James 1:16-18 “Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of all he created.”
James has written much about trials, testings and temptations. It is a heavy theme, but necessary to those who had been surprised by the weight of the cross and the hostility of the world. But this is not the only theme of the New Testament. Sometimes the impression we Christians give is that it is the most important lesson a new believer can learn is “Expect troubles !” Church members line up to tell the new convert this uncompromising message that his joy will certainly not last, and he faces many battles and hosts of disappointments on the road ahead. When that person comes to our prayer meetings he hears a catalogue of pain: sickness, hospitalisation, unbelief, family troubles, and special needs. “What an unfortunate and hard-pressed community I have joined,” he begins to think. It is all so desperately unbelieving an attitude.
“Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers,” says James with such wise affection, “Every good and perfect gift is from above.” Don’t find yourself taken up with the same spirit of discouragement that the world has of how disappointing life has turned out. Consider all that you have, the blessings of the goodness of God which you share with all men, those benefits of common grace, and then, the gifts of redemptive grace which have been heaped upon you as Christians. They all come from God ! Survey the gifts and the Giver and you will not be deceived by a heart surfeit of melancholy. James wants us to think of the greatness of God, and he brings a number of things before us.
1. GOD IS UNFAILINGLY GENEROUS
“Every good and perfect gift is from above.”
Think of the greatest gift of all. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16). We often say how differently we would have expected those words to read, that God so loved his Son that he gave him the world. But it is the world of sinners that God loves, and he gives to that world his own Son. The apostle Paul says, “He loved me and gave himself for me” (Gals. 2:20). He is the God who gives himself to every believer. Saul of Tarsus was a cruel bigot, but the Father of the heavenly lights gave up his own Son for him. It is so personal and passionate a commitment. It is not simply that God gives gifts to all men but that the Christian can say, “God is in love with me, and so he has imputed my guilt to his holy Son and not spared him from the anathema of Calvary only because he had eternally set his love upon me.” “Come to me and I will give you rest,” says the Lord Jesus (Matthew 11:28). What a rest ! He gives forgiveness of my sins, and reconciliation with alienated divinity. He gives me the righteousness of Christ, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the adoption of sonship, the inheritance of the saints and the hopes of heaven. “The gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23). This is where the Christian life begins, in a gift from God, and such a gift – the Creator of the rolling spheres, He who is ineffably sublime; the one in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge – and he’s mine: the one who is the brightness of God’s glory and the express image of his person – and he’s mine: the good Shepherd: my prophet, priest and king: the one who has no restrictions, and no boundaries save his own determination and purpose – he is given to me ! He plants his footsteps in the seas for me, and rides upon the storms as he comes to me. He nourishes and cherishes me. He comes to me in my loneliness and spreads a table for me in the presence of my enemies. He fills my cup to overflowing. When the Christian looks back he says, “Goodness and mercy have followed me all the days of my life.” When he looks ahead he says, “And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”He will present me faultless before the presence of his glory in that tremendous day. Facing the future the Christian has strong hopes and a single eye, because God promises that the flood of these good and perfect gifts will never end. “Streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise.”
Every good and perfect gift He will supply; all that we need; not all our desires, nor will he answer every prayer for prosperity, but he will judge our needs by his own wise criteria and will constantly lavish upon us the best gifts. All we need to hallow his name, to do his will, to be conformed to the image of his Son, to persevere for ever – for such ends his good and perfect gifts will never cease penetrating our lives. Many of our hopes wil be dashed, and sometimes our worse fears will be realised or even surpassed, but those gifts will never cease coming. He will supply them gloriously, so that there will be a movable feast of good and perfect things following us all the days of our lives. How we wish the church of Jesus Christ could tell the whole world these things today. How great a privilege it is to know the Lord. How marvellously God blesses. Sometimes his love simply pours over head and heart and flows down and down to the hem of our garments. His good and perfect gifts are utterly extravagant so that at times we scarcely know whether we are in or out of the body ! What great days we have had. We have known a clear view of the Saviour’s pity and firm assurance of heaven. Our hearts have been filled with the love of God
His good and perfect gifts are without number. James can say here, “My dear brothers” (v.16), and we can say that too. We have been given a new family. “No one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields – and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life” (Mark 10:29&30). We have had new brothers and sisters to turn to who have upheld us and simply been there for us. Then God has also given us strength for every service to which he has called us. We have discovered latent gifts coming to life. He has met all the financial and monetary needs incidental to working for him. He has sometimes done that extravagantly, but always conveniently. His good and perfect gifts have not been for what we might need in twenty years’ time, but they have been in due season.
Sometimes we have cried, “Lord, hold me;” sometimes, “Lord keep my heart from breaking;” “Lord, I am under pressure. Keep my mind from snapping.” Then some good and perfect gift has come, sufficient to meet that need, “God, keep me patient, or content, or courageous, or unselfish, or forgiving,” – and he has met with us. “Keep me mindful of my chief end to glorify you and enjoy you for ever,” and no matter what the stress is or what pressure we have been under God has supplied that need perfectly. All those whom James refers to as his “dear brothers” must not be deceived into doubting that the flow of God’s good and perfect gifts is going to cease. All that is loveliest and best has come to us from above, from the Father of the heavenly lights himself.
But what of the rest of you who as yet do not belong to the family of faith ? Hasn’t God been good to you ? Where is the source of all that you have enjoyed ? The blue skies above and the views from the clifftops. The song of the birds, and the bark of the fox. Eyes and ears to appreciate such beauty. The Father of the heavenly lights made it all and gave it to you. Health and energy, dear parents who love you, family and friends, an education, a sense of right and wrong, and a vocation – “my job.” These things did not come to you by chance. Kismet did not bring them into your life, but the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And have not some of you received more than these blessings ? You have been enlightened by the gospel, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age ? Aren’t these the most extraordinary good and perfect gifts ? They too have come down to you from above, from the Father of lights. He has personally and lovingly granted them to you. Then why is there no doxology ? Why the absence of the thankfulness of grace ? Why, when God has blessed you so greatly are you not lost in wonder, love and praise ? Multitudes in the world have had nothing like the gifts you have enjoyed, then why are you not saved ? Is it lack of clarity ? Ignorance of the great Giver himself ? I cannot believe it. Is it not ingratitude ? Yes, that is the reason. Like the nine lepers visited by the Saviour and given the perfect gift – cleansing of that wretched disease – you go on your way through life without a word of thanks. You take all his good gifts and give him in return the silence of unbelief. You are without excuse, and for that he will put you in hell, left to the agony of your own ingratitude for ever, and all the holy beings will say, “Righteous oh Lord art Thou when thou judgest.” There is not one person in the place of woe who has not received from God’s hands an abundance of good and perfect gifts, bestowed upon him because God loved him. The Lord is unfailingly generous.
2. GOD IS THE OMNIPOTENT CREATOR
“The Father of the heavenly lights:” (v.17) which father is this ? There is that fatherhood of God which is exclusively trinitarian, the fatherhood of the Father, the first person in the trinity, in relation to the Son, the second person. That is not the fatherhood being referred to here. That applies only to God the Father in his eternal relation to the Son and to the Son alone. No one else, not even the Holy Spirit, is the Son in this sense. God the Father is not the Father of any other in the manner in which he is the Father of the only-begotten and eternal Son.
But in relation to all men without exception there is something which we may guardedly call the universal fatherhood of God. There is a sense in which God may be said to be the Father of all men. Creatively and providentially he gives to all men life and breath and all things. In him all live and move and have their being. So Paul can say to the men of Athens, “As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring'” (Acts 17:28). The writer to the Hebrews can also speak of human fathers whom their children should respect, and then can say, “How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live !” (Hebs. 12:9). There is also the prophet Malachi who declares, “Have we not all one father ? hath not one God created us ?” (Mal. 2:10). But it is by no means certain that Malachi is alluding in those words to original creation and to God as Father of all men because of the events of Genesis 1. The prophet may indeed be, but it is not an unchallengable interpretation. But here in James 1 is this text of ours, where God is referred to as “the Father of the heavenly lights”, and this is certainly a passage to encourage us, within the defined boundaries of creation and providence, to acknowledge that God does indeed sustain a fatherly relationship to everything he has created. All men are the sons of God in so far as God made each one of them. Also, through his universal care for all men, he sends the light of the sun, moon and stars to shine upon all men. This is the reality that is being referred to here.
God is the Father of the heavenly lights. In the beginning God said, “Let there be light. And there was light.” Then we are told, “God made two great light – the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night.” (Genesis 1:16). Then the writer of Genesis immediately adds, almost incidentally, these words, “He also made the stars”. Think of the implications of that ! The vastness of space and the innumerable stars, some of whom we know about because of the slightest sounds coming from the edges of the universe picked up by radio telescopes. With no effort at all God spread them all through the heavens. He is the Father of the heavenly lights. They are created by him for the good of all men. Their presence results in the various seasons: “Summer and winter, and springtime and harvest, Sun, moon and stars in their courses above.” As ‘signs’ they will point to the living God exclusively. The delegated rule which God has given them is this, “Bear light by day and by night.” They obey their Father. So Paul can address a crowd at Lystra and say to them, “the living God who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them … has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:17). The lights of the firmament are not deities; they have no power in themselves; they cannot hear if you cry to them; they will not say to you, “I love you.” It is as meaningless to light a candle and begin to speak to that flame, or turn a switch and address a light bulb as it is to pray to the sun and moon. What personal influence can twinkling stars have over the direction of your life ? None whatsoever. Yet millions read their horoscopes every day. You overhear intelligent men in conversation, and one is saying to the other, “Do you believe in the signs of the zodiac ?” “I live by them,” says his companion quite seriously. “What are you ?” “I’m a ram,” he replies. “What are you ?” “Oh, I’m a crab,” he tells him. “That’s good,” he says, thoughtfully.
Don’t look to the stars. Look to their Creator ! Go to the first cause ! The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ made them. They owe their creation and continuance to him alone. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1). He is the Father of sun, moon and stars through his giving birth to them by his word, and they are filial witnesses to himself. “Acknowledge our Father,” they are saying to mankind. “Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. there is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the end of the world” (Psalm 19:3 & 4). They will say to you that what matters is not whether you are a crab or a ram, but are you one of Christ’s sheep, or a goat ?
The starry lights of heaven seem to all men utterly overwhelming in their glory, but to Job they were the product of the Almighty and Infinite Creator: “these are the mere edges of his ways, and how small a whisper we hear of him” (Job 26:14). We can fly in a matter of hours in a jumbo jet from continent to continent. Men have even landed a rocket on the moon and walked on its surface, and men claim that that is a great step for mankind. In some ways it is a mighty achievement, but lie back on a mountainside in the night and look up at the vastness of the lights of heaven. The farthest object we can see is claimed to be ten billion light years away. How remote it is and unattainable. If we could live for ten billion years and travel for that length of time at a constant speed of light, year after year, we would eventually reach the source of that light ! How insignificant man is. Can man make worlds out of nothing ? Can man manufacture rain or sunshine or fresh air ? Can man control hurricanes or produce earthquakes ? The universe floats like a speck in God’s eternal vision.
Don’t be overwhelmed by the immensity of space. Though the twinkling lights are billions of miles from us, and are even getting further away while each moment passes, they, like us, were fashioned by our Father. That God, who hung the lights of heaven in their places, so far apart from each other, has set eternity in our hearts. He has come so near to us in his Son Jesus Christ, and even takes up his dwelling within his people. That Son of the Father of lights has said to us, ‘I am the light of the world.’ The apostle John says that without Jesus Christ was not anything made that was made. This is the one who says, “My own hand laid the foundations of the earth, and my right hand spread out the heavens … I am the LORD your God who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go” (Isaiah 48: 13 & 17). He who made heaven can make a heaven for us, and make us fit for heaven. He who made the lights can enlighten us while we are on earth, and so energize us that our lights shine before men. The lights of the heavens have become symbols of our joy that their maker is our Saviour, and he has promised to join us one day with all the people of God in his presence, and they will be a company as numerous as those lights themselves.
The lights of the universe reveal their Creator. “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psa. 19:1). Not any kind of God but the one who is now revealed in Jesus Christ the Light of the world. Creation’s witness is plain, “for since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Roms. 1:20). To believe that a mindless accident made all this is simply incredulous. The odds against life having evolved by blind chance, says Prof. Chandra Wickramasinghe, are about the same as the odds against a whirlwind blowing through a scrap yard and assembling a perfect Boeing 747.
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.
Listen to the creed of a Christian believer confessing his personal faith in the Father of the heavenly lights. Martin Luther, the German reformer, wrote, “I believe that God has created me and all that exists; that he has given me and still sustains my body and soul, all my limbs and my senses, my reason and all the faculties of my mind, together with food and clothing, house and home, family and possessions; that he provides me daily and abundantly with all the necessities of life, protects me from all danger and preserves me from all evil.”
Since there is a Father of the heavenly lights our debt to him is to be saved by his grace from our sin, and then to serve him all our days. The reason why you won’t acknowledge the Creator is not intellectual but moral. To believe in him is to acknowledge that so far in our lives we have been defiant rebels and to bow in repentance and worship henceforth serving the Creator – who is forever praised. Amen. Our pride stops us doing that, while to follow Christ every day is just too inconvenient to us sinners. I say to you, if you will not hear the testimony of my words then every light in heaven, by day or night, will ever remind you of God our Creator. He is the Father of the heavenly lights.
3. GOD IS THE IMMUTABLE LORD
“he does not change like shifting shadows” (v.17). How different the light of God is from those lights. The sun goes down each night, and it can even be totally eclipsed. The moon waxes and wanes through its phases. Comets appear and disappear. The stars get hidden by city lighting or behind the clouds. All those lights change like shifting shadows. We are surrounded by “shifting shadows.” The world of man is utterly unstable. Jude says some leaders are like “wandering stars” (Jude 13). Isaiah says that the wicked are “like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest” (Isa. 57:20). Jacob was speaking about Reuben and he described him “as unstable as water” (Gen.49:4). There was once a crowd of people who shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David,” but within a few days they had changed their shouts to “Away with him ! Crucify him !” Men are fickle, and the psalmist warns us, “Put not your trust in princes, in the son of man, in whom is no help” (Psa. 146:3). Consider the wandering stars that men have followed this century: Charles Darwin who systematised and advanced the principle that evolution was behind the origin of species. Karl Marx who developed and advocated the notion of modern communism. Julius Wellhausen who initiated what was called ‘high criticism’ of Scripture. John Dewey the philosopher of modern education who opposed any concept that truth as an absolute standard could be attained. Sigmund Freud who promoted the view that the sexual instinct is the driving force behind human actions. John Maynard Kenyes who advocated the policies of reducing unemployment and expanding the economy by deficit spending and government interventionism. What shifting shadows they have created, and millions have lived and died following them, but now upon all of them a darkness as descended.
But God’s light never wanes. He is perpetually the same. Though all creatures are subject to change, God is immutable. He has no beginning and no ending. He can know no change. In three ways he is unchangeable.
i] God is immutable in his being. There are no mutations in God. There never was a time when he was not; there never will come a time when he shall cease to be. All that he is today, he has ever been, and ever will be. He says, “I am the Lord, I change not” (Mal. 3:6). Arthur Pink says, “He cannot change for the better, for he is already perfect; and being perfect, he cannot change for the worse. Altogether unaffected by anything outside himself, improvement or deterioration is impossible. He is perpetually the same. He only can say, “I am that I am”. He is altogether uninfluenced by the flight of time. There is no wrinkle upon the brow of eternity. So his power can never diminish nor his glory ever fade” (The Attributes of God, p.39). There is no shadow of turning in him.
ii] God is immutable in his attributes. Whatever he was when he said, “Let there be light,” he is exactly that today, and will remain so for ever. “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.” His power is unabated; his wisdom undiminished; his holiness unsullied. The attributes of God can no more change than Deity can cease to be. His truthfulness is immutable, because his word “stands firm in the heavens” (Psalm 119:89). He loves as much now as he did then; and when the light of the sun shall cease to shine, and moons stop showing their feeble light, he still shall love on for ever and ever. His love is eternal: “I have loved thee with an everlasting love” (Jer. 31:3). There is no shadow of turning in his love. Take any one attribute of God, and I will write semper idem on it – “always the same.” Take any one thing you can say of God now, and it may be said not only in the dark past, but in the bright future. It shall always remain the same. “He does not change like shifting shadows.”
iii] God is immutable in his counsel. Men’s advice alters. They change their minds. They have new plans. They did not have the foresight to anticipate some things. They did not have the power to implement what they had in mind. God has no such problems He is omniscient and omnipotent, so he has no need to revise his plans: “The plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations” (Psalm 33:11). How he advises us about the good life, and how then should we live, and what is a virtuous woman, and what marriage is, and how we can inherit eternal life – such counsels will last as long as God himself. There is no shadow of turning in God.
This year’s Edinburgh Festival was featuring a retrospect of the late Serge Gainsbourg, a French songwriter and filmmaker – a man withou Christian morals. It quoted some of his last words, “I succeeded in everything but my life.” That man had no rock to build on, and so he succeeded in nothing. What encouragement our text gives us to keep trusting in the Lord. The Puritan, Stephen Charnock, has a wonderful volume on the attributes of God, and in one place he asks, “What comfort would it be to pray to a god that, like a chameleon, changed colour every moment ?” One day green with envy; the next, red with rage; the next, purple with anger; the next, black with depression; the next, grey with boredom. Such a god would be like Baal, to whom his priests cried all day and heard nothing. But our King of love is seated on a throne of grace, and he always hears and gives to us through our union with Christ. The Lord Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever, and so God hears and blesses us for Christ’s sake.
Think of Russia just now, and the growing worthlessness of the rouble, and how one of our young people has just gone there to study for six months and been told to take all her money in dollars. The worth of the rouble is so mutable that she is told to avoid it. They cannot promise to fulfil today’s exchange rate even tomorrow. If we thought God’s promises were becoming daily less valuable, then farewell Scriptures. Farewell prayer. Farewell worship. One Christian was saying to another, “What’s the difference between us ? You – so happy in the faith while I am so often discouraged ?” “Ah,” said the other, “you just stand on the promises, and when a wind comes, down you fall. I thrown myself flat down on the promises. That’s where I lie, right on top of the promises, and so I fear no fall.” In other words there was a totality of trust in the word of God in that one which the other lacked.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon has an extraordinary message on this very theme of the immutability of God. It is outstanding because it is the very first sermon printed in the New Park Street Pulpit, preached Sunday morning January 7, 1855. That means that the man who stood in the pulpit before them was a mere 20 years of age. His text is Malachi 3:6, “I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.” If ever you get a chance to read it then it will be a vital help to you – that first volume is still in print, and I believe always will be. Make Spurgeon your pastor ! At one point he is talking of how comforting it is that God does not change his relationship with us like shadows that shift or he would have consumed us long ago when he got angry with our behaviour. But God had determined he would save us and take us to heaven: he had made up his mind and he does not change. Then Spurgeon repeats the famous story of the old woman talking to John Newton and proving to him the biblical teaching on election by saying, “Ah, sir, the Lord must have loved me before I was born, or else he would not have seen anything in me to love afterwards.” I am sure that is true in the case of every Christian here. We would have been consumed by the devil, and by our enemies, consumed by the world, consumed by our sins, by our trials, and in a hundred other ways, if the Father of lights changed like shifting shadows.
4. GOD GIVES MEN BIRTH THROUGH THE WORD OF TRUTH
“he chose to give us birth through the word of truth” (v.18). God is the exclusive Father of his Son, Jesus Christ. He is also the Father, by right of creation and providence, of all men, but he also becomes the loving Father of certain men and women when by a heavenly birth they are made his own children. What do you find here immediately ? God takes the initiative in this act. He chooses to give some people birth. Shedd has a sermon in his book, Sermons to the Natural Man, on the text, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy” (Roms.9:15). Shedd entitles that sermon, “The Exercise of Mercy Optional with God.” It is just so. James says that God chose to give us birth. It pleased God to do it. He says it to those people whom he has addressed in v.16 as his “dear brothers,” people to whom he’s writing this letter, these New Testament Christians. He tells them that the Father of lights chose to give them birth. And he stands in solidarity with them and acknowledges that he too was chosen for this new birth; “he gives us birth.” That is the explanation for the change in all these former Old Testament Jews, they became New Testament Christians though a divine birth. John Ryland wrote:-
God’s decree who formed the earth
Fixed my first and second birth;
Parents, native place, and time,
All appointed were by Him
Now you see the stark contrast with the previous section ? The 15th verse says that when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. That is one reaction. You give birth to sin and it leads to death. But when God gives birth it leads to us becoming a kind of firstfruits of all God created. James is telling us here that God does take the initiative in millions of lives, as numerous as the sands on the seashore, and he gives a new birth to them. This action is utterly undeserving. It’s mercy all, immense and free ! No one ever said “Well, I thought myself a worthy candidate to be dealt with by God and given a heavenly birth.” But the prodigal son did say to his father, “I am not worthy to be called your son.” He was not worthy to be born to such a loving father, and that is exactly how everyone feels who is born of God, that they are unworthy of such love. But everyone’s conscience tells them that sinful desire gives birth to death, and that that is absolutely just. So when people read that God took the initiative and chose to give this new birth to these sinners the question is not, “How is that fair ?” It is not fair that any sinner is born of God into his family. No one deserves that. We deserve death, but God acts in mercy to a million million sinners and gives to them a new birth.
How does he do it ? It is clear from what James says here that God’s intention is to bring sinners into contact with “the word of truth.” That phrase refers to the message of the gospel in the four other places it occurs in the New Testament. The implication is that these people have been believing all sorts of other words, false ideas, the popular theories that they’ve picked up from newspaper articles, half-understood scientific theories, occult stories, political ideology, all the vague attitudes people have about God and eternity, anything but the good news. The Gentiles walk in the vanity of their minds. Then God begins to work on them and he has this goal that they meet the “word of truth.” he performs a revolution in their thinking. So God embarks upon a life-giving mission. He becomes a mid-wife and a preacher of his own gospel. Paul says to the Corinthians, “We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us” (2 Cor. 5:20). Behind all Paul’s efforts there was the authority of God. Behind all his implorings there was the yearning and longing and pleading of God. The Lord who in the flesh had beheld the city of Jerusalem and wept over it is still beseeching. That’s why Paul said, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” (Roms. 9:3).
So it is God himself – the Father of the heavenly lights – who determines to bring the word of truth to them, in the form of a sermon, or a friend who speaks to them, or in a tract, or a booklet, in a meeting in the open air, or in a text on a wayside pulpit, or by a radio message, or reading a Gideon Bible, or sovereignly by a single word. Or God brings to their recollection long-forgotten words teasing them out from the recesses of their memories. By any and every means he is determined to bring them to the word of truth, and as they come under the influence of those words he simultaneously is operating in their hearts and lives giving them the birth from above, which opens their understanding and illuminates their minds. Then he hangs in with them, year after year, coming back to them, wakening them again when they slumber, warming them when they grow cold. Without that divine birth they remain hostile and dead in sin, utterly unable to understand the word of truth. But without the word of truth their regeneration has no explanation. You remember how it was with Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus. They were cast down at the death of Jesus Christ, but the risen Saviour caught them up and began to walk alongside them. He performed both these great acts, opening up the Scriptures to them from Moses and the prophets and showing them himself, and then also opening up their understanding. They had to have the word of truth and the birth from above. You remember how it was with Lydia. God is determined to give her the new birth, so he brings the apostle Paul into Europe, to Greece, to Philippi, and the Lord leads Paul to a river bank to meet her face to face as she is in a prayer group with other women. Paul speaks to them the word of truth, and then the Lord opens her heart to respond to it. She must have the word of truth and she must have the divine birth. The author of both is the Sovereign Lord. That is how people become Christians. You must know the word of truth, and you must be born again. So sit under the ministry that is most faithful to the truth, and cry mightily to God that he will give you new birth. “Create in me a clean heart O Lord, and renew a right spirit within me.” It is absolutely crucial that you pray something like that (but put it in your own words) and that also you listen to the word of truth. You can do nothing more life-enriching than that. You must read the Bible, and you must be born again. Those who are born twice will only die once. But those who are born once will die twice.
5. GOD MAKES US A KIND OF FIRSTFRUITS OF ALL HE CREATED
Do you remember at the harvest time in Israel how the believing people – the true Old Testament Christians – would bring the firstfruits of all their crops and take them to God’s house, the temple, and give them to the Lord in the form of his servants, the priests ? It was a powerful statement of their belief that everything they had belonged to the Lord, the lands and herds and crops, the seasons, the harvests – everything came from God. In him they lived and moved. Their breath was in his hands, and he kept them alive. Without him they would die. So they brought to him the very best of the first-fruits, and they did it with thankfulness, joy and praise. They were saying to their unbelieving neighbours, “Our God keeps his promises. If we are faithful to him then he will certainly be faithful to us, and this will be a land flowing with milk and honey.” But when people refused to bring the firstfruits to him they were saying, “This is ours. It belongs to us. We’ve worked for it and we are keeping it all. It’s the laws of nature that gives us food.”
So the firstfruits were a barometer of health in a believing people, of God’s goodness and power recognised, and God the giver worshipped. Now, under the new covenant there is no longer a holy land, with firstfruits, a temple and priests, but everything still belongs to God and we depend upon God for everything. So what are the firstfruits now ? It is we Christians. We present ourselves to the Lord. Paul reminds the Corinthians that a man called Stephanos was the first convert in that part of Greece. He was the firstfruits of the whole mighty Corinthian church (I Cor. 16:15). Then Paul tells them that Jesus Christ risen from the dead is “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (I Cor.15:20). Because he has risen all who die united to him will be raised with him – but he, as the firstfruits, is the pledge of their resurrection.
When the Old Testament firstfruits were brought to God they had to be perfect, and without a spot. So it shall be with the New Testament firstfruits. The church has been predestinated to be conformed to the image of God’s Son. God’s new birth results in making people godlike, matchless and totally released from sin. “When we see him we shall be like him,” says John (I John 3:2). When Christ presents the church to himself it will be “a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish” (Ephs.5:25). That shall be the goal for the Christian. You see it again in the great benediction at the end of Jude’s letter, “Now unto him that is able to keep us from falling and to present us faultless” to God (Jude 24). We are a kind of perfect firstfruits.
There in their midst is Jesus Christ “the firstborn among many brethren”. In other words, this constituency of the redeemed exists as a family in which Jesus Christ is pre-eminent. They are many brethren but he must have pride of place. It is a community of praise, worship and adoration which centres on Jesus Christ. He is the cause of their being there, and so the theme of that choir, as praise, worship and adoration sounds from the lips of ten thousand times ten thousand and thousands of thousands, is the worthiness of the Lamb, Jesus Christ.
But more than that. They are the firstfruits of all he created, because the Father of the heavenly lights is going to regenerate the whole heavens and the earth, and create not only new born souls and a new humanity but a new universe, a heavens and earth in which righteousness dwells. The church on earth, born from above through the word of truth, is the firstfruits of this new creation. It is the pledge to the world that God has not given up on this sinful world, but that he is building a new creation and the people of God are the firstfruits of this.
Are you looking forward to this in hope ? Are you diligent in longing one day to be found in peace in that day, because for you there is no condemnation ? You are part of that new heavens and earth. If any man is in Christ Jesus he is a new creation. He is part of it now, a kind of firstfruits of all God has created. All this is what this immutable Father of heavenly lights has done for every one his people, by a new birth and the word of truth, so that we are a kind of firstfruits of the new creation.
GEOFF THOMAS August 30 1998