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Introduction to the book of James

March 29, 2007

From the beginning of a Fall 2004 sermon series:

This morning, as we are welcoming back many of our college students and introducing ourselves to others for the very first time, we are also beginning a new sermon series in the book of James.   This series should last until February, and so by introducing the book of James to you, I am also handing out the syllabus for the year.  For one of the core commitments of this congregation is to the continuous exposition of books of the Bible.  In other words, I won’t go to my office on Mondays and pray about what to preach next Sunday.  If I preach James 1:1-4 today, that means I start next week at James 1:5.  It’s a discipline that keeps personal hobby-horses to a minimum.  We lash ourselves to the mast of the text.  We let the text set the agenda and watch in wonder at God’s providential orchestration of connections between texts chosen months in advance and events in our personal and corporate lives.   So this fall, it’s the book of James.

The book of James has some unique features that make it stand out from the rest of Scripture, and I will show you some of these now in order to introduce the book.   But at the same time I want to argue that each of these unique features of the book of James has, to varying degrees, been overstated.   For more important to me than showing you the uniqueness of James is showing you the unity of the Bible.  The book of James isn’t that different from the rest of Scripture, and failing to see its consonance with the rest of the Bible has resulted in this book sometimes being overlooked or even disparaged.

Most famously, Martin Luther called it an epistle of straw because he was unable to reconcile James statements about justification by works with Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone.   When we get to chapter 2 I will then show you how James uses the word justification differently than Paul does.  Paul made it into a technical term in his theology meaning “to be declared righteous on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ.”  But James’ use of the word is not so heavily loaded.  He uses it in the way that was more common before the whole world read Paul.  By justified James meant “to be seen to be righteous”, or “evidenced on the day of judgment by a righteous life to have really been saved”.  I will explain this more fully when we come to chapter 2, for this morning let me reduce to a helpful slogan.  The book of James is not so much about how to be saved, but about how the saved should be. 

But to avoid overstatement, I must show you that James does say a little about how to be saved.  In 1:21 he writes, “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”  And that sounds very much like salvation by grace alone through faith alone.

Another feature of James that is frequently overstated is its Jewish orientation.  It’s true that James, the half-brother of Jesus, was the leader of the Jerusalem church, and yes, he does address his letter in verse 1 to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion”, a word that means Jews scattered among the nations by the exile.

But that doesn’t mean that when we Gentile Christians read it, we should feel like we are reading someone else’s mail.   The whole church of Jesus Christ, made up of Jews and Gentiles, is together the new Israel.  We have been grafted in and can be considered part of the twelve tribes.  And we are scattered among the nations.  We are exiles in the world.  The very next book in the canon, the book of 1 Peter, is clearly addressed to Gentile Christians and it begins similarly by calling us exiles of the dispersion, aliens and strangers in the world.  Peter calls us “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” He’s piling up all these OT phrases for Israel.  How do I know he’s saying that about us and not just about Jewish Christians?  Because the next verse, 1 Peter 2:10, says “once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God.”  We are the new Israel, we’re not reading other people’s mail, this book is written for us. 

A third feature of the book of James is its sustained tone of practical exhortation.  This book is often presented as practical rather than doctrinal or theological.  This is only a very slight overstatement.  It is amazing how James comes right out of the block telling you what to do and never stops.  It’s a striking difference from Paul’s style of multiple chapters of teaching before he ever issues a command.   But it would be an overstatement to say that James doesn’t teach theology.  In fact, the book of James has a special emphasis on theology proper, the doctrine of God and his attributes.   It is James who tells us that God cannot be tempted by evil and that He never tempts anyone, that He is the giver of every good gift, the Father of heavenly lights who does not change like shifting shadows.  He tells us that God is jealous, but that God is also gracious.   He tells us that God is the judge, but that God is also full of compassion and mercy.   And James especially emphasizes the oneness of God saying, for example, in 4:12 “There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?” 

Now is this focus on the oneness of God contradicted in any way in chapter 1, verse 1 when he calls himself “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ”  Of course it is not, because the Lord Jesus Christ is God.  We worship one God in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  And let me show you how even in this eminently practical epistle, we can see a strong argument for the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ.  
5:7-9  “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. 8 You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. 9 Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door.”  Now, who is the Judge in that verse who is standing at the door, about to return?  It is the Lord Jesus Christ.  But he said up in 4:12 that there was only one Lawgiver and Judge.  So if Jesus is the judge then he is the one lawgiver and judge of all the earth.  He is God. 

So there is some great theology in this book and we will not only be learning this year about how we should live, we will also be learning about who God is, and it will be good to meditate together on James’ pregnant phrases about God’s character.

But let me not understate the fact that this is a book relentlessly focused on our obedience.  It is very practical.  It is the Proverbs of the New Testament.  And this important emphasis is the reason that I have chosen to preach it this year.  For we are, let us confess it, a people educated beyond our obedience.  And it will be good for us to be convicted by the Holy Spirit through the words of James of our need to be doers of the word and not forgetful hearers.   Let us pray that God will make these words effectual by his Spirit to the producing of the obedience of faith. 

Of all the books in the NT, James has the greatest frequency of imperatives.  The greatest frequency of commands.  But lest you fear you will chafe under all this browbeating, let me assure you that James is also a great pastor.  He soothes the pain of his sharp jabs with words of gentleness and warmth. 

Some examples:

3:1-2 “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 2 We all stumble in many ways.”

4:4-6 “Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. 5 Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely? 6 But he gives us more grace.”

To be continued…

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