Rescue the Perishing (James 5:19–20)

Hero visions of rescuing strike a spark in the best part of our imagination. We honor brave warriors who rescue fellow soldiers under fire on distant battle fields. We honor local heroes who rescue people from death by drowning or fire in our own towns. But the work of restoring wayward Christians is an even more important rescue work. I like how The Message puts it:

“My dear friends, if you know people who have wandered off from God’s truth, don’t write them off. Go after them. Get them back and you will have rescued precious lives from destruction and prevented an epidemic of wandering away from God.” (James 5:19–20, The Message)

James shows us various reasons that people wander from truth. They may…

  • waver in the folly of of divided loyalties (Jas 1:5–6)
  • go astray into the lustful feedback loop of temptation (Jas 1:14–20)
  • suffer under the lash of someone’s unbridled tongue (Jas 3:1–12)
  • get eaten by bitter, ambitious, selfish jealousy (Jas 3:13–16)
  • succumb to the devil and withhold their loyalty from God alone (Jas 4:7–10)
  • grumble their way into unbelief (Jas 5:7–11)
“The wage of the righteous leads to life, the gain of the wicked to sin.” (Proverbs 10:16, ESV)

These spiritual hazards call for spiritual attentiveness. We must not ignore the spiritual condition of those around us when temporary failure threatens their eternal soul. As James says, “someone should bring him back.” That’s the proper role of spiritual people vis-à-vis sin.

Sometimes so-called spiritual people become the quickest and most persistent levelers of charges. They don’t have a taste for the sweet honey in the rock; instead, they have a nose for trouble—and no empathy for troubled souls. But Paul says, “if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. Watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:1–2). Let’s hear Peterson’s reinforcement of this idea.

“Live creatively, friends. If someone falls into sin, forgivingly restore him, saving your critical comments for yourself. You might be needing forgiveness before the day’s out. Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law.” (Galatians 6:1–2, The Message)

James says, “Remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (Jas 5:20). The sinner walks the pathway of death (5:20a). The way a person takes when he wanders from truth is by definition the “way of death”; the wages of sin is death. That is true for the one who has made a life-long specialty of filthy practices, when that path has become a well-traveled dark rut in your life. But the way of sin is just as deadly if it’s a new and unfamiliar path into which you’ve wandered in the dark night of your soul’s backsliding. “Death, death, death” is the judgment hanging over anyone who finds himself at the far end of the way of error.

But Jesus came “to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed” (Luke 4:18). Death must claim no more dominion over that wandering brother in Christ. We should exhort the backslider, “This is the way, walk in it.” We should encourage the backslider—if we dare—“Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1).

“Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.” (Proverbs 10:12, ESV)

The one who restores the sinner will “cover over a multitude of sins” (Jas 5:20b). Notice that this sin-covering is for reconciliation. Sin-covering does not condemn the one in fault to hopeless destruction; instead, reconciliation moves in the direction of deliverance from death. Sin-covering does not excuse sin as a matter of little consequence; instead, it recognizes that if recovery is not effected, death will result. Sin-covering is not the pagan’s “tolerance” that denies guilt; instead, it is the believer’s compassion that seeks Christ’s forgiveness for the sinner.

We have the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18). That ministry should flow from hearts of people who love with a love that never fails (1 Cor 13:4–7). Paul talks of love in ways that speak to this issue of restoration: A believer who loves enough to exercise the ministry of reconciliation…

  • is patient with someone who wanders from the truth.
  • is kind enough to cover over a multitude of sins.
  • does not envy the worldly attainments of people who are languishing in the error of their ways.
  • does not boast of one’s own spiritual excellence.
  • is not proud of one’s own spirituality
  • is not rude to sinners despite their folly.
  • is not self-seeking but rather seeks to “turn a sinner from the error of his way [and to] save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (Jas 5:20).
  • is not easily angered, not even with that rage which some seek to sanctify with the label “righteous indignation.”
  • keeps no record of wrongs but hopes to lead the wayward back to the place where there is “no condemnation.” He longs to bring people to an altar of repentance where the record of sin is cleared by Christ’s own justification (Rom 8:1).
  • does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth—and there is no truth that makes him nearly as happy as the truth that sets men free (John 8:32).
  • always protects: “[saving people] from death and covering over a multitude of sins” (Jas 5:20).
  • always trusts, exercising that kind of faith which casts itself on Christ and can encourage doubters to do the same.
  • always hopes in the effectiveness the gospel of liberty.
  • always perseveres, knowing it’s a life-or-death business.

As we near the Advent season, during which I’ll blog every day, I think of Jesus in terms of this blog’s theme, “Rescue the Perishing.” In our case, rescuing the perishing means extending a hand of reconciliation and welcome back into the family of God. In Jesus’s case, it taking up the role of the Suffering Servant (Isa 52:13–53:12). He could have extended a lordly invitation from the dignified glory of his throne on high.

Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.”

Phil 2:7–8

In the coming days, this blog will celebrate the many ways the Old Testament points forward to the work of Jesus Christ. If you haven’t already checked out what’s involved, here’s the Introduction I posted about a month ago. If it’s something you would like to follow, at least during Advent, click one of the subscribe buttons. If you would like to do this with small children, I post a link to a PDF containing all the devotionals that I wrote for that level.

Jesse Tree: Introduction

CHILDREN’S VERSIONIf you  would like to do this with smaller children, a version suitable for them can be had HERE.

The “Jesse Tree” traces the messianic hope throughout the Bible up until the birth of the Christ child. The reference to “Jesse” comes from Isaiah’s expression of messianic hope.

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.

Isaiah 11:1
Jan Mostaert (1475-1522/23), "The Tree of Jesse"
Jan Mostaert (1475–1522/23), “The Tree of Jesse”—While he is sleeping a tree is growing from Jesse’s body with on it the twelve Kings of Judah, the ancestors of Christ, and Mary with the Christ child in the top. The kings are: David, Solomon, Rehoboam, Abijah, Asa, Jehoshaphat, Jehoram, Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah and Manasseh. On either side of Jesse two prophets are standing, probably Isaiah and Jeremiah. To the left a nun in a white habit, probably from the Order of St.Mary Magdalene, is kneeling. She is the donor of the painting.

Following that line of hope, and hanging an ornament for each day’s lesson throughout the Advent season is a good change-up from opening a little window and eating a chocolate from a Hallmark Advent calendar—and it definitely beats the “twelve days of Christmas.”

These blogs first began as something my wife and did for our two daughters and our young grandchildren. My wife made representative tree ornaments for each of the characters that will follow in this blog, and I wrote a short lesson for each. My daughters used them with our grandchildren, and soon their friends and friends of friends were asking if they could get a copy. So we produced a booklet and some charts for creating decorations each day. Then some of the mothers asked for an “adult” version; so I wrote the original version of these blogs for them.

I’ll follow the same set of lessons that we did for the parents with children, and I won’t modify them much for “Theologizer.” My thinking is twofold:

  1. Many of you have children or grandchildren, or you’re leading small groups or congregations of people with children. Perhaps you’ll want to share this tradition with them during this Advent season. 
  2. Even if you’re reading these on your own, it might be useful to see what the biblical-theological approach looks like in a simple form that’s addressing regular congregation members—or even sympathetic unbelievers who love Christmas.

So, I’m hoping you’ll enjoy engaging in some daily biblical-theological reflection at the simple level that’s appropriate for parents with children.

Biblical Theology of the “Jesse Tree”

Scripture: Isa 11:1–10

The Bible says, “God chose [Jesus] as your ransom long before the world began, but he has now revealed him to you in these last day” (1 Pet 1:20).1 In fact, God says, “Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes” (Eph 1:4). God was working his plan of salvation long before Jesus was born in Bethlehem. And that’s what we want to highlight throughout Advent.

Anointing David
François-Léon Benouville (1821-1859), “Samuel sacrant David”

Jesse had seven sons. Some of them may have seemed impressive sorts to Samuel, and God had sent him to anoint one of them as king. But God told Samuel, “Don’t judge by [their] appearance or height…. The LORD doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). In fact, God had chosen Jesse’s youngest son to become Israel’s greatest king. David was the first royal branch from “the Jesse tree.”

Through thick and thin, the promise of an eternal Davidic dynasty stood true, whether Israel and the Davidic dynasty measured up to God’s expectations or not. Even when the Davidic kings broke covenant with God, his promise to David and his descendants remained in effect. So Isaiah could promise, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit…. In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious” (Isa 11:1, 10 ESV).

This figurative language about stumps, shoots, and branches promised renewal of the Davidic dynasty. Out of the apparently dead “stump of Jesse” there would sprout a new shoot (Isa 11:1). This new branch would bear “fruit from the old root,” that is the promise to David’s family would yet come to fruition in a “Son of David” (e.g., Matt 1:1). He would rule well, because God’s Spirit would rest on him, enduing him with all the attributes of a righteous king: “the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and fear of the LORD” (Isa 11:2).

A righteous king should “Fear the LORD and judge with integrity, for the LORD our God does not tolerate perverted justice, partiality, or the taking of bribes” (2 Chr 19:7). So just as God would not look on outward appearances when appointing his chosen king (1 Sam 16:7), this Davidic king would “not judge by appearance nor make a decision based on hearsay”; rather, the Spirit’s anointing would enable him to “make fair decisions.” He would rule like God himself rules over his people (Isa 11:3–6).

And that just rule will establish a kingdom of perfect peace, indeed heavenly peace (Isa 11:7–9). Animals that now fight or fear each other will live in peace (v. 7), babies will be safe even “near the hole of a cobra” (v. 8). “Nothing will hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain” (v. 9), which was the site of the ancient Davidic throne.

More importantly, it was God’s own throne, upon which God’s anointed king would rule over God’s people. Under the Old Testament arrangement, that meant theocratic rule over Israel. But even then, it included others who joined Israel in worshiping the one true God. That might be David’s own great-grandmother Ruth the Moabitess, or a resident alien who came to be a disciple of the Lord God. The ultimate goal of this kingdom was not just to bless Israel alone with peace and righteous rule. No, God’s goal was to bless all nations. That was why he called Abraham in the first place (Gen 12:1–3), and it was why he raised up the Davidic dynasty. So the days of fulfillment for the Davidic promise are described this way: “In that day the heir to David’s throne will be a banner of salvation to all the world. The nations will rally to him, and the land where he lives will be a glorious place” (Isa 11:10).

Each day throughout December, the Jesse Tree lessons will keep reminding us that God keeps his promises, especially his greatest promise. The Bible stories we’ll recount show how God kept on reminding his people that a “Son of David” would come and fulfill every promise God ever made. When we celebrate Christmas, it ought to be with this note: “All of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ with a resounding ‘Yes!’ And through Christ, our ‘Amen’ (which means ‘Yes’) ascends to God for his glory” (2 Cor 1:20). That should be the underlying motivation for our Christmas shouts, “Glory to God in the highest heaven!”

Mechanics of the “Jesse Tree”

  • “Theologizer” will become a daily blog between the first of December and the day after Christmas.
    • Each day’s blog will be posted in the earliest morning hours of each day.
    • Each day’s blog will be a lesson with appropriate “Questions, Reflections, and Commitments”
  • If you would like to produce ornaments for a “Jesse Tree,” you have two options:
    • You can get a simple cross-stitch pattern for each ornament and start working on them now. Click here to download cross-stitch patterns for all the daily ornaments.
    • You can get a paper copy of each ornament for children to cut out, color, paint, or decorate for tree hangings. Click here to download a simple coloring book for all the daily ornaments.

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • Meditate on the linkage between the Jesse “tree” and our contemporary notion of a family tree. We tend to look backwards when we’re talking about the family tree; however, the family tree of Jesse was very much a forward-looking genealogy.
  • As you read the description of the messianic kingdom that Isaiah gave us (Isa 11:1–11), refresh your contribution to the prayers of saints in all the ages: “May your Kingdom come soon. May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10).