Tag Archives: James

A Sermon on Sunday – James 1

Introduction                              

After the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami David Bentley Hart wrote an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal asking, “Where was God in the Tsunami?” He received numerous responses ranging from atheists asserting that the tsunami proves that there actually is no God at all, to gratitude from others who appreciated his perspective, to severe criticism from many who argued that, on account of God’s all-encompassing providence, we must insist and conclude that God sent the tsunami for his own ultimate though hidden purposes. There is a brand of theology that sees God as “all-controlling” for his own good purposes. Everything that happens can ultimately be traced back to “God’s good plan.” How can we possibly trust a god like that?

 

James knew about the trials and troubles that can come storming into life. He knew the pain and heartache of unjust criticism, of grinding poverty, of oppressive governments and social systems. Yet in spite of it, James absolutely insists on the utter, unchanging, uncompromising goodness of God. In the first chapter of his letter he has two texts which declare his utter conviction that God is a good and generous God.

Who Was James & Why Was He Writing?

James 1:1       
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.

Although we cannot be certain, it is often thought that the author of this epistle was James, the brother of Jesus. Imagine being the brother of Jesus!

James did not always believe in Jesus. The gospels say explicitly that Jesus’ family did not believe in him, and that they thought he was nuts (John 7:5; Mark 3:21).Yet here he is calling himself a servant (= slave) of Jesus—whom he calls Lord, and writing a letter in his name. What happened? The resurrection: “then he appeared to James” (1 Corinthians 15:7). James became the leader of the church in Jerusalem, gained a reputation as a holy man and became known as James-the-Just, and eventually, in about 62AD, was martyred.

James is writing to “the twelve tribes of the Dispersion.” This enigmatic address indicates that James was writing for a Jewish audience amongst those who had been “scattered” or dispersed among the gentiles. We get some clues concerning his audience from accounts in Acts which tell of the Jerusalem church being dispersed as a result of persecution that arose around Stephen’s martyrdom (ch. 7; 8:1; 11:19). Was James writing to Christian refugees driven out of their homes and city, jobs, families and livelihoods? Accepted by neither gentiles nor by other Jews, these displaced Christians faced grave difficulties, and James writes to encourage and strengthen their faith.

Chapter One: An Overview

After his one line greeting James gets right down to business. Verses 1-8 deal with the trials that come crowding into our lives, trials sent not from God, but simply the circumstances of life, or even spiritual opposition. It is possible that James is thinking especially of economic trials because of the amount of attention he gives to this matter, not least in vv. 9-11.

But trials arising on the outside are not the only difficulty Christians face: temptations also arise from within. In both cases it is our faith that is being tried; these tests come not to build our faith but to destroy it—trials by discouraging us and tempting us to give up, temptations by luring us away from God, causing our faith to shrivel. Pressure from without and pressure from trouble within—we are in a right state, aren’t we! But whether from without or from within, James’s admonition is the same: stand fast! Persevere!

James finishes the chapter with further admonitions about the true nature of the new life Christians have entered into: an active life of compassion and holiness, doers of the word and doers of the work.

There is much we can speak about in this chapter—weeks of sermons! But today I want to focus especially on what James says in this chapter about God—the good and generous God.

God, the Single-Minded Giver

Right in the middle of James’s discussion of the trials we face he suggests that we ask God for wisdom—so that we might know how to conduct ourselves in the trial, perhaps even, how we might be delivered from it.

James 1:5       
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.

One of the most important things we could pray for in the midst of a trial is wisdom—that spiritual/practical understanding of God’s will and purpose as it applies to everyday life. Notice that James does not say we ought to pray for deliverance from the trial, but for wisdom so that we might know how we are to conduct ourselves in the midst of the trial. It is spiritual because it comes from God and is directed towards the fulfilment of God’s purposes. But it is also practical because God’s purposes are realised in daily existence and daily life. The command to ask is present: we should continually ask God for this!

But note what James says about God in this passage:

 

1. God is the giving God – this is the kind of God that God is. God so loved the world that he gave…

2. God gives generously – the Greek word here (haplōs) is unusual but insightful: it does mean generously, but it means more than that: it means to be wholehearted, or single-minded: God is single-minded in his giving. That is, God is wholeheartedly and single-mindedly generous.

 3. God gives to all – his generosity is universal, limitless, and without restriction

James thus gives us grounds for great confidence in our prayer—as long as we ask in faith! How can we be double-minded when God is single-minded in his generous giving!

The Always-and-Only Good God

James’s second passage comes in his discussion of temptations we face. In verse thirteen James insists that

James 1:13, 16-17   
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. … Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers and sisters: Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

Once more James insists on the utter goodness of God: to the very depths of his being and unto all eternity; in all his works; in his deepest purposes, intentions, will and motivations, God is good. God is goodness itself; he is transcendentally good, and there is in God nothing but goodness. God is unchangingly, single-mindedly, wholeheartedly and generously good!

How might we respond to this? By standing fast in trials and temptations, persevering and enduring. By trusting God, hoping in God, believing in God, rejoicing in God, drawing near to God, waiting on God, and loving God. 

 

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:26

James 2:26
For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

In this final verse of the chapter James reiterates with another metaphor the same point he has been making all along in this section: that a workless faith does not “work,” it cannot save, it is dead. He begins with a common anthropological image: “For just as the body without the spirit is dead” (Hōsper gar to sōma chōris pneumatos nekron estin). It is possible to translate pneumatos as “breath” in which case James is stating a simple biological fact. Most English translations render the term as “spirit,” drawing on familiar biblical imagery that assumes that the spirit animates and gives life to the body (so McKnight, 258). The point of the verse, however, is neither biology nor anthropology but the relation of faith and works.

Thus, just as the body without the spirit is dead and lifeless, “so faith without works is also dead” (houtōs kai hē pistis chōris ergon nekra estin)—lifeless, unproductive and impotent. The faith of which James speaks is “that faith” of verse 14, the faith which is faith only as confession in verse 19, the workless faith of verse 20, faith which is alone in verse 24. This is not faith at all in its true New Testament sense. True faith, for James, is inseparable from works of obedience toward God and mercy toward others. The faith which we rest in the good and generous God, calls forth a similar character in those who believe, such that their lives too, become good and generous toward others.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:25

James 2:25
Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road?

James now turns from the patriarch to the prostitute in a second illustration of his point, in case anyone think Abraham was a shoe-in with God. Just as Abraham had been “justified by works” so also (“likewise…also” homoiōs de kai) was Rahab.

Rahab’s story is found in Joshua 2 and Joshua 6:15-25. It is of interest that these passages never mention her faith, although it is clear that she has regard for the God of the Hebrews as the one who is “God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” (Joshua 2:11). Nevertheless her “works” are indicative of her belief that “the Lord has given you the land” (2:9). Therefore Rahab “welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road” (hypodexamenē tous aggelous kai hetera hodō ekbalousa). Rahab’s works consist in the welcome, protection and lodging she gave to these vulnerable messengers in their time of need, and her sending them out in safety. One might complain that Rahab lied in order to accomplish her ends, and that she was acting in self-interest; that is, there was nothing praise-worthy in her works at all. How could such works as these become the basis of justification, and that before a holy God?

If anything, these concerns make James’ argument all the stronger. Not just righteous Abraham, but Rahab the prostitute (Rhaab hē pornē) was “justified by works” (ex ergon edikaiōthē). Rahab’s concerns were not entirely selfish however; in her interactions with the spies she mentions herself only indirectly. Rather her concern is for her parents and siblings and their families. Nevertheless, for all her demerits, Rahab and her family are saved from the destruction of Jericho and are incorporated into Israel and its history (Joshua 6:25).

Why does James choose Rahab has his example of justification by works? Two reasons may be given. First, the figure of Rahab fascinated the Jews to the extent that she was lauded as the archetypal proselyte (Davids, 133-134). So, too, the Christian tradition found in her an example of the righteous gentile who became a member of the people of God. Matthew includes a “Rahab” in Jesus’ genealogy which is commonly assumed to be this same Rahab despite the chronological difficulties of the passage (Matthew 1:5). The author of Hebrews also includes her in the list of Israel’s heroes and heroines of faith, clearly identifying her faith with her reception of the spies (11:31). The first-century Roman bishop Clement included Rahab along with Abraham as an example of “faith and hospitality:”

On account of his faith and hospitality, a son was given him [Abraham] in his old age … On account of her faith and hospitiality, Rahab the harlot was saved (The First Epistle of St Clement, ch. 10, 12).

This link of faith and hospitality—generous kindness to the poor and other vulnerable people—provides a second reason James’ use of Rahab as his example. Her reception and care for the outsider and stranger, because they were members of the people of God, also serves James’ whole argument in this chapter. Her example is precisely the opposite of the figure in verse 16 who sends the poorly clothed and hungry person away without any practical care. Thus, her works of hospitality are paradigmatic of the kind of works James expects to see amongst those in his congregation.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:22

JamesJames 2:22
You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. (NRSV)

You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected. (NASB)

Not only was Abraham justified by works, says James, his faith was perfected or brought to completion by his works. Abraham’s faith included his works; it was a working faith, active, seen, demonstrated and thus shown to be genuine in, through and by his works.

James utilises another play on words in this verse to make his point. Still speaking to his interlocutor (“you see that” – blepeis hoti), James insists that Abraham’s “faith was working with his works” (hē pistis sunērgei tois ergois autou). Or we might say, Abraham’s faith only “worked” because it had works. James goes further: “and as a result of the works (kai ek tōn ergon), faith was perfected” (hē pistis eteleiōthē).

Abraham’s works were the means by which his faith was brought to completion. The NASB here reflects the order of the Greek text, and shows that, as in verse eighteen, James has included another chiastic structure (faith…works…works…faith), again highlighting the inseparability of faith and works. Yet, this verse also shows that while faith and works are inseparable, they may be distinguished (McKnight, 251).

 It is not so simple that we could say first he had faith and then he had works, and once he had both he had what it takes to get salvation. The faith of Abraham, the faith itself, worked itself out in works and it is the faith itself that is completed by works. It was a working faith, not faith plus works (McKnight, 252).

Eteleiōthē indicates that something happened to the faith: it was perfected. The verb can also be interpreted as completed, or made complete, or brought to its intended end. That is, Abraham’s faith only reached its maturity or its goal as it was acted upon by his works. His works, then, were an essential aspect of his faith, and without his works, his faith was incomplete and immature.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:18

JamesJames 2:18
But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.

This verse is not as straight-forward as it first appears, although having said that, its point is clear nonetheless. In verses 14-17 James made his very simple point, that faith without works is dead. Such a confession of faith cannot save, nor do any good for the one making the confession. In light of James’ previous discussion of divine judgement, this is very serious indeed. In this verse James insists that faith and works cannot be separated.

“But someone will say” (’all’ erei tis) ‘You have faith, and I have works’ (su pistin echeis, kagō erga echō).

An initial reading of this verse makes it seem as though the “someone” who is speaking is actually James himself, or someone who agrees with his position, because the saying appears to distinguish the speaker (“I”) who has “works” from an opponent (“You”) who has only a faith without works. The problem with this seemingly straight-forward interpretation, however, is that the opening phrase (but someone will say) is a typical rhetorical device in the ancient world to introduce a hypothetical debating partner who takes an opposing position. But it seems that this opponent is echoing James’s view—hence the difficulty in the verse!

The difficulty is compounded by the fact that commentators are unsure where the opponent’s words end: with the simple phrase, “you have faith,” so that James’s response begins with the “I have works.” Or do the opponent’s words include the whole phrase as I have suggested above? Or do they extend to take in the rest of the verse as well?

Most commentators agree that the opponent’s words include the whole phrase as I have it above, and that James’s response begins with the “show me.” But why would an opponent say, “You have faith, and I have works”? Would not an opponent reverse this to say, “I have faith and you have works”?

Again, most contemporary commentators accept a solution suggested by J. B. Mayor in his 1913 commentary, and supported by J. H. Ropes in 1916. Mayor suggested that the pronouns in the first phrase should be understood in a generic and impersonal way so that the verse reads something like, “on the one hand one says … and on the other hand another says” (see the discussion in McKnight, 238). By interpreting the verse in this manner the opponent might be understood to be saying something like, “Well, everyone has a different gift, or a different way of relating to God. Some relate to God simply by faith while others relate to him by works.” In this way the opponent is suggesting that faith and works are two distinct and separable ways of relating to God, and that Christians might choose one way or the other.

James repudiates this view in the strongest terms. He begins by challenging this opponent to “Show me your faith without works” (deixon moi tēn pistin sou chōris tōn ergōn)—an impossibility, since faith is only visible or revealed in the activity it elicits. And in return James will show his opponent by means of his works the faith that he has: “And I by my works will show you my faith” (kagō soi deixō ek tōn ergon mou tēn pistin). Vlachos points out that there is a chiastic structure in this phrase in which James says faith…works … works…faith, rhetorically highlighting the inherent connection he sees between faith and deeds (Vlachos, 93).

In this second half of the verse the same pronouns are used as in the first part, but here they have a specific and personal reference. This is the weakness of the interpretation suggested by most commentators (that is, the interpretation requires that the same pronouns in both parts of the verse need to be interpreted in different ways). Nonetheless, as Moo notes, “In the final analysis, this interpretation has fewer difficulties that the [other options] and should probably be adopted” (Moo, 106). He notes further that “most scholars now adopt this view, although most with some reluctance” (106).

James, then, uses the device of an imaginary debating partner to insist that faith and works are inseparable: there can be no genuine faith that is not also expressed in works. He will sharpen this argument in verse 19.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:17

JamesJames 2:17
So also faith, by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

With this summary statement, James brings his illustration and three rhetorical questions to its climax. What good is it if one says they have faith but do not have works? No good at all—such faith is “dead.” Can that faith save the person? No—such faith is “dead” (nekra estin).

“Dead” faith is lifeless, inoperative and impotent. It has and can have no lasting value, effect or impact. In fact, it is not faith at all. For James, faith must be a living reality in one’s life, vigorous and energetic, issuing in works. Faith cannot be without works (ean mē echē erga) or “by itself” (kath heautēn). Genuine faith so orients the believer to God, that it determines the life of the believer in directions which correspond to the character and activity of God.

We have already seen that, for James, this character may be understood in terms of moral purity and generous compassion (1:26-27). A living faith is accompanied by works—the kind of works James has identified in his illustration: works of love towards others in the congregation, especially the poor; works of mercy in which their bodily needs are cared for.

Unless faith does issue in such works of love, its claim is empty.

For James, then, there is no such thing as a true and living faith which does not produce works. … Works are not an “added extra” any more than breath is an “added extra” to a living body. …

James does not argue for faith instead of works or works instead of faith or even works above faith, but for faith and works. Both are important and must equally be present or else the other alone is “worthless” (Davids, 122, 123).

Finally, we must note once more, that James views the Christian community as a proleptic social manifestation of the “great reversal” which will come to pass at the eschaton (see the post on James 1:9-11). Here and now, in the concrete life of the Christian community, a new social order is to emerge in which poor are dignified as valued and equal members of the community, and their bodily needs are met by those in the community with the means to do so.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:15-16

JamesJames 2:15-16
If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? (NRSV)

James now passes onto his third rhetorical question, presenting an illustration, demonstrating that words alone, without deeds that correspond to the words, are empty and useless. Most commentators agree that the illustration is hypothetical, with McKnight referring to it as a “comic example” which “would be humorous if it were not so tragic” (229). Nevertheless, as Davids also suggests (121), the illustration is not one without immediate relevance to the community, and like the illustration in vv. 2-3, may be indicative of attitudes and behaviours which do exist or have occurred in the community.

Like vv. 2-3, the scenario is presented as a two-part hypothetical followed by the question. The first part describes the presence and condition of someone in the assembly whose poverty is indicated by their dress which is not so much shabby (cf. vv. 2-3) as inappropriate for cold weather, and by their lack of daily food. The second part then describes the words and action of another congregational member, before James presses his question. There is a further similarity between vv. 2-3 and vv. 15-16: in both cases there is a concern on James’ part for the unworthy treatment of the poor in the midst of the congregation. The poor person is to be welcomed with the same degree of acceptance and honour accorded to others; they are also to be cared for so that the “needs of the body” are catered for. Whereas in vv. 2-3 it is not clear whether the wealthy and poor persons are Christians, here the poor person is definitely identified as a “brother or a sister.” Finally, the function as well as the form of the two illustrations appears similar: James chooses an illustration relevant to the life of the community, perhaps even occurring in the congregation, since he says, “and one of you says to them…”

James is all inclusive in his description of the poor person, explicitly including both genders: “if a brother or a sister” (ean adelphos ē adelphē) in his description of the poor. These poor hyparchōsin gymnoi (literally, “are naked” as in the NRSV, though variously translated as “poorly clothed,” “in rags,” “in need of clothes,” or “without clothes” [Vlachos, 87-88]). They also lack daily food (leipomenoi tēs ephēmerou trophēs). Vlachos observes that James’ use of the present tense, and the somewhat unusual verb hyparchōsin (“to exist”) indicates an enduring state of poverty and suggests that the individuals suffer constant want (87-88). Their abject need is evident.

“And one of you says to them” (eipē de tis autois ex hymōn) brings this hypothetical illustration close to home: “someone from among your community.” The words spoken are in the form of a blessing: ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’ (hypagete en eirēnē, thermainesthe kai chortazesthe). “Go in peace” is a standard Semitic blessing of good will, that the person go on in a state of peace and well-being (Vlachos, 88). “Keep warm and eat your fill” correspond to the nakedness and hunger of the person identified in verse fifteen. These verbs can be interpreted in two distinct ways, either as “keep yourself warmed and filled” (i.e. the verbs understood in the middle voice) or “be warmed and filled” (i.e. the verbs understood in the passive voice).

The first option places the responsibility for the poor person’s well-being upon themselves, whereas the second becomes a form of prayer. Vlachos (89) prefers the first interpretation, and because the verbs are in the second person imperative, he is probably correct; the speaker is telling the poor what they must do. Nevertheless, a number of interpreters including McKnight, prefer the second option so that the speaker is saying something along the lines of, “May God’s peace be upon you; may God warm you; may God fill you up.”

This may be an overinterpretation but, if so, not by much: the false piety, the false claims, and the false religion of those who have faith but do not have works are palpable in this letter (cf. 1:26-27) (McKnight, 231).

In the end, as Davids (122) notes, the question makes little difference to James’ main point: the speaker does nothing. “And yet you do not supply their bodily needs” (mē dote de autois ta epitēdeia tou sōmatos). Ta epitēdeia tou sōmatos refers to those things necessary for the body, the physical staples of life, which in this context refer to food and clothing. It would be legitimate, I think, to extend this to other necessities of life including shelter for the homeless.

James is concerned for bodily needs and physical necessities, and especially but perhaps not exclusively, for those in the congregation (cf. Galatians 6:10). To send someone on their way, even with a blessing of peace, is of no use whatsoever, if in the sending they remain cold and hungry. James obviously intends the speaker (and the community—dōte is second person plural) not only wish them peace and welfare, not only have good will and intention toward the poor, not only feel kindly—but to give (dōte) them the things needed for bodily life and welfare. This calls the speakers to use their own substance and share what they have with the person in need. James is concerned with “the need of the body” and not simply the condition of the “soul.” To bless or to pray, and to not give what is needed—“What is the good of that?”

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:14

JamesIt has been almost a year since I broke off my study of James. I had worked through to James 2:13 on a verse-by-verse basis, and had hoped to continue to work through the epistle in this manner. However, my year has been such that I have not had the opportunity to continue as intended. I am not sure that 2017 will be much different, but will try to get through to the end of chapter two at least. Before breaking off my study, I did write two posts providing an introduction to James 2:14-26 which provide an orientation to the passage as a whole. Given some of the difficult issues with this passage, I invite readers to consult these posts first. The two posts can be found here and here.

James 2:14
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? (NRSV)

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? (NASB)

With this verse James begins a new section in his letter, although there is continuity with what has gone before. In verses 1-7 of the second chapter, James has admonished his hearers against partiality in the congregation, reinforcing this admonition with a reflection on the love command and the reality of divine judgement (vv. 8-13). His listeners are to live in accordance with the royal law of love which is characterised especially, by mercy. Just as chapter 2:1 begins with an acknowledgement of the hearers’ faith and calls for works of mercy and love, so this section also considers the nature of genuine faith, and similarly calls for works of mercy.

The fourteenth verse sets forth the first two questions in a series of three, the third question being longer in form and posed in terms of an illustration. The verse is again addressed by James to “my brothers and sisters” (adelphoi mou), a device, as we have previously noted, that James uses to frame his various exhortations and to signal a new phase in his argument. The first question poses a hypothetical based on someone’s claim to have faith: James does not say the person has faith but no works; rather, they say they have faith (ean pistin legē tis echein) but they have no works (erga de mē echē). Of what use—or good or benefit—(Ti to ophelos;) is such a claim? The expected answer to the question is, “no use whatsoever.” The second question, also anticipating a negative answer, confirms this, and also shows the kind of “use” or “good” James has in mind: “Can that faith save him?” (mē dunatai hē pistis sōsai auton;). That is, when a claim to have faith is not supported by works, the claim is empty and useless. It provides no use or good or benefit whatsoever to the person making the claim; it cannot save them.

This verse raises many questions: What does James mean by “save”? What kind of works does he have in mind? What does it mean for someone to claim “I have faith”, if they have no works? What is the significance of this claim? What is the nature of this faith? What good or benefit does the person derive from their claim? Why would someone claim to have faith if such faith has no other effect in their life?

James questions the viability of someone making this claim and in so doing, questions the very reality of the faith itself. Such “faith” is no-faith, and therefore it can bring no benefit, and certainly no salvation into the life of the person making the claim.

A person may make such a claim because it is expected of them—like a candidate for the American presidency. Others perhaps because they wish to appear religious or spiritual if such qualities are culturally valued and approved—hardly the case in contemporary Australia! Some may claim faith on the basis of tradition or heritage, whereby the remnants of a faith once held by one’s forebears still clings to their life, though perhaps not the faith itself.

For James, such “faith” is not faith at all. The claim does not equate with the reality. A faith which has only the claim as its evidence is not genuine. True faith penetrates one’s life, shaping and guiding it. Faith in God issues in a life characterised by those priorities which characterise the life and being of God: love, mercy, etc. Thus, faith determines the life of the one who has faith, whereas the claim, by itself, is fruitless: it cannot save.

Scot McKnight speaks very bluntly to James’ point in this verse and its implications for many in our churches:

Salvation, then, is regenerative, morally transforming, and eternal—and the tragedy for James is that those who claim to have faith but do not have works will not be saved. Most Protestants do not believe this today (229).

Some Books Cost Too Much

the-missions-of-james-peter-and-paul-tensions-in-early-christianityWhile reading a commentary on James I came across references to Chilton & Evans (eds.), The Missions of James, Peter & Paul: Tensions in Early Christianity. It looked interesting enough for me to look for it on Google, check the table of contents, and look at a review. The review by Pieter Lallemann was not too complimentary:

This sequel to James the Just ( 1999) contains 16 essays by 10 scholars who set out to consider the three missions against their Jewish backgrounds. In two contributions Jacob Neusner presents much rabbinic material for comparison and then uses this to maximize the differences between James and Paul. Richard Bauckham likewise takes his point of departure in Jewish material—views on the impurity of Gentiles—but he rather uses it to argue for basic agreement between, and the historicity of. Gal. 2 and Acts 11 and 15. This is the essay to which I would give pride of place. It is comprehensive and convincing. In the following essay John Painter goes over much the same ground and also involves Matthew in the comparison, to draw conclusions which differ markedly from Bauckham’s.

Two very useful studies discuss archaeological evidence: Marcus Bockmuehl on Bethsaida and its connections with Simon Peter; Evans on Peter, James and contemporary burial practices. There are straightforward comparisons of the attitudes of Paul and James to such issues as the use of rhetoric (Painter), judgment (Marianne Sawicki), charity, riches and poverty (Peter Davids), and suffering (Davids). Chilton argues—I think unconvincingly—that James was a Nazirite. The contributors differ in their assessment of the value and reliability of the accounts in Acts 11 and I5, and as to whether the Epistle of James primarily has a Jewish (Davids again) or a Hellenistic (Wiard Popkes) background. The volume is presented as the outcome of several conferences (p. 211), but there are neither responses nor summaries, the essays do not interact and are not even cross-referenced. It would have profited immensely from some real editing. Its price would lead us to expect just that (JSNT 28:5 (2006), 16).

Still, our library did not have it and I thought it could be a useful addition. Until I checked the price: A$309.31 (freight-free). Ai-ai-ai! The book is hardback, over 500 pages in length, and published by Brill; nevertheless, some books just cost too much!

It may be more than a little bit naughty, but for anyone interested, I also found a PDF copy online which I have dutifully saved…

A Sermon on Sunday – James 1: 19-27

JamesMy studies in James over the last year and more are beginning to bear some homiletical fruit. For the last month I have been preaching out of James 1, one sermon at Mt Hawthorn Baptist Church on James 1:2-8, and three sermons covering the whole chapter at Harmony Baptist Church in Mosman Park. Today is part three of this little series.

*****

Introduction
Roof story – looked okay but was not. When I stepped on it, it started to give beneath my feet. The roof structure lacked integrity, being flawed, internally compromised. Integrity refers the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished; a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition. What you see is what you get: it is honest, it is true.

James, too, is concerned with that which is true. He is very concerned with true Christianity, genuine religion, authentic spirituality, a faith which has integrity, a theme which comes to the fore in the climax of chapter one.

Before launching into today’s text, however, let’s retrace some of the ground we have already covered in the last two weeks:

  • When Troubles Come – Pressure from the outside intended to destroy our faith. Our response: Stand fast! Persevere! We persevere in praise and thanksgiving, in prayer and faith, and we stand fast together; and all this because God is the generous God, single-minded in his goodness.
  • When Temptations Come – Pressure on the inside which threatens to lure us away from God, his blessing and his purpose. Our response: Stand fast! Persevere! We persevere in love for God first and foremost, and in the new life God has given us, participating in God’s mission in the world, and looking forward to “the crown of life” in the world to come; and all this because God is only, ever and always good.

In our text today, James continues this theme addressing, as it were, two big questions:

  1. What is the character of this new life? What is it like?
  2. How do we live this new life?

James 1:19-25                           
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent, and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues (perseveres!) in it – not forgetting what they have heard but doing it – they will be blessed in what they do. (Or, “not forgetting what they have heard, but being a doer of the work…”)

Receive the Implanted Word
How do we live this new life that God has given? By the same means by which it began—the Word of God who “has given us birth through the Word of truth” (v. 18). Thus James says, “Get rid of all moral filth, and the evil that is so prevalent, and humbly accept the word planted in you which is able to save you” (v. 21).

  • The word implanted is designed to grow and bring forth a harvest of righteousness in our lives.
  • KJV: the “engrafted” Word. Fruit-tree analogy – grafting the new life of God into our lives. How? Through reading, hearing and meditation of the Scriptures.

But be “doers of the Word, not hearers only!” Meditation in the Scriptures leads to action. Those who only hear the Word without obeying it deceive themselves: their spirituality is not authentic.

James’ teaching here is an echo of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of Matthew 4:4: “One shall not live by bread alone, but by every Word which proceeds from the mouth of God.” According to Jesus, believers are to live by the Word of God, allowing God’s Word to speak to us, counsel us and guide us, direct us and shape us, as we orient our lives toward the presence, the purpose and promises of God. God calls us to lives shaped and moulded and trained by Scripture. The “forgetful hearer” simply “goes his way,” the word having no enduring impact or effect on his daily life. This forgetful hearer is headed for trouble—Matthew 7:24-27.

And so we come again to verse 25: “But the one who looks into the perfect law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts (or, a doer of the work), he shall be blessed in his doing.” James, in this verse, shifts his language from Word to “law,” and from being “doers of the Word” to “doers of the work.” What do these shifts mean? Quite simply, James emphasises the call and the demand of the gospel. In chapter two he will bring this out with great clarity: “faith without works is dead.” The gospel is not simply the promise of salvation in and through Jesus, but also the call to follow him. Many commentators believe that James considers that Jesus’ teaching constituted the law made new, that the “law” here refers to Jesus’ ethical teaching. It is clear that for James, real religion, authentic spirituality, is a matter of obedience to the Word of truth, the gospel, the teaching of Jesus, the Word of God, and that such obedience is crowned with blessing, both now “in the doing,” and with a crown of life in the age to come (v. 12).

What Is This New Life Like?
What “work” does James have in mind? What does it mean to be “a doer of the Word/work?” At this point James gets very specific and says very clearly what this “work” is:

James 1:26-27
Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Here James identifies three characteristics of “real religion, authentic spirituality, and genuine faith”—the kind which goes beyond the performance of a few religious practices that do not have any enduring impact on our daily existence. These three characteristics are his major concerns and will be picked up in the rest of the letter.

  1. A New Community

Watch your words—tame your tongue! The most seemingly spiritual person in the world is not spiritual at all if they do not keep a tight rein on their tongue! How easily words slip out: words of frustration and anger, words of criticism, demeaning, shaming words. Perhaps James has in mind especially angry words:

James 1:19-20                                  
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. 

Importantly, however, James does not have an abstract interest in the tongue: one scholar has noted that there are 29 commands in this letter directly addressing speech ethics. This is a primary concern of James,’ and will occupy the main part of chapter 3, as well as re-appearing in chapters 4 and 5. But again, James’ interest is not abstract; he is concerned about the use of the tongue because of power to destroy the community of God’s people. Verses 19-20 are not just Readers Digest good advice! They are directed against those in the community who are at war with one another, expressing anger and malice toward one another, quarrelling and fighting with one another, and as St Paul says, biting and devouring one another. Sins of the mouth tear down the people of God. Failure to bridle the tongue, to speak wisely and with respect and care undermines genuine spirituality. Thus, for James, authentic spirituality involves being a genuine and loving community. Notice how many times James refers to his listeners using the term “brothers and sisters” (vv. 2, 16, 19; 2:1, 5, 14, etc.). The church is a new family, intimately related as siblings, and called to care for and respect one another. What a tragedy when families fight and hurt and desert one another!

But James takes his vision of community even further, in verses in this chapter we have not yet read:

James 1:9-11                                        
Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. 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.

The poor and lowly can rejoice in their new position in Christ! They have been exalted by God into the highest place. Though their earthly circumstances have not yet changed, they may hope for the future when the “great reversal” takes place, when the lowly are exalted and the mighty are brought low (cf. Luke 1:51-53; 6:20-26).

Arguably much more difficult, the rich are also commanded to “take pride in” or boast in—their humiliation! In James’ day, the church was mainly composed of the poor. But if a rich man or woman became a Christian and a member of the Christian community, there was a real humiliation involved. Now they were identified with a socially despised and dishonoured group of people. Now they associated with the poor and the outcast, the disreputable and the unclean. Becoming a Christian involved real social downward mobility—and James tells them to rejoice!

Here James’ words take on a new twist: a social reversal has occurred – in the church. Although the great reversal in itself still lies in the future, it issues here and now in a radical transformation of one’s own perception of oneself, and in the community. Here and now there is a re-ordering of expectation, of desire, of value, and of relationships on account of the new reality which has arrived in Jesus, and which will be enacted in the eschatological judgement. Here and now the poor are welcomed as honoured, indeed, primary members of the kingdom community. Here and now the rich embrace humiliation, precisely by entering into solidarity with the poor and despised Jesus followers. The Christian community enacts on the historical level the hope to be realised in the kingdom of God. It is becoming a community in which one’s identity is founded, not on one’s socio-economic status, but on one’s status in Christ. A revaluation has occurred with the values and priorities of the earthly city giving way to the values and priorities of the heavenly city. James has a vision of the eschatological kingdom which exists not only in the future, but impinges upon the present and presses toward expression in the community of God’s people, here and now.

  1. A Community of Care and Compassion

James’ second characteristic of real religion is compassion—love in action, hands-on, sleeves-rolled-up care for the vulnerable in our midst. Just as God visited his old covenant people in order to rescue them, so God’s people are to visit and care for those in need. Widows and orphans were amongst the most powerless groups in the ancient world. It is, of course, legitimate to extend the metaphor in our age and location to those who are in need, though they may not be widows and orphans. I have been greatly challenged by Eugene Peterson’s rendering of this verse:

Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.

The vulnerable in our society include the homeless and loveless. They may also be the mentally ill, the elderly, the physically disabled, the indigenous, the abandoned, the unemployed, the refugee or recent arrival. To be a “doer of the work” involves caring for those in our networks and our neighbourhood who are vulnerable.

  1. A “Clean” Community

Finally James zeroes in on our own moral purity and personal holiness. He calls his listeners to keep themselves “unstained from the world.” James is not a dualist; he believes that this is God’s world because God is the universal Creator and Father of Lights. Nevertheless, the “world” is here seen in its fallenness, in its organisation against the will, the ways and the wisdom of God.

It is clear that James envisaged a decisive turning away from sin, sinful patterns of life, and concrete sinful practices: Make no mistake! (v. 16). Put away all evil! (v.21). What kind of sins does James have in mind?  No doubt all kinds of sin. But his emphasis in this letter focusses on interpersonal sins, especially those of the tongue, selfish ambition in the community, and those which oppress or fail to give due heed to the poor. There is a real engagement in the world and yet at the same time a genuine separation from its values, commitments and practices.

There is need for mature wisdom here (v. 5), because sometimes there is tension between the first two characteristics of authentic spirituality, and the third. Can a community welcome and care for those who are not “clean”? Perhaps a way forward here, is to apply Jesus’ wisdom from Mark 9:50: “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other.” We can be strict on ourselves and gentle and kind toward others. Too often churches have this the wrong way around.

Conclusion
Two big questions:

  1. How do we live this new (Christian) life? By receiving (and doing) the Word. By being doers of the Word and of the Work.
  2. What is the nature of this new life? A life in welcoming, caring community in which we seek to love, trust and serve God together, and become vessels of his goodness in the world.