God’s Word for You
James 1:1-4 The joy of troubles
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Wednesday, July 8, 2020
J A M E S
1 James, slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes who are scattered abroad:
This is a James who was not an apostle, neither the brother of John (killed in Acts 12:2) nor the other apostle James (Matthew 10:3), who would certainly have called himself an apostle of Jesus Christ as Peter does in 1 Peter 1:1 or “a servant/slave and apostle of Jesus Christ” as Peter does in 2 Peter 1:1. This was another James, and the one accepted generally by the Church throughout the centuries is the brother of Jesus (Mark 6:3), the chairman of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:13-21). He calls himself a doulos, which means servant or slave, and I have used the more provocative “slave” to remind us of the culture in which he lived. He considered himself sincerely and utterly to be at the beck and call of Jesus Christ, and he also trusted completely that he would be provided for and protected exactly as a slave would have been in his time. Whatever the Lord said, James would do. Would that this was the attitude of every Christian!
James puts no qualifier between “God” and “the Lord Jesus Christ.” This is an expression of the divinity of the Father and the Son; just as the Father is God, so also the Son is God.
By “the twelve tribes,” James could mean Christians scattered around throughout the world, but his letter does not mention the most common Gentile issue: sexual immorality. Instead, he talks about the difference between word and deed, and he also warns about hypocrisy and double standards, which are problems that plagued the Pharisees and other Jews of the day. Another hint about the “twelve tribes” here is that later in the letter, he uses an Old Testament title for God, “Lord of Armies” (NIV “Lord Almighty,” James 5:4). James seems to be writing to Jewish Christians in the early days of the church, before the matter of the circumcision of the Gentiles had risen (Acts 15:1 ff.) and when a term like “synagogue” might still be used of a Christian meeting (James 2:2). I believe that this letter, along with Matthew’s Gospel, is among the earliest documents of the New Testament to be written. Another Gospel (John) and a letter by James’ brother, Jude, are among the last.
The Purpose of Life’s Trials
2 Consider it complete joy, my brothers, whenever you fall into all kinds of trials, 3 because you know that passing the test of your faith produces patient endurance. 4 And let patient endurance finish its work, so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
James begins with strange comfort: Consider your troubles to be joy. This is not a pain-free Christianity or an effortless faith. It is a truthful admission and admonition: Your life as someone who trusts in Christ is going to be hard, but it will make your faith stronger.
Paul had also talked about Christians having to face trials during his first missionary journey (Acts 14:22). There we saw that the ultimate purposes of the trials and troubles Christians face are (1) the glory of God, and (2) the salvation of the Christian. But there are also three intermediate purposes for the crosses we bear:
1, To keep us aware of our sins and to keep us from thinking lightly about our sins
2, To crucify our sinful nature and increase the fruits of faith in us, and
3, To bring testing and to prove our faith.
It is the last of these which James now picks up on when he says: “You know that passing the test of your faith produces patient endurance.” The Greek noun dokimion (δοκίμιον) was often used in metallurgy. Silver, for example, would be melted down to be tested and the dross skimmed away. What resulted was a precious metal even more precious and pure than before (see also Proverbs 27:21). But the noun also emphasizes the final result of the test, and so I have translated with the phrase “passing the test.” The end result of your test, James says, produces patient endurance. Why is this? Think of anyone who already has taken a test (for example, a driver’s behind-the-wheel test) and now, moving to a new state, needs to take it all over again. “I’ve been through that test once; I can do it again.” Or another result might be that one who has been through a test can encourage someone just going through it themselves. Having lost my mother to cancer when I was a boy has given me a perspective on what my sons are going through now, after they have lost their mother to cancer, and I am able to understand and talk with them in a way that perhaps someone else could not.
Paul also talks about the “patient endurance” of sufferings (2 Corinthians 1:6), as does John in Revelation when he says: “This calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints who obey God’s commandments and remain faithful to Jesus” (Revelation 14:12). Here, James invites us to think of trials as something to be accepted and endured because of their result rather than (as most would think) simply because they are inevitable. If I allow this test, this trial, to be placed before me and don’t shrink from it or move to avoid it, then I can anticipate that I might become more mature in my faith, more complete, not lacking something that I was lacking before I encountered the test. Do not miss James’ softening term “may” in English, reflecting the subjunctive verb ἦτε (ēte). Having this or that test from God does not mean that at that moment we will be “complete,” but rather we will be able to be more complete than we were. The journey of the Christian takes a lifetime, and we never reach perfection, but we can perhaps be better today than we were yesterday. I pray that tomorrow I will be more resistant to temptation, more complete in my understanding of God’s word, more ready to show my faith without wavering, than I was today.
INTRODUCTION TO JAMES
The Grace of God in James:
James does not really lift high the cross, nor does he “speak like angels or preach like Paul.” What he accomplishes is to “rouse the wicked from the Judgment’s dread alarms.” While Luther had a dim view of James, even toward the end of his life (see Table Talk no. 5443, LW 54 p. 424), we must remember that Luther himself was like a fiercely burning torch criticizing a candle for burning softly on the kitchen table.
James refers to his brother Jesus as “Lord” in every chapter of his letter. The title “Lord” comes from the Hebrew name of God, Yahweh or Jehovah. It is the covenant name of God, a proclamation that this is the God of free grace and faithful grace, of unending love and compassion. James states: “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (James 5:11). James brings us into the lap of the Father through Jesus’ blood by reminding us of the privilege we have in prayer (which only the Christian possesses): “Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven” (James 5:13-15). The last sentence of that passage sums up the key of our faith: “If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.” James’ “if” is merely rhetorical, for all have sinned, and all sins are washed away in Jesus. While James focuses most of his letter on the life of the Christian, he does not fail to remember the providence of God the Father. He ends the epistle with yet another reminder of the victory of Jesus, and the covering over of “a multitude of sins.”
Like Peter, Paul, John and Jude, James names himself as the author. The question as to which James is meant is thoroughly if not absolutely settled by a process of elimination:
1, The apostle James, son of Zebedee and brother of John (Matthew 4:21), was murdered by the Jews too early to have written this letter (Acts 12:2).
2, The other apostle called James would probably have used his patronymic (“son of Alphaeus”) for clarity (Matthew 10:3), and there is no attempt by the early church to identify him with this letter.
3, James the father of the apostle who is known as “Judas, not Iscariot” (Acts 1:13, also called Thaddeus, Mark 3:18) has no actual appearance in the text of the Gospels or Acts; we don’t know whether he was still alive, nor if he was a Christian.
4, Jesus’ brother James (Matthew 10:3; Mark 6:3) is always first in the list of the brothers and therefore is taken to be the next oldest in the family. He and the other three brothers were not believers during Jesus’ ministry, although they certainly knew his claims and his miracles (John 7:3-5). But as soon as Jesus had risen from the dead, they apparently came to faith in him, beginning with James, to whom Jesus appeared (1 Corinthians 15:7). They joined with the apostles and their mother Mary in prayer in the days following the ascension prior to Pentecost (Acts 1:14). Later, James was so well-known that Jude could identify himself simply as “the brother of James” (Jude 1).
What we know of this James (the brother of Jesus, James the Just) can be summarized this way:
James was a young man, perhaps not yet in this thirties, when Jesus was preaching. He his brothers knew Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah and were aware of his miracles, even teasing him about them (John 7:3-4), but they did not believe in him (John 7:5). Along with Mary, the family (“Jesus’ mother and brothers”), they went to see him in a town in Galilee after a large group of followers were gathered around Jesus. This was shortly after he preached the first parable, the Sower (Luke 8:1-18). At that time they were unable to get close to him because of the size of the crowd (Luke 8:19). They also said, “He is out of his mind” (Mark 3:21) because of the number of his followers. This unbelief remained in James and the other brothers until Jesus died and rose again. Jesus appeared to James (1 Corinthians 15:7), and all the brothers were there along with Mary and the Eleven gathered in prayer when they chose Matthias to replace Judas before Pentecost (Acts 1:14).
As the apostles began to take the gospel out into the world, James became the pastor of the church in Jerusalem. He is called a “pillar” of the church (Galatians 2:9), and Paul’s contact with James was respectful. Paul went to see James on his first (post-conversion) visit to Jerusalem (Galatians 1:19) and again on his last (Acts 21:18).
In Acts 15, James is the final speaker in the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:13), and therefore we see him as the leader or chairman of that council. It is James’ advice that was followed.
Eusebius and Josephus tell us that James was martyred by the Jews by being thrown from the wall of the temple in Jerusalem and then he was clubbed to death by the Jews in their fury over the gospel of Christ. Josephus says that James was martyred just after Albinus became procurator, which would be 62 or 63 AD (Antiquities XX,9).
James’ letter is the earliest New Testament document, unless is was predated by Matthew’s Gospel. We take it to have been written in the 40s, AD. The Jewish character of the book suggests an audience that was not yet Gentile but still primarily Jewish. There is no reference to the controversy described in Acts 15, the circumcision of Gentiles as they entered the church. James calls the assembly of Christians “the synagogue” (James 2:2), and officials of the church are not yet called overseers (bishops) as Paul and Peter do later on (Philippians 1:1; 1 Peter 4:2), but simply elders (James 5:14) and teachers (James 3:1). The letter, therefore, appears to have been written during Acts 1-12 (33-49 AD), and most likely between 45-49, about the same time that Matthew’s gospel first was written.
(To be continued)
Pastor Timothy Smith