Authenticated Faith James: Introduction & 1:1-18
Before we can deal in any kind of real way with the themes, teaching & exhortations of this wonderful letter to the churches, it is necessary to shoo the elephant out of the room. What I am referring to, of course, is the bad press the letter of James has been given in many theological circles because of the author’s apparent emphasis on works rather than faith. Donald Guthrie, in his IVP New Testament Introduction said, “The Epistle of James has suffered much through misunderstanding, the most notable example of which was Martin Luther’s oft-quoted description of it as an epistle of straw” (1) In fact, James’ copious use of Jesus’ teaching from Matthew 5-7 should be more than enough to convince even the most strident sceptic of its validity. For if indeed James was at odds with Paul’s insistence on salvation by faith then so too was Jesus himself in the Sermon on the Mount. No one would accuse the Lord of that! They both speak of the same ways of being faithful.
Paul was concerned primarily with the vehicle of salvation…that is how it is obtained, and he would affirm “by faith” to which we all say amen! James, on the other hand was not concerned so much with the how of salvation, but the authentic implications of it as it is practiced and lived out. He would say by “fruits” and again we would say Amen! That is, James taught about how belief, once obtained by grace through faith, could be recognized as genuine…for as we all know, there is a counterfeit faith about even in our own world today. In fact, there are many.
The two are not, as many contrary theologians would propose, at odds with each other, but are in fact two sides of the same coin. They are complementary rather than opposing. Paul’s focus was on how we are saved; James on how that faith is to be lived out….Paul on salvation, James on sanctification. So, I pray…we with this qualification in mind, can begin to look at the epistle on its own terms and without the rose coloured glasses of contempt and rejection that are so often directed towards it.
There are many opinions about who wrote this letter. There are three James mentioned in the New Testament who could be the possible authors. Which of these we choose would determine the date in which it was written, and conversely, if we decided on date…that would be indicative of whom the author might have been. I will not bore you with a long and protracted discussion of all the possibilities. Let it suffice to say that the majority of evangelical theologians believe the letter to have been written by James the Just, who was Jesus brother and the leader of the church in Jerusalem. It is my opinion that the actual author and or date are irrelevant. The letter has been accepted by the church Fathers as authentic and reflective of the faith once received, and we should therefore deal with it in that context.
In this letter, James is mostly concerned with helping his hearers understand what it really means to live as believers in a sin filled world. So the book, theologian Earl Palmer says, is primarily instruction on how we can be enabled to do that. In fact, in just 108 verses there are 60 imperatives. That is, the letter contains 60 “should do” or “must do” directions for authentic Christian living. James does this by incorporating a number of important themes into the letter. He speaks of the role of conflict and suffering in the development of a Christian’s character. James proposes that there are three major sources of adversity in a believer’s life: evil impulse, which causes selfishness; the desire for money and status, which leads to neglect of the poor; and finally Satan’s influence which manifests itself in false teaching.
Another theme that appears over and over again in this letter is care, or the lack thereof… for the least, lost and broken. Comparisons between the poor and the rich & the responsibilities of the rich towards the poor are found in five different places in the letter. James believed that God’s compassion in saving us must be demonstrated in our response to the poor. For James, faith without deeds, without this kind of reply is not even faith at all. He would question whether the self-serving individual had actually come to faith or was just playing at it in order to gain some kind of advantage. Finally, James has a concern for the development of wisdom gained through the indwelling and empowering of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life. So, those are the major themes, and we shall deal with them in turn as they come up.
Let’s begin with the first 18 verses, a section labeled Trails and Temptations. However, there is also a brief greeting before it. Greetings are a vital part of any letter, and the manner in which letters of this genre are introduced is important for our understanding of the author, the people to which the letter is directed and the purpose in writing. Quite often, greetings set the tone…and things that are included or excluded become significant because they reveal the emotional state and intended relationship between the writer and the recipients. So, what can we tell from this greeting?
James 1:1a (NIV) James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ... First off, although James assumes the authority to speak bluntly to this church or group of churches, he seeks to do so in a spirit of humility and service rather than “Lording it over them” as it were. We know this… because he identifies himself as a servant. The Greek word is actually “doulos” which is the term that was used to describe a common slave. Secondly, James intentionally identifies himself with both the Creator, that is God, and also with the Son, with Jesus Christ. I say this is intentional because James is speaking to a church, in Jerusalem, that is primarily made up of converted Jewish Christians. As we shall see when we look at the rest of this verse, James may have had an intended Jewish audience well beyond the city walls. So, continuity between Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament and the God of their traditions and Jesus Christ and the New Testament would have been very important. The servant language would have recognizable from both contexts. What James does here is to connect them together and show that God isn’t doing a completely different thing, but fulfilling a divine plan that has been in operation since creation.
In the second part of the verse James says something very strange. James 1:1b (NIV) …to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings. There is a lot of speculation on what James might have meant here. I think that the most cogent argument would see this sentence in terms of those who were suffering in persecution, and James wanting to show his connection with them in their suffering. When translated literally, the greeting is directed to the diaspora…those whose faith is persecuted and oppressed in a hostile environment away from Israel. Perhaps, this is what James was attempting to convey…that he understood their pain and was about to offer some encouragement and guidance that would enable them to, persevere under trail, as he puts it in verse 12.
Then he says something that by modern standards would probably be considered incredibly stupid. James 1:2 (NIV) Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds… Hands up those of you who would consider it joy producing to be hungry, homeless, hated by those around you or shunned by your family and neighbours because you have changed religion. But that is exactly what many of those to whom James was speaking would have been experiencing. I would guess that few of them would consider those things to be joyful, but that is just how James instructs them to behave...as if they are joy-filled rather than downtrodden! He knows that they are not having fun, but he wants them to make conscious decision to change the way they think about what’s happening to them. James is asking them not just to adopt superficial gaiety, like a false smile, but “pure joy.”
He looking for them to assess the situation they find themselves in, rather than responding instinctively to it. That requires a deliberate shift. In much of our lives, and especially when we are in crisis, the tendency is to respond out of desperation to the stimuli that is bombarding us at that moment. Psychologists call it the fight of flight response. It’s the chemical reaction to fear that produces adrenaline. However, James takes the angel’s “fear not” exhortation that we heard a lot about over Christmas, seriously. He appeals to his listeners to stop reacting and begin to ask questions like, “What can I learn from this?” …or…”How will this make me stronger?”
James 1:3-4 (NIV) …because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. The word translated here as testing refers to assessing the purity of an element or analysing it to see if it is the genuine thing. James is, therefore, suggesting that how we respond to the trials spoken of in verse 2 actually affirm or authenticate the strength of our faith. When we are not overwhelmed by them or in reaction fighting against them, our faith is demonstrated to authentic….and, as a by-product, we are made stronger. We develop perseverance.
However, the insinuation that also comes from verse 4 is that if we don’t change the way we think about the trials we face…or if we balk at the testing of our faith, then we will not become mature, our faith will not be brought to completeness and we will be lacking in a lot of things. And, if those things that James speaks about in verse four are the mark of our lives, and we don’t want them to be, then we will need to make a conscious decision to allow ourselves to be tested and proved. The perseverance that James speaks about in verse four can only complete its work in us with a disciplined obedience or what Eugene Peterson calls “a long obedience in the same direction.” That takes intention and courage.
And you might say, “I don’t know how to do that. I don’t have the ability.” James says, (verse 5) 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. You don’t have to try and do this on your own. In fact, God doesn’t want you to. He knows that you are going to struggle and fail. He knows that we are broken and bound by a spirit of independence that so often causes us to fall, and so provides abundantly the gifts and ability we need stand firm in our faith in the face of trail. All we need to do is ask for it. It is a very awesome thing that happens when we engage in the Lord in this way. When we trust Him enough to ask for help, the struggle then becomes a vehicle for our perseverance.
However, if we doubt and hedge our bets, just the opposite happens. James 1:6-8 (NIV) But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do. It is really all or nothing with God. He doesn’t want just a piece of us. He isn’t at all interested in people who comparison shop in the spiritual mall or attempt to maintain a strangle-hold control on their lives while appealing to God to get them through the tough times. God’s desire, as we saw in verse four is that we mature and lack nothing. The completion that James speaks about cannot be brought to fruition in an attitude of double-mindedness. In Matthew 6:24, Jesus tells us that we cannot serve two masters. We will end up loving one and hating the other, even though we may try to conceal that reality. It is the very same idea that James is speaking about here.
In the next verse, James employs the same literary device that he used with “joy” in verse two. He says something contrary to get our attention. James 1:9 (NIV) Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. The human expectation says that those who are in poverty should be disappointed & dissatisfied with their position and strive to better themselves. James says that they should be thrilled or delighted with the place that God has called them into, because it is actually a high place. What could he mean by that? Wealth, power and influence obscure faith, hide faith, and in many cases…prevent it from being realized. Poverty, on the other hand…as we have learned through our association with Rwanda, often has just the opposite effect. Those who are poor, hunger and weep now…as Jesus affirmed in Luke 6, will be given the kingdom, become completely satisfied and will laugh with great joy.
The opposite, however, is most often the plight of the rich. James 1:10-11 (NIV) …But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business. Are the rich humiliated? It certainly doesn’t seem that way, at least in this world. However, there is a theme that runs through the Old Testament and which is reiterated by Jesus in the Gospels, that wealthy and powerful will indeed be brought low, brought down. Does that mean that they will all burn in hell? No. What it does mean, though is that in the final analysis, before God all humanity will be equal. There will be no status or preferred place. James is saying very clearly that what is experienced now is temporary… whether you are poor or rich. All the faithful will eventually one day bow together before the throne of the Almighty. If you are rich, and find yourself face down before God alongside one who formally would have been considered poor, you should give thanks for God has recognized your righteousness.
The writer ends this section of teaching by returning to the theme introduced in verses 2 &3. James 9:12 (NIV) 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. Both the wealthy and poor believers, spoken of in the previous verses will face trails, al-be-it very different ones. Those wealthy who persevere in their struggle not to let their wealth, power and influence become their God and are finally brought low, along with those who have suffered economically and physically and have been lifted up, who have both an enduring love of God will receive the crown. The love James is speaking of is the consequence of an abiding faith, and is demonstrated as Jesus said in love of neighbour.
At first glance, the next verses appear to be disconnected from the preceding teaching, but they are not. James 1: 13-15 (NIV) In fact, they deal with the whole issue of perseverance. When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. It is a common human trait to caste around for someone to blame when we fail. ‘It’s God’s fault; the burden is too heavy.” Or…, “The Devil made me do it.”
One of the characteristics of perseverance is bearing the responsibility for one’s own behaviour. God has promised to strengthen and uphold us when we are able to admit our mistakes and the need for his forgiveness. These verses very clearly reveal what happens when we refuse to do that. We are literally “dragged away” from holiness and righteousness by our own uncontrolled craving. God does not make us do things; either does Satan have that kind of power over us. We have the ability to choose. It is a stark reality, but we either choose God or death. Each of us is responsible.
James finishes this section with another warning. Satan can’t make us do things, but he is the great deceiver. If we are not intentionally careful, we can be made a fool of very easily. James 1: 16-18 (NIV) Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. 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, so that we might be a kind of first fruits of all he created. Everything that we need to persevere in trials and tribulations of life, everything that we need to pursue the ministry and mission that God has given into our hands, every power that we need to resist the temptations of the deceiver, all of that which we will need in life, comes from the hand of God. God does not change His mind & His care and love for us are perfect. He wants us, desires for us to be an offering to the world so that others may see His light and believe.
That can only happen if we allow God to be in the driver’s seat. It can only happen if we allow Him to complete the work of shaping, resourcing & maturing us. Will it be painful? Yes! But it will bring us the crown of life.
Please pray with me…..