On May 13 I was honored to speak to the 2023 graduates of Emmaus Bible College in Dubuque, Iowa. Emmaus began in Toronto in 1941, and consolidated its ministry in Oak Park, IL in 1954. The Dubuque campus opened in 1984. The school is supported by the open brethren assemblies sometimes called Plymouth Brethren, but it welcomes students from many evangelical backgrounds. Phillip Boom became the school’s 6th president in 2013.
The tight-knit Emmaus community strives “to glorify God by educating and equipping learners to impact the world for Christ through faithful and effective service in their ministries, professions, and communities.” The college offers residential and online programs leading to certificates and regionally accredited associate’s and bachelor’s degrees. All students at Emmaus pursue a major in Bible. Students choose an additional major in ministry or professional studies, including counseling psychology, intercultural studies, education, business, and computer technology, and nursing.
What follows is essentially the manuscript I used at the graduation. I trust the message will be helpful to 2023 grad’s and to all those who seek to live wisely.
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Go here for the video of the Emmaus Bible College 2023 Graduation Ceremony. The message on James 3:13-18 begins at 59:30.
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For some time now I have thought when I receive an opportunity to speak at a graduation, I would be compelled to speak on a certain text and topic. That time has come, and the faithful yet friendly wounds I have received from this text through the years are about to become yours.
I must apologize to you, distinguished members of the Emmaus class of 2023. You are under the impression that you have successfully answered all the necessary questions that are required for graduation. But I have one final question you are compelled to answer. Well, actually, your graduation is not in jeopardy from the question I’m asking this morning. My question has no bearing on your getting a diploma from Emmaus, it bears on a much more important matter—what you will do with that diploma for the rest of your lives? This question is immensely more important than a piece of paper that you will frame and hang on your wall, even though that piece of paper has cost you dearly in time and effort, not to mention tens of thousands of dollars.
Two kinds of questions. Before we get to this compelling question, would you indulge an old professor in a brief digression? Let’s think for a moment about questions in general and how they work. The use of questions is one of the most fascinating aspects of rhetoric. There are real questions asked by people who are genuinely seeking information, like Peter’s hearers on the Day of Pentecost who were convicted by the Spirit and asked “What should we do?” There are also rhetorical questions asked by writers and speakers who wish to draw their hearers more intensely into their discourse, like Paul’s question in Romans 8, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” Paul might have simply stated this as a bland proposition, “God is for us, so no one can ultimately stand against us,” but if he had done so Romans 8 would have been prosaic, less intense, less memorable, less beautiful, and less encouraging. Another thing about questions is that we can phrase them in a way that leads to a positive answer, can’t we? (YES!). But we would never ask a question in a prideful way just to make people think we were brilliant college grads, would we? (NO!).
Profound questions from pop culture. Pop culture is overflowing with well-known questions, like the ones from a while back that began with “Got . . .”, like “Got milk?”). This morning, the graduates are asking one another questions like, “Got that silly hat on straight?” “Which side does the tassel go on?” “Got sleep deprivation?” “Got student loan payments?”, and most importantly as you leave, “Got diploma?” One of the more profound questions I’ve ever heard in the pop culture comes in a doo wop song by Barry Mann and Gerry Goffin from 1961:
Who put the bomp in the bomp, bah bomp bah bomp?
Who put the ram in the rama lama ding dong?
Who put the bop in the bop, shoo bop, shoo bop?
Who put the dip in the dip, da dip, da dip?
Who was that man, I’d like to shake his hand.
He made my baby fall in love with me.
Would you agree with me that the writer of this song is not seeking the information? He’s not, and the fun thing about this song is that it uses the doo wop music genre to parody doo wop music.
We turn to a Beatles song for questions that may be more relevant to our proceedings this morning. John Lennon asked these snarky questions in his song “Baby You’re a Rich Man,” from 1967, the summer of love, the year I graduated from high school. Lennon asked,
How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?
Now that you know who you are, what do you want to be?
Now that you’ve found another key, what are you going to play?
Lennon had come from a humble upbringing to untold wealth, and perhaps he was asking this question of himself as much as of people like us, the educated, beautiful, wealthy world-travelers referenced in the song.
Bible Questions. But wait, this is a Bible College graduation, so we’d best get to some memorable Bible questions. How about these . . .
- Did God actually say, “You shall not eat of any tree in the Garden”? (Gen 3:1)
- Adam, where are you? . . . Who told you that you were naked? (Gen 3:9, 11)
- Am I my brother’s keeper? (Gen 4:9)
- Whom will I send, and who will go for us? (Isa 6:8)
- What does the Lord your God require of you . . . ? (Mic 6:8)
- Teacher, what is the great commandment in the law? (Matt 22:36)
- What good is it, brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith, but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? (Jas 2:14)
- Who is wise and understanding among you? (Jas 3:13)
And with this last question we turn to our text for this morning, James 3:13-18, a text which not only poses a question but also provides two answers, forcing us to make a choice. Will you read it with me?
This is the Word of the Lord.
As questions go, James isn’t seeking information here, is he? His pointed, arresting question draws us more deeply into his discourse. The best definition I’ve heard for wisdom is “the skillful use of knowledge,” but James isn’t interested in defining wisdom. He doesn’t instruct us on what school to attend in order to acquire it. Like the book of Proverbs, he simply tells us, in effect, “Get wisdom, and, whatever you get, get understanding (Prov 4:7 ESV). James doesn’t care about the academic definition of wisdom—James is about the practical demonstration of wisdom.
Dualistic Structure. Let’s look first at how James put this arresting passage together. He finishes his discussion of the untamable tongue (Jas 3:1-12) by contrasting two kinds of wisdom that inform and guide human speech. He presents us with something of a sandwich in the ABA structure of this text. He first speaks of authentic wisdom in verse 13. Then he turns to its counterfeit in verses 14-16 before returning to the real thing in verses 17-18.
You’ll note in this text that James says nothing about nuances or degrees of wisdom—wisdom comes either from God or Satan, it operates either in either selfless humility or in selfish ambition. It leads either to peace—the personal-relational-social-cosmic wholeness of shalom—or it leads to chaos—the personal-relational-social-cosmic brokenness of sin. James’ stark contrast between wholeness and brokenness agrees with the covenantal words of Moses, who said “I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction” (Deut 30:15). Elijah similarly presented two irreconcilable approaches to life when he said “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him” (1 Kgs 18:21). Our Lord Jesus put it this way, “Enter through the narrow gate, for wide is the gate and broad is the path that leads to destruction” (Matt 7:13). Paul similarly spoke starkly of the works of the flesh that characterized the old humanity in Adam in contrast with the fruit of the Spirit that characterize the new humanity in Christ (Gal 5:16-24).
The early second century anonymous Christian Jewish writer of the Didache, the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, echoed this way of thinking when he began his book with the words, “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways.” This sort of ethical dualism is also found in Augustine’s City of God, in which he spoke of two kinds of human beings and of two kinds of human societies as two cities, one city living according to God in the Spirit, and the other city living according to fleshly human standards (City of God 14.2; 15.1). This dualism presents us with a fork in the road of life, leading us to one city or the other. This morning we are faced with the most fundamental of choices about how we will use our educations. Which worldview will guide our use of the expertise signified by these certificates and degrees?
True and false wisdoms. In presenting these antithetical wisdoms, James says nothing about human wisdom in any intellectual domain represented in a college curriculum. He cares nothing about things that tend to occupy our daily discourse, the myriads of data that we may call horizontal wisdom. He omits all the hot topics that come from this endless information because he knows all that is empty unless we understand vertical wisdom.
James doesn’t say anything about how many degrees a person should list after their name on their resumé, or whether they graduated with awards or honors. Neither does he say anything about a person’s attractiveness, or about their winsome personality, or about how many Twitter followers or Facebook friends they have. James obviously knows nothing about posting iPhone videos on Instagram or Tiktok. James doesn’t care whether you’re into MAGA or DEI. Such activities have nothing to do with whether a person is truly wise and understanding. All of this is simply information, data that can be stored on a hard drive or in the cloud. We’re preoccupied with this horizontal information—James confronts us with the vertical sources of all this stuff. He wants us to realize that information isn’t ethically neutral, it’s going to be used for wisdom or folly, love or hate, unity or division, peace or chaos.
If you want to know whether a person is wise and understanding, James says look at their lifestyle, whether it’s a lifestyle flowing from humility, because that is the acid test of wisdom. To put it another way, for James the good life is a life of good deeds, and a life of good deeds flows from humility, and that humility is the fundamental mark of wisdom. Without wisdom, there is no humility, and without humility there are no good deeds, and without good deeds there is no good life. Got it?!
But there is another sort of “wisdom” mentioned here. We have a choice to make. In the starkest of contrasts with the wisdom that inspires humility that generates the good deeds that constitute a good life, this sort of wisdom spawns selfish ambition, and that sort of ambition stirs up hubris against others, and that hubris leads to deeds that result in chaos and brokenness. In the very next paragraph of his letter James calls out selfish ambition and envy as what causes fights and quarrels in the church and what leads to self-centered prayers that go unanswered (James 4:1-3). Earlier in the letter he warned his audience to get rid of moral filth and humbly receive God’s implanted word (1:21). He described pure religion as looking after widows and orphans and avoiding the world’s crap (1:27). He calls out the church’s favoring the rich over the poor twice in chapter two (2:1-4, 14-17) as the cardinal example of dead faith that cannot save. He sums up what he means by the two sorts of wisdom in 4:6-10, which begins by referring to Proverbs 3:34:
“The Scripture says, ‘God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble’
Submit yourselves then, to God.
Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
Come near to God and he will come near to you.
Wash your hands, you sinners,
and purify your hearts, you double-minded.
Grieve, mourn, and wail.
Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.
Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will lift you up.”
Do you see just how important your answer to James’s question is? Remember, this text is like a sandwich. The wisdom-from-heaven sesame seed bun found in 3:13 and 3:17-18 is the good stuff, but you don’t want to consume the yucky, wisdom-from-below stuff that’s on the inside of this sandwich (3:14-16). It’s not au-graten, it’s all rotten. It’s not a B-L-T, it’s a B-A-D, full of Boasting, Ambition, and Disorder. Where’s the beef? Not here, even if Ving Rhames shows up and claims “We’ve got the Meat!” It’s not a flame-broiled whopper, it’s a whopper of a lie cooked up in the flames of hell. It’s a diabolical burger, and that’s not good even if it has two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce cheese, pickles and onions.
What does this mean to you this morning? if you use the information and status you have gained here at Emmaus to promote yourselves, you will only exacerbate the world’s problems in any career you undertake. But if you use your education as a humble steward of life-changing truth from heaven, your career will magnify the gospel and serve to bring God’s peace into this troubled world.
Wisdom and the Grand Story
One of our difficulties in interpreting the wisdom material in the Bible is relating it to the meta-narrative or grand story of redemption from Genesis to Revelation. Martin Luther’s notorious lack of appreciation for James was due to this—he couldn’t seem to find much about the gospel here. But there’s really no such problem in James. In fact, notice how our text can be read as an implicit midrash or commentary on Genesis 1-3 and beyond. According to Genesis 1-2, God created Adam and Eve in his image (Jas 3:9), and he gave them wisdom from heaven for their lives as priestly stewards in the temple of this world.
But the adversary harbored selfish ambition and bitter envy and crashed Adam and Eve’s primeval party. He boasted and denied the truth with an earthly, unspiritual, demonic anti-wisdom: Did God really say . . .? You will not certainly die! In an utterly inexplicable act of rebellion, our first parents exchanged the truth for a lie. You might even say they went on a low-wisdom diet. They discarded the sesame seed bun of heavenly wisdom and gobbled up the poisonous protein of the devil’s earthy anti-wisdom. This plunged the human race inexorably into disorder and every evil practice.
But God in amazing grace sent to us the incarnational quintessence of wisdom and understanding in the person of the Lord Jesus from heaven (Matt 13:54; Luke 2:52; 1 Cor 1:24, 30; Col 2:3). Jesus showed us by his life what it means to be pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Then Jesus showed us by his death and resurrection how God could forgive our bitter envy and selfish ambition and transform us into people whose lives were shaped by humility and purity. Then Jesus sent the Holy Spirit who would empower us to be peacemakers, agents of the reconciliation accomplished by Jesus on the cross, sowing seeds of gospel peace to yield a bumper crop of justice. This is cruciformity, the cross-shaped life. If I may adapt your class song to express what I’m saying, it would go something like this:
Turn your eyes upon Jesus.
Look full at his wonderful life,
And the values of earth will grow strangely dim
In the wisdom only he personifies.
James began chapter three of his letter by warning his audience of the heightened accountability of those who teach. This warning calls us to think and act in a way that accurately models biblical wisdom. Have you heard the old saying that even if you load up a donkey with books, it’s still just a donkey? Just because you have a piece of paper that says something about “all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto” doesn’t mean you are wise and understanding. You must draw wisdom from the transforming power of God’s word and apply God’s values to the information that presents in any situation. The devil believes in God (Jas 2:19), and he knows the Bible (Matt 4:6). He has a wisdom of sorts—from primeval times he has applied his hubris to situations in order to aggrandize himself and ruin God’s creation, especially God’s human imagers. How will your wisdom differ from his as you leave here and begin new chapters in your lives?
And so, this morning the final question of your educational career at Emmaus is “who is wise and understanding among you?” We thank James for posing this most basic of questions and for providing an answer which cuts through all the complexities of human existence in a fallen world. James speaks to us in a simple, non-academic manner that even a college professor can understand! James explains that there are but two sources of knowledge, two ways to use knowledge, and two results of using knowledge, and that these are utterly antithetical.
- Two sources: from God above or from the enemy below
- Two ways: in humility or in pride
- Two results: shalom or chaos
Prideful use of earthly wisdom leads to diabolical brokenness. Humble use of heavenly wisdom leads to godly wholeness.
How will you use the information you have acquired during your time at Emmaus? You will need to scrutinize the teaching of this graduation address and even that of your most respected professors to make sure it squares with heaven’s wisdom. You will need to continue to engage the latest theories about the Bible, theology, church ministry, counseling, education, and business with the same scrutiny. Most important of all is the continual scrutiny of your own hearts to check whether the narrative of your career parallels the cruciform narrative of Jesus Christ, whose exaltation came only after he abandoned his heavenly status, humbled himself on earth, and endured the death of the cross. So when the tempter asks you, “Did God really say . . .?”, you will need to answer “Get out of my face, devil, God already told me about you. I’ve got wisdom from heaven. Yes, God really did say this. I will die if I disobey him, so I will die before I disobey him.”
Those who respond to earth’s brokenness with heaven’s wisdom will use their educational status in humbly serving others. The result will be shalom, beautiful wholeness in people’s psyches and family rel and churches and neighborhoods and workplaces, until the day Sar Shalom, the Prince of Peace, comes to make peace gush forth like a fountain and flow like a river that floods this world with justice and righteousness, to the glory of our great God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Dear Father, most generous giver of every good gift, you brought us forth by your gracious Word. Bless these graduates in the days ahead. Remind all of us that education, like faith, is dead unless it is accompanied by works done in the humility that comes from wisdom. Help us to be agents of Jesus’ reconciliation, people who bring the gospel of your grace to this broken world through your Spirit for your glory alone. Like Solomon before us, we ask in faith for that wisdom in the name of our coming King Jesus, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever. Amen!
God bless you!
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The video of the Emmaus Bible College 2023 Graduation Ceremony is here. The message on James 3:13-18 begins at 59:30.
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