Practically Speaking: James, Part 1

The art of letter writing is a lost art. Nowadays we have e-mail, instant messaging, text messaging, cell phones, and other forms of communication. In fact, when I get a hand-written letter in the mail box, I wonder who’s been kidnapped! But in the first century, letter writing was the only form of communication. Among all the letters preserved from antiquity, the ones found in the Bible are the most profound, influencing people of the world for two thousand years.

In our Bibles, these letters, or epistles, occupy a conspicuous place in the New Testament. There are the Pastoral Epistles; letters written by Paul to pastors, there are the Prison Epistles; letters written by Paul while he was in prison, and there are the Catholic (or General) Epistles. This group of letters include correspondence written by Peter, John, Jude and James. They are called “Catholic” because they are written to believers in general, not to specific people or churches.

New Testament scholar Donald Guthrie has referred to James as the most practical book of the New Testament. Within this letter, believers learn how best to live their lives on earth. It is as though the writer of this letter, James the brother of Jesus, has taken all the theological points of the New Testament, and distilled them into one brief, common sense primer on Christian values.

Some who are fascinated with the so-called “social gospel” see in James a justification for their aberrant form of theology, which stresses man’s relationship to his fellow man at the expense of man’s relationship to God. However, as J.N. Darby has rightly observed:

The epistle is not founded on Christian relationships here below. It acknowledges them; but only as one fact in the midst of others, which have rights over the conscience of the writer. It supposes those whom it addresses to be in a relationship with God.

And, I would add, that relationship with God is what motivates believers to live lives worthy of Christ. In other words, we treat others well be we have been treated well by God. It is not the virtue of another human being that should drive us in out treatment of them, but rather it should be the virtue of Jesus Christ in us.

1. Salutation, 1:1

Verse one is among the briefest greetings of all the New Testament epistles. James spends no time on his special relationship with Jesus or with the Church in Jerusalem; a testimony to his humility. James identifies himself as “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Doulos is the Greek word translated “servant” and might well be translated “slave.” A doulos was neither a hired servant or a free man. He was, as it were, permanently attached to his owner. We might use the term “personal assistant” to describe a doulos, for they traveled with their master, assisting them in their work.

Scholars agree that James, the author of this letter, was James, the brother of Jesus (Matthew 13:55). James was late in believing exactly who Jesus was, but believe he did, and he became the leader of the mother church in Jerusalem after Peter left (Acts 12:17), was an outspoken member of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:13-21), and he was a “pillar” to whom Paul reported (Galatians 2:2, 9; Acts 21:18-19).

With that resume, it is curious James never mentioned any of his credentials in his letter. Instead of mentioning his pedigree, James simply states that he is a doulos, a slave, of Jesus Christ; not His brother, but a slave. But James is expressing the kind of relationship all believers should have with Christ, a relationship that transcends a mere bloodline. James is a slave, not of necessity and force, but of choice. He acknowledges that Jesus Christ is the Lord of his life.

He addresses his letter to the “Twelve tribes scattered among the nations.” This is why we refer to this letter as a Catholic Epistle, since no individual or individual congregation is addressed. But exactly who did James have in mind when he wrote the “Twelve tribes?” It could be that James is writing exclusively to Jews. However, as noted by Bowman, James uses terminology outmoded long before his day, since the Twelve tribes of Israel has long since ceased to exist. It is likely that James used a customary greeting of the Early Church, adopting terms of the Old Covenant to describe Christians under the New. Christians, in effect, being in-grafted into the people of the Covenant, are now seen as recipients of the blessings of that Covenant relationship.

Then James uses a powerful word: Greetings. It should be noted that this letter is likely the oldest of the twenty-seven books that make up the New Testament, probably having been composed around A.D. 49. That was barely two decades since the birth of the Church. The Church at this time was facing persecution and growing pains. The Jews had been driven from Jerusalem, among them the Christian population. Both groups faced difficult times: they were exploited by the rich, hauled into court on trumped up charges, and slandered for believing in the name of Jesus James. Of course is writing to “spiritual Jews,” or Christians, and his comments are purely for believers. To them he writes, Greetings. Although a common Greek greeting, it comes from the stem of a verb, chairein, meaning to “rejoice” or “be glad.” At the very beginning of his letter, written to people facing insurmountable obstacles in life and faith, James encourages his readers to “Cheer up!” and “Be happy!” What a profound and contrary notion: to be cheerful when times are hard. The normal thing is to be just the opposite: downcast and depressed.

In verses 2 to 4, James launches into an discussion of trials. It seems as though he is responding to an issue that he had been contacted about, or it could be that he is simply writing to encourage the people. The entire letter reads like a sermon, except for this section, which sounds like all the other letters of the New Testament.

What a paradox James introduces: the misfortunes of life are actually good for us! James does not mean we should seek out disaster and look for trouble, but he says we should maintain the proper perspective when we find ourselves in the midst of trials.

First, James tell his readers to consider it pure joy. In a moment, we will find out he is referring to trials, but the word “consider” is worthy of our consideration. The word properly means “to regard.” Believers are to regard trials as, not necessarily a good thing in and of themselves, but to assume that they are doing something positive in our lives, and that is cause to be joyful.

The word translated “trials” is peirasmois, and describes those things that occur in life that put a person to the test. They may refer to things from without, like persecution or natural disaster, or from within, like temptation to sin, for example. Throughout this letter, James uses this word to describe both kinds of trials. James is the most realistic of the New Testament writers, and paints an accurate picture of the world in which Christians live. Nobody is exempt from trials and temptations; there many kinds of them. In fact, James makes mentions of that, writing all trials are cause to rejoice because all trials are beneficial to the Christian. He uses an interesting Greek word, which means “many” in English. The word is poikilois and means literally “many-colored.” So being surrounded by a rainbow of problems should be viewed as reason for rejoicing.

Since all trials is such an all-inclusive a term, the believer’s joy when facing them should also be full and complete. The Greek phrase pasan charan means just that: a full and complete joy. Believers should face trials with an unreserved joy. That means, among other things, that the believer has no right to be miserable or downcast during difficult times. To be that way is to slight God because God would never do anything to hurt His child. To rejoice during times of trial is not to rejoice because of the trial but because of positive things that trial is producing in our lives. The Christian should see the hand of God in every area of their life. The wonderful words penned by William Cowper come to mind:

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill,
He treasures up his bright designs
And works his sovereign will.

A.F. Harper makes some insightful observations:

Being glad because you are hurt is a difficult assignment! The “blood, sweat, and tears” of the Christian life are for a purpose. They are the one means by which we grow into the likeness of God. The athlete finds joy in the rigors of his training as long as he keeps the winning of the race in view. The Christian can find joy, even in trials, when he sees those trials as a means of achieving Christlikeness.

The purpose for trials is revealed in verse three. The testing of our faith produces perseverance. This Greek word is hypomonen, and it does not mean “whatever will be, will be.” It does not mean simply enduring, as in , “What cannot be cured must be endured.” Hypomonen is a powerful word that suggests tenacity and stick-to-it-iveness. It is not the kind of patience that passively tries to “get through” an ordeal, but rather describes a man standing on the deck of ship holding on tight in the midst of storm. It is in this kind of struggle that spiritual stamina is produced.

That quality is exemplified by Job and has nothing to do with resignation. Resignation is passive, but perseverance is active. Resignation leads to defeat, but perseverance ends in triumph.

James makes an often overlooked statement that deserves our attention. He tells his readers to “let perseverance finish its work” in verse four. That statement is more profound that it appears. We must literally allow perseverance to do its full work. That is a difficult thing to do because when trials and temptations come, we try to head them off or find a solution to end them. Ending them too quickly does not allow them to do what God intends for them to do. Jesus alluded to this twice be encouraging His followers to “stand firm until the end” because in doing so, they would be saved (Matthew, 10:22 and 24:13).

The apostle Paul asked the Lord to remove his thorn in his flesh:

Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

Notice the word “perfect.” James uses exactly the same word. In the KJV, we read this:

But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing. (verse 4)

James is encouraging his readers not to interfere with God’s plan for their lives. David expressed a similar thought in Psalm 138:8–

The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands. (ESV)

Kistemaker observes,

Just as a fruit producing plant must be allowed to complete its growing period, so perseverance must be given its full term.

The goal of perseverance is that it makes believers “mature and complete.” The Greek teleioi is slightly difficult and may mean either “perfect” or “complete” or “mature.” The KJV opts for “perfect” while the TNIV “mature and complete.” The word in way no means suggesst a kind of sinless perfection. James himself suggests that even mature believers may stumble and sin (3:2). James is conveying the idea of “wholeness.” Believers become whole when they allow perseverance to do its work.

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