It is highly probable that the letter of James, the letter we will be studying over the next several weeks, is the oldest of all of the New Testament books, written sometime in the mid 40s. In our day we view anything old as outdated and antiquated, yet the wisdom James shares with us is so badly needed by the followers of Jesus in our day. Rather than being old and outdated, for the followers of Jesus the letter of James is more relevant, practical, and applicable than any wisdom the world has to offer today.
James does more than offer us alternatives to the ways of the world. There are 108 verses in the five chapters that make up James’ letter. Out of the 108 verses there are 54 verses that contain 59 imperative verbs, action words used to tell others what to do. That means that every other verse James writes for his readers contains an action that is to be lived out by the followers of Jesus.
What we will find in our study of James is not the result of a round table discussion led by professors detailing and debating matters of theology. It’s not a letter filled with philosophy, flowery thoughts, and cute bumper sticker ideologies. James writes to the followers of Jesus and urges them, commands them, to take their faith out of the classroom and into the streets. James commands the followers of Jesus to stop talking about what they believe and live it, put it into action. James is not concerned with what we think about this doctrine or that doctrine. He wants us to focus on our walk and not our talk.
In the weeks ahead we’ll draw close to each section of James’ letter, but this morning I want us to back way up so we can build a strong foundation of understanding the who, what, why, and how of this powerful letter written to God’s people. I want you to know why this is important for us. In our day, when someone accepts Jesus as their Lord and Savior, we give them a Bible and say, “You should read God’s Word every day.” So, being sincere in their love for Jesus they open the Bible like we open a book…at the beginning, right? They read Genesis and that’s interesting. Once they complete Genesis they roll over into Exodus and that’s a great story. That Moses guy was something else! Then they come to Leviticus and they feel like they’ve been run over by a truck. What in the world is all of that about? So they quickly come to the conclusion, and say what many of us said early in our walk with the Lord, “I don’t understand the Bible.” We need to understand the background of the book we are reading so we can understand what God is seeking to teach us in His Word. So let’s get started trying to understand the background of James.
The first question we have to ask is, “Who?” Who wrote the letter of James? James wrote the letter of James, but which James wrote the letter? There are four men named James that appear in the New Testament. You can find three of them in one verse, Acts 1:13,
13 When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. (Acts 1:13 NIVO)
The only reason James the father of Judas is mentioned is to let people know that this Judas was not Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed Jesus. James the son of Alphaeus was one of the twelve disciples. His name appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but other than his name we don’t know much about him. The third James mentioned in Acts 1:13 was one of Jesus’ inner-circle of disciples along with Peter and his brother John. James and John were the sons of a man named Zebedee. This James was killed by Herod Agrippa I about 44 A.D. We can read about it in Acts 12:1-2.
1 It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. 2 He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. (Acts 12:1-2 NIVO)
This James died before the letter of James was written so we can rule out all three of the men named James listed in Acts 1:13. The only other James mentioned in the New Testament is James the half brother of Jesus. I do want you to know that there are skeptics who don’t believe the half brother of Jesus wrote this letter. They believe that someone else wrote the letter and used James’ name to give street cred to what they wrote. The skeptics say if the real James would have penned the letter he would have made much more out of his special relationship to Jesus. Let’s read James 1:1 and then I’ll show you why this verse holds such a powerful lesson for you and me.
1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings. (James 1:1 NIVO)
The skeptics say if Jesus’ half brother would have really written this letter then he would have introduced himself more like this: “James, a servant of God and the half-brother of Jesus. The one who was loved by Jesus, adored by Jesus, and He sought counsel from me, his younger brother, on a regular basis. Jesus always looked up to me even though I was His younger brother.” If James would have chosen this route he wouldn’t have been the first lesser known brother to make the most of his opportunity. Many of you are too young to remember Billy Carter. Billy was the younger brother of President Jimmy Carter. Before Jimmy Carter became well known nobody even knew Billy Carter existed. Once Jimmy Carter became Governor of Georgia in the 70’s and then President of the United States in 1977, Billy seized the moment. Billy was a peanut farmer and gas station owner in Plains, Georgia. He was a tough talking, beer drinking, overall wearing good ‘ol boy that because of his brother’s position found fame and the spotlight. A beer company seized the moment and contacted Billy about using his name. “Billy Beer” was born and the rest is history. Billy Carter isn’t the only unknown sibling who used their brother or sister’s fame to their own benefit.
James was no Billy Carter. As a matter of fact, the way in which James introduced himself to his readers speaks volumes to us today. Let me show you what I mean. During the three years of Jesus’ ministry James wasn’t a believer, he wasn’t a follower, he thought His brother had lost His mind. Turn with me to Mark 3:20-22 and let’s read together.
20 Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21 When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” 22 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebub! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.” (Mark 3:20-22 NIVO)
James and his family thought Jesus had lost His mind. There’s no indication in Scripture that James had a change of heart at any time during Jesus’ life or ministry. Yet, if we will take the time to learn about James’ life we’ll learn that he became a respected and influential leader for the followers of Jesus, the most influential leader in the church in Jerusalem. He was given the nickname “James the Righteous,” or “James the Just,” by other followers of Jesus because of his faithfulness and devotion to prayer. James led the church in Jerusalem until his death in 62 A.D. James’ death is described by Josephus, the famous Jewish historian, Clement of Alexandria, Hegesippus, a second century follower of Jesus, and Eusebius who wrote “Ecclesiastical History” in 323 A.D.
According to these leaders James’ influence became so great that even some of the Jewish religious leaders became followers of Jesus, which infuriated the scribes and Pharisees. One day they asked James to go to the pinnacle of the temple and speak to the people on Passover. He agreed. When he reached the pinnacle they shouted from below, “Oh, righteous one, in whom we are able to place great confidence; the people are led astray after Jesus, the crucified one. So declare to us, what is this way, Jesus?” James saw right through their scheme. They wanted him to discredit Jesus. James shouted back at them, “Why do you ask me about Jesus, the Son of Man? He sits in heaven at the right hand of the great Power, and he will soon come on the clouds of heaven!” The Pharisees were furious, but the people listening in began to shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Some of the Pharisees made their way to the pinnacle of the temple and pushed James off the edge thinking it would kill him. James hit the ground, but he wasn’t dead. He eventually pulled himself up to his knees and began to pray, “I beg of you, Lord God our Father, forgive them! They do not know what they are doing.” Some of the Pharisees on the ground began to pick up stones. They threw them at James, trying to stone him to death. Hegesippus tells us what happened next. A man, a fuller, or launderer, took one of the clubs that he used to beat clothes and smashed James’ skull…and James died in 62 A.D.
How do you explain this kind of faith? The kind of faith that transforms a skeptical younger brother who at one time thought his older brother, who claimed to be the Messiah, was crazy? How does the skeptic become the leader of the Jerusalem church and eventually give up his life because he believed so strongly, loved Jesus so deeply? What caused such a change in James’ life? There’s only one answer: The resurrection. None of Jesus’ sermons changed James’ heart. Seeing Jesus perform miracles didn’t change James’ mind. Even though the crowds might have believed, James didn’t. James’ half-brother, his older brother Jesus, was crucified, they laid Him in a borrowed tomb, and James still wasn’t convinced. James just saw it as the end of a long, sad story, when his brother breathed his last breathe and died. Then Jesus appeared to His brother James after His resurrection and everything changed, everything changed. Paul, in his letter to the brothers and sisters in Corinth, wrote,
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8 NIVO)
Did you notice it? It’s there, in verse 7, “Then he appeared to James…” the brother who didn’t believe. It’s interesting to me that there are only two names that are mentioned out of the more than 500 people Jesus appeared to after His resurrection, Simon Peter and James. Peter who was struggling with the fact that he had denied he even knew Jesus during Jesus’ most critical moment and James who refused to believe Jesus. Yet, Jesus was alive and not dead, and that changed everything for James.
James sat down to pen his letter and he described himself with the most honored title he knew. Not the biological half-brother of Jesus, but “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” The word, “servant,” in our Bible is translated from the Greek word, “??????” (doulos), which literally means, “slave.” James wasn’t a slave by force, but by choice. He willingly chained himself to Jesus, giving up his will, his ambitions, and his desires so that He might live for Jesus’ glory alone.
There is a second aspect of the “Who” question that we need to understand. To whom was James writing? We can find the answer to that question in the first verse as well. Let’s read it again.
1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings. (James 1:1 NIVO)
“To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations:” That phrase, “twelve tribes,” tells us so much. Throughout the Hebrew Bible the people of God are referred to as the “twelve tribes.” Those James wrote to were not simply Jewish, but Jewish followers of Jesus, Jewish Christians, who had been scattered. I’m sure there were some Gentiles among them as well, but they were primarily Jewish Christians. The scattering James is referring to is a reference to the great persecution that broke out in Jerusalem after Stephen was stoned to death because of his allegiance to Jesus in Acts 8. Take a look at Acts 8:1 with me.
1 And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. (Acts 8:1 NIVO)
The influence of Jesus’ followers had been growing since the Day of Pentecost. The adversaries of Jesus finally had all they could take and things got out of hand when their rage erupted and Stephen was killed because of his faith. The followers of Jesus were afraid, so they loaded up their families, and they headed out of Jerusalem. They were scattered. Where did they go? Luke tells us they “were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” What a terrible turn of events right? How could God allow such a thing to happen to those who loved Him and were committed to living their lives for Him? We might think that, but the truth of what was happening is much, much different. Let me show you what I’m talking about. In Acts 1:8, after Jesus’ resurrection, He appeared to His followers and told them,
8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 NIVO)
Did you notice where Jesus said they would go and minister in His name? “In Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And where did those who were being persecuted flee? “Throughout Judea and Samaria.” What was a problem for those early Jewish followers of Jesus was part of God’s plan to carry the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth.
I’ve got to stop here and share something with you that the Lord has really etched upon my heart this week. God’s ways are not my ways or your ways my friend. You and I will never arrive at that conclusion apart from what we can learn from God’s Word. I often hear people say, “Well, I just feel in my heart that God would want this for me.” What they are really saying is that is what they want for themselves. I can understand that line of reasoning, but it just doesn’t square with what God’s Word teaches us.
Let me give you an example from the “scattering” that took place in Jerusalem. In Acts 2:47 we read that “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Then in Acts 3, at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit moved in such a powerful way, 3,000 people became followers of Jesus. In Acts 4 we read that the “number of men grew to about five thousand” (Acts 4:4) Women and children were not counted among those 5,000 new followers of Jesus. If their day was like our day then for every one man who became a follower of Jesus there had to be at least five women and five more kids. Who knows how big the church had grown in such a short amount of time?!
What would we have done at such a time like that? When thousands of people were trusting in Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Why, I’m sure we would have organized a Building Fund and built the biggest mega-church in all of Israel complete with a cafe serving falafel sandwiches, hummus and pita bread, a kadem juice bar, and an assortment of middle eastern coffees. We would have started conferences in Jerusalem, Caesarea, Tiberias, Capernaum, and Bethlehem. We would have seized the moment, maximized the momentum, and capitalized on the coming of the Holy Spirit. That’s what we would have done. What did God do? He scattered them through a horrible persecution that sent them running for the hills of Judea and Samaria so the Gospel might spread throughout the whole earth. As they fled they preached the Gospel everywhere they went and many more came to know Jesus.
I don’t know much, but I know this, God’s ways are not my ways. I have to confess to you that oftentimes I see my problems as nothing more than a problem, a problem that I want to get rid of as soon as possible. This week the Lord has reminded me that my problems are part of His plan. His plan. His plan to draw me to Himself. His plan to force me to become more dependent on Him and less dependent on me, or those around me. His plan to soften my heart and move me beyond the paralysis of my problems so that I might minister to those who find themselves facing problems of every kind. My problems are part of His plan. That’s a hard pill to swallow at times isn’t it? It certainly is for me, but I’m learning that recognizing that He is Sovereign over every problem in my life keeps me from losing my mind. It also enables me to live outside of myself.
Last of all, let’s take a look at the “What?” of James’ letter. What was on his heart? What does James want to convey to those scattered, suffering, followers of Jesus throughout Judea and Samaria? In the five chapters of James’ letter he writes about so many practical issues the people were dealing with in everyday life. He writes about trials and troubles of various kinds, poverty, riches, materialism, favoritism, social justice, the tongue, worldliness, boasting, making plans, praying, and what to do when we are sick. He was writing to men and women who were living in a hostile environment and urging them to live out their faith.
A broad overview of each chapter might look something like this: In chapter one James addresses trials, the need for perseverance, and where they can find the wisdom to face the trials of life with a distinctively Christ-like mindset. He also talks about hearing and doing the word of God. James writes in James 1:22.
22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. (James 1:22 NIVO)
In James 2 we will learn about the sin of favoritism or partiality as well as the relationship of faith and works. This section of James has been a stumbling block for many and it led Martin Luther to call James’ letter, a “straw gospel.” In James 3 we’ll learn about the “taming of the tongue.” I’m wondering if there is anyone here this morning who could use that lesson? Our tongues are vicious, sharp, and we can slice one another up with it can’t we? You might not want to wait until we get to James 3. Go ahead and read it this afternoon. In James 3 we’ll also learn about the difference between earthly, worldly wisdom and the wisdom of God. In James 4 we’ll learn about materialism, selfishness, and the conflict these evils cause in the Body of Christ. We’ll also learn about slander. Better yet, James will tell us, just as he told those who first read his letter, don’t you dare do it! He’ll also counsel us about bragging about the future when we don’t even know what today will bring about for us. In James 5, he’ll warn us about trusting in our wealth and comfort as our ultimate end in life. James will also teach us about being patient in our suffering and about how to pray.
It’s going to be an incredible study for you and me over these next several weeks, but I want to forewarn you. James can be viewed by some as a kind of self-help book. If you have problems with how you use your tongue, if your tongue is a razor, then follow James’ advice. If you get overwhelmed by the trials of life then go to James 1 and follow His advice. And on and on the story goes. The change that we desire in our everyday life will not come about by knuckling down and following James’ imperatives. Do you remember what changed James’ life? It wasn’t any of Jesus’ sermons or seeing some of His miracles. James was changed when he was confronted by the resurrected Savior. That’s where our change begins my friend. Do you know Jesus as more than a Person from history, more than a Teacher, more than a Miracle Worker, more than a Wise Sage? Do you know Him as Lord, King of all kings and Lord of all lords? Are you willing to say with James, “I am a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ?” If not, then I want to invite you to surrender your life to Him this morning.
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
September 24, 2017