Thursday, August 16, 2018

Reading Through the Letter of James

Letters WrightWe now move to the last major section of the New Testament, the general epistles in this year’s devotional read through of the New Testament, beginning with the Letter of James, accompanied by The Early Christian Letters For Everyone by N.T. Wright. The letter of James deals with the practical outworking of faith. James challenges believers to examine their daily lives, attitudes and actions to see if they display the qualities of biblical wisdom, true faith and godly character. I am posting from my reading in the New Testament accompanied by various commentaries on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and welcome comments and discussion on my Facebook page. I am using the Logos version of the book. As usual my comments are in black and quotes from the book are in blue.

James urges believers to joyfully approach life because God, who is always good, can take even the difficulties of life and produce growing faith which leads to growing wisdom, loving submission and endurance, which results in mature godly believers. Present circumstances are never the determiner of God’s blessing. Instead, God uses trials and difficulties in our lives in ways that lead to eternal blessing instead of eternal death. Trials produce in us the character of Christ, self-control by purifying us and driving us to read and apply God’s Word, and compassion for others who are in need.

How easy it is for us to imagine that God is stingy and mean. We project on to the maker of all things the fearful, petty or even spiteful character we meet so often in real life, sometimes even when we look in the mirror. Learning who God really is and what he’s truly like – and reminding ourselves of it regularly – is the key to it all. Without that, you’ll be double-minded, swept this way one minute and that way the next. You’ll just be another wave. With it, you will have a settled character. Wisdom. Patience. Faith. 5-6, James 1.1-8

None of us starts off with a pure internal ‘kit’ of impulses, hopes and fears. If you are true to ‘yourself’, you will end up a complete mess. The challenge is to take the ‘self’ you find within, and to choose wisely which impulses and desires to follow, and which ones to resist. 8, James 1.9-18

That’s what God’s law is like: by restricting your ‘freedom’ in some ways, it opens up far greater, genuine freedoms in all other ways. And the point is this: when you look into this ‘law’, the word of God, it is supposed to change you. The word must go to work. When that happens, God’s blessing – that is, God’s enrichment of your life in all kinds of new ways – will surely follow. 12, James 1.19-27

True faith is seen in a life that does things in God's way. God's way is to act toward others with the mercy and love God showed to us in the gospel as a guide. It treats others with the same dignity and favor with which one wants to be treated. Favoritism, or our own "pulling social rank," betrays a lack of trust in God and a poor understanding of what he values. True faith relates to others based on mercy, rather than judgment; produces acts of love and service in daily life; and acts in accordance with God's commands and character, no matter what the cost.

God’s mercy is sovereign. It will triumph. But the minute you say ‘Oh well, that’s all right then; God will forgive, so it doesn’t matter what I do’ – and, in particular, when ‘what I do’ includes discriminating against the poor – then, precisely because God is the God of mercy, he must act in judgment. He will not for ever tolerate a world in which mercy is not the ultimate rule of life. 16, James 2.1-13

What James means by ‘faith’ in this passage is not what Paul and others developed as a full, Jesus-shaped meaning; it is the basic ancient Jewish meaning, the confession of God as ‘one’. This, he says, needs to translate into action, into Jesus-shaped action, if it is to make any significant difference. 18, James 2.19

Translating belief into action, even when it seems impossible or downright dangerous. That is the faith that matters. That is the faith that justifies (verse 24). That is the faith that saves (verse 14). This is near the heart of the message of James: the challenge to make sure that faith is the real thing. 19, James 2.14-26

Chapter 3 focuses on God's wisdom which produces self-control (especially of one's speech) and peace with God and those around us. The ability to control one’s words is the supreme test of godly wisdom and self control. James contrast true wisdom, which is seen demonstrated by self-controlled words which consistently build up others and glorify God, with false wisdom, which is demonstrated by inconsistent,condemnatory and destructive words. Demonic, earthly wisdom produces lies, jealousy and strife in relationships, while Godly wisdom produces good behavior, peace and service to others. 

What James is after, then, is consistency. He wants people to follow Jesus through and through, to be blessing-only people rather than blessing-and-cursing people. It’s a high standard, but we should expect no less if the gospel is indeed the message of salvation. The danger, as always, is that people will take the bits of the message they want, and quietly leave the real challenges to one side. But it can’t be done. The spring must be cleansed so that only fresh, sweet water comes out. For this we need help. That, fortunately, is what the gospel offers. 22, James 3.1-12

The challenge then for God’s people is to be able to tell the truth about the way the world is, and about the way wicked people are behaving, without turning into a perpetual grumble, and in particular without becoming someone whose appearance of ‘wisdom’ consists in being able to find a cutting word to say about everyone and everything. There is still, after all, a vast amount of beauty, love, generosity and sheer goodness in the world. Those who follow Jesus ought not only to be celebrating it but contributing to it. 24, James 3.13-18

Chapter 4 emphasizes humility. True faith produces humble submissive people at peace with God and others. Selfishness, which is the foundation of the world’s value system, produces conflict, coveting and unanswered prayer and places one at odds with God and subject to judgment. In contrast, humility, which brings one into deeper relationship with God, submits its own plans to God’s and mourns over anything that displeases God, never assumes God’s place by making rules or judging others, and recognizes its own limitations and is God-reliant instead of self-reliant. To not display this kind of humility is sin. 

Draw near to God and he will draw near to you’. That is astonishing! God is ready and waiting. He longs to establish a friendship with you, a friendship deeper, stronger and more satisfying than you can ever imagine. This, too, will take time, as any friendship worthy of the name will do. But what could be more worthwhile? 29, James 4.1-10

Not to do what you know you should do is actually to sin! It isn’t enough to avoid the obvious acts of sin. Once you learn the humility to accept God’s royal law and to live by it, to accept God’s sovereign ordering of all life and to live within that, then you will see more clearly the positive things to which you are being called... But once you have had that nudge, that call, then to ignore it, to pretend you hadn’t heard, is a further act of pride, setting yourself up in the place of God. 32, James 4.11-17

Finally, Chapter 5 focuses on endurance. True Faith can endure oppression with prayerful joy because it takes God's long eternal view, rather than living for the pleasures of this life. Real faith uses money to serve others and sees it as an opportunity for investment in eternity rather than to indulge oneself. It is patient to wait for God’s reward and justice and does not grumble or complain. It never judges God’s compassion and mercy by present circumstances. It trusts God enough to be plainly truthful in all situations and turns to God first in honest, consistent, persistent. and compassionate prayer for one’s self and for others. It lovingly confronts sin and works with others for their long term benefit. True faith invests everything in God's kingdom, not this world.

In this new age one of the most inappropriate things you could do was – to store up riches. God is turning everything upside down, exalting the poor and humble and bringing the powerful and rich crashing down – and yet you are trying to make yourself richer! You are riding, says James, for an even bigger fall than you might have imagined. 35, James 5.1-6
God’s mercy is sovereign. That is the deepest truth about him. That was the truth glimpsed by the great prophets of old. Through long acquaintance with God himself, they had learned to see the truth behind the way things seemed, to see the heavenly dimension of ordinary earthly reality, to see the heavenly timescale intersecting with the earthly one...A hasty, impatient spirit is another form of pride, of the human arrogance that imagines it knows better than God. 38-39, James 5.7-12

Prayer isn’t just me calling out in the dark to a distant or unknown God. It means what it means and does what it does because God is, as James promised, very near to those who draw near to him. Heaven and earth meet when, in the spirit, someone calls on the name of the Lord. 42, James 5.13-20

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