DEBORAH: We began our series on the book of James with an introduction covering the time, place and conditions of its writing. Today, we’re going to do a quick review and draw some conclusions. Ron Hughes, president of FBH International has been leading our study and, Ron, as we come to the last program, I’d like to know what made the greatest impact on you as we’ve taken a closer look at this letter.
RON: It’s difficult for me to pin down one thing, so I’ll mention a few highlights. Firstly, I see a focus on the practical side of things. When you look at the areas that James spent most of his time on they tended to be matters which touched the daily life of his readers. I’m thinking particularly of his focus on things like temptation, partiality, the relationship between faith and works, our speech, everyday wisdom, dealing with injustice, and so on. If James were the only part of the New Testament available to a group of Christians, and they followed it diligently, they’d be a pretty fine example of the body of Christ, a little lacking in theology, perhaps, but living good Christian lives.
That’s what strikes me about the content of the letter. Because of my interest in writing, I was also impressed with James’ use of analogies and word pictures. In virtually every area he wanted to emphasize, he managed to draw on several of these. I’m thinking of the mirror when he talked about how people might see their sinful condition as they read the Bible and then walk away and forget all about it, just as a man might see a smudge on his face when he looks in a mirror and then forget about it as soon as he turns away from it. Then there were the horse and bit, ship and rudder, spark and forest fire regarding the tongue, the patient farmer in dealing with injustice and so on.
The last thing that really struck me, was the matter of the man’s passion. James’ choice of vocabulary shows his intensity. He called compromisers with the world spiritual adulterers and adultresses. He told the rich to weep and howl as they considered the miseries that were to come upon them. He referred to sin as “filthiness and overflow of wickedness.” I imagine that if James preached in the same style he wrote, he would have been fascinating to listen to. As I read the text, I hear his voice rising and falling as he shifts from describing his audience as “beloved” one minute, to “foolish” the next.
That was a long answer to a short questions, Deborah. Tell me what struck you as we worked our way through the letter of James?
DEBORAH: Like you, I was impressed by how passionate he was about the very practical aspects of life — things we all do, every day. Everyone can relate to the areas he brought to our attention — for example, his teaching on the tongue — we all can think of things we regret saying. He had a very clear sense of what a godly life should look like.
As I thought about that, I remembered that James was a half-brother of Jesus. They grew up in the same family. When they were young, they spent a lot of time together — every day. As he looked at his big brother, Jesus, he must have seen a remarkably different person — different from the other family members, different from the people he knew in the community. I know there are many unanswered questions about Jesus’ childhood and youth, but I have to think that, just as he stood out as “different” when he was an adult, Jesus would have been unlike other children in some key respects. For example, we know from the gospel of Luke that when Jesus was as young as 12, he dazzled the religious leaders in Jerusalem.
RON: So not everything is left to speculation, but I think it’s safe to assume that in the matter of keeping the law, Jesus did so in a way that separated Him from other little boys and girls. He would respond to his parents differently. He would respond to the everyday Jewish rituals differently. He would respond even to his brothers and sisters differently. Again, we make these assumptions based on the fact these things were true of him as an adult and would probably have been just as noticeable when He was a child, though admittedly, the Bible doesn’t say so specifically.
DEBORAH: And it seems that Jesus’ reputation in the family and community circles may not have always been the highest. Jesus demonstrated confidence that could easily have been misinterpreted as pride. His knowledge of the Torah was so complete that the casual observer may have seen Him as a bit of a know-it-all. His wise sayings were so out of sync with the prevailing attitudes and expectations, that we know he was variously seen as crazy or as demon possessed. I doubt that all of this was hidden until He left home to start His ministry. I think James and the other siblings would have had to have seen things in Jesus that struck them as odd and affected their opinion about Him.
I also wonder about James’ conversion. We know that he didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah until, at least, after the resurrection and perhaps after Jesus’ ascension or even later. How would he have felt knowing that he thought Jesus was out of his mind as the gospels record, and that he had not even bothered to show up at his brother’s crucifixion, leaving his mother to grieve in the arms of a stranger. These things could have ignited the passion we see in James’ writing. He may well have felt he had time to make up for and had little patience for people who wanted to play around at the edges of faith. RON: Indeed! He was very direct, even harsh, with people we might call dabblers and dilettantes. He would have remembered his own unbelief and could contrast it with his later faith. Anyone like this would have little sympathy for those he saw as wanting the benefits of a relationship with Jesus while at the same time maintaining a friendship with the world.
This reminds me of something I’ve observed. Most of the most passionate evangelists I know became believers in their teens or later. While most of the best teachers I know became believers in childhood. There is something about having experienced the grip of the world on one’s soul that seems to drive a level of evangelistic passion that just isn’t as strong in those who never had an intimate experience with the addictive power of sin that one experiences once one passes out of childhood.
James, having become a believer in his late 20s or early 30s certainly exhibited an uncompromising zeal for truth.
DEBORAH: And I think James could look back and compare his behaviour, which would have likely been quite culturally acceptable, with that of Jesus which was so different. He would be able to think about his responses to things, probably even the things he wrote about in his letter: temptation, speech, partiality, spiritual diligence, accommodation to the world, and so on. He couldn’t help but see the difference between how he acted and how Jesus acted in the same circumstances — and looking back, he could see examples from Jesus’ life which served him well as he taught that first generation of Christians, especially those to whom he wrote his letter, who lived through the Roman Empire and had never seen Jesus in the flesh, or followed Him on his travels in Judea and Galilee.
RON: Lots of us have thought: Wouldn’t it have been interesting to be one of Jesus’ disciples — to be with Him during His ministry. I don’t suppose many of us have thought: Wouldn’t it have been interesting to be Jesus’ younger brother or sister — to grow up with Him. But this was James’ experience. As well as the disciples knew Jesus, James knew Him in a way they never would.
DEBORAH: He would also have experienced life in a small Jewish community with Jesus as his brother. I can’t help thinking that the unusual circumstances of Jesus conception and birth would have marked the family out from the others. Matthew specifically states that “she was found to be with child.” Who all knew, we can’t say, but from Joseph’s reaction of “wanting to divorce Mary privately” it’s reasonable to draw the conclusion that some people in the community knew that Jesus wasn’t the son of Joseph. They would not have known the whole story, but they would know what they saw — that Mary was pregnant during the betrothal period, before the wedding — that she and Joseph left town before the baby was born — and that two and a half years or so later, they returned.
It is unlikely that James could have grown to adulthood without some gossip about his mother and older brother being directed into his ear. This might have even played into James’ unbelief. No good Jew would consider that the Messiah would be an illegitimate child, so even if their mother shared her story with the other children, once they were old enough to think for themselves, they would see that could have been rather self-serving and that the likelihood of Jesus being the Messiah were remote indeed.
RON: Given the unusual circumstances of Jesus’ birth and what would look like strange behaviour on His part, there’s little wonder that His siblings didn’t believe in Him right away. In fact, the moment of spiritual breakthrough must have been overwhelming to James. To go from being full of doubts about your brother’s paternity, and real questions about his sanity, to being convinced that He was the Messiah, is a very long journey. For him to have made that trip, couldn’t help but affect his response to everything. His world had been completely turned upside down. No wonder he was intense.
DEBORAH: Recognizing his own doubts may have been what led him to one of the techniques he used in his writing. Ron, you often commented on how James used a question to draw people in as he dealt with a sensitive topic. I’m thinking of the situation in chapter 2: “If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled, but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?” People are bound to incriminate themselves one way or the other. If they try to answer affirmatively, they have to prove what the benefit is — which they can’t. If they respond that kind words without action have no value, they have surrendered to their challenger’s logic.
RON: I sure wouldn’t want to find myself in an argument with James. He certainly had formidable verbal skills. But it would do him a disservice to only see him as a wild-eyed zealot pinning people down about their failings and weaknesses. In fact, he had what we might call a pastor’s heart. He really cared for people. Obviously enough to go out of his way to write a letter to people he loved yet would never have the opportunity to meet personally.
He repeatedly referred to his readers as “my brethren,” three times adding the word “beloved” to convey the depths of his feelings for them. And while he addressed areas that needed correcting, he also included words of encouragement. Remember how he started his letter off by gently explaining how to cope with the trials they were facing. Just as Jesus was the elder brother of James, so James seems to fill that role for his readers. He exhibited an older brother’s interest in and care for his younger siblings.
I see in James one who doesn’t just lay down a set of rules for others to follow. He wanted his readers to understand why he took the positions he did and the reason for his teaching. This comes through in his frequent use of imagery, word pictures, analogies, examples and illustrations. James knew what he wanted to say and took time to do so in the most effective way he could. James was a gifted communicator and he used several identifiable techniques to engage his audience.
Next week, we’ll be launching into a new study. Rather than a book study, we’re going to take a topical approach and spend a few weeks looking at what we know about God. I suppose we all have some assumptions about God and what He is like. We’re going to dig into the Scriptures and see some things you may have never considered before. I hope you’ll join us for that series.