New Sermon: James 1:1-4

Here’s the text I prepared for it (though I deviated some). Hope y’all enjoy

James 1:1-4

James, a servant of God, and of the Lord Jesus Christ., to the twelve tribes of the dispersion, greetings
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This is the introduction to the letter. Most times, when I’m reading the Bible for daily devotions, I skip over these parts because I assume that there’s not much there for me to learn about God. That’s why it’s good to preach through a book, so I have to look at, pray about, and meditate on all of the scripture I’m looking at.

So what do we learn from this greeting? First we learn that this letter was written by James (in case we missed the title of the book, written in bold at the top of the page). Many scholars believe that this James is probably the same guy who led the Church of Jerusalem for most of the early years, a man who also happened to be Jesus’ half brother. We see him mentioned a couple of times in Scripture. He talks to Paul in Acts about the place of Gentiles in the Church (Acts 15, 21). Also when Paul speaks of the Jewish believers that led Peter to pretend he didn’t eat with Gentiles, he calls them people “from James” (Gal 2:12). We also know that since he was Jesus brother (Gal 1:19), he was probably one of those who thought Jesus was nuts and had to be restrained (Mark 3:21).

All of this makes it puzzling that this James now calls Jesus the “Lord Jesus Christ” in his greeting. James now knows Jesus to be a heck of a lot more important than his brother, and knows that he is not crazy. He calls Jesus “Christ”, meaning the anointed one or the messiah, and “Lord”, meaning the ruler. James has become convinced of the place that Jesus holds in the overall makeup of the universe, so his referring to Jesus like this is a good idea.

James calls himself a servant of God and Christ. Now, by modern thinking, this would be strange. James is going to start giving pastoral advice to Christians, and instead of using the fact that he is Jesus’ brother, he instead takes his authority from his role as a servant of Jesus. Here we have a man who has the ultimate family connection, and instead of using it as authority, he doesn’t even mention the connection and instead places himself beneath the authority of God.

Why? The lesson here is that this letter (as with all of the Bible) is about God, and about Jesus (who is God), and that the validity of the following words is in the authority of God, not the authority of the author. We listen to James, not because of James, but because of Jesus, just as we preach the Gospel, and live Christian lives, not because of ourselves, but because of Jesus.

The letter continues, “to the twelve tribes of the dispersion, greetings”. Now, if you’ve been reading your old testament diligently, you know that the majority of the twelve tribes were pretty much eradicated through the Babylonian captivity. The euphamism “twelve tribes” here refers to any Jew living outside of Israel, and in this case, probably to those Jewish believers dispersed, possibly by the persecution mentioned in Acts 11, after the stoning of Stephen.

So is this letter to those of us who are Gentile believers? Yes, Paul refers to us as people grafted into the tree of Israel (Romans 11:17), and points out that “In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile” (Gal 3:28).

(2-3) Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.

Now, if James calling his brother “Lord” was a little outside the norm for modern ears, this little sentence is downright weird. James opens his letter by commanding people to be joyful. Now, we can limit the idea of joy, and pretend that this is talking about a form of contentment rather like the effect you get when someone is given tranquilizers, or has mastered Buddhist meditation techniques, but that simply avoids the word. This is not contentment; it’s joy. Commanding joy sounds odd, but the Bible does it a lot.

Added to this weirdness is the context James commands his readers to be joyful in; namely, trials. It seems a little like saying “be happy when your wife leaves you, and people want you dead just because you believe in Jesus”.

Now the word for “trial” here is used two different ways in scripture. In the first place, it can refer to temptations that come from within. When I feel a desire to go look for free porn, and must overcome that so that I can remain pure, that’s a trial. It also refers to external persecution) . For my money, I’m happy to keep the meaning ambiguous, as then it deals with all opposition that the Christian meets in living the Christian life, from all of the 3 big enemies (our sin, the world, and the devil). I think this is what James intended.

I’d also limit the trials to which James is referring to those trials Christians get for being Christian. Notice that James moves from commanding joy in trials to saying that the “testing of your faith” produces steadfastness. This means that the trial is a trial because you have faith.

Luckily, James doesn’t leave us guessing about why we should count it all joy to face trials of various kinds. He continues in verse 4 to say that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.

Now there’s a blindingly obvious point that has to be made here. A trial of this sort has two ways of being dealt with. In the first place, you can persevere through it, and the second way is that you simply give in. The first is to “meet” (peripipto: to fall into the hands of; to strike; to face, be involved in ) a trial. You are moving along as in your faith, and something comes up that opposes you. You meet a trial. Now, you can run away from the trial, in which case you aren’t really meeting the trial, or you can face it. I don’t think that James would say that the former is going to produce steadfastness. It is the latter that develops steadfastness

Does that help you much? It doesn’t me. Steadfastness isn’t exactly a major good. In some sections of the modern world, steadfastness is even a bad thing. We call it closed minded, or stubborn. Indeed, in the world I live in, where the mantra seems to be “if it feels good, do it”, steadfastness in the face of something unenjoyable sounds a little, er, stupid. Is there a reason we should be looking for steadfastness?

James says yes.

And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

It’s nice to know I was right in saying that we need to actually face the trials. James says that we should let steadfastness have its full effect, meaning that we should milk the opportunity for all it’s worth. Do you face trials? Persevere in them, they’re doing good, so let them do their full good. Get as much steadfastness as you can!!!

Why? Because if steadfastness has its full effect, we will “be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing”.

Now, given the opening of the letter, this should cause us to question. Didn’t I say that James was being humble in the opening, lifting up Jesus as his authority, and not taking any himself? Glorifying Jesus above all else, naming himself a servant of God? Now he seems to be saying that we should be seeking our own perfection, and seeking that we should be hoping to “lack in nothing”. Seems an awfully self-centered reason to face the trials of various kinds. Is James validating selfishness? Of a sense, yes, and of a sense no.

I think that there is a missing premise here, one that James alludes to many times throughout his letter (as we shall see, God willing).

What is the most valuable thing? Christians know the answer to be God. When we are at our best, we love God with all our heart, soul mind, and strength. So if we are to be complete, and lacking in nothing, what is most important of the things we don’t want to lack?

We would be misreading scripture, and indeed blaspheming the value of God, if we seek all the things the world has, money, fame, power, a marriage, a career, etc. and still lack God. Indeed, if we have God, the creator and king of the entire universe, we have everything. God knows what it is we need, and will give it. As the motto of my province says (quoting Matt 6:33) “seek first the kingdom of God”, which in the Bible continues, “and all these things shall be added unto you”, referring to all the things people worry about.

So why the “perfect” thing? That is in response to a command of Jesus. “be perfect as my father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). In that context it refers to the many actions that a believer does from faith, but we’ll get to that in a later sermon. For now, it is enough to know that we who love Jesus (and if we love Jesus, we will do as he commands, John 14:15) are commanded to be perfect, and James gives us the way to get there, but the first step are “trials of various kinds”. No wonder we are to count it all joy. It gets us to God, it shows Jesus, and its what Jesus-lovers do.

So to be practical, what do these four verses mean for our lives?

There are two kinds of people really listening to this, people who are presently going through trials, and people who are not.

So for those going through trials, first and foremost rejoice in the way God is working in your life. Be happy that this is bringing you closer to God. That’s easier said than done, unless you already have a massive passion to be close to God. If you don’t have that, take the present opportunity to seek a high value for God, pray that God would give you a heart to love him above all else, and thus redeem the trials you’re going through. Take time digging into scriptures to see the all surpassing value of Jesus, and take the encouragement of fellow believers. Don’t give into the urge to take the easier route and forsake faith for the sake of less trial, but use it as reason to seek even more diligently after God

If you are not going through trials right now, look to those around you who are presently going through trials. Have some compassion, meaning “suffer with” your sisters and brothers going through it. Face the trial with them that you might also reap some benefit of it. Of a sense, seek to face trials (no, don’t go looking to suffer them yourself, they’ll come anyway), but be someone who shares in the trials of others. As the word says, bear one anothers’ burdens (Galatians 6:2)

But most importantly take the time now to learn and seek after God. Spend time with the Lord in prayer, read his word in order to learn more about how valuable God is. So all of us should take this opportunity to look to God, to learn of God, and to see more clearly the beauty of God, if He would be so gracious as to reveal it to us.

Author: Stephen Dawe

Steve is a part-time vocational elder Calvary Baptist Church, St. John's as well as a full-time student at Memorial University of Newfoundland, in the Religious Studies Department.