Transcript of Radio Program – 14 September
My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
I remember a leadership meeting about 20 years ago when I nearly lost it. We were discussing a very tough issue that had come up in the congregation between two members. One of them was a well-to-do businessman and the other was a guy going through tough financial times. Both had a point in their favor, but neither was entirely right either and they had brought their dispute to the leadership. As you might guess, the dispute was about money. Of the two, I thought that the second man was in the stronger position than the wealthier man because he had documents that backed up much of his story…. and I pointed this out to the others; they were horrified. “Rich guy gives $250. a week and Poor Guy barely $20., we can’t go against Rich Guy; we can’t afford it” was the preacher’s response. I was now horrified, and that horror turned to anger very quickly and I nearly lost my cool. I should point out here in all fairness, that this was way out of character for that preacher who was mortified at his own behavior the next morning. I guess we all have those times…
James has moved back to wealth in his discussion of the Christian life, and in this passage he points to something that must have happened often enough in the early church to be an issue: favoritism.
Look at his example here of a rich guy being shown the best seat in the place and the poor guy having no place at all to sit in the assembly. His remark that this is showing discrimination in the church is obvious, and will come up again, but his comment that they have “become judges with evil thoughts” is a disturbing one. What do you suppose the “evil thoughts” were? From the context, it would seem to have something to do with the love of money, the desire to be seen with the right crowd and the assumption that the man of lesser means must be less worthy of respect. As this passage continues, it will become clear that this is very wrong thinking indeed.
Oh, I never finished the story! Our discussion became a rather lengthy debate, the most heated debate I’ve ever seen in all of time in church leadership, but we did arrive at a solution. We split the bill between us and gave the money to Rich Guy; peace was restored… Then one day about four months later Rich Guy found out that we had paid his bill and he became very angry. He had gotten his money, but not his way, and that wasn’t acceptable. He and his wife found a different church. Even though those were challenging time for the church financially, we survived and flourished. The following year another Rich Guy joined us and one day he made a six figure contribution. The only condition was that we promise to let him know if there was anything he could do to help either the church or its members. Over the following years he never asked for anything, but always gave freely of his money and time. He remained in that congregation until the day he died.
What did I learn from this? I learned that if we remain faithful to God, if we do what is right and place our trust and faith in Him, things will work out just fine in His own good time. I suspect that James had something like this in mind as he wrote this letter.
While our book of James is written in a letter form, there are no personal messages contained in it, for it is actually another literary form popular in the ancient world, a paracnesis or moral instruction. Proverbs in the Old Testament is also a moral instruction, and although other books have sections of such instruction, these are the two best examples in Scripture of this form. James does borrow from other writers in his letter, however. He has several quotations from the “Holiness Chapter” of Leviticus 19, he takes from two Apocryphal books, and he also relates freely from the Sermon on the Mount.
In the chart below, you can see the Leviticus references:
James Leviticus Quotations
The two Apocryphal books that influenced James’ thinking are the books Ecclesiasticus, written c. 180 B.C. (sometimes called Sirach) and the Wisdom of Solomon, written c. 30 B.C. The Apocrypha is a collection of books not accepted as Canon by either Jews or Protestants, but which must have been familiar to James. In the chart below is a list of James verses that bear strong resemblance to these two works:
Topic James Ecclesiasticus Wisdom
Patience 1:2-4 1:23
Wisdom 1:5 1:26
Doubt 1:6-8 2:28
Trials 1:12 2:1-5
Temptation 1:13 15:11-12
Hearing 1:19 5:11
Rich and Poor 2:6 13:19 2:10
Mercy 2:13 6:6
Brevity of Life 4:13-16 5:8-14
Money 5:3 29:10
Righteous Killed 5:6 2:12, 20
Pray for the Sick 5:14 38:9
James’ use of these references is interesting in that he doesn’t formally quote any of them as inspired Scripture, but instead uses them more as time honored traditions of wisdom within a very loose structure. As a consequence, it is very difficult to identify any real theme or outline as we might expect to do in other New Testament writings.
Tomorrow afternoon, I’ll have another bonus post on James’ use of the teachings of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount.
Bonus Post 2
The connection between James and the Sermon on the Mount is striking in that there are so many that James could almost be a commentary. Maybe it’s just me, but I think that another curious feature of this connection is that while there are more direct correlations between James and Matthew than there are with Luke, James’ language is actually quite similar to Luke in its phrasing.
While it seems unlikely that he had those Gospels at his fingertips, it is highly likely that the teachings of Jesus on that occasion were treasured and protected by the early church, and James would surely have been at the forefront of such an effort. In a letter that serves the purpose as the primary New Testament document of moral instruction, what better source to draw from than the Sermon on the Mount, the highest and most exacting moral teaching of all history? The chart below shows how James and the Sermon are connected:
James’ Topic Sermon on the Mount Reference
Trial 1:2-4 MT 5:10-12,48; LK 6;23
Asking 1:5-8 MT 7:7-8; LK 11:9-10
Riches 1:9-11 MT 6:19-21
God’s Gifts 1:12-18 MT 7:11; LK 11:13
Listening 1:19-27 MT 5:22; 7:21-27; LK 6:46-49
Judging 2:1-13 MT 5:3,5,7,19-22; 7:1-5; LK 6:20
Faith and Works 2:14-26 MT 7:21-23
The Tongue 3:1-12 MT 7:16; LK 6:44-45
Wisdom 3:13-18 MT 5:5-9
Word of God 4:1-10 MT 5:4,8; 6:7-8; 24; 7:7-8; LK 6:25
Slander 4:11-12 MT 5:21-22; 7:1; LK 6:37
Tomorrow 4:13-17 MT 6:25-34
The Rich 5:1-6 MT 6:19-21; LK 6:24-25; 12:33
Patience 5:7-11 MT 5:11-12; 7:1; LK 6:22-23
Swearing 5:12 MT 5:33-37
Prayer 5:13-18 MT 6:12-15; 7:7-11
In case you didn’t look all that closely at the chart, the entire book of James is mapped out here, and what really strikes me is how clear it is when you look at this that James is making direct application of the teachings of Jesus to the daily lives of the members of the early church. Even more interesting is that he isn’t doing so in the legalistic way that so many people would do in later centuries, including our own, but in a way that preserves liberty while exhorting the people to hold high the standard of Jesus Christ in their love for one another.
To me, this makes James all the more useful and important a guide for every one of us.
Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?
James is in the midst of a section dealing with favoritism, and as you might recall from last time, he has been clearly telling his readers that they must not show favoritism to the rich. Continuing now, he is making the point that God has chosen those who are poor in the “eyes of the world” to be “rich in faith.” This is an important point for all of us to reflect upon, for actual money probably isn’t James’ only consideration here. The key, it seems to me is “in the eyes of the world.” What kinds of people or things really look great in “the eyes of the world”? Money, yes, but what else? Accomplishment, fame, athletic prowess, talent, connections…
Our world, maybe more than that of the first century, places a high value on fame and celebrity, and that doesn’t always mean someone is financially rich. Would we welcome a famous person into our congregations more than anyone else? Would we show favoritism on racial or ethnic grounds? Yep, there’s a lot to think about here!
James continues to make his point by reminding his readers that the poor will inherit the kingdom with the implication that if God shows such regard for his less well-to-do children, then they are worthy of no less honor than anybody else. Then he contrasts this with the fact that there are plenty of wealthy people who actually oppress the poor, particularly those in the Body of believers. The wealthy can be quite evil in their ways, just like anybody can, and thus their money can not make them any more worthy of honor than anybody else.
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.
How does favoritism demonstrate loving our neighbor as ourselves? Obviously it doesn’t, thus there can be no special favor shown one person or group over any other, and James is making the point that the cultural “norm” simply doesn’t apply within the church. He uses the example of the old Law to demonstrate the point. If you were to break any of the 613 laws of Moses, you were a lawbreaker; you might just as well have broken all 613. Jesus has commanded that we love one another. If we show favoritism, then we might be showing love to one or two, but not to the rest, and we become lawbreakers.
When we just break the passage down like this, it’s hard not to see the point of James’ instruction on favoritism, yet historically, our churches haven’t done a very good job of following James on this. We may not be able to change the past, but we can make a difference now, so I must ask: How is your church community doing? And you, how are you doing one this one?
Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
James now transitions from his discussion of favoritism into putting our love into action. Verses 12 and 13 accomplish this transition by reminding us that we cannot operate behind God’s back or in secret. If we speak and act in ways that are not demonstrative of God’s love in us, we will have a problem with God.This takes us to verses 14-17 where the old arguments take place; quite the battlefield with casualties littering the field.
“Faith versus Works”: Oh my, here we go again!
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve written this lately, but this argument is a complete non-starter and entirely invalid; they are not mutually exclusive. As I have written time and again, salvation is by grace through faith. Salvation, however, is not the end of the story, it is the beginning. Deeds are part of our response to this grace, they come after salvation. They are not the way we earn it. The real difficulty comes when we receive our salvation by grace through faith and then boldly declare that all is done and we never need to do anything; this is a contradiction of Scripture, no matter how many verse you paste into the comment section out of context!
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? James drops a rhetorical question here and then continues with a hypothetical. This hypothetical gives us a fairly obvious situation where action is required, in which any sane person would agree that action is required, and then points out that the kind of faith that would just wish the destitute person well but do nothing to help them is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
If we are followers of Jesus Christ, then we will do as He did. If we love one another, our love must be active as His love was active. If we are servants of Jesus Christ, then we must serve Him by serving others and putting their interests ahead of our own. If we would share the love of God with others, then we must actually share it, and that involves much more than mere empty words. Having His love and compassion for others means more than preaching sermons and the saying we want higher taxes (on someone else) and then letting the government handle the problem, for the pagans and atheists do that much: We are different from the world! As His followers, we actually share His love in an active way with those around us.
Yes, this requires that we DO something!
You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.
James’ discussion of faith and deeds continues in these verses; it seems that James has heard a lot of silly talk! He gives us some evidence for his assertion that deeds must accompany faith, citing Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac when God told him to do so. Yes, Abraham had faith in abundance, and as a result of that faith, he was willing to respond in obedience to God’s command.
Of course, we know the end of the story, God provided a substitute for Isaac, and Abraham passed his test of faith. As a result of that, the saying that “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness” was a true one, and James’ conclusion is that we will be declared righteous by what we do and not by faith alone.
In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
Of all of the possible examples of active faith in the Old Testament, James picks the one involving a Gentile prostitute, an interesting choice, but then James is the one who was just teaching us about favoritism in the last chapter. You might also recall that the author of Hebrews used these two examples as well, and that is one reason some have theorized that James could be the author of Hebrews.
Rahab’s story is told in Joshua 2. It seems that she recognized the God of the Israelites as the true God, and when she encountered the spies, even though they were strangers, and even though she took a great risk, she saved them and aided greatly the fall of Jericho.Thus, because of her faith in the true God of Israel, she acted and is mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus. Once again, James draws his conclusion: Faith without deeds is as dead as the body without the spirit.
I have noted the arguments that result from these kinds of statements often enough, and I won’t get into that again today. Rather than argue for our doctrinal position as opposed to another doctrinal position, I would hope that by now we can look at this passage and others like it, and ask instead what this tells us about our walk with Jesus. I can tell you one thing for sure: If all we can do with this text is argue, then our faith is dead! James is trying to teach us that our faith in Christ, our love for God and our position as Christ’s Ambassadors have nothing to do with debates ad arguments, for in debating amongst ourselves, we are not sharing His love. If we can’t stop fighting, we can’t share Christ…
Maybe it’s the right time to stop all of this wasting of time and energy and get to work building His Kingdom in unity and love, to share His great love with those who have yet to receive it and bring hope to a dark world. What do you think about that idea; wanna argue?
Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.
As the third chapter begins, James abruptly changes the subject from faith and deeds to taming the tongue; to the extent that there is any transition at all, this is it.
So, you want to teach, do you? Teaching God’s Word is a very high calling, but I wouldn’t advise that you do it just because you want to be “up front”.
As James clearly states, those who teach will be held to a higher standing. I must add that with this in mind, I would have expected that some of our “teachers” would be more careful about what they teach! I’m not sure why, and it wasn’t the “plan” but I feel compelled to tell you a story at this point, one that I may have posted about a few years ago… I’m not sure.
In early 1989, my family and I had a bout of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a faulty furnace installation. The episode apparently began slowly as the exhaust pipe became disconnected from the furnace itself. During this time we thought we had the flu, as the symptoms are quite similar. We all experienced times when we would be literally unconscious for days at a time. I can remember other times when I was more or less conscious, but completely paralyzed and on the floor where I had collapsed for hours on end. Then we would recover more or less and go on about life until the next episode. We would tell others what had happened, and every single time they would tell us that, yes, they had experienced the flu that was going around, but they had it much worse than we did. One of the “fun” effects of carbon monoxide poisoning is that it makes you dumb enough to believe these people! It also continues when you are out of the affected area, so when we would leave the house, we were still “sick.” On the days we were conscious, we functioned more or less as any normal person might while recovering from the flu. Even so, we were always too “dumb” to suspect anything, having no idea that this was one of the effects of poisoning.
After about a month, we were sick of it! On President’s Day 1989, I collapsed in the shower paralyzed. My wife took the kids to Emergency and sent the ambulance for me. When I arrived, they took my blood, since I seemed the worst at that time, and when the results came back, my carbon monoxide level was three times the fatal blood level for this lovely condition. I can recall the doctor telling me the next morning that he could not find a single medical reason why any of us could possibly be alive.
In the moths that followed, I was wondering why we were still alive as well. As time passed, it became clear to me that there was surely a reason in my case, for it became more and more clear to me that I was being called to teach. Later, I would discover that I have “teaching” as a spiritual gift, and later still, I discovered that God would supply the words if I would get out of His way, and that happens almost all of the time.
No, I’m not special, no I’m not “better” as a teacher or anything like that; I didn’t even want this! I am a “behind the scenes”, low profile person, not an “up front” guy by nature. I get tongue-tied in social settings and have real trouble making friends and all of that sort of thing; I hate parties. Put me in front of a room teaching the Word, and it seems like somebody else does the work.
OK, so where is all of this going?
Teaching the Word is a calling. No, you don’t need to have carbon monoxide poisoning, but it is a calling, and it is not to be taken lightly. It seems to me that we all need to realize when we know something and when we think we know something and be willing to disclose the difference. All too often, Christian teachers present their systematic theology as an established fact when it really reflects an opinion… and this causes no end of trouble. The opinion may or may not be correct, you see. Other times, teachers are more concerned about being right than they are about making disciples, preferring to take the “my way or the highway” approach to everything. Careful, we are held to a higher standard!
Yes, we all stumble sometimes, for we are not perfect. In my case, I have no problem admitting that I am rather far from it. I am quite fallible; I make mistakes all the time. In fact, my dear readers have been known to let me know when I’ve messed up, or at least when they believe that I have. .. and that is fine by me, since we are all in this journey together. So, let’s continue in our journey, giving God all of the glory while accepting none for ourselves, that many may come to know Jesus Christ as their Savior, that they can join His family, and live in His love as we journey along the road of life in unity.