The Message of James

Message_of_James

reproduced from James for the Practical Messianic

a summary for Messianic teaching and preaching

Much of today’s Messianic movement places a high value on the Epistle of James and its message for Believers.[1] In a Christian world that has lost much of its moral compass, an emphasis on practical holiness, and a realization that good works are required of God’s people—James offers an antidote to counter much contemporary complacency. To the brother of Yeshua, faith in God is not just about some kind of mental ascent or speaking written creeds; it is about performing the actions which are reflective of one’s deeply held convictions. This letter is very easy to read, as it is full of important sayings and admonitions about upstanding living in the Lord. James has, at times, been compared to some of the Wisdom literature of the Tanach or Apocrypha, a Rabbinic composition such as Mishnah tractate Pirkei Avot, and most especially the Sermon on the Mount. The Epistle of James contains important instructions for a developing and still-maturing Messianic movement, and how it is to focus its attitudes and attention on the mission of the Messiah.

James considers the audience of his letter to be of the assembly of Israel (1:1), and offers them encouragement in the midst of the trials that they have been facing (1:2), asserting “that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (1:3). Among conservative interpreters, it is sometimes thought that James’ epistle was composed around the time following the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7), and that the pressure that these Believers were likely experiencing was a result of the persecution which followed (Acts 8:1), having largely fled out of Judea. James recognizes that such trials and tribulations have an important role in the formation of one’s personal character, and that wisdom is available from God to those who ask sincerely, so that they can be stable and secure people (1:5-8).

An important feature of James’ message is how he does not waste any time in telling the rich to be careful with their wealth, as those who are truly wealthy are humble people of God (1:9-11). Most frequently, this involves those who endure trial (1:12). Yet, God does not tempt people to sin—which is different than experiencing hard times—as sin begins in the human heart and then manifests in deathly behavior (1:13-15). Much sin can be associated with the acquisition of wealth, and James is clear on how the gifts that God’s people truly need are given to them by the Creator (1:16-18).

One of the most important words that appears in James’ letter, which every reader must heed, is seen very early. The Lord’s brother expresses a direct concern in saying, “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God requires” (1:19-20). There are many possible applications of this, but one of the major ones involves how the people of God should approach conflict resolution. If there is a possible conflict or fight brewing between Believers, within a community of Believers, James instructs his audience to be very careful and not get too emotionally involved. Human anger will not accomplish that much. People who can listen to what others are saying, carefully thinking through what information they see presented, are more likely to use the God-given wisdom He has granted them and make reasonable decisions. This is contrasted to those who act rashly and do not pause to ask whether or not how they act will accomplish something, or be a waste of their time and energy.

James urged his ancient audience not to deceive themselves, and not fail to heed the Word of God, as it is to reveal any flaws in their character (1:22-25). It is insufficient for any born again Believer to simply read the Scriptures, and then do nothing. Not only does the Bible implore God’s people to guard what they say and what they do with their mouths and tongues (1:26), but we need to each take an active interest in the downtrodden in society, getting out of our comfort zones and helping those in need. James’ almost timeless remedy is, “Religion that our God and Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (1:27).

How we can demonstrate upstanding spirituality can be determined by how we treat those in the local assembly we may attend. James was most serious about how the rich were not to be favored at the expense of the poor (2:1-4). He expresses how, “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised to those who love him?” (2:5). Most frequently, it is poor people who have to entreat their Creator every day for their basic needs to be met, unlike the rich who often do not think about such matters. In the case of James’ audience, he reminds them, “Is it not the rich who are exploiting you?…Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?” (2:6, 7). The rich to whom his readers would pay attention were likely some kind of wealthy business owners or merchants, who required the regular services of poor people in order for them to maintain their lifestyle. Rather than showing them a degree of kindness and generosity, they instead took advantage of them. Certainly in the Twenty-First Century, the tendency to exploit the poor and weak has not changed that much.

The main imperative of Holy Scripture is to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (2:8; Leviticus 19:18), labeled by James to be “the royal law.” However, James is also clear that those who show favoritism to those in the assembly are considered by God to be violating His Torah (2:9), to the point where if one “stumbles at just one point [he] is guilty of breaking all of it” (2:10). His analogy is that those who do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, are guilty of disregarding all of the Torah of God (2:11). James’ direction is to “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom,” precisely “because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!” (2:12-13).

Too frequently in our Messianic faith community, James 2:10-11 is used as a sharp rebuke of many of our Christian brothers and sisters who often disregard things like Shabbat, the appointed times, or kosher—but are most eager to accomplish things like taking care of widows, orphans, and the homeless. Their Messianic accusers, contrary to this, will often not even venture out beyond the “safe confines” of their assemblies or fellowships. If Torah observant Messianic Believers would take James’ letter a bit more seriously and really consider the need to be full of the Father’s grace and mercy to all, then perhaps we might make a more sizeable impact when others ask us about the importance and relevance of the Law of Moses. Can we be a little more tempered in our approach to Torah validity?

I do not believe that James the Just would have had any problems with anyone diligently keeping the Sabbath or appointed times, given his own reputation as steadfastly obedient to the Torah (Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 2.23.4-5). James expects God’s people to obey Him, asking, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” (2:14). If one is diligently following the example of the Lord, then it is to be followed by the right actions. James would not stand against anyone wanting to rest on the Sabbath or eat appropriately, but he is most concerned with the actions of service to others. If a person needs food and clothing, and all you do is bless someone by words and really do nothing about it (2:15-16), then as he directly says, “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead…Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do” (2:17, 18). This is something that Abraham of old did when he presented his son Isaac to be sacrificed at God’s request (2:19-24), or Rahab when she helped the Israelites spies in Jericho (2:25).

James spends some time discussing the heavy responsibilities which have been placed upon those who serve the Body of Messiah as teachers, issuing the stern warning, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (3:1). Teachers are human the same as any other person, and they will err even if relatively spiritually mature (3:2). The specific area of maturity that James focuses on is that of speaking with the tongue (3:3-12). While a proper usage of the tongue, a small organ of the body with which “we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men” (3:9), should concern all Believers—teachers are most especially in view here. If those who instruct God’s people in the Scriptures do not focus their attention on how to demonstrate greater holiness and love, then teachers might instead set them on a course toward eternal punishment (3:5-6). James’ poignant observation is, “For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (3:7-8, NRSV).

Wise and understanding persons, according to James, are to “show it by [their] good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom” (3:13). At the same time, he delivers extreme caution against harboring bitterness and selfish ambition in the heart (3:14), specifying, “Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice” (3:15-16). While there is such a thing as demonic “wisdom,” something which seems to have some semblance of insight and intelligence—even though it brings nothing but devastation in its path—“the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (3:17). When one is full of godly wisdom, then “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness” (3:18). True wisdom from the Holy One is able to enact true shalom,[2] where peace between the Creator and man, one’s fellow human beings, and nature as a whole, can be realized. Any of us, who truly desire the wisdom of the Lord present in our hearts, should desire to help see such tranquility be enacted.

For various reasons, James had to express how many in his audience were not adhering to a basic Biblical code of conduct. Perhaps issued for some rhetorical effect, he asks them, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God” (4:1-2). Much of what they wanted caused them, at the very least, to entertain a most ungodly approach to living. While it is doubtful that people within James’ audience were directly responsible for murdering, their lack of care for the starving poor could be associated with “killing.” James rebukes any person who asks God for the fulfillment of their own personal pleasures, as He will not grant such a request (4:3). He further rebukes Believers who choose to become friends of the fallen world and its baseness, and as a result make themselves out to be enemies of the Lord (4:4-6).

Not all hope is lost! James urges, “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (4:7-10). James admonishes that those who have been sinners need to change their behavior, including any attitudes where others appropriate the position of judging one’s neighbor (4:11), when the Lord alone is the “only Lawgiver and Judge” (4:12). Human beings are to be compared to a small mist, one that “appears for a little while and then vanishes” (4:14). They are to appeal to the will of God in all of life’s experiences, especially those of business (4:13-16).

James again discusses the plight of many rich people, who are to “weep and wail because of the misery that is coming” (5:1). He says, “Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth…” (5:2-3). All of the things that they looked to for satisfaction and reliability will waste away. And the reason is most severe: “The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you” (5:4-6). Such rich people could have used their means as a way to help others, giving the needy employment and steady jobs, and distributing their agricultural goods to the hungry—or at least selling them at an affordable price. Instead, those who got rich on the backs of the poor, gouging them from wages due, will get what is coming to them.

Believers who are suffering at the hands of greedy bosses are to simply be patient, because at the Lord’s coming the evil world will have to answer to the Supreme King (5:7); they are to not “grumble against each other…or you will be judged” (5:9). Instead, those suffering are to consider examples like those of Job or the Hebrew Prophets (5:10-11). Just like Yeshua admonished (Matthew 5:34-37), so does James say, “Above all, my brothers, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your ‘Yes’ be yes, and your ‘No,’ no, or you will be condemned” (5:12). The need to speak honestly is paramount for God’s holy people.

James’ epistle ends with a description of what is to happen when one of the Believers is sick. The elders of a congregation are to lay their hands on the infirm, and anoint him with oil (5:14). Prayer is to heal the illness, and sins are to be forgiven as public confession is important for the well being of the assembly (5:15-16). It may be that “oil” is not necessarily a reference to just a symbolic act, but rather “oil” used as an ancient medicine—hence prayer and a doctor’s care together can help heal a sick person. But prayer is the most important: “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (5:16b). The need to pray, especially like figures such as Elijah (5:17-18), is most critical not only in terms of seeing sick people healed, but also in turning a sinner back to a path of righteousness (5:19-20).

It is not difficult to see why a new appreciation needs to come forth in the worldwide Body of Messiah for the Epistle of James: James challenges Believers to have the right attitudes and actions becoming of those who claim Yeshua (Jesus) as Lord. James does not affirm any kind of salvation-by-works doctrine, but he does affirm that without works one’s faith is quantitatively dead (cf. Ephesians 2:8-10). In too much of today’s Christianity, there is an overemphasis on a faith in God that is not necessarily followed by the deeds which reflect the internal transformation that the gospel is to enact within Believers. Conversely in much of today’s Messianic movement, there can sometimes be an unhealthy emphasis on various outward works, that we forget to guard our tongues, our thoughts, and perform acts of helps to the destitute. A fair re-appreciation of all of what James exhorts needs to be enacted in the hearts and minds of all who desire to walk the path of the Messiah. If we can do this, we will be much closer to not only accomplishing the mission of God, but seeing the Kingdom of God made manifest on the Earth!


NOTES

[1] Unless otherwise noted, Biblical quotations in this article are from the New International Version (NIV).

[2] Grk. eirēnē; cf. G. Lloyd Carr, “shālôm,” in TWOT, 2:931.

About J.K. McKee 803 Articles
J.K. McKee (B.A., University of Oklahoma; M.A., Asbury Theological Seminary) is the editor of Messianic Apologetics (www.messianicapologetics.net), a division of Outreach Israel Ministries (www.outreachisrael.net). He is a 2009 recipient of the Zondervan Biblical Languages Award for Greek. He is author of numerous books and commentaries, dealing with a wide range of topics that are important for today’s Messianic Believers.

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