As Queen Street Church begins a teaching series on the Letter of James I will post a few notes and links. I am especially grateful to Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed for the title of my series, “A Brother’s Wisdom,” and his thoughtful postings this past year from his soon to be released commentary on James.
Let’s check in with James, chapter 1:
1 James, a servant (or slave) of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.
Here James, the brother of our Lord, begins a conversation with a Jewish community dispersed around the world (most likely outside of Israel). These Jews are more narrowly “followers of Jesus” as is James. James humbly introduces himself as a servant and reminds us of his brother Jesus in the process. We begin with a portion of James (verses 2-4) which is often quoted as a key to positive thinking. McKnight suggest we should read the rest of James to understand that the “trials of many kinds” (verse 2) look more like the following:
1. 1:2-4 suggests he’s talking about the sorts of things that try one’s very faith and that lead to the virtue of perseverance.
2. 1:5-8 suggests he’s talking about the sorts of things that lead us to cry out to God for wisdom.
3. 1:9-11 suggests he’s talking about stuff the poor are experiencing and here we can explore all kinds of texts in James, including the judicially-sponsored exploitation of the poor (2:1-7) and the oppression of the poor by the rich (5:1-6).
We continue reading from James chapter 1:
Faith and Wisdom
2 My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4 and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.
5 If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. 6 But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; 7, 8 for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.
First (verses 3-4), James offers pastoral counsel to his fellow Jews in the midst of their troubles of living in a Roman world and under suspicion and often rejected by their sisters and brothers in the Jewish Community. McKnight offers this gem “James takes the long haul view of suffering. He’s not a wimp; he’s an aggressive, active pastor who knows that God will bring justice and, in that situation, they were to take it on the chin and endure the suffering. God would bring justice.” Further, no where does James suggest that God sends suffering our way or that suffering is an act of God. Rather, James promises that God will be with us in our suffering and through that suffering (testing) produces faith and that from faith comes maturity and completeness (perfection). This may remind us of the Paul’s words: “we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us” (Romans 5:3-5).
Second (verses 5-6), McKinght reminds us that the readers of this letter were “were mostly the oppressed poor (cf. 1:9-11; 2:1-13; 5:1-6) who were tempted to find justice (1:20; 4:1-2; 5:1-6) and perhaps even by using violence (1:20; 4:1-2).” So the wisdom being sought is how to secure the rights and privileges that the rich and powerful never concede without a fight. So following the teaching of Jesus, we should ask, seek, and knock at the door of our God seeking wisdom (see Matthew 7:7-11). Later, James will challenge his readers to engage in peace-mongering (McKnight’s word) in the face of oppression for “the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace‑loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17).
Poverty and Riches
9 Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, 10 and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.
James introduces a thought that will be returned to throughout his letter. The rich will disappear like the the flower of the field (it also seems interesting that implication in verse 9 is that the rich will boast in being brought low). Here James echoes the words of his brother in the “Sermon on the Plain” where the poor are blessed and the rich have words of woe spoken over them (see Luke 6:20-26). He also speaks to his mother’s promise that the proud will be scattered, the powerful will be brought down from their thrones, and the rich sent empty away (see Mary’s Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55).
James continues ….
Trial and Temptation
12 Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. 13 No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. 14 But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 15 then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. 16 Do not be deceived, my beloved.
17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
Temptation and blessing are an interesting pair tied together by James. It is important here to see James’ truth (and it better become ours) that God does not send trials and temptations. Those temptations arise from desires within us, which lead to sin, and ultimately to death. James also clarifies for us that the trials of verses 2 and 3 are not from God as well.
We continue with James …
Hearing and Doing the Word
19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Sometimes, I think God’s word just speaks for itself. I cannot figure how anyone can can say that just hearing the word of God and not doing what it tells them to do is being faithful to Jesus. In verses 26 and 27 James suggests (at least the following): bridle your tongue, care for the poor (literally the orphans and widows), and do not live the world’s way. The difference is between observing oneself in a mirror or looking thought the window of God’s way (law) of liberty. Which will we choose? In the interest of not having a worthless religion, let me ask you to consider doing at least one of these this week. Hold your tongue, care for the poor, or live unstained by the world.
This week I also encourage you to write the following words on your heart:
My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.