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:
Christians are called beyond the “gate” of their church subculture, and into the lives of outsiders on a regular basis, anyway. In fact, our mission involves interacting with people outside the church (John 17:15-16), and we see this reflected in the lives of the early followers of Jesus, as well as Jesus himself.
Now, God’s mission can’t always be systematized. But sometimes it helps to break it down in our minds so that we aren’t overwhelmed by the grandeur of it all. If you read the context given in the two examples above, you’ll find a bit of a pattern that I think works really well in practice…
(adapted from “Operation Lydia: Mission” by Chris Lazo)
Without arguing whether the results or methods of these outbursts are right, I do want to call attention to the organizational power of social media to bring people to a new level of accountability.
I’ve already remarked on ways social media can aid a Christian being on mission.
I can already visualize the emails, DM’s, and Facebook messages coming my way…
“Why are you bringing secular culture into the pulpit? Are you one of those contemporvant communicators?”
“Why are you compromising the clear truth of the Bible with secular illustrations? Just preach verse-by-verse!!!”
“Um…movies are worldly. And so is emotion. So I want a running commentary on Romans while giving me the impression that you’re bored with it all. Now THAT’s preaching!!”
The reason I am not apprehensive of using “worldly” illustrations in communication, is because the avoidance and shunning of all culture comes from the presumption that some kind of God mandated divide exists between the secular and the sacred. And I don’t agree with that pretense. In fact, most of Church history didn’t either until the Enlightenment. And most importantly, Eugene Peterson doesn’t!! Boom.
(Eugene wrote the Bible, just sayin’).
The problem is our insistence that God and culture can never intertwine. We have created an unnecessary moat between the things of God and the things of culture, which ironically, were created to be good by God.
If we approach everything and everyone as having been first made in the Imago Dei (image of God), then we will restore the original beauty of the broken, not alienate or declare anathema that which God intended to be good.
The funny thing is, I don’t think The Help was created by a group of Christians, much less a Christian worldview. But in that common story reflecting the hardship of injustice and racism, we are able to pick out a redemptive story that can be used to point back to Jesus. We don’t have to write Christianese songs, wear Christian shirts, or sport Christian bumper stickers as a canvas in which to reveal Christ. We have a canvas in creation already. We can simply look for the redemptive qualities that are imbedded within to those who may not be making the connection.
What if culture has bad qualities?? Is this when we jump ship and shun the heathens? Haha! No. The problem is still not culture, but bad elements in culture.
Ed Stetzer explains,
“Preaching against culture is like preaching against someone’s house–it is just the place where they live. There are good things in it and bad things in it too. But our task it not to preach against a house. Our task is to engage those who live in the house (near and far from us) with the good news of Jesus Christ” (Life Way Research Blog)
Culture DOES contain elements that are contrary to the story of God, but this is not a call to retreat from the scene, but to redeem in light of a better story. Abraham Kuyper once asserted that ”There is not a single square inch in the whole domain of human existence of which Christ, who alone is sovereign, does not declare, ‘That is mine!’”
“Some ministries teach you to ignore culture. Do not listen to them. Their view hurts the mission of the church. They teach you to preach against culture. Yet, preaching against culture is like preaching against someone’s house–it is just the place where they live. There are good things in it and bad things in it too. But our task it not to preach against a house. Our task is to engage those who live in the house (near and far from us) with the good news of Jesus Christ. We need to engage people in culture with a biblically faithful message.” – Ed Stetzer