James abbreviated: an introduction

Last week’s blog was about our need for orthodoxy.

A privatized understanding of Scripture presents a common problem: we interpret passages individualistically, without any sensitivity to what the author originally intended.

You’ve heard it said in a Bible study: “What does this verse mean to you?” But that’s the wrong question to ask. If it is the objective meaning of the text that God inspired (2 Tim 3:16) and not our subjective interpretations of it, then a better question to ask is, “What did the author mean?” So while reading Bible verses does not make you orthodox, reading Bible verses in their proper relationship to the rest of the Bible is at least a first step in aligning you with the orthodox views of the ancient church. Some like to call this “when Scripture interprets Scripture.” Let the whole thing speak for itself.

Here’s another way of thinking about it: You would never read one line from an urgent email without reading it in its entirety, because each part only makes sense in its relationship to the whole. The “whole” part of Scripture is often referred to by the Apostle Paul as “sound doctrine” (1 Tim 4:6) or “sound words” (1 Tim 6:3; 2 Tim 1:13). To really grasp the depth of each verse, you need to know what the chapter means. And what the letter means. And what the Bible means…well, you get it. Here’s where I’m going with this…

For the next few weeks I’m going to blog through every chapter of the epistle of James!

James is a great place to think about broad themes, because it seems to present itself as a disjointed grouping of proverbial statements. Our propensity is to treat James like a fortune cookie wrapper—a proof-text that we can apply to whatever situation we’re dealing with at the moment and according to our own personal interpretation—sometimes we do this without any context for what the author was originally intending. Case in point,

James 1:17, “Every generous act and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights; with Him there is no variation or shadow cast by turning.”

How often have we used this verse in general terms, like this:

If anything good comes my way, it’s because God is blessing me; after all, every perfect gift comes from the Father! And I’m always gonna be blessed, because with Him there is no variation. God always makes good things happen to me!

But when something bad happens to us, as it inevitably will, we never quote that particular verse, do we! Perhaps we search for another general verse or passage that sounds a little more inspirational. But James 1:17 is not an arbitrary or general proverb. The “perfect gift” that the Apostle James refers to is more like a special empowerment that the Father sends to strengthen us in times of suffering. Good exegesis allows the Christian to make direct applications of God’s Word to dire situations, knowing that it will not return empty (Is. 55:11), as opposed to guessing widely and shooting blindly. Here’s some examples of what I mean…

  • Are you feeling depressed? Read Philippians, which is largely a book about joy in any circumstance. As you read it with intentionality, God will speak to you through each of Paul’s words.
  • Are you going on a long, difficult journey or calling? Read the Psalm of Ascents (Psalm 120-134), which is what the Jews have done for centuries in their tumultuous travels.
  • Are you suffering? Read Job.
  • Hopeless? Read the Gospels.
  • Feeling dirty and unwanted? Read Hosea.
  • Feel unqualified? Read Ruth.
  • Feel overwhelmed by the world? Read Romans.
  • Want to read the Cliff Notes version of all time? Read Revelation.
  • (I adapted this list from my post, Religious Sensory Override)

Make sense? So what is James about? How can we begin to apply it to real situations? Well… you’ll just have to discover that with me!

Here’s the plan…

Instead of spending too much time unpacking every verse, I will summarize each chapter by looking at the relationship these verses all have with one another.

I will also include what I think is the key verse of the chapter, and show how the overall theme is being developed in each chapter. When we’re done with all five chapters, the summary of the epistle of James should sit before us in a few, brief sentences! When we know what the book is about, all the details (verses) will become more vivid, more relevant, more exciting. Instead of arbitrarily applying verses to our lives and hoping they fit, we will know what life situation to which James wrote, and how our situations are directly addressed by Scripture. At least, that’s my hope; perhaps I’m aiming too high, haha.

I am not able to bare every detail of the text here, so you are more than welcome to do some exegeting of your own in the comment section or on Facebook.

Bible study is best done in community, so perhaps we can cultivate some meaningful conversations. In case you’re wondering, I will be using the HCSB translation of the Bible. Please join me as we study to show ourselves “approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, NASB)

About Lazo

Lazo is the pastor for preaching and vision at Reality SB. He is committed to spreading the worth of Jesus in Santa Barbara, through the expository preaching of God's Word, and an emphasis on our Union with Christ. You might like these blog posts, 5 Wrong Ways To Comfort Hurting People, Daisy Love and the Magic Eraser, or Impulsive Callings: The "What" may not include the "When"

Posted on June 20, 2013, in doctrine, personal, reading, Scripture, spiritual formation, theology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Oh man, this is so exciting! I’ve always loved the book of James, and it’s been too long since I cracked it open and let it speak to me. I’m sure I’ve also been guilty of picking and choosing verses from James (and everywhere else) to make me feel better about myself. Thanks for taking the time to share your studies with us!

  2. kathryn robinson

    I am looking forward to this method to better understand what God wants us to understand about what HIS word means to tell us . I am sure the meaning is about bigger things than our pitiful personal situations. Thank you Chris.

    • Kathryn,
      I hope I didn’t come across sounding like God doesn’t care about our personal situations! I certainly didn’t mean that; God cares about the mundane and extraordinary alike, has numbered the hairs on our head, and is intimately acquainted with our ways! (Psalm 139).

      But yes, God is bigger than all of those situations, and in a very counter-intuitive way, it is by our eyes being lifted from our problems to his glory that we will be most cared for.

      Thanks for joining me! I hope you find that this inductive way of looking at Scripture is not very complicated, and is probably the most natural way to read any letter.

      Blessings on you!

  3. Gordon Middleton

    Chris, you said “we will know what life situation to which Paul wrote,”. I’m sure you meant “James wrote”. Looking forward to your journey/overview through James.

  4. I am looking forward to this study, particularly because James is always a favorite book of many Christians I meet and because I’m pretty sure they are typically attracted to James because of its “fortune cookie” format that makes it easy to remember or apply.

    As far as discerning Biblical meaning and author intent, I recently read a great article in Affirmation and Critique that I think you’d like. It talks about how God not only authored the text, but also “authors” the interpretive communities and fashions them to read the text and grasp its “truest” meaning. The privileged reader community of the Bible is the Body of Christ, which is indwelt by the living author Himself. Check it out if you have some time.


  1. Pingback: James abbreviated (chapter one) | Doctrine On Tap


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