James, Part 1

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The apostle Paul wrote much of the New Testament, but he didn’t write the letter we call James. Still, the shortest and best commentary on the whole letter written by James is a single verse written by Paul:

The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Galatians 5:6 | NIV84)

That’s the theme of James in eleven words.

Authorship

The identity of the author of this letter presents himself in 1:1 –

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings. (James 1:1 | NIV84)

We learn two interesting things about this “James.” First, he must have been well-known to his readers. He gives only his first name with no other means of identification, like a last name or a location or a statement of affiliation. He assumed his readers would know who he was. And second, he showed a lot of humility; he wished to be known only as a “servant of…Jesus.”

In all, there were five men named James mentioned in the New Testament. James, the son of Zebedee, brother of John. He was a prominent apostle, always mentioned near the top of any list of apostles. No scholar thinks he wrote this letter for he was martyred by Harod Agrippa I very early in the history of the Church. Another James, who was the son of Alphaeus, was also a follower of Jesus, but is dismissed as the writer of this letter. A third James, who had the unfortunate moniker, James the Less, or James the Shorter, was present at the Crucifixion, but was otherwise virtually invisible. Still another James was the father of Judas (not Iscariot), and that’s his only claim to fame.

The fifth James is the James most scholars believe wrote the letter. He is our Lord’s brother, or more accurately, His half-brother. He was not an apostle of Jesus and was late to the party, so to speak. But James rose quickly to prominence in the early Church, in spite of the fact that he was not a believer until after Jesus’ resurrection. His devotion, however, was complete. Church historian Eusebius notes that James spent so much time on his knees praying that they became like those of a camel.

Destination

His letter is addressed to Jews who had been “scattered among the nations.” So it was probably what we call a “circular letter,” not written to any one group of Jewish-Christians in particular, but meant to be read and copied and circulated to many groups of believers. These “scattered Jews” were probably the Jewish believers who fled Jerusalem after the stoning of Stephen and the widespread persecutions broke out.

Another Jewish historian, Josephus, wrote about the martyrdom of James as occurring around 62 AD, so this letter must have been written before that date.

Controversy

James’ letter has been in our Bibles for as long as the oldest member of the congregation can remember. But it wasn’t always. Martin Luther had a real problem with this letter and it’s emphasis on justification by works. This verse drove Luther crazy –

You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. (James 2:24 | NIV84)

The one-time monk thought that Paul’s emphasis on justification by faith was more important for Christians to practice. His opinion of James’ letter caused some to question its inspiration and its place in the canon of Scripture. Fortunately for us, eventually the theological eggheads came to realize the powerful and vital message of James came to us straight from the mind and heart of God.

Growing through trouble

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. (James 1:2-3 | NIV84)

Presbyterian theologian B.B. Warfield wrote this –

If [God] governs all, then nothing but good can befall those to whom He would do good. He will so govern all things that we shall reap only good from all that befalls us.

That’s a good attitude to have when you face problems in life.  The readers of James’ letter were facing all kinds of troubles (troubles of “many colors” in the Greek), so many and of such great magnitude that their very faith was being tested.  These first century believers had it bad, but the truth is we all face trials, or we will face them.  We don’t have a choice.  These trials are not of our choosing nor of our making.  We “fall” into them, usually when we least expect it or at the most inconvenient of times.

James wrote that we should be joyful when this happens.  We might think James had lost his mind writing such a thing.  But somebody else thought exactly the same way about trials that test our faith:

In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.  These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.  (1 Peter 1:6, 7  NIV)

Neither Peter nor James suggest Christians should rejoice when they get into trouble because of their misbehavior or mistakes.  The idea is to rejoice when, seemingly out of the blue, a trial floats into our lives.  Contrary to the normal, fleshly response to trials, Christians need to consider them to be a foundation for joy.  This joy is not happiness or pleasure.  Only somebody with severe mental problems would be “happy” in the midst of a trial!  Christian joy is defined by Adamson like this:

A man’s pleasure in his (and his brother’s) progress toward Christian salvation.

Perseverance

B.B. Warfield’s perspective is the Biblical perspective.  When trials come – and they will – instead of seeking to avoid them or cut them short, we need to realize that God has allowed them to touch us for a purpose:  to teach how to persevere and grow into Christian maturity.  Face it, during any trial or testing of our faith, He’s in control of the situation from start to finish.

Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.  (James 1:4  NIV)

What we view as negative is really a great positive that will force us to grow into maturity, strengthening our faith and our character.  That’s why need to let the trial run its course.  Gloria Gaither, who may not be a theologian in the same class as Warfield, wrote something just as profound (and easier to understand!):

No matter what we are going through, no matter how long the waiting for answers, of one thing we may be sure:  God is faithful.

Amen to that!  God is faithful, and He provides these trials, making them wonderful opportunities for growth.  They are wonderful opportunities for something else.  When we face trials the way James says we should, we get to see a side of God we don’t normally see.  And that’s precious; it’s a blessing (in disguise!).

Not all Christians are serious about their faith, but Paul reminds us of something very profound –

In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted…  (2 Timothy 3:12  NIV)

Or, as we might say today, “The more seriously you take your faith, the hotter it will get for you!”

Perspective

James makes it clear that trials are valuable and work for us, not against us, when faced the right way.  But when we fall into trials, our perspective isn’t always right; we don’t make the right judgments because our spiritual vision has been warped by the trial.  James understands this, so he gives this piece of indispensable advice:

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.  (James 1:5  NIV)

That’s right!  In the midst of a many-colored trial, what we need most of all is wisdom!  We don’t need perseverance; the trial is giving us that.  We need wisdom not only to cope with the trial, but also to understand how that trial is shaping us and molding us into the kind of people God wants us to become.  The wisdom we need won’t come to us unless we pray in faith for it.  In the midst of the trial, we need to have the presence of mind to pray in faith.  When we do, God will give us the wisdom to see with the right perspective.

Blessing

It’s human nature to avoid pain.  Christians aren’t immune to this.  Our first instinct is to run from a trial; to find a way around it or to end it prematurely.  To do this may make sense to our human nature, but our spiritual nature is different.  When we end a trial too soon, we are short changing our spiritual nature!

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.  (James 1:12  NIV)

This is a powerful verse because it serves as a bridge between two ideas.  First, James makes this verse his conclusion to his discussion about trials.  And what a conclusion it is!  The man who faces trials with courage and joy is blessed.  The Greek word also means “happy,” and it’s the same word Jesus used in His Sermon on the Mount.  It has to do with the “inner quality” of life; things like peace, contentment, and even satisfaction.  All these things – things man is always searching for, sometimes spending a fortune trying to attain – can be sustained and even acquired in spite of external difficulties.  This special “God-based happiness” isn’t so much an emotional feeling, although it may be sometimes.  It’s really a state of happiness or blessedness Christians can experience in this life as citizens of God’s kingdom.  Just like being able to vote is a perk reserved for citizens of a country, so spiritual happiness is a perk of our Heavenly citizenship!   What we are allowed to experience now is but a glimpse of our future lives in the kingdom.  What needs to be noted is that this wonderful happiness or blessedness is not the result of being free of trials, but is rather a result of the perseverance that comes from facing trials the right way.

Second, verse 12 also introduces a different but related topic.

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone…  (James 1:13  NIV)

The trials that Christians face can actually tempt us to sin.  The trial itself is not sinful, nor is it a temptation from God, for God never tempts anybody to sin.  That trial, however, may tempt us to sin, if we don’t face it the right way, with wisdom from God.  The immediate goal for the believer is to endure the trial by facing it with wisdom, coming forth victorious, not yielding to the temptations of the flesh that adversity tends to produce.  Again, the need for divine wisdom cannot be overstated.  Wisdom is also needed to spot the way out God provides the believer:

No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.  But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.  (1 Corinthians 10:13  NIV)

The believer who avoids the temptation to sin (but endures the trial) will receive “the crown of life.”  Just what does this mean?  The Bible frequently speaks of rewards faithful Christians will receive at the end of this life.  Jesus Himself spoke of the rewards persecuted believers will receive:

Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven…  (Matthew 5:12  NIV)

And Paul wrote about rewards for faithful service:

If what has been built [his work] survives, the builder will receive a reward.  (1 Corinthians 3:14  NIV)

Those are real rewards, but they aren’t what James had in mind.  “Life” in  James 1:12 is appositional, in other words, the phrase looks like this: “the crown that is life.”  But even that’s not quite right, for “life” also has the article, “the,” making it “the crown of the life.”  Eternal life, THE life, is the reward for enduring trials and resisting temptation.

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