slugged? A lot of people, as somebody said, are like chameleons. They change colour with every moment. Green with envy, red with rage, purple with anger, black with depression and gray with boredom.
A lot of us we learn to see which way the wind is blowing before we enter into relationships because it’s too dangerous and it’s too risky. And then when it comes to people, one of the things that happens of course, is that people often change their mind. They make a commitment and they make a promise. They swear to be faithful to you, they commit themselves to your movement or your organization or to your cause and then something better comes along or they get tired or weary. The world is full of people that make all kinds plans but there are a lot of towers that get only half built and then people walk away from it and somebody else is left holding the bag. And people are changeable. They mutate because we are all part of frail humanity
But God’s not like that. He is immutable in His being, in His character, and in His purposes. What God commits Himself to, which is your well-being and my well-being, nobody can stop God from getting there because He has set His heart and His mind on it and His purposes stand forever.
So then James goes on to spell out for us not only with a warning against deception, not only that the antidote to that is knowing truly the character of God, how He is unchanging and what His purposes are. Then he spells out what that purpose is. He says the church is to be a kind of first fruits. Listen to Verse 18. “He chose to give us birth through the Word of Truth that we might be a kind of first fruits of all He created.” Let me take a few moments and try to unpack that verse with you because it says a lot more than is immediately evident.
He starts by saying that God chose to give us birth. Now there are three ways in which God can be said to be a Father. The first way is God is a Father eternally of the second person of the Holy Trinity who we know as Jesus. From everlasting to everlasting God has always been a Father, which is to say, He always had a son. God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit have always been together, they have never been lonely. They’ve always known how to do community. And the reason God begot Himself a son eternally is because of His character. He is so filled with overflowing life, He so has a desire to share Himself, that eternity passed, He shared Himself with His son Jesus, who is made in His image and in His likeness and with whom He shared all His glory. He is the Father of the Lord Jesus.
But more than that, He can also be said to be the Father of all creation. That is to say, all
creation came forth from the hand of God. And as you’ve heard me say before, the reason that
God created the world was the same reason many in eternity passed and we can’t get our heads around that, He begot His eternally begotten son the Lord Jesus. Because God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, they were so full the love, they said, “This is too good to keep to ourselves. We need to create a human race in our image and in our likeness with whom we can share our love, with whom we can share our glory.” And so the Father said “Let’s do this.” And the Son said, “let me get at it and carry it out,? and the Holy Spirit said, “I’ll be the power that makes it happen.” And so in Genesis 1, you have the whole created order coming to life. God says, “Let there be life and let the waters separate and let there be dry land.” And all of creation appeared and on the sixth day the crown of creation of Adam and Eve made in the image and the likeness of God with the mandate to have dominion over all the works of God’s hand.
If you want to understand even a little bit of what a crown of life looks like, then look at Adam and Eve before the fall, and you have a little bit of what it looks like when God shares His glory with His children. God is the Father of all of creation in the sense that He made it and He supports it and He sustains it even to this day.
But there is still a third way in which God is a Father. And that is in the begetting of spiritual sons and daughters. You know the story how Adam and Eve turned away from God, the whole world fell into sin, walked away from home, defied God’s authority, was busy building kingdoms that stand in opposition to the authority of God. God could have swept the whole world into hell and nobody could have faulted Him. We ask ourselves the question, how can God allow the kind of disasters that happen all over the world even today?
The answer is that God doesn’t owe anybody anything because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and whatever judgments you see in the world today are but a foretaste of what is going to happen when God comes to judge the living and the dead. But remember, God’s love never changes. God’s being never changes, His character never changes, His purposes never change and so from the very beginning God has been busy trying to bring a creation back to Himself.
He did that by sending His son into the world, living our life, dying our death, being raised from the dead, so that when you and I repent of our sins and by faith are joined to Jesus, we are born anew into the Kingdom of God, you cannot see the Kingdom of God unless you are born again. The natural man can only see the natural. God is but a vague notion far removed from his heart that when Jesus comes into your life, when you receive the power of the Holy Spirit, your spiritual eyes are opened and all of a sudden you know that you know that you know that not only is God real, but that He loves me and He’s got a plan and a purpose for my life.
That is the new birth and we may not always feel it and we may not always experience it in the same way, but when the light has been turned on, you know the light has been turned on. Scripture comes alive in a way that it has never come alive before, spiritual reality comes to life in a way that it has never come before. Notice the emphasis here on God’s choice. He choose us. He chose to give us birth. No more than you or I had anything to say about the first time we were born in the natural, we have nothing to say about being born anew in the spiritual. God plants His life deep within our hearts and that seed when it falls on good soil and is nurtured and tended to, begins to transform us and it begins to change us. That is God’s purpose. He chose to give us birth and then he goes on to say how he does that. He does that by the Word of Truth.
Now remember, truth is the way things really are. They way things really are as opposed to what we think and what we feel. And it stands in stark contrast to the life of the deception that we talked about before. Three times in the New Testament there occurs the phrase “the Word of Truth.” Each time it refers to the gospel message of Jesus. Here’s a good question for you to ponder.
Let’s say you have five minutes to answer someone who asks you what the message of the Gospel is. What makes Christianity unique? What are you going to say? Well, what you want to do, is you want to convey the Word of Truth. And the Word of Truth goes something like this. In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth and God in the greatness of His love made creation good. And then it fell into sin, came under judgment, but God so loved the world that He chose to redeem the world and He sent His Son, so that by His death and by His resurrection and through faith in Him, our sins can be forgiven and we can be restored to God and share with Him eternal life beginning now and come into completion in the age to come. That’s the message, that’s the Word of Truth. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
And whenever that Word of Truth, now listen carefully, however it is conveyed, and it can be conveyed in the reading of Scripture, it can be conveyed setting like this where somebody tries to explicate Scripture, and to apply it to our lives. It can happen in a moment of prayer, it can happen in the context of your daily activity, where all of a sudden the Holy Spirit shines the light within your heart. There are a million ways in which God can speak into your life and into my life. But when that Word, now listen to this, meets up with the chosen, that is to say, when that Word meets up with soil that is fertile and good, which really is the love for truth, then it takes root and when that is watered and that is tended to, it has a power to transform and to change our lives.
And in that way, it stands in sharp opposition to what he said in the previous section where he says, “Desire after it is conceived gives birth to sin and sin when it is full grown gives birth to death.” You see the difference? In each case a seed is being planted, and when the seed of sin is planted, you don’t pluck, we don’t put in to death by faith in Jesus, but instead we nurture it, and we feed it. It grows until one day it destroys us and kills, if not in time then in eternity.
So too, the Word of God, which is more powerful than a two edged sword, which pierces to the separation of the spirit and soul, bone and marrow, when that lodges in our souls, and it’s allowed to grow there, it will change our lives. It may not be immediately evident, may not look like much, but just as sure as a pregnant woman, all things being equal, eventually gives birth to a child, so you and I give birth, we either give birth to death or we give birth to life. God chose to give us birth through the Word of Truth. Why? That we might be a kind of first fruits of all that He created.
Now, if you know your Old Testament, you will know that the phrase “first fruit? is rich with biblical meaning. It refers to the first of the new harvest, when Israel came into the promised land and they began to harvest the barley harvest, the first thing they had to do was to take a sheaf of that barley and present it to God in the tabernacle as an offering to God. And every time they did that, they testified to two biblical realities:
The first is that all life comes from God, He is the one who meets our needs, He is the one who made this crop grow, He is the one who as our good God has promised to provide all our needs and because of that we are dedicated to serve Him and obey Him and to be His people. Those two things went together. And then secondly, they declared the rest of the harvest would follow. Because the first fruits was an indication not only that their immediate needs were being satisfied, but that God would be with them. And that come the end of the fall season all the crop would have come in and we don’t have time to deal with it this morning, but all of this is incorporated into the Old Testaments feasts of Israel. Two thirds of which have already been fulfilled historically in the person of Jesus.
The last feast which is the Feast of Tabernacle when the whole harvest comes in has not yet taken place historically will only take place when Jesus comes back, sends His angels out into the harvest field of the world and He will separate the wheat from the chafe and the weeds from the grain. And so what James does here writing to a Hebrew audience who understands all these realities, he says “God chose you to give you life by his Word of Truth in order that you can be a kind of first fruits of all that He created.”
Practically speaking meaning two things, the church is to model a relationship with God before the eyes of the world. We are a new harvest. When all the rest of the world walks in doubt and unbelief and rebellion against God is and busy from early morning to late at night trying to build their own kingdoms, refusing to listen to God, turning away from Him in anger at the slightest provocation, the church having been born anew by the Spirit of Jesus, knowing that God is their Father, that He has for them a crown of life and a plan and a purpose, they make it their destiny and their aim to serve Him come hell or high water, knowing that it is better to die obediently than to live disobediently.
God raises up the church to model a relationship with the Father in heaven, who loves them, understands them, is committed to them and promises to provide their every need. These parents of the baptized children this morning, they are but a small reflection, as are your parents and mine, of what God’s love is towards His kids and how He desires them to be a reflection of His character and His nature.
But there is more, the church is also the key to the redemption of the world. Because remember the first fruits are an indication the rest of the harvest is to follow. And if Jesus and His resurrection was the first fruits represented in the Old Testament by the Feast of the First Fruits, then the church is a kind of first fruits reflected in the Old Testament Feast of Pentecost, whereby the harvest was presented before God.
One day you are going to have the Feast of Tabernacles and all the world will be harvest for the glory of God, every knee will bow. Every knee that does not bow will be removed from His Kingdom and thrown in everlasting fire. And God will have His Kingdom and He will have it eternally. And His strategy, is to raise up the church. Think of the church as the prototype, once the prototype gets engineered and God can demonstrate to the principalities and the powers His wisdom that He can truly regain for Himself a people who will love Him not because of what they get from Him but because He is worthy of their love, then the end can come and all creation will know forever and ever, that God’s love and power and grace has triumphed to the glory of His name.
It’s not about just you going to heaven. It’s not about, “oh well, I have a better life if I am one of God’s children.” Yes, all of those things are important, but God’s purposes are much grander than that. His purpose is to raise up the church as a witness to the nations. And you may say to yourself, “Well, now whether I succeed in standing up to temptations or yield to it, whether I remain faithful to God, or give in particularly when nobody is looking, it isn’t really going to make any difference.” Well, I tell you, collectively and individually it makes a huge difference.
Because it was Jesus whose faithfulness unto death that broke Satan’s power and the church overcomes by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony and because they love not their lives even unto death. We are the first fruits of a new harvest and all heaven and hell watch us keenly to see how you and I run the race.
We say, “I can’t do this. You don’t know how I struggle, you don’t know how weak I am.” I rather suspect I do, I know how I struggle sometimes and how weak I am. But it’s not about you, it’s not about me. It’s all about Jesus who rose and died to demonstrate to all of the universe that He is Lord of all and that He will save to the uttermost those that call on His Name. And if we will but present ourselves to Him as a living sacrifice, He who began a good work will surely bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ.