FAITH IN ACTION – The epistle of James in five sections.
1. Living in Faith
There are two books in the Bible that really thrill me and for the reasons that I can’t quite understand. The first in the Old Testament is the book of Ecclesiastes, when I read it I feel the sheer pungency of what the man is saying. He is a man who looks for God and yet at the same time knows what life is about. There is something about the book of Ecclesiastes that goes right to the bottom of my socks! I don’t know if anybody else has felt like that? It is one of the most misunderstood books in the Old Testament, especially chapter 3 when we start off with that lovely thing – we go all gooey-eyed and we quote ‘there is a time to be born and a time to die’ and we think how beautiful. In fact it is the greatest protest song in the Old Testament – man is trapped in time and he feels the power of that and he wants to know the answer to it.
The same thing happens to me when I read James. I borrowed two commentaries and I had a look through and then I threw them away, they were quite helpful and reminded me of a couple of Greek words, but I am convinced that the commentaries, time and again, don’t get to grips with the epistle of James. Most of them say things like this; ‘it’s a disconnected letter’. One famous person, who wrote a book on the book of James, once said, ‘it’s like a series of unfinished sermons notes’. It’s like you get a bit of paper and you write down one thought and before you expand that you write down another thought. He’s wrong! When I look at James I see a tremendous connection there … well we will look at that and the power of it.
James was the brother of the Lord Jesus and his other brother was Jude who wrote two books along. These seven letters crammed in-between Hebrews and Revelation are called the ‘catholic epistles’ as they were addressed to the church everywhere. Have you noticed that – James, 1 and 2 Peter, John 1,2 and 3 and Jude. Jude starts his epistle saying that he is the servant of God and the brother of James. It’s like knowing somebody very well, who was well known in the church, James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem and he was the brother of Jesus. There are all sorts of other arguments of who the James was, but I believe that’s what the New Testament evidences and it’s what Christian tradition tells us.
Whether we agree with the chapters as they are written in your NIV or whatever you are reading is beside the point. It is unlikely that we will divide the chapters in the same way as the New Testament is divided.
For example, our first chapter will be from James 1v1 to verse 18 and then we will take chapter 2 from verse 19 of chapter 1. We might just agree at the end and get to chapter 5 with chapter 5!
James 1:1 – ‘James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations.’
Now this isn’t of the essence of the teaching here but it actually tickled my mind – who are the twelve tribes? Was James writing to Christian Jews and was he using the ‘twelve tribes’ as a metaphor for those Jews of the dispersion, who under all sorts of persecutions and movement had been spread through the world – that’s a possibility. James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem and it may be that he was speaking to Jews who had been converted and had become Christians. But I think there is a wider implication than that and it is commonly accepted (and I believe it’s right) that the twelve tribes is really speaking of the new Israel of God. Paul describes the Christian church as the new Israel of God. I believe that James takes the twelve tribes as a picture of the comprehensive nature of this new people of God – the new Israel of God.
Now we get to the punch –
‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers’
As an aside, let me just say a few words about this. Whenever you read ‘brothers’ in the New Testament, read in brackets ‘and also sisters’! I wouldn’t want 50% or 60% of you to lose out on this! Paul always says it as well, ‘my brothers, my brothers’ and believe you me, some of the things that he says to brothers are absolutely pertinent to sisters! In fact I have a theory; that they are more pertinent to sisters – but that’s only a theory! This is not the same word as adelpho but the lovely word for man in Greek is anthropos. There are two or three different words for man in Greek, but there is one for man in Greek anthropos which my old Greek teacher taught me. I have forgotten lots of words in Greek but I never forgot this word, because the way he taught me was so colourful and to me so attractive. Anar is man, that is male man but anthropos is man embracing woman!
‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man (or woman) should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.’
Now, this is where the disconnection comes in. We have just read about trials and faith and now he goes on to say something that looks completely different. But I want to show you how it’s not completely different.
We are going to talk about faith. I used to read James chapter 1 and I used to think here we go into trouble again! I used to get depressed – ‘facing trials of many kinds’. It isn’t about the trials, it’s about the faith!
v 9 – ‘The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position.’
The commentaries zoom off here, talking about testing and faith, and zoom off to talking about poverty and wealth and it’s a complete miss off the point – except of one thing! It’s about faith.
v 9,10 – ‘The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position.’
The thing I love about James is that he is always going on about two classes of people; one I’m not so fussy about, it’s about teachers! He says about the ‘one who should teach’ and being a teacher I always skip that verse! The other is the rich, well I don’t mind that, I’ll get onto you as well
v 10-11 –‘But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he 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 man will fade away even while he goes about his business.’
I have seen rich people doing that – I’ve seen people so consumed with materialism, that in their very being consumed with it, they are consumed in it. There are folk who are professional people and folk who are going forward in their careers – I want to warn you what James would warn you – be very careful where your eyes are set because if you get consumed in something we are usually consumed by it. The only thing the Scripture gives us credit to be consumed with is to be consumed in the Kingdom so that we will be consumed by the Kingdom! Because if we die in the Kingdom we will live in Jesus. But you have got to watch what else you die in.
v 12-18 –‘Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown give birth to death. Don’t be deceived, my dear friends. 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, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.’
That last Scripture is most important – I want you to get hold of it in your heart right now in case we don’t touch it again. The last word of verse 18 is most important – God has chosen ‘to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created’.
One commentator I read a long time ago which sticks out in my mind about the epistle of James is that he completely misses the point. He was a liberal commentator who didn’t believe in the need for new birth. So what he said that James was speaking about in verse 18 was the word of truth which God spoke to man in the first creation. That by speaking a word of creation to man, He raised man up to be a firstfruit of all that then was going to be created. That I believe misses the whole point of the epistle of James as well as the whole New Testament. The word of truth that God has created us in is the word of truth that has appeared in Jesus and has been spoken into our hearts by the Holy Spirit and has brought new creation.
Paul teaches in the epistle of Romans in chapter 8 – we are the first sign of God – for a new creation in Christ Jesus. He says the very trees are standing on tiptoe (verse 22) waiting for the redemption of the sons of God. You watch when you go past the trees – they’ll stretch up if you are a son of God! They’re standing there all miserable, especially when it’s cold and grey and they are creaking and groaning and travailing until suddenly a son of God appears and they stretch up because there’s a sign of their salvation. Of course, it’s not really true what I’m saying – but nevertheless we are the firstfruits of all God’s creation. In you today, God is doing something by His Spirit through the word of truth – He means us to be a sign in the midst of a lost cosmos – what He is going to do in the power of God through Jesus!
As we’re going through the epistle of James, we will notice the thing I love most about James’ epistle is that it faces the facts of the world square in the face and then transcends them in the power of God. Some folk don’t like James because he doesn’t say too much about faith and about holiness and about some of the ‘spiritual things’, the language or the jargon that we understand; but great thing about James (I think) is that he is right down to the ground and right up into God!
He has some tremendous things to say to you and I. The thing that thrills me about being a follower of Jesus is that God’s purpose in me is to create a firstfruits of everything that He intends in creation. The day is going to come when creation is going to be remade in the image of its Creator.
There is going to be a new heaven and a new earth and the colours we see today are masked, they are there but not as bright as they will be when they are released in liberty in Jesus. God is going to recapture that lost beauty in creation as He restores it in the power of redemption that He has bought in Christ Jesus. He has chosen you today to give us birth through the word of truth that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all that He has created. That is why it is important to allow God’s Holy Spirit to work in you in fullness. It’s not just a matter of you being blessed. Can you see what God is saying – that what He wants to do in you is the forerunner of all that He is going to accomplish everywhere in Jesus.
I think we live with such a small-minded view of discipleship, we think what’s important is me, Lord do it in me – but God does it in you because He is going to do it everywhere. What He wants to manifest today is the foretaste or firstfruit of His new creation in Christ Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit. To set us free and to be at liberty, to manifest His glory and to express His Kingdom.