Some commentators have suggested that James is just a string of pearls, with no outline. It is true that James is a string of pearls, each more beautiful and useful than the last; however, the pearls are strung on a well-defined outline: "Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger" (1:19). James talks about quickness of hearing in 1:21-2:26; slowness of speech in Chapter 3, and slowness to anger in 4:1-5:6. The introduction and the summary talk about trials. I love the book of James.
The book of James is my favorite letter. Every so often I re-read both James and
, by Zane C. Hodges. Professor Hodges goes through the book almost verse by verse, but for the most part we will move a little more quickly than that. Our readings will be shorter than usual, however, to allow ample time for your reflection. I’m mostly following Hodges’s outline and using some of his thoughts, but any errors (or silliness) are my own. You should read James carefully for yourself, and not take my word or Hodges’s word for what James is saying to us.
Four or five men named James are mentioned in the New Testament. Our author calls himself “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Ancient tradition identifies this James with the “brother of the Lord” of Mark 6:3 and Galatians 1:19, who was the leader of the church at Jerusalem (Acts 15). Both Hodges and John Wesley note that calling himself “servant” rather than “brother” shows both his modesty and that he was well-known enough that no other identification than his name was required for his readers.
James seems to know nothing about the conversion of Gentiles, and he writes to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” Hodges concludes that the book is very early, probably after the persecutions of Acts 8 (around the year 34 or 35) and well before the Council of Jerusalem in the year 60 (Acts 15). “The twelve tribes” are the early Jewish Christians who have scattered from Jerusalem.
The “twelve tribes” have been dispersed by persecution, and we may as well assume that they are suffering the problems of all refugees everywhere. Is James sympathetic? No! This is a wonderful opportunity for their faith to grow and produce steadfastness (patience or endurance) and for them to become better Christians. (Personally, I hate growth experiences, so my sympathies are with the readers.)
Furthermore, if we feel that we lack the wisdom to grow in faith, we should ask God for it, confident that he will give it. Rich and poor alike will benefit from the trials that test our faith and ends in our perfection; we should greet trials with joy.
After telling his readers to welcome trials as a means of growing toward perfection, James makes a second important point about trials. Never think that God has set temptation in your path. God only gives good gifts, perfect gifts. God cannot be tempted by evil, and he never, ever, tempts us with evil. We (and the
|Devil) tempt ourselves, which leads us into sin and death. God’s aim is completely the opposite: to bring us into the truth and life.
James 1:19-21, Behave well in Trials: Outline of the Book (6/8/17)
James has a very specific outline for his letter: “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” The rest of the book will elaborate on these three important points by giving us examples and instructions.
James 1:22-27, Aspects of Good Behavior – Be Swift to Hear. Hearing is more than listening (6/9/17)
Did your mom ever say to you, “Do you hear me?!” She didn’t mean, “Is sound coming to your eardrums?” She meant, “You had better do what I just told you to do!”
James says the same thing. When you “hear” the word of God, it means that you will do it. If you don’t do it, you are just kidding yourself about having heard it. If you only talk about religion, you didn’t hear the word. James says that when you do something about religion, you really did hear it, and your mom will be proud. (Well, he didn’t say that last part, but trust me, your mom will be proud.)
James 2:1-13, Aspects of Good Behavior – Be Swift to Hear. Hearing is more than mere morality (6/12/17)
James gives some examples of what it means to be swift to hear, and he elaborates on what he means by “doing the word.” The first example doesn’t bother me. Since some of the finest, kindest, most devout Christians I know are “poor” by my own worldly standards and I count myself lucky to be their friend, I really don’t think I show partiality by distinguishing between poor and rich.
The second example makes me wince, however. If I break even one of God’s Laws, I am a lawbreaker. Can I honestly say I’ve never broken one of the laws? No. But I try to love God as much as I can and love my neighbor as much as I can, and I try to show mercy as often as I can. I hope that God’s mercy triumphs over his judgment when I have to give an accounting. Read James to see what makes you wince.
James 2:14-26, Aspects of Good Behavior – Be Swift to Hear. Hearing is more than passive faith (6/13/17)
Today’s reading is a complicated little passage that’s often misunderstood. James is not saying that you can earn salvation by works. You can’t “earn” salvation. Period. And James isn’t saying that.
There are a couple sources of confusion. First, in vss. 18 – 23, James is using a rhetorical form called the “diatribe,” which is a hypothetical conversation between an objector or “foolish person” (see vs. 20) and another speaker, who may or may not represent the author’s point of view. Typically the translations put the quotation marks in the wrong place. Dr. Hodges (a Greek scholar, remember) says that vss. 2:18-19 both belong to the foolish person, according to the standard diatribe format. He says that the objector is arguing that you can’t really tell whether someone has faith, with or without works, and gives the example that demons “believe” in God, but their only response is to tremble – so what does that prove? James – still speaking in the diatribe – replies sharply to the objector that faith and works are inseparable (vss. 20-23). James resumes talking to his readers in vs. 24.
A second source of confusion is that we have two words that we think are different: “justification” and “be righteous.” We usually think of “justification” as “being saved” and of “being righteous” as “being good.” However, both of these English words translate the same word in Greek! What does your paper Bible have in verse 24? Lots of translations have “is justified,” but others have “made right with God” or something similar. For example, the Good News Bible has “You see, then, that it is by our actions that we are put right with God, and not by our faith alone.”
So what is James saying? If you really have heard the word, you will do the word! Your body is dead if the spirit is not in it, because the spirit makes the body lively. In the same way, your faith is dead if works are not in it, because works – doing the word – makes the faith lively.
Random Walk in a Religious Art Gallery, Step 14: James 2:14-26, The Sacrifice of Isaac (3/19/15)
|Ok, I have to admit that my favorite part of this picture is the goat. The angel looks stern; Abraham looks confused; Isaac looks decidedly downcast. The goat, in contrast, has a happy little goat smile on his face.
James uses Abraham’s action as proof of his faith. “Prove to me that have faith if you have performed no faithful actions!” he demands rhetorically. “You can’t; however, I can prove Abraham’s faith to you by his actions!” Pay special attention to vs. 26. James is saying that if you take the spirit away from the body, the body dies. In exactly the same way, if you take works away from the faith, the faith dies. Good works won’t save you, but doing them will keep your faith lively.
Previous Step. Next Step.
"The Sacrifice of Isaac" from the Binns family Bible, now in the private collection of Regina Hunter.
James 3:1-2, Responsibilities of Teachers
I love the book of James. I can't read it without being convicted of my sins, and it gives good practical advice on how to stop committing them (not that I'm successful in following the advice). James has a number of scary statements, and we see today one of them in vs. 3:1. Did your mom ever say to you, "Why did you do that? You should have known better!" You got a spanking, and your younger sibling, who didn't know any better, got off scot free. Probably you got an extra whack for getting your sibling into trouble. Preachers and Bible teachers are supposed to know better – and we are supposed to keep anyone who listens to us out of trouble, as well. That's why I keep telling you, "Don't listen to me! Read the Bible for yourself!"
James 3:1-12, Aspects of Good Behavior – Be Slow to Speak. Because the tongue is a dangerous instrument (6/14/17)
James now has us all convinced that we should be swift to hear, because when we have truly heard the word of God, we will do it. Now he moves on to his second point: be slow to speak. That’s hard for me; how about you? Not only that, but not many of us should become teachers! Ouch! This is why I always tell you not to listen to me: if I am your teacher, I will be judged more strictly than you are. You need to read the Bible for yourself, and not listen to me.
The first thing James has to say is that speaking can get you into a lot of trouble. Well, we all know that’s true. Be slow to speak.
James 3:13-18, Aspects of Good Behavior – Be Slow to Speak. Because holy conduct is safe (6/15/17)
In contrast to talking too much, which leads to all sorts of trouble, keeping your mouth shut (vs. 14) and doing good works (vss. 13, 17-18) leads to righteousness and peace. James isn’t suggesting that we need to take a vow of silence, just that we be thoughtful – wise and understanding – about what we say.
James 4:1-5, Aspects of Good Behavior – Be Slow to Wrath. Because wrath is created by worldliness (6/16/17)
Point 1: Do the word. Point 2: Be slow to speak. Now James moves on to Point 3: Be slow to wrath.
Why do we get angry? Mostly because we want something that we don’t have, and when we ask for it, we don’t get it. Boy, does that make me mad! Jesus said, “... so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.” We don’t get what we ask for, James says, because we ask wrongly. Would Jesus ask for this? If not, then you can’t ask for it in his name, and you are asking wrongly. Be God’s friend: only ask for things and results that are in line with God’s will. A good start is to study the life of Jesus and the Lord’s Prayer.
James 4:6-10, Wrath is cured by humility when it brings repentance from sin (6/19/17)
The section of the book we were studying in Sunday School this morning was on love, which, strangely enough, led us to a vigorous discussion of wrath and violence. James’s discussion of wrath leads him to a discussion of humility. Humility before God will lead you to repentance from sin, which leaves no room for worldly wrath.
James 4:11-12, Wrath is cured by humility when it brings restraint in speech (6/20/17)
My first reaction when I get angry is to say something mean. What about you? James says that we must recognize that we are not lawgivers or judges. This should make us humble enough to understand that we are in no position to say something mean about someone else. As Thumper Rabbit says, “If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.”
James 4:13 – 5:6, Wrath is cured by humility when it brings reluctance to boast (6/21/17)
Don’t forget that James is still discussing the importance of being slow to wrath. Wrath is cured by humility, he says, because humility brings repentance from sin (4:6-10) and restraint in speech (4:11-12). The opposite of humility is arrogance. In 4:13-5:6, James warns us against arrogance, which is not only foolish (vss. 4:13-14), but also evil (4:15-17) and dangerous (5:1-6).
James 5:7-11, Perseverance Will Be Rewarded (6/22/17)
James’s letter is well organized. He started by telling us to count it all joy when we are in trials, and then he gave us some strategies to cope with trials. (Be slow to speak, swift to hear, and slow to wrath.) Now he returns to the topic of trials. Be patient.
James 5:12-20, Perseverance Is Undergirded by Prayer (6/23/17)
Perseverance is undergirded by prayer. James started by telling us to ask God for wisdom, and he ends by telling us to pray in all circumstances, whether we are suffering or cheerful, sick or called to the sick, sinful or righteous. Most importantly, we should pray for all sinners, including ourselves, to change their ways. If we, by the power of God, turn a fellow-sinner from his wandering, we may save his physical life, and his sins will be concealed when God forgives them. Prayer is powerful!
More on the General Epistles
Overview of the General Epistles
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