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Monday, April 15, 2024

Hello. My Name Is James.

Introduction
Today, I'm begin a study through the Epistle of James.  James is a power packed letter filled with practical advice for living as a Christian in an unchristian world.  Therefore, we are going to take out time and work our way through the letter slowly, lesson by lesson so we don't miss anything, because everything in this letter is important.  I invite you to follow along each week as we learn everything we can from this short but important book in the New Testament.  Let's start at the very beginning.

James 1:1
This letter is from James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.
I am writing to the “twelve tribes”—Jewish believers scattered abroad.
Greetings!

Writing Letters
My wife and I wrote a lot of letters to each other when we were dating.  In high school, we would pass notes back and forth regularly.  Then I moved away for college and we wrote each other letters every week.  We still have those letters packed away in boxes somewhere in storage.

Much of the New Testament in the Bible is a collection of letters written by early church leaders.  Today, we may think of letters as out of date.  Few write letters anymore, other than for very official purposes.  Most chose to use email or instant messages.  But in New Testament times, writing letters was sort of a cutting edge new technology for common people.  It is true that people wrote letters way back into very ancient times--millennia before the New Testament.  But ancient letter writing was typically reserved for royal officials because writing materials were very expensive, few were literate to read and write, and there was no post service to send letters long distances.


But by New Testament times, several factors came together at just the right time to aid the spread of the Good News about Jesus Christ.  Writing materials became cheaper and available to common people.  More people could read using the common Greek language almost everyone spoke to some degree.  And due to the expansive Roman Empire with well maintained roads and shipping routes, mail could be sent from one end of the Empire the other.  The writers of the New Testament took full advantage of this to spread the message that Jesus, the Son of God, had been crucified and then rose from the grave.


You may have learned in school letters have a general structure.  First, a letter has a heading that tells who it's from and who it's to.  Then, there is the salutation where you say, "Dear So and So..."  Next comes the body of the letter that contains the main points, followed by the closing:  "Sincerely, Your Best Friend Chris."  We often find similar patterns in the letters from the New Testament, like James.


Most letters in the New Testament are written by the Apostle Paul.  Paul was a prolific letter writer and many of his letters have been preserves in the Bible.  however, the Epistle of James by a man named James, who had his own style or writing and his unique perspective on living as a faithful Christian.

Who is James?
Who is James?  In the letter, James says: "I am a slave of God and the Lord Jesus Christ."

What is a slave?  In 1st century Israel, a slave was typically considered property of the owner, lacking personal freedom and autonomy.  People entered slavery due to debt, poverty, as a penalty for crime, or possibly if conquered in battle.  While slaves sometimes had legal protections under various legal codes, they were still fundamentally bound to serve their masters' needs.  And since a slaves master was the one with all the power, abuse was rampant despite any laws on the books to protect slaves. 

We don't like the word slave is the 21st century.  Some Bible translations try to sanitize the word from the New Testament and change it to servant.  However, servant doesn't really capture the essence of the meaning the biblical writers were trying to convey.  Servant is too nice a word.  The Greek word the Bible uses is doulos, which  literally means bondservant, a person who sold themselves into slavery to repay a debt they had no means to repay.  A bondservant doesn't just work for their master; they are owned by their master.

Slavery is a dirty word to our ears for many reasons. People were never meant to be owned by other people.  It is an abomination.  Another reason against slavery is it creates a serious imbalance of power. Human masters cannot be trusted to hold so much power over another human being—even if that person willingly submits to being a slave.  People sometimes can't even be trusted to properly care for a dog or cat, let alone another human being.  Perhaps that is why it is such a fearful responsibility to become a parent.  A parent has nearly absolute power and authority over a fragile human life--their child.  And parents do not always know what to do nor do they always chose the best thing to do.  Yet this is the nature of human life.  Parents beget children and (hopefully) do their best to exercise benevolent authority over their children for nearly two decades until their children are old enough to become independent.

James self-identifies as a slave of--not another human being, but--God and the Lord Jesus Christ.  And based on Scripture, God is a good and worthy Master.  He always seeks the good of His slaves.  He doesn’t treat people like slaves.  In fact, Jesus (who is God) said in John 15:15, I no longer call you slaves, but friends…”  But James calls himself a slave. 

Who is this James?  Do we know anything about him?  We do!  And it is fascinating!
The Bible says Jesus had brothers and sisters.  Matthew 13:55 says His 4 brothers were James, Joseph, Simon, and Jude.  James is always listed first, which typically means he was the oldest of Jesus’ younger brothers.  After Jesus was crucified, James would be the eldest living brother of Christ, responsible for being the head of the household.  And according tradition and most scholars, the James who wrote the Epistle of James was Jesus' younger brother. 

As far as we know, Jesus never wrote anything down Himself; or if He did, none of it survived.  So we don't have anything written directly from Jesus.  But in this letter from James, we may have the closest thing to the hand of Jesus.  James grew up with Jesus, spent some 20-30 years with Him.  He knew him through all the years that the Scripture writes about as well as what the Scripture leaves unmentioned.  And as we read the letter of James, we're reading the thoughts of a man who knew Jesus deeply and personally the way only a brother sometimes can.

Now, James and his other brothers didn’t believe in Jesus at first.  Maybe it's hard to think of your brother in such divine terms as being "the Son of God".  Can you imagine growing up the brother of Jesus Christ?  I can imagine Mary getting upset with James from time to time over something stupid he did (mistakes all mortal people make).  Maybe, in frustration, she said something like, “Why can’t you be more like your brother Jesus!”  And maybe James smarted off to Mary with, “Oh!  Jesus is so perfect!  You act like he walks on water!”  Of course, I'm being facetious, but on a serious note, I guess it might have been hard to grow up in the shadow of "the Son of God" or to think of your older brother as the long awaited Messiah.

At any rate, Jesus' brothers did not believe in Him at first.  Mark 3:20 says Jesus’ brother thought He was out if his mind.  They came and tried to take Him away so He didn't stir up trouble.  But at some point, probably after Jesus actually died and rose from the grave as He said He would, James became a believer.  You might think James would trumpet his status as Jesus’ brother.  “Listen to me.  I’m Jesus’ brother!”  But James doesn’t do that at all.  Instead, he humbles himself and says,  “I’m a slave of God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” 

To Whom Was James Writing?
Letters are written from someone to someone.  To whom was James writing?  He says, “I’m writing to the “twelve tribes”—Jewish believers scattered abroad.”  What does that mean?  

The term "Twelve Tribes" was a cultural term among Jewish people that recalled their tribal history.  They started out as twelve tribes and had often experienced trials and tribulations that scattered them abroad.  In fact, there were no longer 12 tribes.  10 of the tribes had been scattered into oblivion when the Northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians.  All the inhabitants of the northern 10 tribes were carried away and never seen again as a distinct people group.  The 2 tribes that remained were Judah and Benjamin.  The Jewish people derive their name from the tribe of Judah.  And even they had experienced a great deal of "scattering" over the centuries.

At this stage in Christian history, almost all Christians were Jewish believers.  Scholars sometimes point out James was writing to Jewish Christians, not Gentiles Christians.  Some of you who are serious students of the Bible have probably heard that.  But that’s kind of a pointless argument.  Almost all Christians were “Jewish” at this point in Christian history.

The real point here is that believers (Christians) are being scattered because they are fleeing persecution.  The Jews who believed Jesus is the Messiah who rose from the grave are being kicked out of their churches (synagogues) by the Jews who didn't believe.  And at the same time, they are being ostracized in their communities, leading some to lose their livelihoods.  Others are being badly persecuted, some arrested.  Some are even being beaten or killed.  It was a difficult and dangerous time for Christians and many had to flee their homes and move away to new towns seeking safety.

God did not let these early Christians suffering go to waste.  As they are scatter, they go from town to town telling people about Jesus every where they go.  So Christianity is spreading, not being silenced.  And the Apostles, like Peter, James, and John as sending letters to these scattering Jewish Christians--creating a written record of the early Christian faith, which we have preserved in the New Testament of our Bibles.

Unfortunately, being scattered can make you feel lonely and really tests your faith.  You are tempted to just keep your mouth shut about Jesus, even though Jesus commanded His followers to speak up for Him.  And that’s one of the reasons James is writing—to encourage Christians who feel lost and lonely in a world that doesn’t have their same values.

Feel Like You Don’t Belong?
Do you ever feel like you don’t belong in a world where people seem so mean, angry, unloving, judgmental, and immoral?  I know I do sometimes.

The world around me right here in America is becoming foreign in many ways.  Sometimes it feels like common sense and common decency have been flipped upside down.  

But I know there are others around the world that have it even worse. I texted with a Christian friend who lives in Pakistan the morning I wrote this message.  He lives in a country that is 95% Muslim.  Many in that country who practice a very militant form of Islam think people like my Christian friend are crazy or guilty of blasphemy.  Christians are face discrimination, are frequently persecuted, mistreated, falsely accused, arrested, and even killed.  I know they often feel scattered, lonely, and discouraged.

If you ever feel like I do or like my friend in Pakistan, like a remnant of the faithful believers scattered in a lost and hostile world, James is a letter written to encourage you to be faithful and not give up.  But James is more than just clich├ęs and platitudes. James is a real talk.  In 5 short chapters, James shares powerful, practical wisdom about how to live as a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. Whereas other writers often focus on philosophy and theology, James gets down to brass tacks and focuses how Christians live out faith in actions—not just beliefs.

Every paragraph in James is important.  So we’re going to take our time and work our way through James slowly, lesson by lesson.  And I hope you will come each week and pay close attention.  And I challenge you to go deeper in your walk with Jesus, deeper than just what you believe, as you learn to live out your Christian faith by what you do day to day.

Closing
James was Jesus’ brother.  But anyone who give their life to Christ and becomes a Christian is a brother of sister of Christ.  We are not alone.  We are part of a royal family—the family of God.  If you are a Christian, you are my brother, my sister.  You are not alone.  We are in this together. 

In the Old Testament, Jews inistiated their children into the people of God by circumcising their children on their 8th day.  For Christians, baptism is the sacred ceremony we use to initiate people into the family of God.  It is a sacrament Jesus told us to practice that God uses to pour out His grace upon us.  No one deserves God’s grace.  But He gives it freely to all who repent and seek His help.  

I want to close today by inviting your to become a Christian.  If you believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and Savior of the world who died on the cross and rose on the third day, then chose today to follow Him.  Turn away from your sin and turn to Jesus and He will save you.  You will become a child of God, my brother or sister.  And though you may sometimes feel alone in this hostile world, you will never actually be alone.  For you will be part of the family of God with brothers and sisters all over the world.  And even more important, Jesus will walk with you through everything you face by the Holy Spirit that lives inside you.  

And if you have if you have never been officially baptized and initiated into God's family, I invite you to schedule your baptism today.  If you live close to me, contact me and we will talk about how you can be baptized.  Or, find a faithful, Bible-believing church near you, and be baptized in obedience of Christ our Lord and in expectation of the grace baptism represents.

Finally, I challenge to read this blog each week as we work our way through the powerful letter of James.  I usually post my blogs each Monday.  I pray you will read and receive the blessings and guidance God wants to give through my feeble words.

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