"The epistle of straw" as Martin Luther called it, is actually one of the best "how to" books in the Bible. Luther wasn't fond of it because of his own emphasis on grace (derived from the Apostle Paul) and James' minimal emphasis on Jesus -- yet much of what James writes could have come from the lips of Jesus himself. Some argue that Paul and James were at odds on salvation, but that is hardly likely due to their mutual concern about proper works. Paul stresses that salvation only comes from faith, it is not earned. We cannot earn our way into heaven. God simply grants it. Hence Paul's main point - we are saved by faith alone or God's grace. However being saved is only the beginning of faith: faith is expressed in how we live. If we have accepted Jesus as Lord and savior and are seriously building a relationship with God, that faith has no other choice but to become evident in our lives through works. Hence James' renound claim that faith without works is dead. We need faith and works. One is proof of the other, one follows from the other. In other words, faith and works are inter-connected.
So who was James? There are several theories, but for this brief study we will suggest that James is the brother of Jesus, who after Jesus death and ressurrection played a prominent role in leading the Jerusalem body of believers. While James was absent for most of Jesus' ministry, there is no telling how close they were growing up. Perhaps James knew of Jesus many ideas long before he went public with them. Perhaps there is no reason to speculate, but I think we can marvel at the wisdom of James, which he either acquired from the same sources as Jesus, through his life with Jesus, from his brief encouner with the risen Christ, from the disciples or all of the above. What sparked James' disinterest in Jesus ministry is hard to know, but his strength of conviction and efforts afterwards are impressive.
This cartoon glimpse into the writing of James is just that -- a glimpse. I hope you find it fun and challenging, and that it entices you to investigate James in more depth. I recommend reading all of James and one or more good commentaries! See if you think James is "the epistle of straw" or a firm faith foundation!
"24 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act--they will be blessed in their doing."
James' example is easy to remember, easy to understand, and hard to do. For most of us, areas we need to improve come as no surprise. So why don't we try to improve? Too much work? We've gotten used to them? Overwhelmed perhaps? James is concerned that we do not get so complacent in our faith, that we forget about what our faith tells us to do (yes, even including those areas ... no getting out of it)!
"1 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2 For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3 and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, "Have a seat here, please," while to the one who is poor you say, "Stand there," or, "Sit at my feet," 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? [...] 14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead."
Two things that can undermine the mission of the church are material (sucking up to the wealthy) and spiritual (holier than thou) snobbery. Part of Jesus' message was the first shall be last and the last shall be first. The poor are lifted-up and the wealthy are humbled. Spiritual snobbery contradicts a nuturing environment where all are encouraged to grow. It's nice to talk about faith, but that faith must take expression via works or it is just that - talk.
"13 Who is wise and understanding among you? [...] 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy."
The central theme in James is that faith without works is dead (2.17). This theme permeates all his advice. Here, James notes that selfish ambition or greed, just as stated in the 10th commandment, is a constant stumbling block to good works and proper faith, but if you "Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom." you are on the right track. Easier said than done, but something to strive for!
"14 Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, "If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that."
James is addressing the person who lives a life of selfish ambition. He puts it in perspective by suggesting that time is short and there is no point in living a frivolous life. A life worth living is one that is ready and waiting to follow the will of God. For James this certainly includes service to others and humility as essential elements.
"7 Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. 8 You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near."
Unlike our patient person in the cartoon, James never meant for us to ONLY wait on the return of the Lord. Rather, if we always acted toward one another like we would the day before the return of the Lord, then we would have the right idea. Kind of like the way kids act just before Christmas.
1 Corinthians |
2 Corintians |
2 Thessalonians | 1 Timothy | 2 Timothy | Philemon | Hebrews | James | 1 Peter | 2 Peter | 1 John | Revelation