Ok, let’s get started at the top of the list…
Ever feel frustrated over the individualism and consumerism punctuating the American church? Ever wish your local church was more like the family you read about in the book of Acts? Do you long for revival in your city? This is the book you need to read. But brace yourself–you’re probably not impervious to Hellerman’s piercing diagnosis. Of all the books I read in 2013, this gave me the most chills, the most hope, and the most excitement for the future. But it cost me dearly.
The Trinity is simultaneously the most important Christian belief, and the most difficult to understand (one might think). Reeves delivers it simpler than vanilla, and more delicious than salted caramel. In fact, his adjectives often remind me of food, with lines like, “Such is the spreading goodness that rolls out of the very being of God” (29), or “The Father, Son and Spirit have always been in delicious harmony” (59). These simple, yet vivid descriptions of the relationships between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit will cause you to reel in joy, and desire to get caught up into the same.
Biblical Theology (BT) is that area of study that looks at how the entire Bible is unified by a single story. There are some BT books that show you the story or themes unfolding through the Bible in a narrative fashion. Others, like this one, show you how to interpret the story itself. Not only does Lawrence nail this topic, but he is very comprehensive, including exegesis, systematics, and other areas of Bible study that intersect with BT. He masterfully lays it all out with practical, and fascinating precision. This is a book I am constantly referencing.
If you preach, you might consider this method. Preaching without notes brings the speaker to life, allows engagement with the listeners, and forces the preacher to condense their (oft-times scattered) ideas to a single, unforgettable point. Even the days I choose to use notes–which has it’s own merits–I still reference this book for it’s helpful methods. To preach without notes, there must be a fundamental shift in the way you think about the sermon itself, and that affects how you construct one. Unlike many books on preaching, this one is as practical as you get–if you really want to preach without notes, this one will do it for you in a week.
If you like to write, blog, or even tweet, I suggest you read this book. “Why on earth would I read about something as dry and lifeless as punctuation,” you say? Because stylistic punctuation, as this book argues, is what breathes life into your sentences. You’ve never been more romanced by a semi-colon or thrilled to wield a dash than after reading this book. The best part is, Lukeman writes the book with flair and style, often using punctuation in the very way he instructs throughout the book. For example, there are nicknames for every punctuation mark; the period is the Stop Sign; the semicolon is The Bridge; the dash is The Interrupter. And of course, there is a cornucopia of classic writers to give you examples of all of these.
These are on this list, because they are game-changers, and it would be a crime to keep them off even though the ones above were my first choices.
Obviously, I haven’t read every book that has ever been written, so take my list with an appropriate grain of that salt. Here’s the list I was working from.
For the following reasons. First, Dr. Thomas Schreiner is one of my favorite scholars. I read through his prestigious commentary on Romans, and developed a deep appreciation for his scholarly writing voice, and well as the sheer width of his focus. Second, Biblical Theologies are a favorite area of study for me—at least for the last year. It is often entrenched in complexity, so Graeme Goldsworthy’s definition will serve the purpose of this blog post well: Biblical Theology is “the study of how every text in the Bible relates to every other text in the Bible” (Christ-Centered Biblical Theology, 40). To boil it down further, it’s the unifying storyline of Scripture, which I address more in this blog post. Third, the name alone is awesome: The King in His Beauty. This just makes me want to pick it up and swim in glorious truth!
Now that I’m done with this hefty book (700+ pages), I’ve provided a not-brief summary of what it’s about, some reasons for reading it, potential drawbacks, and a few concluding remarks. Let’s go for a swim!
The King in His Beauty is foremost a Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments. Biblical Theology (BT) may sound confusing if you’ve never heard the term before, because we sometimes use the word “biblical” when referring to something correct or orthodox; so it may sound like we are talking about a theology that is orthodox. But that’s not what we are talking about (although it assumes the theology is correct!). BT is an area of study, dealing primarily with the story of Scripture, a search for the “center” to that story, and the process of how God reveals that story. Think of it as a view of the Bible from 30,000 feet: you are taking it all in at once.
Schreiner’s intent with writing a BT is simple: to focus on a prominent Biblical theme as it is unfolding so that the average, non-academic reader can understand and enjoy. As Schreiner moves through Scripture, he does so in segments which I’ve found very helpful in following both his train of thought, and the storyline of Scripture. The segments are as follows:
As Schreiner moves through these segments of Scripture, he shows them all anchored in the prominent theme of the Kingdom of God, or as he refers to it, The King in His Beauty. He argues that the Kingdom of God, defined as the rule of God spanning the cosmos, including human beings, by means of covenant, and expressed in judgment, “thematically captures the message of Scripture” (xiii-xv).
The book was not written for scholars, but is scholarly (the footnotes are a feast!). So as he teases out the theme of God’s Kingdom in the Bible, he stays out-of-the-way, yet within close distance to the events as they happen, speaking with a depth of clarity and simplicity even in such seemingly abstract books as Amos or the Psalms. It is this simple clarity on complex topics that makes Schreiner magical. Here are a few other delicacies in the book…
The first thing that caught my eye with Schreiner is his hesitation to claim that his methodology is the only one worthy of consideration—although, this would be forgivable given his extensive research in the field of BT. Yet his humility also comes with a firm conviction from years of research.
I love that Schreiner breaks the Bible into sections which is how he arranged his own table of contents. As a result, you know exactly where Schreiner is taking you in this dash through the Scriptures.
A great amount of attention is given to the divisions of Scripture as well as the storyline of Scripture. The story shows the unity of the Bible, but the divisions show you the process of the story’s revelation—think of it as the structure of the story. Schreiner explains these carefully, especially the covenants as they are revealed in history, an important element in understanding BT.
Schreiner knows how to get an idea stuck in your head. He does this particularly well in the summaries at the end of every section. In addition to this, he inserts “interludes” to recapitulate sections and divisions of Scripture. This makes for a clearly developed thesis running through the entire book, which is constantly dripped down into the readers mind as the book progresses. The King in His Beauty even progresses in the same way as the Bible does! Brilliant.
There aren’t many, but here are a few things I wouldn’t mind changing.
The King in His Beauty has some similarities to the recent book by James Hamilton, The Glory of God in Salvation Through Judgment. Both of them, though not explicitly mentioned in their titles, are largely about the Kingdom of God (Schreiner emphasizes the King, while Hamilton emphasizes the King’s rule). I understand that there is overlap of topics and themes in the realm of BT, so this isn’t a significant obstacle to an otherwise wonderful book. And even though a few similarities in themes exist between Schreiner’s book and James Hamilton’s, there are also noticeable differences that set them apart. For example, Schreiner seems to focus more on the King Himself, than on the King’s rule. I love this! The centrality of Christ in this tome is what illuminates it most brightly.
Schreiner writes to show the “majesty and beauty” of the Biblical storyline while keeping a distance from “technical work for scholars” (x). While the substance of what he writes about is enough to cause one’s heart to soar, the technical language sometimes affects that experience. For example, I would have loved to see more over-the-top adjectives in his descriptions, since his stated desire is to show the majesty and beauty of Scripture (although this may be a faux pas in the academic world, I’m not sure). This is not to detract from Schreiner’s writing style or wording—he is a great writer, and he makes the concepts he is championing absolutely clear—rather, it seems a gargantuan piece to bite off: writing as a scholar, with scholarly material, but for the average person. At times, I wish he wasn’t trying to write to so broad and finicky an audience, as his understanding of BT is captivating. I say, write like a scholar—because you are a fine one, sir.
Thomas Schreiner needs very little introduction in Biblical studies. The King in His Beauty exemplifies his ability to take deep, complex truths and explain them in a way that the average person can understand, all without the ever-present danger of dumbing everything down. Reading this book immediately brings the reader before the person and work of Jesus Christ as presented through the entire sweep of the Bible’s storyline. All the while, Schreiner shows how Scripture interacts with various details of God’s story, such as the fascinating emphasis on King David and the promises associated with him. Schreiner’s navigation through the Christian Bible is wonderful, simple, and clear. Partly, because he doesn’t waste time interacting with critical thought (not the book’s intent), although the footnotes alone will keep you embroiled in book purchasing.
The King in His Beauty is not a book you grab off the shelf to skim through while sipping your morning tea—it’s for serious students of the Bible. Specifically, non-academics who want to enrich their understanding of the Bible’s unity, see the Kingdom of God unfolding in Scripture (even books that do not mention “kingdom” explicitly), or want a starting place for enjoying Biblical Theology. Yet, it is so clearly and simply written, that it can also serve the average person as they move through a one-year Bible reading program, for example.
Make no mistake, the church is better off for having Thomas Schreiner, his broad scope of theology, and his love for the Bride of Christ. All of which is made more evident in his latest book on the true Protagonist of the Bible.
Find the book on Amazon here: The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments.
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).
Lost hit the airwaves during a time of massive change in the way television presented its content. No longer were shows sectioned off into bite-sized, thirty-minute sitcoms (situation comedies), but they were now linked by a metanarrative that stretched for seasons–even the entire series. Lost was one of the originals. You had to start watching it from the beginning; if you stepped in on an episode halfway through the season, you would be, well…lost.
That moment helped me make another connection: people will get lost in the details unless they understand the unifying narrative. It’s that storyline that helps make sense of all the little vignettes. This forced me into a further realization about the Scriptures.
What happens during your daily devotions, when, after waking up uncomfortably early, you roll out of bed, half-awake, and open your Bible to the book of Obadiah? Or Leviticus? Or Chronicles? Perhaps you read along, assuring yourself that “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable” (2 Tim 3:16); but soon enough, you turn to the easier, more self-explanatory Proverbs, or perhaps you just reach for the John Eldridge paperback. I have had these moments too. I have sometimes felt that sinking feeling that I did not understand certain books of the Bible enough. We certainly know that all the Scriptures are important, but sometimes it may feel as if there were a deficiency in our understanding of certain parts, like some of God’s Word is out of our reach. For many people, this happens with the Old Testament. We love reading the simple story of the Gospels, or the propositional statements of Paul, because it feels as if they apply directly to our lives; but how in the world are we supposed to handle the book of Amos? It seems archaic, contextualized, and far removed, a very discouraging thought when we realize that two thirds of our Bible is Old Testament.
My hope is to draw you back to the Scriptures with joyful anticipation; but first, allow me to explain why they often don’t make sense to you.
For example, the Bible may initially appear as if curated from disconnected books, but these books work to form a cosmic story only when considered together. As T. Desmond Alexander describes, “There is not a book within the whole collection that can be interpreted satisfactorily in isolation from the rest. Each book contributes something special to the meta-story and, in turn, the meta-story offers a framework within which each book may be best interpreted” (From Eden. 10).
This means, it can get very confusing when you just pop in to taste-test single verses without the rich context of Scripture surrounding them. It’s appropriate to digest single verses at once, but only if you understand the framework in which they belong. Studying this grand tapestry is an area of theology called Biblical Theology. And this is where the Bible gets very exciting! But don’t confuse Biblical theology with the way it sounds. Whenever we use the term biblical we generally refer to something “orthodox” or “correct”—it may sound like Biblical Theology is speaking about orthodox theology. But we are speaking of something entirely different (although it assumes orthodox theology!).
Geerhardus Vos, the acclaimed theologian on this area of study, defines Biblical Theology as “the exhibition of the organic progress of supernatural revelation in its historical continuity” (Idea of Biblical Theology, 15).
Thomas Schreiner defines Biblical Theology as focusing on “the historical timeline of biblical revelation and the distinct contribution of each author. There are different facets, of course, but the focus is on the timeline as a whole and the unfolding of God’s plan” (www.sbts.edu)
James Hamilton describes his own book on Biblical Theology as an attempt to highlight a “central theme” by describing “individual books in canonical context with sensitivity to the unfolding metanarrative” (God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, 44).
I know some of these definitions are dense, but hopefully my italicizing highlighted a key point which will emerge in my definition:
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).
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)
Now, I know that statistics do not account for every Millennial on the planet. Or even in Santa Barbara for that matter. In fact, I feel as if that percentage increases for the best in the circle of college students I know. But that is not normative. Often good statistics can give us a bird’s-eye view of a generation’s spiritual condition. And the verdict is in: orthodoxy is out.
It may help if I explain what it is first. “Orthodoxy” comes from two Greek words: ortho, meaning “straight,” or “right,” and doxy, meaning “way of thinking.” So orthodoxy means to have a right way of thinking. In Christianity, then, orthodoxy refers to correct beliefs and doctrines. Perhaps you feel your defenses going up upon mentioning words like orthodoxy and doctrine—“right thinking” does seem to sound quite aggressive. Confrontational, really. We live in a culture that is growing more relativistic and inclusive. “Right thinking,” does not help to nurture those cultural values. But along that objection to orthodoxy comes this one: “Why do we have to nitpick every nuance in the Bible? Why can’t we just love everyone?” Well, you can and should! But “loving everyone” sounds incredibly arbitrary unless you know why you are loving everyone. Where do you base your morality? Why do you behave the way that you do? Is it a simple matter of biological evolution? Or is there also a moral law from God written on your hearts that transcends your relativism? If the latter is true (and ancient Christianity would have us believe so), then we better have some accurate views about what God thinks, or to refer again to the Greek word, we better have “orthodoxy.” But why recover “right thinking” about God at all? Let me couch it in an analogy…
You would surely cause some turbulence in your relationship after that! Everyone knows that as we spend time with the people we love, we get to know them on a personal level. This entails certain facts about them–birthdays, favorite foods, pet peeves–all of which seem very tedious on paper, but in the context of a working relationship, offer the backdrop for personal attachment and the memories that follow. My wife’s birthday might just be a number in a calendar, but to me, is much more than binary; it is when I celebrate her existence, usually around food and laughter. A birthday takes on new meaning when you know the person. But when those facts remain unattached to a living person, it becomes nothing more than a phonebook of information.
Snobbery usually comes from people who memorize phone books. They do not have a relational bond with anyone, and memorize facts about random people they don’t know, to impress themselves or others. Maybe this is why we sometimes come across as holier-than-thou with outsiders to the church. It’s only when truth about God (orthodoxy) invades the hearts of people who really know him (faith) that new life surges through their being (salvation). At that point, it’s no longer snobbery, but a love that satisfies. When Brianna and I first got married, we knew each other to a great extent, but over years of marriage, we’ve learned much more. And our relationship has grown deeper because it. You cannot help but learn as much as you can about the one you love and who loves you. That’s orthodoxy.
How silly would it be if, on my first date with Brianna, I told her that her eyes were brown? She would reply, “Uh…no, your eyes are brown; mine are blue.” Yet, many well-meaning Christians do this when it comes to relating to God. Barna Group once found that 57 percent of adults who describe themselves as Christians have not read their Bible in a given week. You know what that means? It causes me to wonder if over half the people who think they are followers of God either have no idea who He is, or are filling in the blanks according to their own terms–through what others have to say, through their own experience, through the tradition they’re acquainted with, perhaps through sermons of preachers they’ve never bothered to examine–they are calling brown what is actually blue, and making God into their own image. There’s a word for that: idolatry.
“Do not make an idol for yourself, whether in the shape of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth” (Ex 20:4, HCSB).
It turns out that a spiritually-driven, younger generation that longs for God—spending much of their appetites attempting, through virtue and vice, to fulfill these deep cravings—needs a revelation of God. But that’s not all! Our privatized, Western spirituality is notorious for romanticizing God’s words to mean whatever is most therapeutic or personally meaningful at the moment. We don’t just need God’s words….we need a clear depiction of God’s words.
Our hope in this life is not to accomodate every wind of change that blows through society and culture (although we are to be sensitive to all the issues we can). We need Someone who can lovingly speak truth to us through the noise of culture. This is the beauty of Scripture, and the orthodox claims of the Church through the ages: God in his loving-kindness, steps down to our level (Phil 2:7), puts on our flesh (Jn 1:14), and speaks in our language (Ps 119:27). And when His Holy Spirit regenerates our hearts, God’s word breathes life into us, welding us inseparably to the family of Christ. With millions of young men and women struggling for air in an overwhelming current, we need an orthodoxy that breathes.
“Long ago God spoke to the fathers by the prophets at different times and in different ways. In these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son.” (Heb 1:1-2, HCSB)