November 1, 2015.
Daily Reading: James 1-3.
Background: The book of James was most likely authored by James the brother of Jesus who was a prominent leader in the Jerusalem church and well recognized among the apostles (see Acts 12:17, 15:13-22, I Corinthians 15:7, Galatians 1:19 and 2:9), though he apparently didn’t become a follower of Christ until after the resurrection (see Mark 3:21-35 and John 7:5). Written primarily to Jewish Christians that had been scattered due to persecution, the book of James is a very practical book without much fluff. He gets right to his point and doesn’t apologize for the truth. Due to the lack of mention of Gentile Christians, it is thought that James wrote this epistle before the Jerusalem counsel in Acts 15, dating the book tentatively between 45 and 48 AD. James focuses on practical Christianity, emphasizing prayer, noting the connection of faith and works, warning against partiality. Though the epistle is shorter than epistles heavy in theology such as Romans or Hebrews, there are many practical lessons that are concisely fit into the words of James, and there is much to learn from the epistle.
Concepts and Connections.
1. Faith and trials: James begins his letter to those who had been spread abroad by persecution by addressing this persecution head on, telling his brothers to count the trials and tribulations as joy. Though this may seem strange, it was the outcome of the trials that James pointed to as the benefit to those who suffered for the name of Christ. The testing of their faith would lead to steadfastness, and this steadfastness would lead to perfection and completeness. He would go on to say that the one who remains steadfast under trial is pleased and will receive the crown of life. He then emphasizes wisdom, showing that the way to wisdom is petition in prayer, faithful payer without doubting (see also Matthew 21:21). Later he would remind the brethren that every good and perfect gift is from above, such as the wisdom that we ask of Him. Introducing the contrasting of the poor and the rich brethren, he tells the poor to be exalted and the rich to be humbled. We will see later that James has a strong word against flaunting wealth and showing partiality. Riches will fail and pass away, and thus there is no wisdom in putting our faith in them. It is interesting to point out here that James places a high responsibility on us when it comes to temptation and sin, with no mention of the evil one, asserting that we are tempted when we are enticed by our own desires. Desire then gives birth to sin, and sin’s ultimate result is death. Thanks be to God for the gift of salvation from this death through the blood of Christ.
2. Being doers of the word: We can see the packed nature of this epistle in this section as James uses just a few lines to address several different teachings. He begins with the composure that Christians should have, listening well and being slow to speak and slow to anger. These are very wise words, as he goes on to say that human anger does not produce God’s righteousness. We are to learn to be holy, riding ourselves of wickedness and receiving the word of God with meekness for the salvation of our souls. He then introduces a concept that he will deal with extensively in the next chapter, and that is being doers of the word and not hearers only. He likens the one who only hears the word to one who looks in a mirror and then forgets what he looks like right after he leaves the mirror. We are to hear the word and then to put the word into action in our lives, which is the point that James makes throughout this epistle. The chapter ends with a contrast between vain religion, which is carried out by an unbridled tongue, and pure religion which is shown through visiting orphans and widows in their affliction and keeping oneself unspotted from the world.
1. Showing partiality: James certainly had no problem calling out sin when he saw it, especially when that sin came in the form of showing partiality. He pointed to the practice of the brethren giving more attention and honor to brothers who came into the assembly with fine clothes and jewelry, all while paying little attention to the poor man with shabby clothing. James cannot stand for this, and wants to make it clear that this is not how we ought to behave in the house of God. Further, he points out that it is the poor in the world that have been chosen to be rich in faith and to receive the kingdom (see Matthew 5:3, Luke 6:20). By showing partiality, they were no longer loving their neighbor as theirselves, committing sin. James makes it clear that sin is transgression of any point of the law. You could keep the whole law, except in one point, and still be a transgressor of the law. Let us show mercy, so that we are judged with mercy, for mercy triumphs over judgment.
2. Faith and works: In the latter half of this chapter, James hits on the inherent connection between faith and works, making it clear that a faith without works is a dead faith. We cannot separate the two. He likens this concept to someone who sees his brother or sister hungry and tells them to depart in peace, and be warmed and filled. He wishes them well, but does not actually given them anything to eat. Though he may believe his words, they are vain and empty. The same is a faith that is by itself- it is dead. Belief in God is good, but it means nothing if it is not accompanied by obedience. The demons believe in, and even fear God. Will they be saved? It is the choices we make, or rather the choice to follow Christ and accept His gift of salvation, that sets us apart. The choices are made evident by our actions, for we cannot make the choice without action. James cites two examples in the old testament to back up this point, Abraham in the offering of his son and Rehab in the hiding of the spies (see Genesis 22 and Joshua 2:1-22, 6:23, respectively). They were justified by their works, for they did not have faith alone, but rather carried out their faith through their actions. It is interesting to note that this is the only place in the bible where the phrase “faith alone” appears, and it is preceded by “a person is justified by works and not faith alone.” This is not to say in any way that we can earn our way to heaven, as Paul uses the same example of Abraham to show that we are justified by faith and not law (see Romans 4:1-12), but rather to say that faith will produce works, and a faith that doesn’t produce works is a dead faith. We cannot separate the two.
The tongue and wisdom from above: This chapter begins with James warning against being a teacher, for teachers will be judged with greater strictness. We should note the responsibility that is placed on teachers here. It is one thing to believe something that is false. It is something entirely different to teach others something that is false. He then goes on to speak about the power of the tongue, like a small rudder that guides large ships. There is great power in the tongue, and no man has tamed it. It can quickly lead to fire and destruction, for it is full of deadly poison. How many times have we seen exactly what James is talking about here? Blessing and cursing coming from the same mouth. This ought not to be so. We should never underestimate the potential our tongue has to cause damage. Then James discusses the difference between the wisdom from above and earthly wisdom. Note here that jealously and selfish ambition make us false to the truth, and we should examine our hearts for such. This is what the early wisdom is composed of, which is unspiritual and demonic. But the wisdom from above is pure, peaceable, gentle, reasonable, impartial, sincere and full of mercy and good works. Not here the parallels between this wisdom and the fruits of the spirit (see Galatians 5:22-23). Let us reap the harvest of righteousness and peace by making peace with people.
Tomorrow’s Reading: Numbers 33-36.
Grace and peace.