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:
In the last blog post, I put forward the ancient practice of memorizing God’s Word. Many of us, if we’re Christians, might find this easy enough to ascend to if only because God tells us to do so. But, perhaps in the back of your head you are still wondering, “why devote so much time and energy to memorizing Scripture when I can just look it up on my smartphone?” It certainly does seems like the Christian climate is saturated with an eclectic array of spiritual disciplines. I can’t count how many times I’ve inundated myself with trying to keep up with all the latest spiritual fads promising freedom from sin, eternal joy, and sanctified living. I don’t think the fads will ever taper-off. As long as there is a consumeristic demand for easy spirituality there will be a supply of products to meet the insatiable thirst for Christian nominalism. If you’re tired of the noise…I would like you to consider going back to the timeless practice of memorizing and meditating on Scripture. But this brings up another objection…
What is the value of memorizing Scripture? We need only look to the Bible itself to find it wrought with testimony of the effect it has on the believer’s soul. Allow me to share a few…
As good as these disciplines can be, Christian bestsellers, worship music, devotionals, being in nature, and sermons (among others) just cannot match the supernatural weight allotted to the Word of God by the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian, not the least of which is the divine guarantee that if you give yourself wholly to memorizing the Scripture and letting the word of Christ dwell within you richly, you will be transformed.
What would you add to this list about Scripture?
We have gone through the Bible over the years as a church, with different reading plans that all had as their main purpose a desire to expose the Christian to the whole counsel of God in one year. Each of these has been so enriching!
What we want to do this year is to focus, not on the entire Biblical canon, but on the entire New Testament, as well as the Psalms and Proverbs. We’ve chosen a reading plan, called Project 345+, which accomplishes this in an exceptional way:
You’ll notice that the way this plan navigates through the New Testament is by moving through one of the Gospels (John), before branching off into the Acts of the Apostles and Romans. After a round of that…it does another Gospel (Luke), followed by a few more epistles, and the pattern continues, so that a steady diet of the New Testament is processed throughout the year. In this way, you’re getting the full realm of the New Testament throughout the year.
What I am looking forward to most in 2013, is the chance, not simply for exposure, but for marination and maturation. Going through the New Testament will allow us to take our time, and even go back and study portions of Scripture that we read.
As a church, we want to slow down during 2013, and enjoy Jesus through His Word!
Below, you’ll find a link that will provide for you all the resources necessary for starting this years reading! If you are on twitter, the official hashtag is #1YearBible. Feel free to post, give spiritual insights, ask questions, or just browse other people’s tweets.
Enjoy Jesus! http://www.realitysb.com/one-year-bible/
Luke 24:13-25 (HCSB)…
Now that same day two of them were on their way to a village called Emmaus, which was about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 Together they were discussing everything that had taken place. 15 And while they were discussing and arguing, Jesus Himself came near and began to walk along with them. 16 But they were prevented from recognizing Him. 17 Then He asked them, “What is this dispute that you’re having with each other as you are walking?” And they stopped walking and looked discouraged. 18 The one named Cleopas answered Him, “Are You the only visitor in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that happened there in these days?”19 “What things?” He asked them.So they said to Him, “The things concerning Jesus the Nazarene, who was a Prophet powerful in action and speech before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed Him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified Him. 21 But we were hoping that He was the One who was about to redeem Israel. Besides all this, it’s the third day since these things happened. 22 Moreover, some women from our group astounded us. They arrived early at the tomb, 23 and when they didn’t find His body, they came and reported that they had seen a vision of angels who said He was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they didn’t see Him.”
My commentary: The story starts with a group of discombobulated disciples, still trying to put the pieces together after Rome crucified their Messiah. In an ironic twist, they end up griping about their “failed Messiah” to the risen Messiah Himself, even dumbing down some of the first eyewitness reports of the resurrection (I’m trying to imagine Jesus’ facial expression).
He said to them, “How unwise and slow you are to believe in your hearts all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Didn’t the Messiah have to suffer these things and enter into His glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted for them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.
My commentary: Jesus rebukes them for being ignorant to centuries of Scripture that foretold all that would happen. But the great part is in verse 27, when Jesus gives the disciples a Bible study through the entire Old Testament! A Jesus-led Bible study? Yes, please! (I would love to be a fly on that wall). But I want you to notice this key phrase: the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. This is our lens for reading the Law and the Gospel in the Old and New Testaments. The Bible is more than just a bunch of disconnected clippings of life in the Ancient Near East, or proverbial moral statements. It is an intricate narrative that points to one hero alone…
But what exactly is the point? Some would say the point of Scripture is to be more like Jesus. Others would say the point is to pay closer attention to his teachings–while others would emphasize his actions. What do you think Jesus said to His disciples concerning the Old Testament Scriptures? He taught them that the Old Testament in its entirety pointed to His redemptive death and subsequent resurrection. The underlying question in the heart of the Torah is, “Didn’t the Messiah have to suffer these things and enter into His glory?” (v.26).
But how should this inform our reading of the Scriptures? Surely not every obscure passage is about the cross, right? Should I read Obadiah or Philemon as though every verse and passage was a reference to the cross of Jesus? Well, no, not exactly. But yes! Here’s what I mean…individual verses deal with a scattered variety of topics, but you must see them through the narrative of Scripture–the full story–as one that is about Jesus redeeming the world through his gruesome death. Even if a verse does not directly make reference to the cross, the framework surrounding the verse is looking forward to (or looking back to) the finished work of Jesus. THIS is what Jesus is telling His disciples. But even after what must have been the most mind-blowing Bible-study ever given, these men are still not receptive of the message–proving even further that the Holy Spirit must open our hearts to understand God’s Word–but let’s finish the story…
They came near the village where they were going, and He gave the impression that He was going farther. 29 But they urged Him: “Stay with us, because it’s almost evening, and now the day is almost over.” So He went in to stay with them. 30 It was as He reclined at the table with them that He took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized Him, but He disappeared from their sight. 32 So they said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts ablaze within us while He was talking with us on the road and explaining the Scriptures to us?”
Wow. Just wow. At the moment that Christ gives out the sacraments, the Holy Spirit opens their eyes to recognize Jesus, not only physically, but as presented rightly in the Scriptures. Specifically, it says that their hearts were “ablaze” leading up to the full recognition of Jesus. This is profound. Yes, we need to do the hard work of studying and exegesis when reading the Bible, but we also need the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to see the glory of Christ, or it will be nothing more than literature for us–or, even worse, a set of moral teachings–instead of broadcasting the treasuries of Christ.
This is also attested powerfully by the Apostle Peter, as he explains to a group of second generation Christians the times he has personally seen the Lord. But then he pulls an unexpected move: he tells them they are better off because they have the Scriptures.
“So we have the prophetic word strongly confirmed. You will do well to pay attention to it, as to a lamp shining in a dismal place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all, you should know this: No prophecy of Scripture comes from one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the will of man; instead, men spoke from God as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:19-21, HCSB).
Based on all of this, I suggest that while you are prayerfully reading the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit might be already working in your hearts (setting it “ablaze”), even when you are struggling to understand, and that you must tenaciously continue until “the day dawns and the morning star [Christ] rises in your hearts.”
The cross is the blazing fire at which the flame of our love is kindled, but we have to get near enough to it for its sparks to fall on us. – John Stott