As we continue in our series through the Word of God we come to the Epistle of James. Scholars agree that the writer is the brother of Jesus (Matt 13:55). James became the leader of the Church at Jerusalem after the departure of Peter in Acts 12:17. He was the spokesman at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:13-21), and was a “pillar” to whom Paul reported his missionary experience (Gal 2:2,9, Acts 21:18-19)
Notice is verse 1 how James introduces himself as a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. Never in this epistle does James “drop names”. What do I mean? Well, James grew up with Jesus. He was His brother. If there was anyone who could rightfully call Jesus his brother and be proud of it, it was James. He could say, “Yeah, I remember when I was growing up with Jesus….” Isn’t that the way of the world? James is a humble man – a bondservant of Christ. No confidence in the flesh but simply confidence in Christ.
In verse 2, James begins with a very strange command: “Consider it all joy when you encounter various trials….” Another way of stating that is to consider it pure joy. Perhaps some of his readers thought that James was some guy out of touch with reality living safely in Jerusalem but, surely, James was not unaware of the trials around him. He had witnessed the death of Stephen and the persecution that followed. There is something more behind these words.
The Christian does not have a command to pretend like everything is OK and pretend there is no grief or suffering in the world. Yet, we understand that God stands behind every trial and test. We keep our trust in our heavenly father for we know that he sends us trials to test our faith and we know He is in complete control of every situation.
The joy spoken of is pure because it looks beyond the present circumstances that might cause some real grief even as Christ wept with those who wept. Yet behind that grief is the knowledge that God is working together all things together for the good for His saints. We also understand that the trials are a refining process.
And so, in verse 4, we are instructed to persevere so that our faith will be mature and complete. This is not something that can be rushed. It’s not something that can be produced by simple steps or 40 days of purpose. It’s something that is lived out in the day-to-day life of the believer who trusts and rests in the work of the Cross. It is laying hold of that truth at 5 in the morning when our mind is groggy and we’re in a bad mood. It’s found in these times and not merely our times of ecstasy or things that we enjoy in our worship experiences. True Christianity is lived out on the ground as we mature in the faith.
Another way of saying “mature” is the word “complete”. In the name of Jesus, Peter healed the lame man who sat begging at Solomon’s Colomnade. The account in Acts 3:16 notes that the beggar was given complete healing. The man’s feet and ankles became strong so he could function as a complete human being with no handicap.
And so we’re supposed to mature and James continues naturally by noting: “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him….” For God is a generous God. What are we to be asking for? Wisdom. God always grants that request. James is saying: “I know some of you won’t admit it but you need wisdom.” Beloved, you and I need wisdom for wisdom is what we’re after. This is not about being proud. Men and women never want to admit they lack anything but we need wisdom for it is a treasure. Wisdom is not mere knowledge though it surely must include knowledge. Wisdom is the ability to have eyes to see things as the Scriptures see them – to have a heart that rightly interprets everything around us and not as the world does.
But, as verse 6, notes many of us are double-minded in the Church. We’re “hedging our bets”. We’ll try on religion as long as it helps us out. We’ll add Christianity and Scriptural principles to our lives to complement the other parts that we have all worked out. We’ll go to God when it suits us and we can’t work things out on our own. James reminds us all that this will not work. You receive nothing from the Lord in such cases. You receive no wisdom because you have not begun with the fear of the Lord. In fact, if Christ is just an option for you then you have not even received salvation for faith requires a recognition that we are utterly lost without Christ as our only hope. In fact, Paul states that, if Christ be not raised then your religion is vain. The Scriptures say that there are two options here: Either Christ is raised or He isn’t. If He is raised then believe upon Him but if He is not raised then the Word of God commands you this in 1 Cor 15:32 – “If the dead are not raised, LET US EAT AND DRINK, FOR TOMORROW WE DIE.” If you don’t believe that Christ is raised then you’re wasting time that could be better spent on a Sunday morning.
But don’t fear, double-mindedness does not mean that we never doubt or suffer unbelief. Our faith in Christ need not be perfect – that’s the reason we have a Savior to begin with. One of my favorite stories is when the father of the epileptic pleads with Christ to heal his son in Mark 9. Christ asks him if he believes. The father answers with emotion: “Lord I do believe: help me overcome my unbelief!” That is my daily cry. I know that if I hold on to the feet of Christ as a beggar then my faith never needs to be perfect as long as I am always looking to Christ for my hope and salvation. But I can never view that as simply an option. It is the only way or it is no way at all.
And so, throughout the rest of Chapter 1, James encourages us all to trust, to believe, to persevere in believing throughout trials. We need to understand that God brings us these trials to cause us to grow even as a son is disciplined by his father so that he’ll mature as a man. Paul notes that a man, in fact, hates his son if he doesn’t discipline him and reminds us that God’s refinement of us is proof that He loves us. We need to stop being convinced that we’re mature to begin with so we can view the trials and the suffering that He sends our way as a sign that God is not with us or doesn’t care.
In fact, as James notes in verse 13, many will even blame their sin upon God. You see, the sinful human heart will always reason like this: “God is in control of everything, He knew this would tempt me to sin, He allowed the temptation to occur, I sinned, and so it’s God’s fault.”
Remember Adam and Eve in the Garden when God asks them who told them they were naked. Adam says to God: “The woman YOU GAVE ME brought some fruit….” Yeah, that’s right God, I was fine, I had all my ribs and I was asleep when you made her. It’s her fault but, really God, it’s YOUR fault.
This attitude is as old as mankind and it still doesn’t work. We’re responsible for our own sin. We need to look to God for strength to endure temptation and, in fact, that He would make us wise so that we don’t walk into temptations.
Faith that is born from above must persevere to the end because God has born it within us but we must exercise the faith given us. We must be those who are never content to trust in ourselves or consider ourselves too strong for temptation. We must be learning to hate our sin and fleeing from situations that lead to sin. Our hope is to be eternally blessed as our perseverance perfects our faith until, to the end, we reach the goal. The goal isn’t that we’ve ever clung to Christ and never let go of His life.
But James warns us not to deceive ourselves and think that we can just be playing around with sin and that it won’t affect us. Our problem is that we don’t consider, enough, how horrible sin is and we even deceive ourselves that we deserve the occasional sin because we’ve been good for a while. Beloved, you haven’t been good enough for the last minute to deserve heaven. We need to realize that if not for Christ we have no hope. And so, we should not be deceived that we can just start leaving the things that Christ loves and embrace all the things that God hates in this world. If we do so then eventually we prove to everyone that Christ does not abide with us, for if He did, then we would bear His fruit. So James warns us all that we stay away from sin – this is something the true believer will always do because true believers fear the things that God tells them to fear.
James reminds us all where this is all flowing from in verse 18: “In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures.”
Everything we’re talking about here is something that we’ve been born to do. We’ve been re-created by God for this work. It is a fruit of the Christian life. It comes naturally from a Christian. It is only because sin yet abides that we are conflicted and sometimes view what ought to be natural as un-natural but a Gospel-transformed life, a born again life, ought to be seeking this type of transformation.
And so it should never be a burden for us to live according to this Word. It should be sweet to us. So I have to ask myself why it is that I don’t view these next verses as sweet sometimes: “This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.”
Over the past couple of weeks, after everything that has been going on in this Church, I prepared this message and then I started studying these verses and knew, right away, that I had come up short. I’ll always come up short but my problem is that I sometimes don’t even pursue these things. I am too quick to speak and too slow to listen. I am quick to anger.
But this is not a recipe for self-improvement. It drove me to Christ to beg of Him for wisdom – to beg of humility. You see, I believe in this Christ, I believe that He will give me the very thing that He is demanding of me because I’m united to Him by faith in His finished work. I begged of Christ that I would love this kind of demand on my life and be transformed by it. I need to live this out too but it will only be lived out when it is a fruit of my heart. And so I trust and in my trusting, I strive.
I hope after all that, we can understand better how James is able to sum up everything so far by saying this: “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
At first this may seem strange but, when you understand why widows and orphans are mentioned, then you’ll understand this.
There is a regular pattern that jumps out at you in the Old Testament. It got to be such a regular theme as I taught through the Old Testament this year that I sometimes felt like saying to the class: “Remember what we talked about last week? Here’s another Prophet that is reminding the people of the same thing.”
The pattern is this: Men abandon God in their hearts and God gives them over to idolatry. Because men become idol-worshippers they lose the knowledge of God in their hearts. Because they lose the knowledge of God then they lose the value of the men and women that are created in God’s image. Because men and women no longer have any value, they are things to be used and thrown away when they no longer serve any purpose.
Widows and orphans can’t do anything for us. They were the downtrodden and had no political power. They were destitute among all people because they had nobody to care for them in society. You’re not going to become rich or famous our get any political power from them or by helping them. And so, is it any wonder that those who have the least power in our society, the unborn, can be killed wantonly and without mercy. Society views them as a mere collection of cells. There is no image of God to consider. There is nothing sacred that makes them valuable.
But recreated hearts love the things that God loves and true worshippers of God, people who truly have faith in God, have hearts that are tender to the things that God is tender toward. I read into James 2 because this is completely about what true religion is and what the nature of faith is. It demonstrates whether or not you have the kind of faith that just says you love God and trust God on the one hand but, when the flesh and blood people are around you that God loves, do you love them? If you do not, then you do not love God and you have no faith in God no matter how much you say you love God. This convicts my hearts too brothers and sisters.
James, in fact, warns us all that a faith that just says it loves our brothers but then refuses to do anything to help them proves we have no love for them at all and we have no faith in God and we will not be saved. It’s not the helping of them that saves us. It’s faith in Christ that saves us. BUT, LISTEN, faith in Christ transforms human hearts to love the things that God loves! If you don’t love the things that God loves then you DON’T HAVE FAITH!
Three weeks ago, before everything happened in the Church, I was a mess. It wasn’t because of the situation in the Church though that has been painful for me. It was because my wife and children were away. They were only following me by a week but I missed in the strangest ways. I couldn’t sleep well at night because it was quiet. I woke up sad because there was nobody to hug or hold.
Then Sonya and the kids returned on a Thursday night. I had to get up at 5 am the next morning to get to work but at 4 am I heard James crying out from the next room sweet words: “Daddy!” I got out of bed to find James holding his nose from a nose bleed. Blood dripping on the floor. I took him to the bathroom to clean him up. I was exhausted but what if I had merely said to James: “God bless you little brother, be at peace, I’m sorry you have a nose bleed but I really do love you.” What kind of love would it be if I went back to sleep and left a 5 year old to fend for himself and a bloody nose? Would anyone say that I loved my child? It was not a burden at all, beloved, to clean up that blood. I did it with joy for I had ached for my family and now I had an opportunity to clean up my son. I had an opportunity to love him. It was natural for me to do so because a father loves his son. I didn’t become a loving father because I cleaned up the blood on James’ face. No, beloved, I cleaned up the blood because I was a loving father.
And so we should be toward one another – everyone in this Church. If it is hard for you to love the other Saints in the congregation then pray for true trust in Christ. You’re not going to become a Christian because you do things for others. You’re not going to buy God’s favor because you sacrifice for Him. You need birth from above my friends. You need faith in Christ that transforms your hearts and your minds so that loving your brothers and sisters, forgiving them their failings, serving them with joy, is something that flows from you like the love that a father has for His son.
For we are born from above to be like our heavenly Father who was willing to come to those who hated Him and said: “Not because you deserve it, not because you love me, not because you’re nice, and not because of anything that you will ever do for me but BECAUSE I WANT TO BLESS YOU, I am sending my Son into the world to die for the sins of the ungodly. I am sending Him to die for the sins of the ungrateful. I am sending Him to die for the downtrodden that can give me nothing in return.”
And the words of that Gospel penetrated our heart. The words of that Gospel overcame our hate and caused us to love God. And as we continue to trust in that Gospel, even as beggars struggling with unbelief, we can be confident that He will perfect us to the very end if we put our trust in Him.