Many would say it involves mostly rules. Others think it’s doing good things for other people. Or maybe church attendance. Perhaps intellectual belief. But how does the Bible define following Jesus?
Overwhelmingly, we hear descriptions about being in Him.
We also hear descriptions about Christ being in us.
So frequent are these terms used to describe the Christian, and so extensive is the scope of each, that for simplicity’s sake, the entire mystical endeavor is often simply called Union with Christ .
Christ put it rather succinctly, “In that day you will know that I am in My Father, you are in Me, and I am in you” (John 14:20, HCSB). I think Wayne Grudem’s definition is helpful here: Union with Christ is “a phrase used to summarize several different relationships between believers and Christ, through which Christians receive every benefit of salvation“. In other words, everything noteworthy about salvation–from start to finish, from conversion to glory–is inextricably tied to our union with Christ! We do not have any Christianity apart from our union with Christ.
It underlies all the works of God in our lives: election, calling, regeneration, faith, justification, adoption, sanctification, perseverance, and glorification. To study union with Christ is to explore all of these particular blessings, and therefore the vast range of meaning in that little word in. – John M. Frame.
Some of you may think of union with Christ an abstract doctrine, useful only for arm-chair theologians who like to spend endless hours nitpicking ethereal concepts that never touch the human experience. I hope to relieve you from this state of indifference!
When a person becomes a Christian, they are not merely brought into a new set of beliefs, a list of behaviors, or a social club; it is a mysterious, all-encompassing, multi-faceted relationship and realm involving a divine Person. God himself invades our mess in the most literal way possible. Divine beauty and sinful flesh converge in a miraculous display. That mystical relationship has tremendous implications. I’ll just share from my experience of life in union with Christ.
To name a few.
To name just a few.
Perhaps you answered my original question by saying, “Christianity has to do with following a set of rules,” or “It is mainly about being a good person.” I would say Christianity may include or overlap with some of those popular definitions of religion—I certainly hope Christians can be identified with good people, who are consistent in their beliefs and convictions. But I would also suggest that being a Christian is more. It’s about being the version of humanity that God originally intended. But for that to happen, you must be indwelt with the Divine (2 Pet. 1:4).
In his Magnus Opus, The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard suggests that a person cannot keep Christ’s law by trying to keep Christ’s law. That person must aim for something higher. “One must aim to become the kind of person from whom the deeds of the law naturally flow” (142).
I believe our Lord put it this way: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (John 15:4, ESV).
Back to my point, where I want to go.
Well… I want health in my entirety. A healthy Christian is someone who is made more like the Christ who indwells them. Paul said that God’s good purpose is that we would be “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:28-29), which is also to “mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). This involves the health of the whole person. To love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind (Matt 22:37). It’s what Jesus said was the most important command; the one to write home about, certainly, the one to remember if you are prone to forgetting such things.
I’m sure you’ve heard of nominal Christians. Perhaps judgmental Christians. Or [fill-in-the-blank] Christians. But my obsession is with healthy Christians.
I’m obsessed with how Christians can become healthy. So far, I’m convinced that it has to do with our union with Christ. So I obsess about that too. Mostly because I want to be a healthy Christian. And I want everyone I know to become one too.
This blog exists in great part to take this far-reaching, all-encompassing, glorious doctrine of our union with Christ, and show it’s daily implications in everyday life. Union with Christ is not for the armchair theologians.
It’s for you. And it’s for me.
How do you experience Union with Christ?
The apostle said, “When you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and when you believed in Him, you were also sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:13). That’s a great place to start.
Your experience of Jesus starts by believing the truth about Jesus. As J. Todd Billings writes, “Full humanity is humanity in complete union with God” . So most of these posts will explore the realization or practical application of this truth. Even if it’s subtle. For example,
So, stay tuned!
Here is my full-length sermon on this topic:
The beginning of the series started out fairly philosophical, seeking to answer the “what” and the “why” behind biblical interpretation, before getting to the “how” in the next three lectures.
Words only have meaning in sentences. This lecture deals with the words and sentences of the text, and how to find out the author’s main point.
Since Biblical cultures are far removed from ours, we must “hop the gap” and listen to the text from their historical perspective. This lecture is concerned with the social and cultural norms familiar to the Biblical authors and audiences.
This lecture is primarily concerned with genre, those artistic styles of writing that are sometimes peculiar to the Biblical authors. In this lecture we delve into historical narrative, poetry, prophecy, apocalyptic, wisdom literature, gospels, parables, and epistles.
Reality Santa Barbara is hosting a four-week class that I am teaching on studying and understanding the Bible. This video is the introduction. If you missed the first class, or are far away, but want to deepen your understanding of God’s Word, join in with us and watch the video! You can find the attached notes on our website.
If we were to summarize each earlier post in this series, we would have these three bullet points:
The last chapter is James’s concluding exhortation to persist in Christian maturity amid difficult situations by trusting in God. It’s almost as if James in applying his theology directly to different groups of people in his Jerusalem congregation. For these purposes, we can identify three different categories in James 5.
Once again, key verses will be in italics, followed by brief exegesis of key themes, and a summary in red. I will highlight prevailing motifs and themes in green.
James 5:1-6 “Come now, you rich people! Weep and wail over the miseries that are coming on you. Your wealth is ruined and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your silver and gold are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You stored up treasure in the last days! Look! The pay that you withheld from the workers who reaped your fields cries out, and the outcry of the harvesters has reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts. You have lived luxuriously on the land and have indulged yourselves. You have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter. You have condemned—you have murdered —the righteous man; he does not resist you.” (HCSB).
The problem being identified is not the wealth that a person may have, but what they do with the resources given. In this case, some of the more well-to-do in the Jerusalem congregation were hoarding their wealth for themselves, while refusing to assist those struggling within their own church family. James here is accusing them of having “murdered” the righteous man in this case (v6), and taking them back to his exhortation in chapter 2, which was to care for the poor in the church. If those who are wealthy (as is the case with these particular individuals) are not also generous, they are heaping up “miseries” for themselves in the life to come (v1), for their faith is in vain—indeed, they are proving themselves unregenerate!
James is just contextualizing his theology on a particular people group, reminding them that,
James then transitions from a group of unregenerate in the church to those who are enduring well in a reminder to persist in hard times.
James 5:7-12 “Therefore, brothers, be patient until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth and is patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, because the Lord’s coming is near. Brothers, do not complain about one another, so that you will not be judged. Look, the judge stands at the door! Brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the Lord’s name as an example of suffering and patience. See, we count as blessed those who have endured. You have heard of Job’s endurance and have seen the outcome from the Lord. The Lord is very compassionate and merciful. Now above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. Your “yes” must be “yes,” and your “no” must be “no,” so that you won’t fall under judgment.” (HCSB).
What is the “Therefore” there for? Well, after just reading vv.1-6, it seems that James is reminding the poor and downtrodden that their cries have “reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts” (v4). The reason Christians can carry on in the midst of tremendous suffering is because we have a sense that God hates injustice, and is going to work things out, in this life or in the one to come. That means your grueling efforts are not in vain. The enemy of God’s kingdom will not prevail. There is hope for the Christ-follower if they will but persist to the very end! After all, the Lord, who’s “coming is near,” (v8) is “very compassionate and merciful” (v11). The first appearance of “brothers” in verse 7 of this chapter signifies that James is now addressing those within the faith, whereas the rich of 5:1-7 seem to be unrepentant and unregenerate. So there is a clear difference between the eternal identity of those being addressed in verses 1-6 as in verses 7-12. The former has put all their trust in their riches; the latter has put all their trust in God, and James is imploring them to stay in that place of trust, as evidenced by the repeated terms, “be patient,” “strengthen your hearts,” “endurance” in this sequence of Scripture (highlighted in green).
Contrasted with the “miseries that are coming” on the unregenerate who hoard their resources, James urgently implores the believers Jerusalem to…
James finally ends on a note of prayer.
James 5:13-20 “Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone cheerful? He should sing praises. Is anyone among you sick? He should call for the elders of the church, and they should pray over him after anointing him with olive oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will restore him to health; if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The urgent request of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours; yet he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the land. Then he prayed again, and the sky gave rain and the land produced its fruit. My brothers, if any among you strays from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his life from death and cover a multitude of sins.” (HCSB).
This is one of the most beautiful swathes of Scripture in all of James.
In his closing chapter, James identifies those who have no faith (vv.1-6), those who are proving their faith (vv.7-12), and concluding with a call to arms (vv.13-20), reminding everyone that there will be some who stumble and fall, and that salvation doesn’t come to make us an island, rather, we are saved into a community that is under the allegiance of Christ, and we are to leave no man or woman behind.
This was a rewarding journey through a delightful epistle. I hope you got as much out of it as I did. Remember our original intent in starting a study like this, where we are not just looking at the minutia of the letter, but zooming out to a view of 30,000 feet in order to identify sweeping themes that hold this book together. Before I end this blog post, let me provide you with a brief summary of James. I hope after reading this, you will find James beyond just a disjointed grouping of “fortune-cookie” proverbs; it is robust with the themes of trust, suffering, wisdom, holiness, and love for the poor. Check out the summary below. When you are reading James, and mining different verses, you will be able to plug them into this overall train of thought that James had, in order to illuminate the individual verses at hand with tremendous meaning.
When life gets difficult, God will use bad circumstances to transform you, as long as you trust in Him; this occurs when our thought life is brought in subjection to what God says is true (ch.1). This new maturity is most visible in two ways: 1) how we treat others in the body of Christ, specifically, the ones who cannot repay us; in fact, the way we treat the poor in our own local churches is evidence of our faith (ch.2)! and 2) how we speak to one another (ch.3). These elements can only be cultivated in the Christian who continually trusts in God in all circumstances, bringing the theme back around to the first chapter (ch.4). At the end of the age, our fruit will either condemn or vindicate us, so we must be diligent to grow in holiness and love towards one another—the one who perseveres is confident that they are the Lord’s, and must not leave anyone in the family of God behind, even those who appear as falling away (ch.5).
If we were to summarize each earlier post in this series, we would have these three bullet points:
Now let’s glue these together and see if we can get something that flows better. Here is my best attempt:
As a Christian, we must grow to maturity by trusting God in difficulties, and His Word will help us by renewing the way we think about our circumstances; in other words, we are immersed in the messiness, yet unstained by it. With this in mind, getting messy requires that we look after the poor in our own church, because God loves them, and generosity is evidence of genuine faith in us. To be unstained by the world requires keeping a firm watch on the things we say, since holiness is manifest in our speech.
A shorter version of this might be:
Chapter 4 starts to feel a bit like disjointed proverbs (more so than before!). But a close look reveals a steady pattern. Let’s read through the text all at once before we dive into the details. Remember that what I believe are key verses will be in italics. Any suggestive motifs I’ve put in green; these are useful in identifying the dominant idea of the chapter which is what we’re going to need when we do Biblical Theology (or any sweeping study). I’ve included the entire chapter this time.
James 4:1-17 “What is the source of wars and fights among you? Don’t they come from the cravings that are at war within you? You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and don’t receive because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your evil desires. Adulteresses! Don’t you know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? So whoever wants to be the world’s friend becomes God’s enemy. Or do you think it’s without reason the Scripture says that the Spirit who lives in us yearns jealously? But He gives greater grace. Therefore He says: ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Therefore, submit to God. But resist the Devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, sinners, and purify your hearts, double-minded people! Be miserable and mourn and weep. Your laughter must change to mourning and your joy to sorrow. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will exalt you. Don’t criticize one another, brothers. He who criticizes a brother or judges his brother criticizes the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor? Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will travel to such and such a city and spend a year there and do business and make a profit.” You don’t even know what tomorrow will bring—what your life will be! For you are like smoke that appears for a little while, then vanishes. Instead, you should say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” But as it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So it is a sin for the person who knows to do what is good and doesn’t do it” (HCSB).
First I read the chapter without stopping. Then I looked for naturally occurring segments that seem to carry a unified thought. For example, the first three verses are all about an inner war going on in every Christian. The next two verses are about two kingdoms opposing one another (and so on). After I’ve done this through the chapter, I created a bit of an outline to help me make sense of James’s driving themes. Here they are below…
The basic trajectory of the fourth chapter matches these five points.
Remember, we are not looking to uncover the nuances in every verse, but to retrieve the basic point of the chapter, the tapestry. Later, we can go back and look at every verse in light of the overarching point. But what we have so far is a straightforward message woven through the fourth chapter of James. At this juncture, we should add a prominent motif: “adulteress!” (v4). If you consider that an adulteress describes one who is unfaithful to their covenant partner, this becomes a screaming analogy of the Christian who rejects the lordship of God by entertaining their fleshly indulgences. In other words, James is warning the Christian that the “war” between the regenerated spirit and the sinful desires within is ongoing, and they must tirelessly engage in that battle without relenting if, indeed, they are under the lordship of God. Further, we are not of the dark kingdom because “the Spirit who lives in us yearns jealously” (v5), and gives us a “greater grace” to persevere. You may remember that this is the very same premise that James started off with in his first chapter:
Christians are made more complete when they endure conflicts by trusting in God.
Ordinarily, one might be at easy with the period at the end of verse 10, and move on to the next paragraph to form a new thought, but as shown by his lead-in, “Therefore” (v7), James does seem to continue with his train of thought.
Verses 11-12 are a more in-depth look at the masters of each Kingdom—God and Satan—and yet God clearly has no equal in this battle, for he tells us that if a Christian submits to God, and resists the devil they will experience victory (v7).
This is where it gets a bit controversial. The following paragraph on criticizing each other suggests that submitting to the lordship of God is inextricably tied to how we treat our brothers and sisters in Christ, especially in the local church; a dynamic emphasized in Chapter 2. But what does “criticizing” mean? Surely there is a type of constructive criticism that is honorable and useful in the body of Christ. The type of criticism that James speaks of is more damaging to others in the church—i.e., it is able to “destroy” (v12). We see this in the ambiguously labeled “fights” going on in the church (vv1-2). That’s why James says that criticizing each other is essentially to “judge the law” (11), since the law James is most likely referring to is the law of love that came earlier in the epistle (2:8-11). So then, James is not forbidding constructive criticism, necessary discernment of sin, or church discipline; but rather, flagrant condemnation from of selfish ambition or jealousy (3:16). Or to overlap a similar theme from chapter 3…
Keep in mind that James was writing to a group of exiles struggling with their identity as Christians in a culture that was very different from their way of life and belief; their background is similar to any post-Christian environment today: it is hostile and foreign to the worldview of Christ-following men and women.
The bottom line: God knows better than we about every minutia of our lives, and we would be silly to disregard Him on anything, even what we are planning on doing tomorrow (vv.13-15), and especially how we view those in the body of Christ (v11-12). But submission to the lordship of God is not tiresome or disagreeable for those regenerated and filled with the Spirit (v5), but joyful and full of life (v8,10). Such is the life of the Kingdom family. For it is not human thriving to simply keep oneself unstained (1:27b), but one must also be a part of the expanding kingdom family of God (2:15-17), for “it is a sin for the person who knows to do what is good and doesn’t do it” (4:17).
You should read the first post in the series because it sets up every chapter to come. The intent is to show God’s desire for his people to grow to a mature faith, birthed in the kiln of our trials, and shown by the right way we treat one another; all seen in the Christ-like balance between immersion in the world to love our neighbor, and the setting apart for holiness unto God—something only the wisdom of God can help us navigate.
James chapter 2 and 3 are a thoughtful unfolding of James 1:27: “Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” We saw in the last blog post that chapter two is an exposition of the command to look after orphans, widows, and more broadly, those who are in distress. Interestingly, as the chapter progresses, it emphasized this call to show mercy, specifically on those in the family of God. A good summary of chapter two is, “If you are a Christ follower, you will love all of Christ’s people”
Now, in chapter 3, James gives an explanation for the first half of v 27, namely, “to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
James 1:1-12 “Not many should become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive a stricter judgment, 2 for we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a mature man who is also able to control his whole body. 3 Now when we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we also guide the whole animal. 4 And consider ships: Though very large and driven by fierce winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things. Consider how large a forest a small fire ignites. 6 And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among the parts of our bodies. It pollutes the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is set on fire by hell. 7 Every sea creature, reptile, bird, or animal is tamed and has been tamed by man, 8 but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 We praise our Lord and Father with it, and we curse men who are made in God’s likeness with it. 10 Praising and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers, these things should not be this way. 11 Does a spring pour out sweet and bitter water from the same opening? 12 Can a fig tree produce olives, my brothers, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a saltwater spring yield fresh water” (HCSB).
For example, how does “experiencing trials” (1:2) relate to the tongue? Or “keeping oneself unstained by the world” (27b)? Or the sin of favoritism (2:1)? Fortunately, chapter 3 is easy enough to understand that most people can apply it to their life niche. Pastors and school teachers may think of their vocation when reading the stern warning of “stricter judgment” found in vv. 1-2. Some are reminded of the fiery hell that is our tongue in vv. 3-6 when we gossip or lash out verbally. Maybe others just think of the zoo when they read of horses (v 3), sea creatures, reptiles, and birds (v 7) :-) But verse 11 sharply refocuses our attention by providing us with a summary of chapter 3:
“Does a spring pour out sweet and bitter water from the same opening?” (v 11)
I’m bringing our attention to verse 11 as the key verse because it unifies the first 12 verses of James’s warning over the destructive nature of the tongue, words, and speech. James defines the tongue as lit by hell itself—it’s not on fire, it is a fire (v 6); he implicates anyone that teaches verbally (v 1); he describes the tongue’s ability to destroy other people (v 8); and after launching into more analogous indictments against human speech, his deep theme emerges: “Does a spring pour out sweet and bitter water from the same opening?” (v 11). James is prosecuting the human heart as the real culprit behind our sinful speech, for if we were holy, only sweet water would pour out of our springs; likewise, bitter waters flow from dead faith (2:26). These first seemed like a bunch of unrelated proverbs, but from a bird’s-eye view of the text, James’s point is overt: holiness of heart is manifest in holiness of speech. Our words do not save us, but they do identify us.
This, of course, flows seamlessly from chapters one (God matures our faith with trials, in and through right relationships with Christ’s people) and chapter two (Christ followers love all of Christ’s people).
Who is wise and has understanding among you? He should show his works by good conduct with wisdom’s gentleness. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart, don’t brag and deny the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come from above but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where envy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every kind of evil. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peace-loving, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without favoritism and hypocrisy. 18 And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who cultivate peace.
This may seem disconnected from the rest of the chapter, but remember, we are looking at everything from a view of 30,000 feet so we can leave with a broad and unifying theme that holds these chapters (and book) together. With that in mind, read that paragraph again (vv. 13-18) and see if you can spot some repeating words, phrases, thoughts, or themes. The first thing that stood out to me was “wisdom” used four times throughout the paragraph. Where have we heard “wisdom” mentioned before? In chapter one! James exhorts,
“Now if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without criticizing, and it will be given to him” (1:5).
The wisdom of which James speaks is more than a psychic way of making decisions or finding your future spouse; rather, this is the wisdom of God to navigate perilous situations, and comes upon a Christian who trusts in God in those hard times. As a result, the Christian matures in Christ. Now, in chapter three, God’s wisdom is brought up once again, but this time, in contrast with counterfeit wisdom, which James describes as “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition” (3:14).
Because while God’s wisdom causes you to trust in him in difficult circumstances, and consequently, to treat unlovable people with grace and mercy; counterfeit wisdom consists of only person-destroying vices! To cultivate relationships marked by envy and selfish pride is to create “disorder and every kind of evil” (16). Once again, the evidence of knowing God is in how you treat people, especially people in your own family, the family of God.
Before, verses like James 1:27b (“to keep oneself unstained by the world”) seemed so disconnected to chapter 3, but now, we can see the connection; if keeping oneself unstained by the world is another way of describing the holiness of God’s people, then holiness is directly connected to sins of speech, especially since this entire book is set in the context of the church community. How do we sin against each other? Usually through what we say (or don’t say!).
Have you been making any fun connections in James? Please share!
This one shouldn’t be as lengthy as the first one, but you will need to read the first post in the series because it sets us up for every chapter to come. The summary of chapter one went something like this: God desires for his people to grow to a mature faith, birthed in the kiln of our trials, and shown by the right way we treat one another; all of which is the Christ-like balance between immersion in the world to love our neighbor, and the setting apart for holiness unto God—something we need the wisdom of God to help us navigate.
Before we move on, I want you to take special notice of the underlined sections of that summary towards the end. I got these two ideas from James 1:27,
“Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
The first half of James’s sentence (“to look after orphans and widows”) suggests the immersion in the world to love our neighbor, while the second half (“keep oneself unstained by the world”) is where I got the setting apart for holiness unto God. I’m bringing this up, because I think James chapter 2 and chapter 3 are a thoughtful unfolding of these two concepts. James chapter 2 unpacks the imperative to look after orphans, widows, and more broadly, those who are in distress. What is interesting is that as the chapter progresses, it focuses our call to show mercy specifically on the family of God.
Christians must look after their own poor
vv.1-8 “My brothers, do not show favoritism as you hold on to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. 2 For example, a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and a poor man dressed in dirty clothes also comes in. 3 If you look with favor on the man wearing the fine clothes and say, “Sit here in a good place,” and yet you say to the poor man, “Stand over there,” or, “Sit here on the floor by my footstool,” 4 haven’t you discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my dear brothers: Didn’t God choose the poor in this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that He has promised to those who love Him? 6 Yet you dishonored that poor man. Don’t the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? 7 Don’t they blaspheme the noble name that was pronounced over you at your baptism? 8 Indeed, if you keep the royal law prescribed in the Scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself , you are doing well. “
This lengthy paragraph suggests three things:
Generosity within the family of God is evidence of genuine faith
vv. 14-17 “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can his faith save him ? 15 If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself.”
James is not just suggesting that we come to the aid of the less fortunate in our church; he claims that the gospel demands it! In fact, your faith is dead unless you prove it by the way you treat your brothers and sisters in your local church, especially those who are less fortunate.
Here is how I’m seeing the flow…
Just to jog our memory, James has all along been telling us that when we trust God as He takes us through trials, he will bring us to completion as followers of Christ, part of which involves our immersion in the world to love our neighbor. And this is most beautifully exemplified by loving those who are the most inconvenient to love in our own church family.
If James were to condense chapter two into a tweet, I think he would say this:
“If you are a Christ follower, you will love all of Christ’s people”
So how does this overarching theme affects our reading of a single verse within that same chapter? Take this verse, for example:
Verse 5: “Listen, my dear brothers: Didn’t God choose the poor in this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that He has promised to those who love Him?”
After our traverse through James 1, we can make a connection between the faith given to the poor in 2:5 with the faith required to navigate hardships in 1:3. You know what both of these have in common? They are the property of that person whose salvation and completeness is beyond them; whose hair is about to be pulled out; who’s about to scream from utter despair: they must place their faith and trust in God alone. You know who is often in that place of despair? The poor. The downcast. The neglected. The oppressed. It’s usually those who have nothing that consider the gospel to be of incomparable value. Perhaps that’s why James follows up the beginning of chapter two with this exhortation: “The brother of humble circumstances should boast in his exaltation” (1:9).
The F Market streetcar joins the Embarcadero to the rest of Market street. Brianna and I rode one with Abby after a strenuous day of walking the streets of San Francisco; it wasn’t the city itself that we found exhausting; rather, my kid was throwing up, it was raining, and we forgot to pack an umbrella. Or jackets. There was little else on our minds except to get back to our hotel and pass out.
Out of the corner of my eye, two older women began raising their voices,
“Excuse me. Yeah, you!” she shouted to the driver as he was transferring shifts.
“You shortchanged me a dollar, and thought I would forget! But I’ve been keeping track and I want it back before you get off this car.”
The last thing I needed: a flare-up next to me. I suppose if Abby isn’t vomiting on one of us, it might as well be a tourist. At the same time, another driver (I will call him Dale) hopped up the steps of the streetcar to change shifts with the driver who by now was getting chastised by these two women over a dollar.
“What’s the problem?” Dale asked as the other driver turned his back, clearly wanting to clock out and head over to a pub.
“Well that young man right there told me that the price was such-and-such and I gave him gibba-gibba-gibba and he said this-and-that and he just needs to refund me the amount of blah-blah-blah….OH!!! Nevermind, just go. I’m done with this. Get out of here! Just go. Go go go!”
Brianna and I looked at each other and exchanged sympathetic grins. People may think city dwellers are snippy, but tourists can have a fierce bite of their own. The original driver stepped off the bus at the nearest stop, leaving Dale with the two jolly guests in the front row. As we all continued down the Embarcadero, the awkwardness of the silly conflict began to dwindle, until the daughter got up before their stop-off and approached him to gently explain the situation. Dale turned around with a big smile on his face, and pulled cash out of lockbox. As the grandmother began to storm off the car, Dale stopped her, cupping her hands in his, and implored: “I don’t want you to be mad; here’s your dollar back, ok!” They soon exchanged laughs, and the two women left the car with smiles. As the streetcar began to move up Market Street, Dale whipped his head around, and shot a grin our way; Brianna smiled back. This guy was contagious.
I couldn’t help but think of Proverbs 15:1: “A gentle answer turns away anger” (HCSB).
Soon a new slew of tourists filled the car, and another obnoxious rider began to bark orders at Dale with his head glued to the side of a smartphone. “I’ll call you back; I just hopped on the bus, and will be there in a minute.”
“Bus???” Dale exclaimed. “You call this is a bus??” The streetcar roared with unexpected laughter.
“I’m sorry, Sam, apparently it’s not a ‘bus.” I’m on the trolley and I’ll be with you shortly.”
Dale stopped the streetcar at the next red light to give everyone present a lighthearted lecture on the differences between buses, trolleys, and streetcars; he used handmotions, facial expressions, and the same disarming grin he used on us one conflict prior. Once again, Dale turned a tense environment around with a gentle, albeit humorous, answer.
I want a dozen Dales in my church.
With the monumental changes taking place in our culture, we have some heated arguments brewing on the ol’ streetcar. In some cases, all it takes is one bullish Christian to demonize everyone on the car that disagrees with truth. On the other side of the streetcar, we have some, who, in the spirit of love and tolerance, shy away from all types of confrontation. But these are neither love nor truth. Our great mistake is to emphasize one over the other. Some people have confrontational personalities, and tend towards truth-telling at love’s expense; while others have bleeding hearts, and may avoid any type of truthful confrontation. But Paul says this is impossible.
“But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into Him who is the head—Christ” (Eph 4:15, HCSB).
We must deliver truth in love, or it is “a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1-2). Meanwhile, “love finds no joy in unrighteousness but rejoices in the truth.” Both of these divine attributes depend on the other; God cannot be truth without also being love, and he is not love to the exclusion of truth.
I say all of this because things are going to get heated in the streetcar of our society, culture, and even our church. This is simply the context in which we live. And there will be that person on the front row who barks at everyone who rubs them the wrong way; there will be those who want so badly to keep the peace that they simply laugh at the situation and change the subject. But what we need is a Dale. We need people to keep moving on the road ahead while navigating the turmoil inside the car, carefully offering the truth of Christ’s story in a winsome manner.
Since every book of the Bible has a point, we should start by identifying a basic flow, argument, or exhortation as we read along. Don’t worry about finding the meaning behind every verse yet, but do use key verses to help you put together that flow. A key verse is an emphatic point or crux buried in the chapter, supported by a lot of the surrounding paragraph. To use another example, news articles and blogs often emphasized their main points in bold lettering above the rest of the text.
Christians trust God in difficulties
vv.2-6 “Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing. 5 Now if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without criticizing, and it will be given to him. 6 But let him ask in faith without doubting. For the doubter is like the surging sea, driven and tossed by the wind. 7 That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 8 An indecisive man is unstable in all his ways.”
Do you see how I developed a short, five-word point (Christians trust God in difficulties) from an otherwise sweeping paragraph? I’ll show you my train of thought…
God’s Word renews the way you think
vv. 21 “Therefore, ridding yourselves of all moral filth and evil, humbly receive the implanted word, which is able to save you. 22 But be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 Because if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man looking at his own face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. 25 But the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but one who does good works —this person will be blessed in what he does. 26 If anyone thinks he is religious without controlling his tongue, then his religion is useless and he deceives himself. 27 Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
This is a powerful followup to the beginning of the chapter. Essentially, James is commanding us to let the Word of God renew our minds (vv. 21) so that we can navigate trials with our faith in God (vv. 2-6).
Here is how I’m seeing the flow…
Now, we didn’t get every nuance of every verse, but we did get the basic point of chapter one in two different headings; now that we have that, we can go back and look at every verse in light of these overarching points! That is letting Scripture interpret Scripture. But before we go there, let’s look at our two main headings, and close with what James says in the first chapter.
Heading 1: “Christians are made more complete when they endure difficulties by trusting in God“
Heading 2: “God’s Word is the way to experience more faith, because it renews the way we think“
Put these two headings together, and it leaves you with what I like to call a golden thread that weaves James 1 together into a rich tapestry. If James were to condense chapter one into a tweet, I think he would say this:
“Trust in God through Christ, proving your faith by thinking and conforming to His Word; this makes you complete in Him while enduring trials.”
Now here is where contextualization matters. To whom did James write this letter? He wrote it “to the 12 tribes in the Dispersion” (v 1). You do not need to have many scholarly study tools or resources to know that “dispersion” probably refers to some type of exile with an identity crisis! Since a basic task of Bible Study (exegesis) is to discover what the author was conveying to a people, we have at least one HUGE clue on our pallette: James was writing to a group of exiles trying to keep up their identity as Christians in a culture that was very different from their way of life and belief! Does this sound familiar?? Well, yes, it sounds like my city, Santa Barbara. And perhaps your city, since most of us live in wildly post-Christian environments that are hostile and foreign to our way of life as Christ-following men and women. James is more relevant to our lives than yesterday’s newspaper.
Before I wrap up this (very long) post, I just remembered that we should look at how an understanding of the overarching theme affects our reading of a single verse within that same passage. So let’s interpret a famous proof-text in light of the entire chapter…
Verse 27: “Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
This verse stands on its own as fairly self-explanatory. However, we can exegete a powerful, nuanced, and very applicable meaning now that we understand its surrounding context. James is holding two (seemingly) conflicting ways to relate to culture:
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…
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…
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…
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.
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)