Dear Sisters and Brothers,
I was pleased to receive five responses to yesterday’s question about what we should study next. There were two votes for the letter of James and one vote each for Genesis, Psalms, and Lives of Notable Christians of the Past. So, my plan is to take two to three weeks to cover the five chapters of James, then spend a week lives and teachings on Notable Christians of the past, then Start Genesis. In September, I plan on starting a weekly zoom Bible study that will start with selected Psalms. There are many notable Christians of the past, so we will return to them later as well.
So, today we begin with James. This is not James the fisherman who was a brother of John (the Sons of Zebedee). James the fisherman, according to the book of Acts, was executed by Herod Agrippa around 44 AD. The James who wrote this letter is the younger brother of Jesus, who is mentioned in the Gospels, the book of Acts, and a few of Paul’s letters. James is mentioned by name in Mark 6:3, Matthew 13:55, and the brothers and sisters of Jesus are mentioned in Luke 8 and elsewhere. James was not a follower of Jesus before the crucifixion and resurrection. It is not known if James was a witness to the resurrection, but he became such a prominent leader that he became the leader of the Jerusalem Christian when Peter began to travel on missionary journeys. After Paul’s conversion, he went to Jerusalem and met with James long before he met the other disciples.
Some of our Christian brothers and sisters in other denominations choose to think that James was not a son of Mary, but the son of an unknown wife of Joseph, or even a cousin of Jesus. This is done to preserve the imagery of power associated with Mary’s virginity, but the Bible makes no claim that Mary remained a virgin. In fact Luke 1:25 says that the parents of Jesus (Mary and Joseph) had no marital relations until after his birth: Which explains how we hear of multiple younger brothers and sisters to Jesus.
The letter of James is thought to have been written in two stages. It probably started as a sermon by James shortly before his Martyrdom near the time both Peter and Paul were executed (around 64 A.D.) and then was written down and edited together with a few other things that James had said. The letter was then spread through Jewish Christian congregations that mostly met at synagogues. The letter is addressed to all the Jews (descendants of the twelve tribes of Israel).
As usual in biblical letters, the format starts with the name and title of the sender and then states the receivers of the letter and a greeting:
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings!
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.
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.
James sets the tone of his letter very quickly. He mostly writes from the perspective a moral authority with instructions about basic Christian behavior. Saying something very similar to a few of the beatitudes, James says that the Christians should feel joyful for their hardships. He reasons that as hard work can make a strong body, challenges make for the moral strength we call perseverance. By overcoming one challenge after another, James expects the people to become both mature and wise. This maturity is to be shown in behaviors like self-restraint and a loving attitude. If there is a lack of wisdom in a person, James guides them to pray for directly to God for wisdom.
As we go through the letter of James, we will realize that he often expresses himself in a black and white manner. He occasionally overstates his point to make it clear. Subtlety is not his strength or goal. He is a man of action who warns against overthinking problems.
James speaks against doubt. Since doubt is a prominent part of wisdom, he is probably speaking about the excess of doubt that makes a person ineffectual or confused. Too many allow themselves to be completely derailed by minor questions and pointless thoughts. For James, our actions matter, and actions are driven by belief in God. Your doubts about all sorts of things may help you make good decisions, but doubts that lead to utter confusion, negativity (nihilism), and a lack of action undermine your relationship with God. The first duty of a Christian is to be a person with enough faith to motivate good behavior. Perseverance leads to action and deeper faith. Belief that does not motivate change is seen as weak, shallow, and unsuitable. So, you can have your doubts, but don’t hold onto them like an anchor chain that keeps you from doing God’s will.
In a different translation, verses 9 and 10 say “let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low.” So, if we are poor, we are to focus on the richness of the spirit, while the wealthy and prominent people should be humble to avoid the continuing sins of pride and selfishness. For James, the circumstance of this life can get in the way of our contributions of time, heart, and talent. Common people of minimal means should feel empowered to do good. Wealthy and powerful people who might be comfortable with paying others to work on the behalf should be willing to do good work themselves. Wealth and social position are temporary benefits of this life, and they are neither guaranteed now nor promised in the life to come.
The letter of James does not try to take the place of the rest of Scripture. Other parts of scripture lead us to a place of wonder or mystery. Other parts of scripture lead us to debates on the meaning of life and deep thoughts. Other parts of scripture are poetic or visionary, but James is all about the practical effects of being a Christian. The question that he puts to you could be summed up as “God has given you life, faith, and talents. So, what are you going to do about it?”
James is not primarily concerned with your salvation. He is concerned with what you are going to do with your time on earth. A Christian should be a person with a positive effect on the world around them. This effect should be something that can be measured and have substance so others can see it and see God’s goodness in it.
Some Christians, Like Martin Luther, were annoyed at James for always turning spiritual questions back to practical imperatives because many people try to avoid spirituality and inner growth. But James has his place in scripture; you could say he is where “the rubber meets the road.”
A question to ponder: Do your deepest religious feelings motivate you to take some sort of action?