Two weeks ago I finished preaching through James at Piedmont Bible Church (you can listen here). For me, it is always a time of reflection after I finish preaching through a book of the Bible. When I am in the thick of a series my study is very focused, as I strive to learn everything I can about each passage I am preaching.
While before I start a new series, I spend a good bit of time studying the book I am about to preach as a whole, my knowledge of the book (or section of the book) is nothing compared to what it is after I have finished preaching through it.
I went through James pretty fast, preaching through it in 21 messages (more and more I am convinced that the unit preached should be the paragraph in the epistles). But to put that in perspective I usually study about 45 hours for a message (sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less), so preaching through James I spent roughly 945 hours studying James over approximately 7 months. I lived and breathed it.
But most of that study is very focused. Only as I wrap up a series do I really start to think of the big picture of the book again. And with James doubly so, as this is the first book that I have preached through twice. Right out of seminary I acted as an interim pastor at a small country church north of LA where I preached through James even faster (in 12 messages as I knew I would only be there 12 weeks).
But having spent nearly 1000 hours thinking about and studying James over the past seven months, now that I am thinking about the big picture in James again I want to offer a few reflections.
James is Christianity 101
There is a great tendency to think of James as containing “advanced Christianity.” After all the teaching about counting trials as joy, not showing partiality, rejecting worldliness, and taming the tongue is tough stuff.
James was written by the first leader (James) of the first church (The church at Jerusalem) to the very first generation of the church, before there were even any Gentiles in the church (that is why it is addressed to the 12 tribes in the dispersion James 1:1) about how to live in light of their newfound faith in Christ. There is nothing advanced about James, it contains the very basics. There is a famous pastor who says “if you are looking at porn you haven’t made it to the first wrung of Christianity.” Giving him the benefit of the doubt that he meant if you are habitually and unrepentantly looking at porn (in other words enslaved to the sin of lust) I would agree. But after so thoroughly studying James, I would add that if you habitually grumble in trials, show partiality, hoard the world’s goods, don’t bridle your tongue, speak evil (slander, speculate or gossip) about other believers, or boast about tomorrow you haven’t reached the first wrung of Christianity either. These are the basics of Christian living.
An Eternal Mindset Is Essential
Gordon Fee said that “believers in Christ are a people of the future.” And what he meant is that Christians live in light of eternity. This is a major theme in James. Drawing on the imagery of Isaiah 40 James writes:
For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits. – James 1:11
Elsewhere he writes not to boast about tomorrow, because “what is your life” (James 3:13-15). He comforts his readers assuring them that the wicked rich will not escape God’s justice (James 5:1-6). And he tells his readers to be patient in suffering, knowing that the Judge is at the door (James 5:7-11).
The necessity of maintaining an eternal mindset runs like a thread through the letter.
James is Practical
When we think of James one issue often comes to the front of our mind, the tension between faith and works. We can fall into thinking it is a theological knot to unravel, and that in the end what James is advocating is Lordship salvation.
In fact that is just how I approached James 2:14-26 when I preached it right out of seminary at that little mountain church. I did an excellent job of unraveling the theological knot; in fact after I preached, the lead elder of the church came up to me and said “That was the finest treatment of that passage I have ever heard.” He even went on to list the many fine and famous preachers he had heard preach that passage and assured me that I did better than all of them.
I doubt I handled it better than all of those famous preachers who will be remembered for generations. But even if I did, I totally missed the point. James wasn’t saying that good works are evidence of saving faith, and he most certainly wasn’t saying that salvation is earned by works. He was saying to his readers, because you have faith, live like this! He wasn’t making a theological point, he was giving instructions for life.
I once had an acquaintance who was fond of saying that Bible stands for basic instructions before leaving earth. And while that is memorable, it is an over simplification. But James is very much a letter of basic instruction; do this and don’t do that. There are 108 verses in James. And in those 108 verses there are 54 imperatives. James didn’t write his letter to teach theology, he wrote it to tell the first generation of the church how to live out their faith in Christ.
James Drips Christ
More than any other New Testament Epistle James is firmly rooted in the earthly ministry and teaching of Christ. It is impossible to study James and not constantly be thinking “this reminds me of what Jesus said in…” There are 21 allusions to the Sermon on the Mount alone.
This of course doesn’t mean that James is more authoritative or inspired that any of the other epistles, but it does mean that if you would have a better understanding of Jesus’ earthly teaching a firm grasp on James is essential.
James Is All About Community
Community is a buzzword these days, but it is not a new concept. The earliest of the New Testament letters assumes an organized community of believers. One that gathers together (see James 2:2), one that cares for and provides for each other (James 2:14-16), one that has teachers (James 3:1), one where there can be interpersonal conflict (James 4:1) one that has elders (James 5:14) and one where there is mutual confession (James 5:16).
Many will say that they don’t need the church or a local church to practice their faith. Maybe not, but if that is the case their faith isn’t biblical Christianity. Community is so thoroughly assumed in James it is completely impossible to live as James says to without it.
Harshness Is Completely Incompatible With Christianity
James is all about wisdom in the sense of skill for living. It has rightly been called the proverbs of the New Testament. The fulcrum of the book, in a very real sense the high point, is the passage that contrasts the wisdom from above with the wisdom from below.
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. – James 3:13-18
I don’t think a lot needs to be added to that. The opposite of being peaceable and gentle is being unspiritual and demonic.
As I was preparing to preach James almost everything I read said that James is one of if not the least preached book in the New Testament. That breaks my heart. James might be bruising and convicting, but it provides the very foundation of how to live as a Christian. My final thought on James is this: if you want to live how a Christian ought to live, lay hold of the teaching of James, let it convict you, let it comfort you, and let it drive you to the cross.
 Gordon Fee Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in NICNT p. 88.