James is an interesting book. It’s similar to Proverbs in that there is much wisdom in all the writing, but it was written for a very specific purpose to a very specific set of believers, Christian Jews. The Jewish Christians were rejected by Gentiles because they were Jews and by Jews because they were Christians. It was a no-win situation for them!
Do we have similar circumstances in our churches today? What would your congregation’s reaction be if a “goth” or a tattooed person became a Christian and wanted to fellowship? A converted Muslim? A repentant homosexual?
Back to these Christian Jews, who were going through testings and temptations. There were some who were pandering to the rich and others that were being robbed by those same wealthy people. There was competition for the “important” church offices, like teaching and preaching. People gossiped. There was division. Some were what we would call “carnal Christians”. Others were physically ill because of their willful disobedience to the Word. And others were being enticed away from the true teachings of the church. Does that sound like your church? You may not have all those problems, but because we’re human, I guarantee that some of those problems run through every congregation.
Why did James care about any of those problems? Because there was a common cause: spiritual immaturity. James gives us a letter that outlines the marks of a spiritually mature person. As you read through this little book, let the Holy Spirit show you where your immaturities lie, because we all have them! Look at the list of difficulties in the early Jewish church and you’ll see how the problems they had are very characteristic of little children’s behavior.
· Impatient when things are difficult (James 1:1-4)
· Knowing the truth but living otherwise (James 2:14 and on)
· Lack of control over the tongue (James 3:1 and on)
· Fighting and coveting (James 4:1 and on)
· Collecting “stuff” (James 5:1 and on)
As believers, our faith is constantly tested. It’s always been that way, and our shining examples are Abraham and Job. Testing brings out the best in us and helps us to mature, even though going through the test doesn’t make us feel so wonderful.
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. James 1:2-3 (ESV)
We can’t build character through osmosis. God needs us to cooperate with Him as He builds our maturity. The first thing He helps us build is patience, because without patience, we can’t persevere. Look at what’s happened to the world because of Abraham’s marrying and conceiving a child through Hagar (Genesis 16)! As we mature we learn to surrender our will joyfully.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. Eph 6:5-8 (ESV)
James points out that external testing may lead to internal temptations. Huh?
When you have a difficult circumstance, is your first instinct to:
In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. 1 Thess 5:18 (KJV)
Or do you complain, question God’s love and mercy, and resist His will? If you do that, then Satan can provide an opportunity to escape the difficulty – temptation. Look at Israel, who had to wander in the wilderness for 40 years because they complained and blamed God. They turned testing into temptation and blamed God for their problems instead of praising Him for their salvation!
James pointed out hypocrisy in our behavior when he gave the example of the wealthy and poor church attender (James 1:1-7). There were some who still clung to the legalism of the law, and James reminds us that disobeying one tiny piece of the law is the same as disobeying the entire law. I’m sure glad that we live under grace!
Remember that our lives must be lived so they reflect the goodness of Christ. People who know you are a Christian will look for any excuse to call you hypocrite. That’s nothing compared to the knowledge that we will be judged by our actions, our attitudes, and our words – by God Himself.
But doesn’t God forgive and forget? Absolutely. Don’t our sins reflect and affect our character? We need to do more than ask forgiveness for our sin. We need to turn away from those sins and “walk the talk”.
How alive is your faith? Did you pray a prayer at some point, and now you go to church on Sunday because it’s what you are supposed to do? Or does your faith lead to joyful expressions of love for your fellow man? God reminds us that true faith has fruit of good works. We cannot work ourselves into heaven, or into a relationship with Jesus.
Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Matt 7:21 (KJV)
We have an obligation to meet the needs of others. This is not social justice. The early Gentile Christians had all economic classes in their midst. We don’t see that they had to give all their possessions to the poor – but they were obligated to help those who were poor. A Jew was required to leave some gleanings from his field to help the poor – but those poor were expected to work and harvest those gleanings themselves. James shows us that we need to help others when they come to us:
If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? James 2:15-16 (ESV)
We are to help others to the best of our ability so that the love of Christ shows through us. We should not do this from a sense of obligation, but from a joyous outpouring of love for the blessings God has given us. Walk that talk!
The tongue. It’s the part of the body that gets little kids in the most trouble, and that doesn’t change as we grow older. Whether we express anger or love, pull back from temptation or yield to it, gossip or pray for others, or build up or tear down a person, that tongue is a rich source of good and evil. The early church had the same problems.
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. James 1:19-20 (ESV)
So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. James 3:5-6 (ESV)
I pray that you will dedicate your tongue and your heart to God every day. Before you go into that meeting, ask God to keep you silent when it’s prudent and to open your mouth when it’s time. When your spouse or children upset you, take a moment to pray, count to ten (or ten thousand) and speak only when you can show God’s love. Use the tongue to build up those around you. If you are like me, you know all the ways to use the tongue to hurt people. Make a conscious effort to dedicate the tongue to God – every day.
When we don’t walk the talk, when we don’t bridle our tongue, and when we act immaturely, the inevitable result is war. Whether it’s a church split because of the color of the carpet (I’ve seen that happen) or because of the type or volume of the music, a divorce because of immorality, a brawl during a sporting event, or even national conflict, wars are always based on unbridled sins.
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. James 4:1-3 (ESV)
In James’ day, there was a church war over positions within the church. Like Jesus’ disciples, people wanted to feel important, but James reminded them of something they probably didn’t take into account:
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. James 3:13-18 (ESV)
Are you a happy person? I don’t mean that everything is always going perfectly, nor do I mean a Pollyanna outlook on life. What I mean is this: when things go wrong, is your attitude one of joy, knowing that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle? Or are you at war with yourself and with God, bitterly complaining when things don’t go your way? Have you ever thought what the phrase “that’s unfair” really means? Isn’t it our way of complaining that things didn’t go our way? The only way to have a truly joyful life, whether wealthy or indigent is to have the joy of the Lord in your life.
Finally, those early believers coveted and collected “stuff”. We all do it – some of us have pretty collections of statues, or matchboxes, or toy cars. Some of us have “stuff” that we would cling to until our last dying breath. The second kind of “stuff” is really idolatry. There were some wealthy people in James’ congregation who held back wages to their employees and stored up so much “stuff” that they couldn’t use it in their lifetimes. They hoarded at the expense of others, and they fell – hard – about ten years later when Jerusalem fell to the Romans and all their “stuff” was taken.
James’ congregation had people who were sick and well, rich and poor, servants of God and the backslidden. He had one final piece of advice for all of them: pray!
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. James 5:13-16 (ESV)
When you’re sick, you go to the doctor, but do you also ask God to heal you? We know that God is able to heal, but we also know that He sometimes chooses to allow us to live with our afflictions. Paul gives us one reason that God might have for giving us physical ailments, trials and calamities.
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Cor 12:7-10 (ESV)
Why does James tell us to confess our sins to one another? We need others to come along side of us to pray for us as we go through temptations. If we pretend that we are sinless, we only hurt ourselves. Find a brother or sister who can stand by you and be an accountability partner for you. Confess your sins to that person – only GOD can forgive your sins, but by verbalizing your troubles, you can receive help and comfort from another believer (and they may be astounded to find that you are both tempted by the same things!). Your accountability partner can receive a rich reward for being there for you!
My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. James 5:19-20 (ESV)
As we conclude the book of James, we find ourselves looking at our own lives. Which areas do we need to shore up? In which areas are we strong? How can we help others strengthen and become more mature in Christ? Take a look at your life and see where you need help:
1. Are you becoming more patient as you grow through trials?
2. Do you “test” temptation to see how far you can go, or do you resist it right away?
3. Do you enjoy obeying God’s Word, or do you just listen to it and apply the parts you like?
4. How’s that tongue?
5. Do you make peace or make trouble?
6. Do others see you as a source of spiritual wisdom?
7. Are you God’s friend – or a friend of the world?
8. Do you make plans, or do you allow God to direct your life?
9. How do you treat your money?
10. When there’s trouble, do I complain or pray?
11. Do others look to me for prayer support?
12. How do I act toward another believer who is wandering in the faith? Do I gossip or do I try to restore him in love?
If we’re honest, there are some good and some not so good areas in our lives. I pray that you will strive to become more mature – starting today!
See you in two days after we complete the book of Galatians. May God richly bless you as you continue to read through the Bible in 2012.