James in a Nutshell

jamesTwo nights ago at our Bible Study in Lochboisdale we thought about how we would answer if someone asked:

what is James (the New Testament letter) about?

We came up with a suggestion for ‘James in one sentence’ – and it’s actually the second part of James 2:18…

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.

The idea of our faith being intimately linked with our deeds runs through every chapter that we’ve studied so far. When I pass through trials, what do I do? Blame God, or trust the Father of creation who gives good things and purposes to bring redemption to all of his creation (Ch.1)? Religion is worthless if it is not about what we do: control our speech, care for the needy (Ch.1). When I see the world’s social stratifications in the church, what do I do? Perpetuate the injustice of the world, or express the values of God’s Kingdom (Ch.2)? If I am a teacher, what do I do? Act arrogantly, or lead and teach humbly (Ch.3)? In my relationships in the church, what do I do? Perpetuate quarrels out of envy, slandering others, or repent and seek the way of humility (Ch.4)? In the Reformed church faith and works have been held at too great a distance from one another. True faith is an obedient faith. Faith is about doing, not just thinking. Faith without works is dead (and so is works without faith).

The concept of wisdom is also important to James. It crops up in 1:5, 3:13, 3:15 and 3:17. But if we remember that wisdom is ‘living well in God’s good but fallen world’, we see that wisdom infuses the whole letter and underlines the same point about living out (through our deeds) the faith in Jesus Christ that we have embraced in our hearts. In fact, it is only those who follow Jesus Christ in faith who can gain this ‘wisdom from above’. We’ve noted at a few points in the chapters we’ve studied so far the closeness of what James is writing to the Sermon on the Mount. That, in essence, is a wisdom discourse from the lips of Jesus the wisdom teacher. Christians must reject the wisdom of the world (specifically here the jealousy and ambition of the world’s value system) and seek the humility of the wisdom that is pure and peaceable.

Finally, we discussed something else that has jumped out (for me at least) during our studies. This is a letter exhorting Christians to live out their faith in the context of the Church. Too often, an individualistic approach to, say, the control of the tongue is adopted when we teach this material. The context is the Church: leaders, teachers, the persecuted, the poor, the rich, the sick. And this is especially clear when we see that at the heart of the letter is an exhortation to those who have set themselves up as teachers: the ship is directed by a small rudder, and that rudder will bear a greater responsibility for its journey. May we who teach be given grace.

New Creation Theology in James

tetons-snake-riverThe book of James is packed with wisdom themes. Creation and wisdom are closely connected, so we might expect creation theology to be present in James’ writings.

Like the wisdom writers, James alludes to creation to make his points: the surf of the sea, the flowering grass, the sun, all these appear in the first few lines of the letter. Later on, horses, forests and fires make an appearance. But the most significant creation theology in the letter is found at the end of chapter 1.

Against those who portray God as a crafty trickster, seeking his people’s failure, James argues that God’s commitment to his people is seen in his commitment to his creation (as an aside, this is precisely the argument used in Jeremiah 31:35ff). God is the ‘Father of the lights’, an allusion to Genesis 1:3. The great lights, the sun and moon, are constant because God is constant in his giving of good gifts. And the commitment of God to redeeming creation is seen in his bringing new life to humans through faith in Christ. But this is just the beginning of a redemptive process that will embrace all creation.

He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created. (Jam 1:18 NIV)

What this verse doesn’t mean is that those early Christians who James writes to are just the beginnings of God’s church – many more people will become Christians. The Greek word ktisma in the LXX is used to refer to the whole of creation, not just humanity. To argue that suddenly James is restricting its scope to humans only is very strange, but such interpretations are common. One popular NIV study Bible adopts precisely this interpretation, displaying and perpetuating the ignorance of creation theology in the NT that seems so widespread.

The true meaning of the verse is that the redemptive work accomplished through Christ in the hearts and lives of believers in the here and now is just the very first expression of a redemptive purpose which will one day embrace all of creation. It is what Paul writes of in Romans, 1 Corinthians and Ephesians. Our bodies will be redeemed, and the whole structure of the cosmos will be redeemed as the context for eternal life. That is the true goal of the gospel of Jesus the Messiah.

[Christians] have been reborn by the word of truth, the gospel…But redemption does not stop here, for the full harvest will follow the firstfruits and the consummation will include the whole creation.  Peter Davids

What is Wisdom?

solomonWe’ve been discussing James’ references to wisdom in our Bible Study here in Lochboisdale. What is it? Here are our few brief thoughts…

  • wisdom is a gift from God (James 1:5)
  • wisdom is a task, something we do, not simply a theoretical thing (James 3:13)
  • the world has it’s own take on wisdom (James 3:15-16)

We can also say that wisdom is…

  • rooted in understanding the grand purpose of God in Jesus Christ – an extremely important point (Eph 1:17-19)
  • closely associated with understanding God’s creation (Prov 3:19)
  • to be taught and learned (Prov 1:7-8)
  • only truly possible through a relationship with God (Prov 1:7)

All of these things feed into the definition I was taught at my alma mater:

Wisdom is living well in God’s good, but fallen, world.

Wisdom is a neglected theme in the church. This may be because of its close ties to creation theology, itself a neglected area. There’s a lot more to say about wisdom and I hope to say more on this blog in time.

Impatient Hope

derelict2

Looking at joy in trials brought to mind this quote from Jurgen Moltmann which describes a much better alternative to what is sometimes called heavenly-mindedness (a misleading phrase).

That is why faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.    Jurgen Moltmann

Joy When We’re Tested

james

In our new Bible Study series in our congregation, we’re studying the book of James. 

How can James tell us that when we’re tested we need to consider it a joy (James 1:2)?! Well, James is saying nothing different to Jesus himself:

Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great… Matt 5:11-12

Peter Davids says:

Joy is the proper perspective for the test of faith…This joy, however, is not the detachment of the Greek philosopher, but the eschatological joy of those expecting the intervention of God in the end of the age. Suffering is really experienced as such, but it is viewed from the perspective of [salvation-history]. It is this perspective that Jesus gave the church in the Sermon on the Mount. NIGTC, James, 67-68

James’ reasons however are very practical. We feel joy because we know that if we persevere through the trial we will come out of it with increased endurance – we will be more mature as Christians, having proved God’s faithfulness. Our joy sets us up to persevere, and not to give up. We’re not joyful to be suffering, but we are joyful when we realise that as Christians, no suffering can ultimately defeat us, but rather through God’s grace, we come out stronger, better able to stand and to serve.