This morning we begin our three-month study in the book of James. From now until Memorial Day, our weekly sermons (with the exception of next Sunday’s joint service with First Baptist) will work through James’s five chapters, and we will be reading and memorizing and studying together in James.
The author is known as “James the Just.” This is not the James who was the brother of John and one of the original apostles (the one killed in Acts 12:1–2). Rather, this is the James who was the half-brother of Jesus (Matthew 13:55; Galatians 1:19), who eventually led the church in Jerusalem, and according to tradition was martyred in A.D. 62.
Act Your Faith
James is not the typical New Testament letter. It begins like others, but then the structure and format throughout are distinct. It reads much more like Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount than the letters of Paul. It is a New Testament form of “wisdom literature,” a kind of collection of wise sayings, with many similarities to the Old Testament book of Proverbs. Some of the characteristics of James’s chosen genre include satire, imaginary dialogue (raising an objection and answering it), direct address and commands to readers, concrete images and metaphors, and heightened contrasts, in language that can feel “harsh” at times to modern readers.
According to the ESV Study Bible, James includes “over 50 imperatives (commands) in the book’s 108 verses. The abundance of commands is a signal that [James] has a practical bent and is interested in action rather than mere belief as the distinguishing characteristic of Christians.” Which leads to the James’s major emphasis and theme. At the heart of his letter is his focus on “in action rather than mere belief.” We might say that James’s main point is *living out the gospel*, not simply believing it.
When and to Whom?
James wrote early, perhaps just about a decade or so after Jesus’s death and resurrection. This letter is likely the earliest Christian writing we have. James probably wrote early enough that he had “never heard Paul or read any of his letters” (Carson/Moo, 627–628).
He addresses his letter, “To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” The twelve tribes of Israel had not literally existed for more than 600 years before Jesus, “but the phrase became a way of denoting the regathered people of God of the last days” (628n35). James wrote to Jewish Christians, it seems, perhaps those dispersed by the persecution of Stephen, noted in Acts 11:19.
And his readers were poor. And it’s quite amazing what James has to say about the poor and the rich in this letter.
This is one of the major themes of the letter. It comes up first in this morning’s passage, in verses 9–11. Then James comes back to the theme in a longer section that forms the first half of chapter 2. And then he comes back again, in chapter five, verses 1–6, with another meaty (and sharp) section issuing a scalding warning to the rich.
James has so much to say about rich and poor — and is so favorable to the poor, and suspicious of the rich — that some non-Westerners have accused Western Bible scholars of “intercepting” this letter. When most of the commentaries are written by those who don’t take James’s strong words against the rich very seriously, pastors and leaders in the third world can feel like a letter that would be balm to them has been somewhat obscured.
I don’t think it’s any accident that God gave us James right now as we continue in this church “marriage” conversation, and as we begin moving toward a decision this spring. We didn’t plan things like this. We had talked about James even before this conversation was on the table. And here we are, meeting Sunday after Sunday at this beautiful, well-endowed, private high school, quickly running out of seats, and (merger or no merger) needing to make a decision about where we’ll go next.
Has Not God Chosen the Poor?
For James, the rich are not just materially wealthy, but they oppress the poor (2:6; 5:4, 6) and blaspheme the name of Christ (2:7). They are unrighteous and unbelieving. James promises their time is quickly coming to an end: “the rich man will fade away in the midst of his pursuits” (1:11); “like a flower of the grass he will pass away” (1:10); “weep and howl [you rich] for the miseries that are coming upon you” (5:1).
The poor, on the other hand, are the exact opposite of the unrighteous rich. The poor are righteous. They are the victims; they are the believing. They are even models of faith, as James says in 2:5, “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?”
For this morning, this is all I’ll say about verses 9–11, but four weeks from today, we’ll look at first half of chapter 2 and linger here. And then in May, we’ll listen together to James’s scathing charge to the rich in chapter 5.
Lay Up Treasure in the Last Days?
Perhaps the single most gut-wrenching line to the rich is this in 5:3: “You have laid up treasure in the last days.” And for us as a church, there are implications here, not just for our personal finances, and not just our approach as a church to finances, but to a host of things. How often do we lose sight that we are living in the last days? Do we remember, as we consider buildings and locations and demographics, and as we decide who is worthy of our time and energy, that we “are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14)? And that our earthly treasures will soon rust, decay, and be destroyed?
By and large, we are relatively well-to-do in this room. And one of my prayers for me, and for us as a church as we embark on this study, is that truly James would not be intercepted. Let’s ask God to let James have his unfiltered, undiminished word with us about living out the gospel, not just believing, and treating the theme of poverty and riches with utter seriously.
This reminds us of our need to confess our sins. Let’s pray.
Prayer of Confession
Father, how tragic for any person to have James’s indictment land on them in truth: “You have laid up treasure in the last days” (James 5:3). And Father, we could say it would be even more tragic for such a statement to be true of us as a church. Father, may it not be that we would live in luxury and in self-indulgence, that we would fatten our hearts in a day of slaughter (James 5:5).
Father, we need James’s uncomfortable words. We confess that we often “believe” so much better than we live simply because we’re selfish. We know the right thing to do and do not do it. This is a great evil. We acknowledge our sin and our need for your help as we confess our failings to you in the quiet of this moment. . . .
Father, we own our guilt in not living up to your gospel, and we ask for your grace and the help of your Spirit. And we ask, as a church, that you would lead and guide us in this important season, and that you would open our ears and our hearts — and our lives — to the expected and unexpected words of James. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.