We had some recording difficulties today had had to use unusual methods to record the sermon audio. Please forgive the low quality.
Before this sermon was preached, the entire book of James was read for the congregation. Consider reading it now yourself. It’ll probably take you about 10 or 15 minutes.
Welcome to 2022 and the NT book of James. Having spent nearly four years preaching through OT books (Hosea, Ruth, and Genesis), it’s good to be back in the NT. Likewise, having spent the better part of those years dealing with narrative, it’s good to be back in a letter. Of course, all of God’s Word is God’s Word and good to be in, but I’ve always felt more at home in the NT letters than anywhere else in the Bible. With that said, James’s letter is not a normal NT letter. There isn’t a clear structure and it can feel more like a collection of proverbs than a traditional letter. Nevertheless, the things I most appreciate about the NT letters—the pastoral tone and shepherding purposes—are impossible to miss.
In this first, introductory sermon on James my aims are to 1) Set you up well for the text-specific sermons to come by helping you see the big picture of James, and 2) Help you see a bit of the unique glory of God in James. To accomplish those twin aims, I’m going to answer three questions: 1) Who was James, 2) What prompted James to write this letter, and 3) What does James’s letter look like from high up? As I do these things, I think you’ll see that the banner over all of James is that God’s glory is such that we must not claim to believe in Him if we do not live in obedience to Him. Let’s pray that God would get glory and we would get help for godliness through this sermon and the ones that follow.
WHO WAS JAMES?
The letter opens with a fairly traditional greeting. In the first line, the author identifies himself as, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ…”.
Who was James? That’s a question that takes up more room in the commentaries than I was expecting. There were (at least) four James’s mentioned in the NT. In Acts 1:13, when the apostles were choosing a replacement for Judas, we read of three of them.
And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James…
James, the brother of Jesus, is the fourth NT James. In Matthew 14:55 (and Mark 6:3), as the leaders of the synagogue were rejecting the authority of Jesus, they exclaimed, “And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?”
Largely based on the relative obscurity of two of the four, the ages of the James’s as compared to the date of the letter, and also because of the near universal understanding of the early church, it has long been accepted that the author of this letter is James, the brother of Jesus.
As Jesus’ brother, James would have had a life-long, up-close view of Jesus. Perhaps no one would have had a better opportunity to assess Jesus’ messianic claims than James. I have one sister. She loves me dearly. I think it’s safe to say that she has a good deal of respect for me. And yet, I can promise you that if I ever began to make claims about being the sinless Son of God, she certainly wouldn’t be writing a letter to affirm my claims. Instead, she’d be ready with a laundry list of stories that would shatter any sliver of belief that anyone had. In other words, the fact that James accepted Jesus—his own brother—as the Christ, then, is a big deal.
It is interesting, however, that James is said to have become fully convinced that Jesus was the Christ only after the resurrection. In John 7:5 we’re told, “not even [Jesus’] brothers believed in him.” We don’t know why that was. Did their parents not tell the rest of the kids about the miraculous birth? Were Jesus’ brothers simply hard-hearted? Did God keep them from understanding for some reason? We simply don’t know.
What we do know, though, is that after Jesus’ resurrection, James did believe and quickly rose to a position of some prominence in the early Jerusalem church. When Peter was rescued from prison, he made sure that James knew of what God had done (Acts 12:17). James was at the Jerusalem Council where it was decided that the Gentiles did not need to obey the Law of Moses (Acts 15:13). Paul singled out James among the Church leaders in Jerusalem to hear his report on what God had been doing among the Gentiles (Acts 21:17-19). James was numbered among the apostles (Galatians 1:19). Paul called James one of the “pillars” of the early Church (Galatians 2:9). James was even prominent enough to intimidate Peter (Galatians 2:12).
Again, then, the first significant thing for us to understand about this letter is that it was written by James, Jesus’ half-brother, a skeptic early on, but later a leader in the Church. All of that leads to the second question, “What prompted James to write this letter?”.
WHAT PROMPED JAMES TO WRITE THIS LETTER?
Again, according to custom, the letter opens with the identification of the author and the recipients, “To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion…”. If this sounds familiar, it might be because it’s very similar to the beginning of Peter’s first letter, which was also addressed to the “Dispersion.” This was probably James’s way of addressing several churches under his care. And yet, the fact that James specifically mentions the “twelve tribes,” along with the actual content of the letter, strongly indicates that James was writing predominantly to Jewish Christians.
As to the actual purpose of the letter, it seems that James was inspired by God to correct some of the antinomian (“anti-law” or “no-law”) false beliefs that had crept into the Church. The Apostle Paul dealt with some of the same problems as well. In the beginning of Romans 6, after having carefully explained that salvation comes by grace through faith, not good works, Paul, anticipating objections, asked, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” and then answered, “2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”
The main point to see is that for centuries, the Jews believed that right standing with God came from being a descendent of Abraham and by obeying the Law. The NT doctrine of cross-won grace, understandably, left the early Church needing to explain some things—especially whether or not Christians needed to be concerned with actual holiness (and especially as defined by the OT Law). If we are saved on the basis of Jesus’ holiness, and if it is a great sin to believe that we have anything to contribute to Jesus’ work on our behalf, what does that say about the pursuit of personal holiness in the life of a Christian? It’s a reasonable question that got a lot of bad answers early on.
Therefore, with a pastoral heart and pastoral authority, James wrote his epistle largely to correct one of the more common, wrong explanations of the relationship between grace, faith, and obedience. Specifically, a big reason for the book of James is to address the unbiblical belief that Christians need not concern themselves with walking in obedience to God because their faith is all they needed. In one of his two most pointed admonitions, James urged his readers to “be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves…” (1:22). In the second, and most challenging, he wrote, “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (2:17-18). Most of his letter explains the kind of doing, the kind of faith-proving works, he has in mind.
In short, James wrote this letter, largely to admonish his readers for claiming to have saving faith apart from the kind of good works saving faith always produces. And that leads us to the final question, “What does this letter look like from high up?”.
WHAT DOES THIS LETTER LOOK LIKE FROM HIGH UP?
Each book of the Bible has some unique characteristics. Many of us are drawn to the Psalms because of their depth of and direction for emotion. Likewise, Genesis is unique and attractive because of its foundational teaching. The Proverbs are especially helpful for practical living. Romans has been the go-to book of the Bible for many because of how clearly it explains the gospel and its implication. James too has a number of unique features that make it a very significant book for many; let me quickly name three of them.
First, James deals with very practical aspects of the Christian faith. James is not primarily a book of theories or concepts. Likewise, James does not teach a great deal of theology. He assumes most of the doctrine that undergirds the commands he gives. James focuses on what good doctrine looks like in practice. For that reason, it probably shouldn’t surprise us to find that James has more imperatives/word than any other NT book (Moo, LJ, 1). It also shouldn’t surprise us to find that James uses simple, concise language and many illustrations. Simply, James describes and prescribes orthopraxy (right living) more than orthodoxy (right thinking).
A second interesting aspect of James is that he refers to the teaching of Jesus more than any other biblical author (Moo, LJ, 7). If you read the Sermon on the Mount and James’s Epistle together, you’ll find a good number of unmistakable parallels and similarities. Again, this probably shouldn’t surprise us as Jesus was his brother. Who else would have heard Jesus teach more than James?
And third, as I noted in the introduction, there is no clear-cut, agreed upon structure to James. In fact, it seems to be a bit of a commentator’s rite of passage to try to come up with new possibilities. Like a mathematician trying to solve a long-standing mathematical paradox even if they have very little hope of doing so, James’ scholars seem to find similar joy in the challenge of outlining James’s letter.
I certainly don’t claim to have it figured out, but I do think there are a few clear features for us to recognize. 1) There is one main banner over James, 2) There are six big principles that hold that banner up, 3) The many commands of James flow out of those six big principles, under that banner and 4) Each of these things highlights a unique aspect of the glory of God. Let’s quickly consider each in closing.
The one main banner over James, as I mentioned earlier, is that saving faith always produces godly action. Therefore, God’s people, followers of Jesus, must not be people who merely hear what God has said. We must not be people who content ourselves with simply understanding the truth of God’s Word. Instead, James teaches that we must be people who fight to obey it at all times and in all ways as the Spirit strengthens us. We must be people who understand that saving grace is always accompanied by sanctifying grace. Being a Christian according to James means acting like a Christian (1:22-25; 2:14-26).
Although James doesn’t state the inverse as explicitly, we cannot miss the fact that James does not say, “Be doers, not hearers.” Grace Church, our doing must flow from our hearing. Many (like those to whom James is writing) struggle to put the things God has told them into practice. That’s no good. But it’s equally bad to struggle to put into practice the things God has told us. People in this second camp are usually doing plenty, but they’re doing things of their own making, not God’s.
It is a counterfeit form of Chrisitanity to know what God has said but fail to do it. It is a different counterfeit form to do “good works” in God’s name that God has not named. We must avoid both counterfeit forms. Instead, authentic Christianity means listening listen carefully to the Word of God (be hearers) and then putting it into practice continuously (be doers also). James wrote his letter, largely to insist that both elements, in order, are necessary aspects of authentic Christian faith.
James might be best understood as having six big principles that serve as pillars holding up that one main banner. In other words, in the broadest brush strokes, the Christianly action called for by James is driven by six big principles.
- Christians trust God during trials (1:2-4, 12-16; 5:7-11, 13-20). We’ll see this several times in James. You cannot claim to be a Christian if your Christian faith doesn’t shape the way you think about and endure hardship. And at the heart of the Christian’s patient endurance of suffering is the belief that all suffering is temporary, for the return “of the Lord is at hand,” and with it the end of all suffering for the faithful (5:8).
- Christians look to God as source of all wisdom (1:5-8; 3:13-18). Living in a fallen world, especially as a Christian, means enduring difficulties. The second pillar/big principle of James, is that knowing how to endure those difficulties in a manner pleasing to God requires wisdom that none of us have naturally; a kind of wisdom found in God alone; and a kind that God is eager to give to all who seek it in Him.
- Christians are humble and associate with the humble (1:9-11; 2:1-13; 4:6, 10; 5:1-6). To truly understand the most basic claims of Christianity is to understand that God is great and we are not. Even the most child-like grasp of the world as it truly is, includes the realization that God is glorious and powerful and holy beyond comprehension, while we are sinful, dependent, needy, and contingent. Therefore, the third pillar of James, the third big principle, is that Christians are by nature humble people and eager to associate with humble people—especially those whose lowly circumstances cause them to feel their own humility (the poor and sick and vulnerable).
- Christians understand that all good things come from God (1:16-18). The fourth big principle and banner-holding pillar for James, is the simple fact that Christians live our lives looking for good in God alone. We recognize, and therefore live out the reality, that there is one place that true goodness can be found.
- Christians talk in godly ways (1:19-21, 26; 3:1-12; 4:11-12; 5:12). Fifth, Christians speak Christianly. To be a Christian is to have been given a new heart. And every new heart comes with a bonus gift of a renewing tongue. Where we once spoke harshly, critically, angrily, and gossiply, we now speak words of encouragement and grace, according to James. Christians talk differently than non-Christians and, therefore, to claim to be a Christian without a Christian mouth, is to be a liar.
- Christians reject the ways of the world (4:1-10). The final pillar and principle that holds up the main James banner is that Christians actively and consistently reject the ways of the world. Like 1 John, for James, to be a Christian is to be an enemy of the world. This is one of the most important Christian “doings” for James. There is simply no compatibility for him between claims to follow Jesus and love for the world.
Christians trust God during trials, Christians look to God as source of all wisdom, Christians are humble and associate with the humble, Christians understand that all good things come from God, Christians talk in godly ways, and Christians reject the ways of the world. These are the main driving principles in James and the things that prove Christian faith is different than demonic understanding.
Under the one banner, and out of these six pillars, come many, many commands in this epistl. It would be a good use of your time this week to try to connect each of the commands in James to one of the pillars. For now, though, just listen as I name a number of the commands in James. Pay special attention to the scope of the commands and whether or not you are characterized by obeying them in faith as James insists.
- Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds (1:2)
- Let steadfastness have its full effect (1:4)
- If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God (1:5)
- Ask [for wisdom] in faith, with no doubting (1:6)
- Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10 and the rich in his humiliation (1:9-10)
- Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God (1:13)
- Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger (1:19)
- Put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word (1:21)
- Be doers of the word, and not hearers only (1:22)
- Show no partiality (2:1)
- So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty (2:12)
- Submit yourselves therefore to God (4:7)
- Resist the devil (4:7)
- Draw near to God (4:7)
- Cleanse your hands (4:7)
- Purify your hearts (4:7)
- Be wretched and mourn and weep (4:9)
- Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom (4:9)
- Humble yourselves before the Lord (4:10)
- Do not speak evil against one another (4:11)
- You ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that (4:15)
- You rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you (5:1)
- Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord (5:7)
- Establish your hearts (5:7)
- Do not grumble against one another (5:9)
- Do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no (5:12)
- Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him (5:13-14)
- Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another (5:16)
There are even more commands in James, but these give you a good idea of the kinds of actions that James understands as essential the genuine Christian. Once again, James does not teach that obeying these commands makes someone a Christian, but he absolutely teaches that doing them is essential proof that someone is a Christian. I hope to help you see in the coming weeks that it is truly a gift of God to give us the kind of assurance of salvation we find in the commands of James.
Glory of God
The final aspect of James’s big picture that I want to highlight for you this morning is the way in which James uniquely highlights a particular aspect of the glory of God. Perhaps more than any other book, James reveals that the glory of God is such that He always gives sanctifying grace with saving grace. God’s people have both or we have neither. If there is no genuine life-change, there is no genuine saving-faith. Among other things, James helps us to see the greatness of God in the fact that His saving work is greater than merely getting us out of hell, or even merely getting us out of hell and into heaven, or even merely getting us out of hell, into heaven, and in His favor. The glorious salvation of God means all of those things, but James helps us to see that it also means being remade into the kind of people God originally created. It is one kind of glory to create, it is another kind to rescue creation from rebellion, and it is another kind—a kind James shines a bright light on—that recreates battered, bruised, broken, and corrupted creatures into the fullness of life! What a glorious God we have that wants such good for His rebellious creation and works all things together to bring it about. James helps us to see this glory in ways that no other book of the Bible does.
I’m really glad to be in James with you. My main hope and prayer, as the tagline—“Be not hearers only”—indicates, is that you’d take all of the sound doctrine you’ve received at Grace Church and throughout your life and seek the Spirit’s help in a new way to live it out. My main hope and prayer is to help you see in James that to be a Christian is to know the truth of the gospel, but to know that you know the truth of the gospel comes from the impact it has on the way you live your life. My main hope and prayer is that we would all grow in Holy Spirit conviction that claiming to believe something as awesome as the gospel without it producing fundamentally different attitudes and actions is fake Christianity and a trick of the demons. My main hope and prayer is that the Lord of Glory would grant all of us the kind of faith that results in ever-growing holiness, for the glory of the Lord.